Spotlight: That Sweet Son of Mine

[fiction]

My father is home. I find his jacket and his cane and his wool hat piled at the door. There is a melted snow path that leads into the house. It’s been a few days since I’ve seen him, but I feel a sense of happiness that he was able to take his morning walk. I feel encouraged that he might be feeling a bit better. And then I figure that he must have heard me come in the door, because before I can reach the kitchen, I hear him say, “I think that sweet son of mine is finally home.”

This is a message. This means my father wants me to go find my mother and talk with her. I find him there, in his chair, in the kitchen, leaned on back and watching the History Channel. His notebook is open. He’s doodling. He’s drawing tanks and helmets and rifles. There is an elaborate circle doodle around a military base. He says without looking up, “I think it’s best that you fall on your sword.” He says, “Sometimes, losses are the real victories.”

Last semester, my history teacher explained to us that the History Channel has nothing to do with actual History. What he’d said to us made sense to me. What he’d taught us, he backed up with news articles and films and insightful essays. The information was collected by people who study the subject. It was presented by people who travel and talk and learn from those who witness the world change. We were introduced to people who are normally left absent from the conversation. What he’d said, my teacher, I took to heart.

But it was after that class that I learned an important lesson. I learned that conversations with my father that centered around certain things, say for example television channels that he believes to be imbued with facts and authenticity, didn’t stand a chance at civility, would go nowhere, and now I like to think that there are some things that children and parents shouldn’t share. Factuality being one of those important things.

My father starts to rattle in his chair. He puts on his sunglasses. He says, “One more for the road.” His glass is nothing but ice. I take it. I set down my bag and unlatch the liquor cabinet. I pour him three fingers instead of two like he likes, like he instructs. When you are in the midst of a full-scale insurrection, it’s best to fight back with whatever weapon you can find. Dull your adversary. Kill him with kindness. But win at any cost.

“Your mother found something,” he says.

I hand him his drink. He studies it but shrugs off the obvious excess of the thing.

He says, “If you admit to it, then you might avoid the talking portion of your punishment.”

I pat him on the shoulder. I say, “I admit to nothing.”

He grins and then takes a long pull. He lowers his sunglasses. There is scotch in his moustache. He says, “You probably don’t remember, but when you were in the seventh grade, you pinned Robbie Mauler.”

“I remember. It was a big deal.”

“For me, it was.”

“It was for the both of us. Robbie was a prick even then.”

My father tilts his sunglasses back over his eyes. He says, “He’s headed to Iowa State with a full ride and two State Titles under his belt.”

I say, “I read the paper. I live here. I know about it.”

I shoulder my bag and start the long process of approaching my mother.

As I leave the room, I hear the ice rattle in his glass. I hear him sigh. I hear him say to himself, “Robbie fucking Mauler.”

*     *     *

There are three options. Three things I might be questioned about. Three things I may or may not have had in my possession. The first is easy: it’s a small bong. I say it’s easy because I know for a fact that my father smokes marijuana from time to time. He listens to Pink Floyd regularly and he thinks the Rolling Stones are the greatest of humans. My mother will not like that I bring this up but it’s a slam-dunk in the world of rebuttal. The second thing might be a bit more complicated but can be remedied. I did not use it, but I have a term paper that I borrowed from my friend, Eva. It’s stamped with an A+ and while I did not extract her perfect prose word for word, I did use it as a reference for my own work. I do not feel good about this; in fact, I promised myself that I would never again borrow someone else’s work in order to help write something. Especially because I enjoyed creating my own paper and I was annoyed that her writing kept creeping into what I was trying to say, what I wanted to convey so desperately.

That brings us to the third thing. This is hard to admit to, so I don’t think I will, because, honestly, whose business is it anyway. Certainly not my mother’s and certainly not my father’s. I am not a child. I am eighteen and on the way to community college. My father is a functioning alcoholic, devastated that he had to have his knee replaced and angry that he isn’t able to coach what he loves so dearly, wrestling. My mother is kind but judgmental like her mother and her mother and her mother. That old strand of guilted German-Irish. She can’t help it. It is who she is. Stern. Religious. Unquestioning. She implies your guilt in her questions, in her silence, in her support of you. And so, I find her in their bathroom. She is in scrub mode. She is furiously scrubbing the tub. She is literally in the tub. In her bleached jeans and my father’s wrestling shirt. Her blonde hair held high and tight. Her makeup missing. She is smiling in a way that frightens me.

I say, “Hi, Mom”

It takes a moment for her to register that I am standing in the doorway.

I say, “I don’t think you missed a spot.” I grin. I tell myself to take a breath.

She stops smiling and clenches the green scrub pad. She is squatting. Squatting in her tub.

In that moment, I feel that I may have mischaracterized her. I feel suddenly sad for her. I feel that I may not be a good son to her. This woman who has trapped herself in her own tub.

This woman who I must share a world with. This woman who I must appease until she passes on from it. I can see that she is not in control of herself. I can see that there is a real, raging fire inside of her, and in that moment, I can’t help but feeling, well, busted.

“Did you speak with your father?”

“He told me to talk to you.”

“Ok, so talk then.”

I know this road. I tell myself to surrender to the moment, so that I might fight another day. There are bigger battles to win, bigger struggles than pot, and borrowed papers, and…

I say, “I looked over the course catalogue. I think I’m ready to pick my classes.”

My mother relents a bit. She sits in the tub. She puts her hands on her knees and then drops the green pad. She says, “That’s good.”

She says, “This is the start of something for you.”

She can no longer look up at me. The tub is reflective and white beyond anything I’ve ever seen in there.

I ask, “What is it then?”

There is a small mirror. It’s suction-cupped to the wall. My mother struggles at first but un-cups it from the tile. She looks in the mirror. She says, “I need you to tell me the truth.”

I watch her as she touches her cheek and then taps under her tired eyes. I watch her as she rubs a finger across her lips.

She says, “There is only the truth between us.” She says, “We have to trust one another in this house. Or, we will be forced to change our course. To deal with each other in unpleasant ways.”

I feel like her son in that moment. I feel like I could be her friend. I feel like we could share so many things, and then it occurs to me. I remember what I’d read and learned in that History class, how the French authorities in Algeria relied on informants and friends to give up the opposition for assassination. How they’d relied on family members to turn each other in because some of them couldn’t hold out against the crippling poverty any longer. For some it was far worse, the fear of what freedom might bring to their country. I found myself thinking about how the Americans fighting in Vietnam were hurt by well-placed booby-traps, how when you think those in power are your friends, are interested in your well-being, that you’re very much risking your freedom, your independence, your acquired agency.

My mother hands me the mirror.

She asks, “Do you steal my makeup?”

I look into the mirror.

I hear her ask, “Do you wear it?”

I don’t want to answer her. I don’t like how I look in that mirror. I don’t want her to tell me I’m bad, or irresponsible, or worst of all, that I’m silly. I think to myself that it’s hard enough not knowing who I am, yet, that I might be more than she will ever understand or even know. More than I understand or know.

In that moment, I feel like I’m losing, that I’m finished there, ready to throw it all in and leave them behind. And then, I tell myself this: I say, we stand when we need to stand, we become who we are when it’s time. That is why we fight for ourselves.

And so I fortify myself. I decide to try and grow up in that moment. I decide to take a chance at trusting her. Trusting in what we have. I decide to trust that if we come to the table. If we sit to talk as equals. If we speak of who we are and what we need, then maybe this thing between us works in a way that was otherwise impossible. We become something different. Something important for the both of us.

And then I look into my mother’s eyes. I try to become her mirror. I try to remind her that I am a reflection of her. I try to convey that I’m not her but we still share so much. But I can see that she is flashed with her fears, and concerns, and her hurt. I don’t want to but I can’t help but understand what I see boiling over there in front of me and then I think to myself: maybe we don’t change all at once, maybe it’s harder than history tells us, even though we’re taught that it’s possible, inevitable. But how long must we wait? How much should we endure? How long until we live as we want to live?

I think about that, and then I say to her, “Mom, I wouldn’t steal from you, but I’ve borrowed your things before.”

I smile and I smile and I smile and then I say to her, “I buy my own makeup now and it’s important that you understand who I am.”

 

Calder G. Lorenz is the author of One Way Down (Or Another), his debut novel from Civil Coping Mechanisms (http://copingmechanisms.net/portfolio/one-way-down-or-another-by-calder-lorenz/). His writing can be found in sPARKLE & bLINK 2.4, Switchback, Curly Red StoriesFictionDaily, New Noise, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, Black Heart Magazine, Litro Magazine, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Birds We Piled Loosely, New Pop Lit, Devil’s Lake, Bad Pony, Chicago Literati, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine​, and Gravel.

