Flash Point

My best friend is buying a house in Upstate New York with her boyfriend. A family friend expects her first child in eight days. I’m twenty-two, and I have never felt more alone.

I. “For this was the round of love: fear which leads on desire, tenderness and fury, and that brutal anguish which triumphantly follows pleasure,” Françoise Sagan, seventeen-years-old, wrote in Bonjour Tristesse.

At thirteen, I lie awake at night, wrapping my arms about my own torso, and imagine they belong to someone else. I dream of unrequited love; the most poignant stories are always bittersweet. The Brontës are my bonnes soeurs.

Five years pass. Unpacking boxes into an empty dorm, I hesitate. What could love do to me? Friends give up opportunities in the name of compromise, for “love.” Chipper, they readily change the shape of their lives to suit someone else’s plans. My decisions are my own now. I choose solipsism.

II. “I don’t know how to write love letters,” Frieda Kahlo wrote in 1946. “But I wanted to tell you that my whole being opened up for you. Since I fell in love with you, everything is transformed and full of beauty… love is like an aroma, like a current, like rain.”

I have a friend who is an actor in New York. Caught between time zones, we attempt to keep each other relevant in our increasingly separate lives.

I tell him that I love him. I try to distill my feelings into a straightforward narrative. I tell him that there are obstacles.

On my morning métro commute, I lean heavily against the window, watching the tangle of Gare du Nord slide by. My phone flashes with the flow of his uninhibited late night musings. At twilight, walking home from work, he reads my snarled texts about the trials of putting down roots in a transient city. We compare the pressures of trying to make it in cultural capitals: our shaken sense of place, identity; our occupational dreams and whether or not we’re cut out for them. But we always come back to love.

“This is the most mixed up, terrifying, exciting time of my life, and this love thing? Those feelings are the most mixed up of all,” he writes to me.

I tell him I have met a man. I tell him that I love him. I try to distill my feelings into a straightforward narrative. I tell him that there are obstacles.

III. “I saw her again last night, and you know that I shouldn’t,” John Phillips wrote for The Mamas and The Papas’ self-titled, second album.

People ask me if I have someone. Turning twenty-five demands it: invitations to weddings clutter my letterbox; engagement announcements stack up in my feed. They mistake my hesitation. I’m searching for words. Do I begin with a lecture on their assumption that a relationship defines me, or attempt to explain the unformed thing we have between us?

What little I know about firefighting is at the forefront of my mind: the time during a fire at which the room is so completely consumed with flames that saving it becomes an impossibility—the flash point. It is the point of no return; a moment splitting your life into a before and an after.

I lose myself in your orbit. I go soft. At once open and closed, I wonder if you notice that you’re missing half of me.

A close friend watches me with you. I lose myself in your orbit. I go soft. At once open and closed, I wonder if you notice that you’re missing half of me. Does loving you demand division? You’re incapable of telling yourself how you feel, but your whole face lights up at the sight of me. I resign myself to this.

IV. “And I can’t be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight,” J. D. Salinger writes at the closing of Franny and Zooey.

In attic rooms, we argue. His bag clinks as he sets it down. He never arrives without three bottles of red wine.

“You’re a child,” he spits, refilling his glass again. He leans back in his chair and tells me exactly what’s wrong with me. I choke down a fourth glass, hoping it will allow me to be myself.

I wake to one-line apologies.

When we first fell, we’d linger in his bed, push our heads close together. Glasses on the nightstand, his face was the only thing in focus as the sun changed its slant across the white plaster walls.

Abruptly, he is gone.

These days are no longer shaped by his fluctuations. Feeling the unspoken edges, my heart heals slowly. For the first time in months, my rhythm is my own. I wonder how he fills his hours. I wonder who calms him down. He still has my book, and I wonder if he thinks of me.

 

Lauren Sarazen graduated from Chapman University with a BFA in creative writing. She has contributed articles for publications such as Paste Magazine, LensCulture, and Teen Vogue. Her short stories have received an honorable mention in Writer’s Digest’s 2014 Popular Fiction Awards, as well as a finalist distinction for Crab Orchard Review’s 2013 Charles Johnson Fiction Award. She currently lives in Paris.

Faith Is What You Have: Reading Photographs with Flannery O’Connor

On the day of my great-aunt Era Mae and great-uncle Alvin’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, I wore my stepfather’s striped