Coffee Talk

Home Sweet Home

This morning, while having my Keurig coffee, and slathering extra crunchy peanut butter on over-priced cinnamon bread, I heard the 911 call made by the Parkland, Florida shooter a few months before he entered the school and killed 17 people. The television newscaster announced that it was “coming up next,” so I patiently waited for it through the commercials for Cialis, Mercedes Benz, and Living Spaces for their Last Chance to Save President’s Day Sales Event. As the commercials droned on, I stared out the kitchen window and watched my two dogs chase each other around the pool. I made a mental note to talk to the gardener and pool cleaner about what a horrible job they are doing.

It was cold, and the heater in the house was on full blast. I had just asked Alexa to add dog treats to my Costco shopping list. She told me that it was added. I smiled at how easy certain things in my life had become. How perfectly insulated I was from the world’s problems in my middle-class cocoon.

And then I began to cry.

 *      *     *

Lately, I have been struggling with the amount of hate and finger pointing that is taking center stage on a national, local and personal level. Each day as I wait for my order at a local café, watching others sip down their cappuccinos and crunch on their oh so trendy avocado toast, I can hear this hate spewing out from one conversation to the next.

“My daughter’s boss told her she looked sexy today, can you believe that? What an asshole, doesn’t he read the papers?”

“Screw, Trump, he’s an idiot.”

“That cop needs to be hung for shooting that kid.”

“Those policemen didn’t even go into the school when the shooting began, shame on them!”

Sip, sip, sip. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

“Why don’t they just take Cruz out and shoot him today?”

Sip, crunch.

Are we becoming a society of armchair dictators, complainers and judges?

Many of us we will never come near a gun. We will never know what it is like to be in harm’s way. We will never run a country, nor will we encounter true sexual harassment. But for some reason, we have become experts on what is right and wrong. Who is evil, and why—even before we hear their side of the story. Or, at least that is what we like to tell ourselves. If we are not indignant about one thing or another we don’t feel like we are alive. We have to take a side. We must have an opinion. And we need to do it immediately—lest someone thinks poorly of us.

In the perfect microcosm of my kitchen, I can easily tell you what is right and wrong. When I am sitting with friends or customers, I will certainly have an opinion about anything bad happening in the world. I may even curse the shooter, damn the police, and state what a horrible man he was for cheating on his wife. But when I’m in bed at night, or in my studio writing with no outside influence, I can’t help but wonder—is there another side to the story that I’m not hearing? Should I be so quick to take up the gauntlet and condemn the offender?

 *      *     *

Author, Age 12

When I was in grammar school, I was a shy, awkward boy. The less shy, awkward boys would always pick on me and occasionally used me as their personal punching bag. As a young man with a nine-to-five desk job, I had a friend whose boss who would tell work associates to find him and “send in the fag.” His boss thought it was funny. I’m sure the boys who beat me up when I was young thought the same. I had a female boss who would look longingly at me and invite me for a drink “after work.” I was afraid to say no. I was fired from a job, by a new boss, because I was gay and he wanted his friend to take my place. He’d “be damned,” he told a co-manager of mine if he would have a queer working for him. I remember being so angry about that I could have shot him given the chance. Luckily for both of us, he was in Phoenix, and I was in Los Angeles. And, I didn’t have a gun.

Were all of these people evil? Could I have seen it in their eyes if I looked really hard? Can a thirteen-year-old boy, filled with rushing testosterone, be considered evil for beating up someone he felt was weaker? Were his parents evil for raising him? Is a woman evil for being attracted to a coworker under her management, and wanting to get to know him outside of work? Was my new boss who was from the South, and who had been raised to be fearful of homosexuals, wrong for not wanting me to work for him?

While memory can often play tricks on us, I remember a time when society seemed more open to having a conversation about—and with—the person behind the egregious act. To try and find hope for that individual vs. instantly condemning. Then again, there were no social networking sites to help us form a global consciousness.

We talked.

Conversing, circa 2018.

Today, long conversations and giving someone another chance are seemingly passé. All we need to do is sit in our kitchens or cafés, while staring at our smartphones and tablets, to know everything there is about a person. If a friend—or multiple posts on Facebook agrees—we become empowered to draw a hard line in the sand. We tell ourselves it’s the way it always should have been. There is no need to talk to the offender. To understand.

Social Media is not necessarily a bad thing as it opens us up to a global community of support, especially during hard times. The problem is that our lives have become busy and we expect things to be instantaneous and easy. Decisions about people, who they really are, why they acted the way they did, and what society should do to them are now made after a glance and through a series of clicks, likes and swipes—in an instant. We don’t stop to think critically and form an opinion. To wonder what the offender feels like. To ask ourselves; what potentially caused them to act the way they did?

 *      *     *

The 911 tape was heavily edited, but what stuck in my mind were short sound bites of Nikolas Cruz telling the operator that he got mad and punched holes into the walls of the mobile home where he had been staying. The people who owned the home, in turn, attacked him and told him to get out. “I was just assaulted now. He started attacking me, and he kicked me out of the house, and he said he was going to gut me,” Cruz said. Then he broke down crying and said, “The thing is I lost my mother a couple weeks ago, so, like, I’m dealing with a bunch of things right now”

He told them he got mad because he lost a picture of his mother who had died two weeks prior. The family in the house, who opened their doors to him and his younger brother when the mother passed, said that he got mad because they took his guns away.

He called 911 because he was hurting, and scared.

I cried for the seventeen people who were innocently killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when Cruz went on his rampage. But, I also cried for him. His world had completely crumbled, and he was screaming out for help, but none came. I could envision my nineteen-year-old son, sans the involvement of guns, making the same 911 call.

Is it wrong to feel sorry for the person who killed 17 innocent people?

Nikolas Cruz (Photo: Broward County Sheriff’s Office)

As the camera panned into his eyes, I looked for the hate. I looked for the evil. I wanted to find it. All I saw was a scared nineteen-year-old boy who knew he lost it once again and this time fucked up so badly that no one would ever want or love him again.

As I stared out my window, drank my coffee, talked to Alexa, and mentally complained about the gardener and pool cleaner—I felt self-righteous.  When I was slapped in the face with Cruz’s 911 call, I was cut down a few notches. I had a line in the sand to draw, and it was getting fainter and much less straight. Would I have kicked him out knowing that his mother had unexpectedly died two weeks prior? Was his anger from mental illness, or the cries of a young man who had not yet learned how to control himself? Should he be held fully to blame because, empowered by the NRA, Dick’s Sporting Goods sold him a gun without asking a question? If Cruz was in my kitchen with me, watching the dogs run around the pool and eating expensive cinnamon toast before I drove him to his psychologist, would he still have pulled the trigger? Would the man who fired me for being gay, still fire me if he spent one day getting to know me, and I him? I will never know.

What side are you on?

What I do know is that I don’t want to immediately jump to a conclusion or deem someone as evil without understanding the person behind the offense. What brought them from being a sweet or precocious child to the point in their lives when they used their power to destroy another’s? Are they truly evil, or is there something else we need to understand and converse about?

Drawing a hard line in the sand is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes us think about what is right, or wrong. But no matter how deep you draw that line, tides will come in and wash it away.

Many of us live protected lives, sheltered in our nice homes with all of the conveniences life has to offer. I know that’s true of me. If there is something out of place, it’s easier to condemn the person who caused the problem, instead of conversing with them about why it happened, and what we can do to fix it. We live in a time when people are shouting: “Look at me. Look at what that person did to me,” instead of saying, “What gives, why did you do that? I need to understand.”

I’m by no means stating that we should forgive offenders such as Cruz, Weinstein, or even Trump. What I am saying is that instead of living our sheltered lives, maybe, just maybe, we need to back off from immediately spewing hate and try to converse with one another about what we can do to fix the problems. Perhaps nobody could have helped or fixed Cruz, but all the signs were there and were ignored. Looking back on my life, I can find multiple people who hurt me in one form or another. I’m sure that I have hurt many people as well. It seems there has to be a way to return to the days—pre-iPhones, pre-Facebook, and pre-any social media—when we talked with one another face-to-face, offender to offended. When we had to stop and think. When we tried to fix the problem instead of immediately digging deep lines in the sand just so we knew which side to stand on.

I want to hate Cruz, but now knowing some of his history, I’m just sad. I want to leave nasty notes for both my gardener and the pool guy. It could be that they’re just doing a lousy job, but maybe there are other forces at work that I don’t know about. So, for now, I’ll probably just talk to them, and maybe even invite them in to have coffee and cinnamon toast with me.

Sip, sip. Crunch, crunch.

Do these eyes tell you all?

Girard Parent

Girard (Jerry) Parent is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is serving as Lunch Ticket’s Flash Prose Editor. He earned his B.A. in Philosophy from St. John’s Seminary College, and currently resides in San Diego with his husband, son, two dogs and one cat. He and his husband own one of San Diego’s oldest floral companies, Adelaide’s, located in the village of La Jolla.

À La Carte: On Buying My Mother a Mirror

it is three o’clock in the afternoon
i am asleep when your principal calls
the day has eaten its way through my eyelids
you cannot know the little things

when you call me i am asleep
it is the only thing that stops the crying
you cannot know the little things
how easily i come undone like a shoelace

you are inconsolable and crying
never before have i met a child
so frantic at the un-coming of a shoelace
i am so worried you will end up like me

never before have i wanted a child
but here is your small pink skin
in delivery i pray you do not end up like me
you come out covered in blood anyways

once i opened the small pink skin of me
to let you peek out not to open yours
look at you, covered in blood again
once i tried to ice skate on my skin, too

you are peeking out from the opening
between the plus-sized curtains in my closet
we are leaving for ice skating lessons
i am envying how your young body is barely there

i am between plus-sized curtains in my bed
it is three o’clock in the afternoon
you are bloody, everything i worried you would be
the day eats its way through my eyelids

once, your small pink body was inside me
raveled up like a shoelace and i wondered
what if you came undone?

 

Jess Nieberg (they/them) is a queer Jewish poet living in Boulder, CO. They were a semifinalist at the national poetry slam and are a current member of the Denver Mercury Team. They are an editor for two journals, Walkabout and Timber. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Permafrost, Western Humanities Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Bottlecap Press, and The Hunger, among others.

The Ripple Effect

I’ve been fascinated with water conservation since before I could see over the bathroom sink. While my mother was brushing her teeth, if the tap was still running, I’d stand on my tiptoes and twist the faucet shut.

“Wasteful,” I‘d say. She’d look at me with a foamy half-smile and spit into the basin. Or if she took a shower for a minute too long, I’d stand with two gummy palms pressed against the steaming glass door.

“Wasteful,” I’d say, jolting her wet silhouette.

*          *          *

Getting out of my car, I stretch my legs at a gas station in Lost Hills, a rather humid stretch of central California farmland—somewhere between the sweeping coastal cliffs of Big Sur, where I have just spent the last few days hiking the lustrous terrain and flicking tics off my golden retriever, and Los Angeles, my hometown. After the rain season, everything is covered in a green sheen—even my car’s windshield, decorated with insect casualties.

After I shuck the winged barnacles off with a squeegee, I dust corn nut residue off my pants and bend down to fish through the dredges of the filthy car’s floor. As I hover over the trash can, both arms now filled with empty plastic water bottles, I see a sign in the intersection that reads:

“Is Growing Food a Waste of Water?”

Past the sign, two vastly different strips of land flank the highway. The left side is a utopia of lush trees sprinkled in dew as far as the eye can see, while across the street, the land is brown and bald and never ending.

*          *          *

Sixty years ago, California governor, Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown, spearheaded The State Water Project, which moved billions of gallons of water from the wet Northern Sierras to the dry south, using various dams, pumping stations and a 400-mile-long man-made river. The relocation of California’s water has helped shaped the growth of two iconic cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as the nation’s most fertile farm belt. In 2016 alone, 76,700 farms operated over 25.4 million acres in California, receiving an annual profit of $46.04 billion. But underneath the surface of fragrant nut trees and storybook vineyards, something ugly stirs.

In order to sustain the suburban and agricultural demands, resident farmers—and mainly conglomerate corporations—have resorted to trading in water. Not master paintings, but water is bought and sold—largely by and to the highest bidder.

In 1995, one corporate landowner, Stuart Resnick of Paramount Farms (more commercially known as The Wonderful Company), gained 58% control of the Kern Water Bank for around $30 million from the state in a legal, but questionable agreement. Behind closed doors and finalized without the community’s input, The Monterey Agreements attempted to settle disputes between contractors of the State Water Project and irrigation districts in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Since then, Resnick has doubled production and is the biggest growers of almonds, pistachios and pomegranates in the country, with a personal net worth of $4.2 billion dollars.

One study estimates that the totality of The Wonderful Company’s crops consume more water annually than all of the homes in the city of Los Angeles.

All of them.

*          *          *

For as long as I can remember, I have found solace in the outdoors—as a child, I recall pushing aside unruly, tangled hair to overturn rocks in my Southern Californian backyard, revealing their damp underbellies and the teeming rollie-pollie bugs underneath, with their artillery bodies hardening into balls. I carried them inside careful, sticky hands, hurdling through the tall grass and took shelter beneath the weeping willow tree, coaxing them to unfurl.

“What do you have there?” my mother’s faint English accent questioned—a California transplant, whose willowy form was outlined by the dangling green ornaments. I showed her my bounty: an open palm filled with scattering bug bodies, my mouth spread wide into a toothy smile, riddled with blank pockets where my baby teeth used to be.

“Can I keep them?”

She took me by the bugless hand, lovingly yanking me up and out through the leafy curtain. I followed the backs of her combat boots, traversing displaced stones and decomposing lemons, rogue tennis balls and clumps of knotted weeds into a clearing where uniformed rows of my mother’s garden roses snaked towards a blistering sky.

It was there I returned the bugs to the basin of the thorny stalks, where the cracked earth concealed the torrent of roots beneath it.

*          *          *

Across the highway, on the brown side, one thousand residents in East Porterville had no running water for two years due to California’s unrelenting droughts. As a result, families washed their hands and dishes with bottled water. They searched for places to shower on Craigslist. Though their water has since been connected, through a series of staggered emergency phases, water bills have quadrupled to upwards of $54, while the water itself is completely undrinkable.

To make matters worse, in neighboring Kern County, contaminants were discovered in 117 public wells in 2016. High levels of 1,2,3-TCP, a cleaning solvent and cancer-causing chemical associated with pesticide products, tested positive throughout.

The larger issue in Kern County involves the pumping of groundwater—an unenforced activity with even greater consequences. Aquifers, a body of permeable rock that can contain and transmit water, keep the structure intact; when you pull the water out, the outer layer compresses and the ground subsides, sinks. Landowners like The Wonderful Company are sucking the resources out of the ground, even if it belongs to their neighbors, leaving many farmers and homeowners with nothing besides dry, crumpled, unworkable land.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014 is a legislative statute signed by Governor Jerry Brown (son of “Pat”) to regulate, enforce and change the dynamic of pumping water. Unfortunately, it will not be implemented for another twenty years.

*          *          *

I arrive home as the sun dips, tired from the drive. Deer skim the distant, grassy hillside. The next-door neighbor’s tree hulks over the front deck—leaves like catcher’s mitts stockpile in the circular pool’s center, clouding its hue like an eye gone blind.

Inside, I greet the two basil plants in glass cups over the kitchen sink. One is jaundice and paltry; clings on. The other bursts with abandon, projecting a widespread peppery scent. Still, I water the sickly one, prune its speckled, flaking leaves and thumb its limp stalk straight, as if to will it into its counterpart. I bring it out back to revive it.

After I attach the hose’s valve to the spigot, turn the handle and feel the churning water billow, forming a peristaltic wave—I drag it over to the small herb bed and baptize the wicked rosemary, sophisticated mint, velvety sage and the rows of blinking, cheery chamomile. Honeybees undulate amongst the tall weeds. My hands scoop the wetted earth and tuck the wilting basil plant inside—wishing it luck. Then I clip a couple roses from their tangled stems, holding the stalk underneath the fleshy bud, where my mother has taught me there aren’t any thorns.

The benefits of mother nature come without cost and we have a responsibility to protect and preserve them from those who weigh profit over human rights. We must become more mindful of what we waste.

Though most of my childhood backdrop remains: my mother’s garden roses, the splintered jungle gym, rollie-pollie bugs somersaulting past tennis balls, an empty space has replaced my shady sanctuary. The weeping willow tree has since died—roots rotted from insufficient drainage.

But will any of this matter when there isn’t any water left?

As I drop the roses into a vase, the retriever laps from her bowl in rhythmic clicks. She looks up at me with a glistening nose, paints the kitchen floor with droplets. Parched as well, I open the refrigerator door and past the canned roasted red peppers, marinating artichoke hearts, cornichons, Greek pepperoncinis, pasture-raised organic eggs, corn tortillas and strawberry jam, is a clear bottom shelf, sanitized in translucence and lined with dozens of:

One-liter plastic water bottles.

Brand, Fiji.

Product of, The Wonderful Company.

Lily Semel is currently working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles, where she was born and raised. She serves as Co-Lead CNF Editor at Lunch Ticket. She no longer drinks Fiji water. Her mother, Jane, is replanting the weeping willow tree.

Spotlight: Who is Auntie Jill?

[creative nonfiction]

“I ain’t got no food in the refrigerator,” Auntie Jill’s voice barks from my phone.

As a kid, she terrified me—and still does, at forty-three. I reduce the volume to one bar. We are planning my stay with her in Detroit over Memorial Day. To friends, I’ve dubbed this sojourn a Guilt Trip, which makes me wonder if I’m as mean as I sound.

“You got any plans to visit Detroit?” Auntie Jill asks each time we talk. What she means is, how do I find time to fly to Denmark, Venice, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Basel, Cabo, London—but never Detroit? I haven’t traveled back home since my uncle’s funeral six years ago. She is the last of my family living there, and the last of her family still alive. We’ve been halfheartedly struggling via telephone for six years to nurse a bond between us that never existed.

“That’s alright, we can go grocery shopping when I get there.”

“I don’t eat nothing anyway,” she says.

“I can cook,” I offer.

“Nah,” she says. “I hate cleaning up the mess. You drink coffee?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’ve got that.”

“Great!” I say, mustering cheer. The line falls silent. I sputter, “Hey, maybe we could go downtown. The New York Times did one of those Thirty-Six-Hours-in-Detroit—”

“You can, but I ain’t getting shot!”

“What about Detroit Institute for the Arts? I hear—”

“Nah. I hate art.”

“—Or Corktown? There’s supposed to be a bunch of cool shops and restaurants—”

“I AIN’T DOING THAT!” she says. “Not interested!”

I sigh, knowing there’s one activity we’ll do together—my sole escape from watching television with her all day.

“Can I go with you to bingo?” I ask.

*     *     *

Uncle Buddy and Auntie Jill moved from a charming old cottage in Dearborn to Brownstown Township in the early 2000’s. Their house is tucked into a curve of a Del Webb community, one of those eerie master-planned Edens where every home is essentially the same. Owners can select sunrooms or covered porches, garages on the right versus the left, and adornments like copper cornices or Doric columns. Everything is new, the insides and outsides painted white.

After a three-hour flight from Seattle, GPS guides my rental car into the subdivision passed a man-made lake, whose central fountain jets forty feet into the air. I putt-putt past rolling bluegrass lawns and an unending ribbon of concrete sidewalks, pulling into Auntie Jill’s driveway. Six years ago, grief held us together and gave us purpose. This time, it was just her and me.

Why was I burning my vacation on this?

Because I am a dutiful niece. Auntie Jill is alone. Because she won’t stop asking when I plan to visit Detroit—though she’s technically never invited me to stay.

A woman power-walking by waves hello as I step out of the car and buckle under the humidity. I wave back, surprised. In Seattle, people pretend that they don’t see you on the street. I wheel my suitcase to the front door and ring the bell; the television blares inside. A minute later, the deadbolt clanks and the screen door opens with a metallic wheeze.

“It’s about time!” Auntie Jill says, squinting against the light.

“Hi!” I say, feigning brightness. “Sorry, I had to pick up my rental car.”

I follow her inside to find every shade pulled. There are no framed photos or art on the eggshell-white walls. It looks like she just moved in; there’s hardly any furniture.

“I wondered what took you so long,” she snorts, eying me.

*     *     *

My first morning, Auntie Jill shuffles into the kitchen, plugs in Mister Coffee and settles into her La-Z-Boy with a groan. She flips on the television at 8:11 a.m. each morning, a minute after her alarm sounds. With the exception of bingo and bathroom breaks, she remains in front of the TV until bedtime at 11:30 p.m.

Her puffy hazel eyes blink at the blue-white TV light as Dick Clark narrates the categories on $25,000 Pyramid. From his banter with the contestants, a housewife and a mechanic, I discern that the episode was originally broadcast circa 1982.

Waiting for the coffee to brew, I wander into an alcove that contains a card table topped with moldering plants: an organ pipe cactus, a violet, a lily. My uncle used to paint pictures in this space, given the good light from windows on three sides.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with ‘em,’” Auntie Jill says, padding up behind me. She reaches past me to turn each of the pots counterclockwise a few times. I poke a finger into their too-wet soil and wince.

“What’re you doing?” she snaps as I pull the cord to open the blinds. She falls back to the dim kitchen. She hasn’t drawn the shades since I arrived, though it’s sunny. I sense that it’s been dark inside the sunroom, and the rest of her house, for years.

*     *     *

Now that Uncle Buddy is dead, Auntie Jill doesn’t stock the refrigerator. She wasn’t kidding about that. Her kitchen counter is flecked with errant coffee grounds that would have driven Uncle Buddy crazy. A white coffee mug lays mouth-down on a wrinkled paper towel where she leaves it to dry each day.

“Why use a new towel if the old one’s still good?” she says to the room. Her coffee—decaf—is thin, brown water splashed with fat free milk and a teaspoon of refined sugar. The teaspoon she uses to stir it leaves a tawny halo at one corner of the wrinkled towel.

This is breakfast. I’ll soon discover that getting Auntie Jill out of the house to play bingo is not merely a means of escaping the unending parade of television shows but my one daily opportunity for caffeine and a meal.

*     *     *

Normally, it wouldn’t be my first choice to spend a sunny summer afternoon inside the Democratic Club of Taylor, Michigan: a squat, windowless brick building on Wick Road outside of Detroit. A strip of thick, unmowed bluestem grass flanks the faded black-topped parking lot. The marquee out front reads, “BINGO! Monday nite 6:30 p.m.,” as if the locals don’t know. No one plays bingo here except people from neighborhood who have come for years, a cohort thinning with time.

The Democratic Club looks the same today as it did in 1945, the year it was built, the same year my parents were born. A dented brass ashcan lingers at the main entrance, a battle-worn sentry brimming with red-lipped cigarette butts. Everyone we pass tosses greetings at my aunt’s feet, like roses to a matador. “Hi there, Jill—Hey, Jill—Nice to see ya, Jill—Ya gonna win big today?”

The cracked glass doors swing open to reveal a wall clock with a yellowed cataracted lens, rows of mismatched card tables, and stiff, high-backed chairs whose pilled maroon fabric speaks of a ring-a-ding age. Strips of faux-wood veneer peel back from the ceiling fan blades.

At the front of the hall, the old, square bingo-ball monitors hail from an era when TV sets were furniture. The low-pile industrial brown carpeting seethes a funky potpourri of cleaning fluid, ozone and decades-old cigarette ash ground in by the soles of worn loafers.

This is where Auntie Jill plays bingo on Monday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. She arrives early for the fish fry on Fridays; people around here are still Catholic, somehow. The other days, she plays at American Legion Auxiliary #200 or the Knights of Columbus #4872 on Brest Road. On Sundays, she plays a double-header between the two.

The only day she skips is Tuesdays. “I figure I shouldn’t play bingo every day of the week,” she says.

Bingo has always been Auntie Jill’s sacred space, but after Uncle Buddy died, it became her life. Most players are women, many of them widows—and it doesn’t hurt that she wins. Auntie Jill has always been lucky, the type who finds four-leaf clovers in vast green fields. These days, she scores enough at bingo that she doesn’t touch her monthly retirement check.

*     *     *

The first game gets going when an ancient, bird-boned woman belts out, “BALLS!” from the row behind us. I peep backwards, waiting for a hand to tap the back of my head, like in church. She’s barely five feet tall, topped with a tight mop of snowy Jheri curls.

“She’s got BALLS!” shouts the pudgy proctor who verifies her winning pull-tab.

I’ve made the mistake of looking away from my twelve boards. Now I’m behind on I-25 and B-10. Dab. Dab-dab. Dab-dab-dab. I can’t hit them all with hot pink ink before the emcee mouths, “B-3.”

No one yells, “Bingo!” but several tabletop machines chime Ziiiiiing! in unison, meaning that a few people are close. The emcee announces new balls—G-57… O-70—and I hold my breath in anticipation of someone claiming victory. Sixty-odd bodies in the cavernous space vibrate with the same restlessness.

My machine is playing twelve electronic games and I’ve got twelve paper boards in front of me on the card table; I am not close to bingo on any. Auntie Jill stabs her bright orange dauber—dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab-dab—across her twenty-four paper boards. She glances over at mine and reaches across without asking permission—dab-dab-dab—hitting a G-45 and two O-70’s that I missed. Her orange ink doesn’t match the pink I’ve been using.

*     *     *

The gridded acoustic ceiling is missing tiles like the few old men amongst us are missing teeth. Auntie Jill doesn’t seem affected by the surroundings: the burnt-out reader-board lights, the scuffed beige walls, the drooping American flag. She doesn’t cringe at the squink of white Styrofoam cups filled with scorching black coffee and dusty non-dairy creamer. On break, she buys a jelly donut from the service counter whose faded handwritten menu of hot dogs, french fries, chips, and soda curls at the edges.

Two rows up, a golden chihuahua named Charley gives an exhausted sniff from inside his owner’s giant blue purse, channeling my ennui.

Auntie Jill remains focused on her boards and the ritual of changing out her primary-colored daubers by round: blue for pink, pink for green, green for orange. She pays no mind to the crooked French Manicure Press-On nails that appear a foot tall on the monitor when the emcee holds bingo balls in front of the camera. Instead, she growls at her glass good luck charms—a red ladybug and a pink pig—each time she loses a round.

“Come on, you guys! What are you, asleep?!”

Eventually, a hoarse belch of, “Bin-Go!” rises from the back of the hall to put us out of our misery.

Auntie Jill and I tear off sheets of newsprint, rip-rip-rip, and throw thirty-six losing bingo boards into the wastebasket as green games give way to yellow. I’m stung by pangs of Left Coast guilt at the voluminous paper I know will not be recycled but left to rot in a landfill for future generations. None of this bothers my aunt.

“What do I care if they don’t recycle? I’ll be dead anyway!” she snorts.

*     *     *

It’s ridiculous that I’m cowed by this short, apple-shaped woman. Barely five-foot-two, Auntie Jill can turn me into a quivering six-year-old by unloading rapid-fire questions: You still working for that architecture firm? How long has it been? What’s your job, again? Didn’t you go to school for graphics or English or something? What does marketing have to do with that?

She neither ponders nor reflects on my stuttered, convoluted answers to these simple questions; my world sounds unnecessarily complicated, even to me, when I explain it. She grunts and chambers the next and the next. At home, I always phone her in the late afternoon so that, after thirty minutes, I can say it’s time for dinner. In person, there’s nowhere to run.

You still with that same guy? You ever think of getting married? How come you ain’t never had no kids—don’t you want ‘em?

After we get home from bingo, I scuttle into my uncle’s La-Z-Boy where she fires more inquiries—You ever gonna talk to your dad again?—drowning out Alex Trebek on TV. Alex corrects a contestant—“Not quite. The question is, Who is Grover Cleveland?”—and I realize that talking with Auntie Jill is like being a contestant on an aggressive game show where my answers are never quite right.

*     *     *

I was shocked when my aunt first invited me to bingo in 2011. She never asked anyone to join her.

Uncle Buddy was fighting lung and liver cancer at the time. He scuffed out after us onto the driveway in his navy robe, pajamas and slippers, waving while Auntie Jill backed her powder blue Chrysler Pacifica into the street. She rolled down the passenger window and leaned over me to yell, “Get back inside, Frankie! It’s too cold to be standing out here!”

It was early March. The yard was covered in patchy snow.

I waved to my uncle, lingering in the driveway. He adjusted the black newsboy cap over his bald head with one hand and waggled the other at me. “Goodbye, Sweet Pea,” he called. He looked frail, his thin olive skin faded to yellow-white.

“Get inside!” she shouted.

He flapped a dismissive wave, Bah!

She idled until Uncle Buddy shuffled back into the open garage and lowered the door.

My sing-song farewells faded into an uncomfortable silence. I wondered, with not a little panic, how soon she would turn on the radio.

Instead, she pointed at me. “Look, Kid, there’s a couple of rules. First, your Uncle Buddy thinks I spend $35 on bingo, but I spend $50, and you ain’t gonna tell him that. Second, if I’m in the mood, I have a donut even though I’m supposed to be on a diet, and you ain’t gonna tell him that, either. We clear?”

I swallowed and nodded solemnly, hoping that I’d make it back to Uncle Buddy alive.

*     *     *

Uncle Buddy was eight years older than Auntie Jill when they met. He was a dashing dark-haired naval officer, recently returned from a tour in Naples; she was eighteen, freshly graduated. They spent every moment of their uneventful lives together—he worked on the Chrysler assembly line and she was a primary school lunch lady—until he died in April 2011, a month after my visit. Auntie Jill was in her early 60s then, the threshold of her Golden Years. Her parents had both passed a few winters before that, her mother of illness, her father of heartbreak two months later. Her brother, Jack, was dead. She and Uncle Buddy had no children. Their beloved shepherd mix, Sam, had died long ago.

After we buried my uncle, Auntie Jill’s immediate family shrank to a disowned nephew who had stolen money from her—and me.

*     *     *

On Memorial Day, Auntie Jill and I met her best friend, Tina, at the Big Bear Lodge for dinner at 3:30 p.m. in between bingo games. Every night, Tina and Auntie Jill call each other at 9 p.m. to make sure the other one isn’t dead or injured and immobile on the floor. They’ve been friends since working together in the public schools for thirty years.

Tina, whose husband died decades ago, has already taken a spill—she fell and was unable to get up, like in the commercial. She lay on the floor for hours, her three cats licking her, until her son found her the next morning. Unfortunately, she fell after my aunt’s call at 9 p.m.

We talked about Tina’s school—she can’t afford to retire from her work in the kitchen—and how one of her cats died this year. I felt so grateful for the social lubrication and Tina’s positive demeanor, that I didn’t mind looking at blurry photos of her remaining cats, or pictures of the plastic baby dolls that she crochets clothes for.

Auntie Jill half-heartedly swiped through the photos, handed back the phone and pursed her lips. “Where’s the damned waitress?” she said, turning in her seat. The lights over our booth betrayed white-gray roots lingering beneath the line of strawberry blond dye in Auntie Jill’s pixie cut, her one cosmetic indulgence.

“Look at this one,” Tina said, holding out her phone to show a black baby doll with a purple crocheted cape and jumpsuit. I struggled to suppress my percolating judgment. What was wrong with me? Tina, who was incredibly sweet, donated the dolls in their handmade outfits to charity each Christmas. Could she be more thoughtful—or could I be less? Why was this trip bringing out the worst in me?

Auntie Jill griped about our ponytailed server, probably still in high school, until she materialized. “Hi! I’m Kaleigh, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Are you ready—”

”Yeah, I’ll have a green salad, a petite filet and a side of fries,” Auntie Jill said, tossing her plastic-coated menu to the center of the table. “And a glass of milk.”

Tina and I fumbled with our orders. Although she had lost fifty pounds in the previous year, she needed to lose twenty-five more before the doctor would perform corrective surgery on her other knee. She finally decided on a small steak with a side salad for take-out. I ordered a steak and salad while inhaling a piece of garlic bread with my second refill of Diet Coke, my body shuddering from caffeine withdrawals.

When our food arrived, I was reminded that, in Michigan, a salad means iceberg lettuce smothered in dressing, shredded cheddar cheese and croutons with an occasional slice of cucumber and, if you’re lucky, a cherry tomato. I slid the cukes, the tomato and the lettuce leaves from their dressing bath while Auntie Jill picked at the cheese and the croutons, leaving her greens behind. Auntie Jill sped through the meal, our bingo double-header in mind, dashing my hopes that we’d linger so that I could soak up more of Tina’s warmth.

“Talk with you tonight,” Auntie Jill called to Tina across the parking lot, ambling to the car with only a wave. Tina, accustomed to my aunt’s abruptness, opened her arms to hug me goodbye. It was surprisingly easy to fall into her embrace, though I’ve met her twice. I was surprised by how much I needed the hug and wondered if I deserved it.

*     *     *

Unlike Auntie Jill, I’ve never been lucky. We are polar opposites. I write; she watches TV. I love books; she’s plays bingo and cards. She craves home and routine while I hunger for travel and change. Since my uncle died, the one adventurous thing she’s done is cruise the Carribbean and Alaska. She seems to hate everything about cruises, if her complaints are an indication, yet she keeps signing up.

“I’m spending all your money, Kid,” she laughed.

I held up my hands. “It’s not my money! Do what you want to do!”

In between commercials, I asked about her next cruise.

“England or Europe,” she said, changing channels without looking at me. “They do these river cruises where you stop in port for a couple of hours. On the boat there’s entertainment; you can see a show or play bingo or cards.”

“Is the food good?”

“Yeah. But, you know, I don’t really eat.”

I nodded. I was out of topics. I tried tiptoeing away as the TV blared.

“Good night, Kid,” she hollered. Her eagle eyes missed nothing.

“G’night,” I squeaked, skirting the edge of the room.

I closed the door to my bedroom—alone at last—two more nights to go. The TV was so loud I couldn’t sleep but I didn’t have the guts to ask her to turn it down. Jesus, I was pathetic. I grabbed a crossword puzzle, pulled up the covers and put in my ear buds, falling into my old remedy for noisy neighbors. I chuckled to think Auntie Jill and I both had coping mechanisms, albeit opposite ones, for living alone. Maybe what bothered me wasn’t how different we were but how similar.

*     *     *

I was thirty-two the first time I rented an apartment without a boyfriend or a husband. After my divorce, I felt on edge, worrying that the bottom would suddenly fall out: What if I never find someone? What if I lose my job? What if I get sick or someone attacks me?

To distract myself from the possibility of assault, disease, and dying lonely and destitute, I filled my apartment with a revolving door of friends and parties. Mine was the sole name on the lease; however I was rarely, if ever, alone.

Two years in, nursing a bad breakup, my feelings about solitary life changed. Suddenly, I appreciated having a private space where no one could judge me if I drank too much or overslept or played the same sad song ten times.

The state of Auntie Jill’s house suggested that she was still in that early phase of grief, despite the fact that Uncle Buddy died six years ago. She didn’t want neighbors to see her lax housekeeping or judge her for watching television fifteen hours a day. She didn’t draw the shades to deflect the summer heat as much as the awareness and contempt of outsiders. Like me.

*     *     *

By day three, my ass began to resemble the shape of Uncle Buddy’s La-Z-Boy. The sunny skies tempted me, so I announced that I was going for a walk. “Want to come? It’s nice outside,” I said to Auntie Jill as I laced up my shoes.

She was watching a trivia show called “The Beast,” in which a portly English fellow is pitted against C-list celebrity contestants playing for charity. I figured the offer of company was her missing enticement to exercise. She wrinkled her nose like I passed gas.

“No, thank you! It’s too damned hot. Have at it!”

She refused to give me a key, so I had to ask her to disarm the alarm and unlock the deadbolt and unhasp the screen to let me outside. Later, I would have to ring the doorbell for her to let me in, and she’d be similarly irritated that I interrupted her show. I mused, unwisely, about the necessity of keeping the doors dead-bolted and the alarm on, even though we were home.

“They kick the front door in!” she said. “I seen it on the news!”

I opted not to point out the community’s twenty-four-hour roving security staff.

Once outside, I walked the pseudo-utopia of perfectly trimmed lawns and pristine sidewalks for an hour, wondering if I’d ever end up in a place like this. The same three women power-walkers, wearing ball caps and “Life is Good” T-shirts, waved at me in passing, loop by loop. It was like being trapped in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

The scariest part was, I could see my future in them. I had the same ball caps and sunny-sloganed T-shirts at home. And really, forty-three is merely twelve years away from fifty-five.

*     *     *

The afternoon I left Detroit, I couldn’t gather my luggage fast enough. “Thanks for having me,” I said, because it was the polite thing to do.

Auntie Jill shuffled to the front door to disarm the alarm and unlock the deadbolt and unhasp the screen door as she did when I went out for that morning’s walk. I bent down to hug her; she gave me a gruff sort-of embrace wholly different from a Tina hug. Still, it was her way of showing affection in exchange for me watching Ghost Hunters and Fixer Upper for the last six hours together. I had watched more television in four days than I had in four years.

I leaped over the threshold and out to my rental car, delirious with impending freedom. Over my shoulder I shouted promises to text her when I landed, then corrected myself. “I’ll call you,” I said, diving into my janky Toyota Yaris. Her flip phone, for emergencies, was always turned off.

On the flight home, it sank in that Auntie Jill still wore her gold wedding band. On my first night, she kept asking whether I was going to get married again; in retaliation, I mused about the chance of her doing the same.

“Men my age want one of two things: a purse or a nurse. I ain’t neither,” she said.

It was true: Uncle Buddy was impossible to replace. There was no man to call her, “Wifey,” no man to smooch at bedtime and call, “Hubby.” No Sunday bike rides, no one to tend the garden, no garden anymore. No one to occupy the La-Z-Boy opposite hers, no one to eat meals with. I understand why she doesn’t buy groceries: she’s still aching for the man who wore the plaid flannel shirts, trucker’s caps, and baggy Levi’s that, until this spring, hung on the other side of her closet.

Maybe she’s right: once you’ve lost the love of your life, there’s little reason to raise the blinds, even on sunny afternoons, because his plants are near death, his paints are dried, the canvases useless, and because she’s usually off at bingo.

Paul Coelho once said that love can only be found through the act of loving. An awesome and terrifying quest that everyone is guaranteed to lose, whether by death, estrangement, or divorce. I wondered if either of us had the fortitude to wedge ourselves again in the messy, uncertain crevasse between love and loss. Not with men, but each other.

*     *     *

Back in Seattle, I grab a taxi at Sea-Tac Airport and dial my aunt. I use the ride as an excuse for a quick call, a tactic that makes me feel like a selfish shit after the past four days.

“Hell-o.”

“Hi Auntie Jill, I wanted to let you know I made it home okay,” I say. The TV volume drops. It’s 11 o’clock there.

“Where are you calling from?” she asks.

“A taxi. I’m on my way home.”

“Oh,” she says.

The applause track clatters.

“Well, thanks for coming, Kid. Maybe next time we can do one of those things you wanted to do, like a museum or something.”

“That would be fun,” I say, stunned. Leave it to her to surprise me. I instantly regret the picky details I stored away to tell my friends about Mean Old Auntie Jill.

The line falls quiet except for the echo of canned laughter. Neither of us knows where this goes.

“Well, I better run,” I say because that’s my line. “Thanks for having me.”

“Okay, Kid. I love you,” she says slowly, as if it’s hard to admit.

Maybe it’s not guilt that made me travel to see Auntie Jill—maybe it’s how much I’ve always loved my Uncle Buddy, and still miss him. Growing up, he stood in for the caring father I didn’t get, and he loved Auntie Jill more than anyone. Maybe this is my way of honoring him.

Maybe I don’t have to understand Auntie Jill to love her. Does she have to be like me before I can open my heart to her?

Maybe what terrifies me about Auntie Jill is that I’m already walking in her footsteps: I’ve fallen in love with an older man, and we are about to get married, although I didn’t confide this to her. It’ll be me and Michael—no kids, no pets—in a house too big for one person when one of us dies. I overlook statistics that say he will likely pass in the next twenty years, and it will be only me. Auntie Jill and I are, shockingly, on the same side of the battered old card table it seems. Maybe in her loneliness I see my own future solitude, with no one to tether me to that inconvenient hold we call family. Unlike her, I don’t even have a reluctant niece who won’t visit often when I’m older.

“Well, I’ll let you go,” she says finally. Because it’s easier, I let her.

After we hang up, I question what I think I know about Auntie Jill. If I quit prosecuting her flaws, I might discover the courage to learn more about her: what she wanted to be, what she hopes for the future, how she’d like to be in each other’s lives. I’ve been on my own for so long, I fear I’ve lost compassion for others in a similar place. This isn’t about being nice, it’s about being a thoughtful human being, which I had convinced myself I was.

Auntie Jill, facing the declining years of her life, not only portrays the plight of all humanity, but my plight. After losing parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, I foolishly considered myself immune to loss, but there’s more to go. Auntie Jill reminds me that, for those who remain, death never gets easier. It’s tempting to disappear inside. Maybe that’s why I stay away. If she and I aren’t close, I can’t catch what she’s got.

As the taxi turns on Thistle, I promise to ask her more questions next time. Not out of spite, but with the aim of learning. Every love story starts with the same probing queries that help us know each other—if we find the courage to ask.

 

Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. A writer of essays and fiction, Gabriela’s work contemplates identity, sexuality, gender, aging, and the built environment. Her work has appeared in True Story, Duende, Stoneboat, The RumpusFront Porch Journal and the blogs of Brevity and Submittable. An alumna of Artist Trust’s EDGE Development program for literary artists, her writing is supported by residencies, grants, and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, Mineral School, the Civita Institute, Invoking the Pause, 4Culture. and Jack Straw. You can learn more at her website: www.gabrieladenisefrank.com

Transplant

I recently made a list of things I have done in the past ten months and seventeen days.

Exactly ten months and seventeen days ago, I woke up in my apartment in Indianapolis to a loud thunderstorm and with a killer flu. Coincidentally, this was the day that I was supposed to move to Los Angeles all on my own. The day before I had graduated from Butler University. My family and best friend William had traveled from Illinois to Indianapolis to say goodbye before I left. I had whittled down my earthly possessions down to two small suitcases and a tote bag. My senior year apartment was empty of decorations and clothes. All that was left behind were the white, bare walls where my posters used to hang. Everything else I owned had been donated or tossed. All I had to do now was get myself to the airport and manage to get on a plane for the first time, both with the flu and without proper ID.

You see, my move to LA was very much spur of the moment. As the months of my senior year went by, I realized shit was getting real. I was constantly being asked what my “post grad” plan was by friends and family.  I knew I had wanted to leave Indianapolis, but not for any significant reason. By the time April rolled around, I responded to a craigslist advertisement:

Photo by Tom Benson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Seeking young gal to live in HOLLYWOOD with three other gals. Only $500 a month, best deal in town!

I wanted a challenge. I wanted to be a bit reckless. I’ve always had a fear of failure as a kid. The fear paralyzed me, I stopped trying new things and played it safe. But as I spoke to the leaser about the open bed it took little time to convince me, even without seeing the place in person. I was buzzing with excitement once everything was paid for and I got a package in the mail containing my lease agreement and apartment keys. I then loved to humble brag to others when they would undoubtedly ask once more about my post-grad plans. Oh it’s no big deal but I’m moving to Hollywood. It was something I had done on my own volition. It was a leap of faith.

  *     *     *

I never got a driver’s license, not in high school or college. All I had on me, that day at the airport in Indiana, was a temporary ID with a black and white photo of my dumb face on it. I was sweating nervously as I got to the airport fearing I wouldn’t be allowed on the plane. After figuring out how to check my bags, I made my way to the line to get inspected by the TSA. When I opened up that folded paper temporary ID, the guard immediately huffed and said “You need to take care of this before your flight ma’am.” I was still soaking wet from the downpour outside, and leaking various fluids from my nostrils and eyes. I could tell he took pity on me, watching me tear up and blow my nose on some crusty tissue. After an intense pat down and search, he let me through to my gate.

There is nothing more terrible than having the flu on the plane. As I got on my connection to LA from Chicago, I felt my ears pop and suddenly I could only hear my own labored breathing. Woosh, woosh. It sounded like the humming of the engine was inside I was out of tissues, my nose was chapped red and once we landed I was dripping in sweat. I dragged my suitcases and bag through the crowded airport and stepped foot into LA weather. It was stiflingly hot and dry. I was miserable, sweaty and tired. But loving it.

Photo by Wade Rockett (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the past ten months and seventeen days, I’ve moved 4 times since I landed here. I lived on Yucca street, right next to a 7-Eleven and just down the block from Capital Records. The place looked like a converted motel, and when I got there I was almost worried I fell victim to a trafficking scam due to the peeling paint, broken windows, and the rusted gate that never completely locked shut. My apartment looked way smaller than it did in the photos I was sent. It was a studio with three twin beds on the floor with curtains separating the spaces. The bed was clean, however and the floor was freshly mopped with a bucket of bleach courtesy of my new leaser. That would be the cleanest I would ever see that place. I remember the first thing one of my new roommates said to me: “if a guy comes here and starts asking about me, tell him I moved, he’s my stalker.” I lived there from May to the end of July of 2017.

Within the first two weeks of moving, I had been on a date with a guy named Levi who I really started to like. After a month of us dating, I was also surprised with a job offer at Starbucks in Hollywood. As I walked to work every day (and started to hate tourists with a burning passion), I met a guy named Matt and his girlfriend Rachel. They stopped me a few times after work to sit and chat. Overtime, we became friends and I learned that my new boyfriend went to school with Rachel. I felt it was serendipitous, and giving them the opportunity to reconnect made me feel like the universe was trying to tell me something.

Photo by Yohann Aberkane (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I believe that you should be careful what you wish for. I moved in with my new friends in August to escape the…conditions of my Yucca street apartment. Between the black mold and rats, I was ready for a change of scenery. I moved in with my new friends and switched my location from Hollywood to North Hills in the valley. I lived there from August to December. But as the months went on, I experienced a few health problems. I felt more and more depressed and I lived off $100 a month thanks to my hours being cut at Starbucks. I felt incredibly stuck in a shit situation. Thanks to my then boyfriend’s efforts, “you need to find your purpose again” I applied to school to get my MFA in Creative Writing. I wanted to get my life back on track. Getting my acceptance letter was like finally finding stability. Thanks to a combination of those things, I had to once again move to be closer to school.

  *     *     *

Moving to Culver City with my friends John and Chelsea was the best decision I ever made. It was also the hardest. I was on the verge of a break up with my boyfriend, quit my job at Starbucks to start school, and now I was sleeping on John and Chelsea’s couch. I was and still am forever grateful for their kindness and support during that whole time. I was finding my purpose at school while fighting through my depression. I faced the risk of homelessness as plans kept changing and my Chelsea’s lease on her apartment was coming ever closer. It was hard to juggle my new work study position at school and also helping my friends move out.  It was January, a week before I had to leave John and Chelsea’s apartment when I found the place I am currently living. It’s a shared living duplex, each level with 10 rooms room with one or two bunk beds in South LA. I now have a shit ton of housemates, a clean living environment, and it’s fairly affordable. My mental health is getting taken care of, I am I recently wrote out a list of what I had done in the past ten months and seventeen days, it reads:

I loved and lost a boyfriend

I survived a health crisis

I moved at moment’s notice four times

I had a falling out with friends

I started school and made new ones

I grew up

When May 9th rolls around again, I’m gonna celebrate the same way I did when I moved here. Eating some Panda Express, calling my parents, and looking forward to what I’ll have to say about next year.

  Noel Ortega loves sarcasm, podcasts, and memes almost as much as she loves writing. She was born in Illinois but considers Los Angeles her true home. Trying this whole “grown up” thing while completing a masters in creative writing.

À La Carte: Pinson Valley

Summer of the three-cylindered engine,
weeks spent thumping the wheel to tinny songs
with a revolver stashed in my trunk.

Johnnie on Snake Hill, pouring gas
on the armrests of an old recliner, setting it on fire,
watching the polyester open like a sore.

Off 280, river scum lapping over rocks,
their gray faces stained long after the water unbroke
its sidle. Crawdads halving minnows like loaves.

Some days, us boys would go before work,
strip down to our underwear below the chugging
overpass and its spray-painted columns:

Kevin loves Trina. POW MIA. Life in exile.
We’d ease past the rusty cot, its legs sunk into the bank,
and wade in. Popsicle sticks and mosquito eggs

charming the surface. The water paid no mind.
Only haloed our shoulders with algae thick as tar.
Suspended us in its mouthful of secrets,

idling until we dragged ourselves out.
We crawled up to the mildewed boots of double-wides,
delivered pizzas to the Harley shop and Batteries Plus.

We pushed into black-walled rooms to scream
at cracked cymbals and guitars. Kickflipped over hell
in the Church of Christ parking lot at midnight.

We took another class at Jeff State. We pissed on anthills.
Sat quiet in the living room when another father died.
We tied off the hose while the whole field was eat up with flames.

We spit dreams in ditches. Lit firecrackers
and felt the sparks greet our fingers like rain.
We aimed at our shadows and waited for them to drop.

 

Brandon Jordan Brown is a former PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, winner of the 2016 Orison Anthology Poetry Prize, a scholarship recipient from The Sun, and a former PEN in the Community poetry instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grist, Winter Tangerine Review, Scalawag, Forklift, Ohio, Radar Poetry and elsewhere. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he currently lives in Portland, Oregon. Find Brandon online at brandonjordanbrown.com or tweet him @brownbrandonj.

Photo Credit: Zachary Glassmith

 

Word Vomit: My Sacrifice to the Gods

Where is the most public place you’ve puked?

With this year’s especially infectious flu season, I’ve found that sharing war stories of vomit (and some might say valor) can be especially inspirational. Physically and verbally, illness is purged from the system. From hurling and humiliation, we find humor in our humanity. Or, at the very least, a momentary distraction from the bodily forces that make us feel like we’re dying.

Revulsion, then relief.

*     *     *

For a decade, my answer to that question was on Toronto public transit during my senior year of undergrad, sometime during winter, either late 2007 or early 2008. I only remember it was winter because my black knee-high microsuede boots—freshly crusted in salt stains from unsuccessful snow removal attempts—then became freshly showered with regurgitated soju mixed with whatever else I probably didn’t eat enough of.

The Red Rocket/Vomit Comet
Photo by Frank Lemire

I was on the 512 westbound streetcar with Dan, the only one in my TV production classes who lived in my neighborhood at the west end of Toronto. We were just a few stops away from ours—the end of the line—and we knew from prior experience that they shut down vehicles after vomiting incidents (the Red Rocket is the TTC’s official nickname; the Vomit Comet is its unofficial after hours moniker). To evade getting kicked off so close to home, Dan cleverly slapped his lap with his gloved hands to emulate the sounds of my soju-soaked ex-dinner hitting my sad boots—What puke? That’s just a sick drumbeat! The driver was not convinced; we had to vacate the streetcar and Dan hailed a cab for the last few blocks that there was no way I could walk—or rather, slip and slide across—past ice banks and slush puddles to get home.

That far along the route, we were the only passengers inconvenienced by my spewing, so it wasn’t super public. Only the streetcar conductor there to throw shade, along with sawdust he’d have to sprinkle over my mess to sop it up.

*     *     *

Whenever the opportunity arose to share sagas of spewing and commiserate with some pukey pals, instead of recounting my streetcar closure, I would borrow from my BFF Liz.

She was my first visitor when I first moved to Los Angeles. With her flight from Toronto landing late Wednesday night, I was eager to scoop her up at LAX and zoom across town to drop off my car and stumble over to Barragan’s in time to enjoy the rest of $2.49 Margarita Night ending at midnight. Forty minutes to spare on the Cinderella countdown as we got to the Mexican restaurant: No time to sit in the large vinyl booths—we rocked up to the bar and each downed four plastic cups of margs then walked home with my roommates whom we ran into at Barragan’s.

I was the only non-stoner of this group, and so the only one that did not do a gravity bong rip from the transformed two-liter soda bottle once they got to the kitchen. George, a man in his late 30s, visibly blacked out in front of us for a moment after his turn, before tumbling backward against the counter in slo-mo. “What happened?” he wondered.

“You’re fucked up,” any of us might’ve answered.

I forgot to take into account that Liz was still operating on Toronto time so I kept hug-attacking her on the couch once she crawled under a throw blanket and tried to pass out. Yay! Liz is here! I get to hang out with Liz!

Trooper that she is (and maybe she was still intoxicated when she made the groggy suggestion in the morning), she wanted to check out the Getty Center museum the next day, despite a rather interrupted slumber. I hadn’t been interested in fighting the westbound traffic to visit it on my own, but what kind of host and best friend would I be if I didn’t oblige?

Thank God I left random junk in Cory, my Corolla. Despite the straightaway across the 10 westbound, Liz’s guts took a turn. Of all things she could have grabbed, she puked in a two-ply Trader Joe’s bag. The paper ones that they used to give for free before charging 10 cents each. She puked on 20 cents of recycled paper that did its best to contain her former stomach contents. We made it to the museum without major leakage and promptly disposed of the impromptu vomit bags in the parking lot garbage can. Nothing suspicious here, Getty! Just throwing out some car trash after a long drive.

The Getty Center
Photo from The Getty

But that’s not all, no: The unexpected photography exhibit of genocide that we came across rather early in our westside adventure incited another physical response. Liz’s complexion turned as pale as the monochrome photos of emaciated bodies and mass graves. When a freshly upchucked Liz emerged from the pristine marble bathroom, she decided she’d gotten enough of an idea of the Getty and was ready to go home.

And again: The death camp pictures must’ve been imprinted in her brain, or she had a déjà vu once we got back on the 10 in the opposite direction, cuz she had to resort to the near-empty bag of Lay’s Cheddar & Sour Cream potato chips crumpled in the backseat of Cory.

I can’t tell you what smelled worse between the chip crumbs or the last of her barf, but I can tell you that they didn’t help each other smell any better.

Good Canadian that she was, she apologized the whole time.

“At least you didn’t close down a TTC streetcar in the dead of winter.” I was too impressed and entertained that she yakked three times and managed not to get any on Cory or me to be upset. With the intoxicants exorcised from her system, we exercised moderation for the rest of her vacation so she could return to Toronto refreshed (the unofficial LA cleanse).

*     *     *

Liz’s trilogy of pukes was at the forefront of my mind, keeping me company during my own travel spews when I was recently in Mexico City.

I had spent the day under the sun on the Xochimilco Canals with my friend Jenn, checking out the floating markets and graduation celebrations: rowboaters hawking elotes and cervezas along the river; technicolor gondolas hitched together—five wide by three deep—to accommodate dozens and dozens of teenagers shaking their booties to bassy beats; a few lucky tourists that managed to delight in the quaintness of the creepy dolls that resided on la Isla de las Muñecas by the riverside.

For dinner we stopped in Jetson’s Potato & Beer, a Jetson’s theme stuffed potato joint not far from our Airbnb in Roma-Condesa (not to be confused with Papa Guapa, a knock-off restaurant just a few blocks away). The sun must’ve zapped my energy to eat, or maybe the choco-banana malteada I finished before the arrival of my meal rendered me unable to take more than a couple bites of the Chorizteroide potato I mainly ordered because it had chimichurri in it. Luckily our Airbnb had a full fridge, perfect for storing leftovers. If only I remembered to use it.

The Chorizteroide potato (prior to being left on the counter overnight)

I have a habit of leaving food out for a while if I plan on eating it soon instead of putting it in the fridge immediately and then having to microwave it, an act that would change the composition of the meal. (Who likes potatoes that are both dried out and damp? No one.) Never have problems doing this with pizza or noodles after a few hours. Probably definitely not a great idea to do with chorizo argentino con salsa chimichurri y queso fundido atop a likely heavily buttered potato forgotten on the counter overnight.

I only took one forkful before walking out the door the next day, thinking, Well if I’m going to be hiking today then I should have something in my stomach. That one congealed bite appropriately discouraged me from eating anymore of it, and instead we had Lobo, our Uber-driver-turned-tour-guide, take us to Starbucks. Whenever I don’t have an appetite, a green tea frappuccino is pleasantly chilling enough for me to consume so I at least have sugary energy to burn. I was able to finish a grande-sized frapp before reaching Teotihuacan.

We arrived early enough to beat most of the major crowds just as the art market stalls lining the path to the ruins were getting set up for the day. I was in no state to decipher whether the growl I heard was an actual jungle cat or one of the dozens of vendors selling bird-calling and jaguar-growling pipes at the foot of the pyramid.

I’ve hiked to the San Antonio ski hut thrice and summitted to the top of Mt Baldy twice. These steps are nothing. A mantra I repeated as my sweaty grip on the ropey handrail pulled me up the Piramide del Sol, into the rising sun. Closer to the Gods, I prayed for my nausea to be gone.

It probably wasn’t a half hour of Lobo’s jokes about ritual sacrifices before we reached the top, compared to the threeish hours it takes to get to Mt. Baldy’s 10,064 ft. summit from the trailhead. Once Jenn, Lobo, and I took a seat away from the walkway and stared off at something Lobo was educating us about, I knew I was going to barf. It was only a matter of time. I thought about the restrooms at the entrance of the park that we stopped at before making the climb. That was the goal. I told Jenn and Lobo that I needed to get down to the bathroom, and Lobo offered to escort me since Jenn didn’t need him for her pyramid selfies.

As we turned the corner just before the walkway down, I spotted the world’s tiniest garbage can. My stomach: Home free! My aim: Oh no! My mouth’s aim could not handle the richter convulses of the rest of my body, however, as I projectile-spewed the matcha green bile into and around—but mainly around—the trash can and on my boots (a different pair). Again and again and again. And maybe even again. In front of easily at least thirty others who were stuck at the top of the temple waiting for their turn to get down the narrow steps.

Lobo handed me a napkin to wipe the remaining green sludge rimming my mouth and splattered on my leggings and boots. Although my puke aim was not as good as Liz’s, I channeled her apologetic spirit for my descent down the pyramid. Sorry, Gods, for sacrificing my dinner on your temple. I promise I won’t eat questionable food again if you let me survive this day. We still had cathedrals and a convent on our itinerary, the religiosity of which would make my Catholic mom proud; getting a photo of me in a convent was the best souvenir I could give her. With the demons out of my belly, I just needed a little nap in a shady spot by the Teotihuacan gift shop to restore some energy for more touristing.

Teotihuacan

 

When I got home, I texted Liz a photo I took from the base of temple. “I think I may have an even more epic vacation puke spot: the top of the Teotihuacan pyramid in front of hella crowds today.”

Nikki San Pedro loves words almost as much as she loves ice cream and travel. She was born in Manila, raised in Toronto, semestered abroad in Sydney, and has been adulting in Los Angeles since 2009. At Antioch University, she explores US immigration and health care while completing her MFA in Creative Writing for Social Justice. She is a featured poet for the Angels Flight • literary west Poetry Salon.

Spotlight: Incantation for the God Gene

Cast away the coins
closing your lids.

Roll off the stones
weighing your limbs.

This is what we know:
Every Good Book

when in doubt
is named again.

We inherit the sins
of our glossolalia,

secreting the Divine like sex.
The seat of the soul

is in the genitals,
the road to Mecca,

Jerusalem, Damascus
a network of nerves

like so many places
to get lost, a corn maze

with only one true center.
Fire the pathways

of hymns and prayers.
It is not the hand

that inscribes that turns
the snake to serpent.

 

Jen Karetnick is the author of seven collections of poetry, including The Treasures That Prevail (Whitepoint Press, 2016), finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia Book Prize. Her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Cutthroat, Measure Press, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, New Millennium Writings, One (Jacar Press), Painted Bride Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Prime Number Magazine, Spillway, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and Waxwing. She is co-founder/co-curator of the not-for-profit organization, SWWIM (Supporting Women Writers in Miami), and co-editor of the daily online literary journal, SWWIM Every Day.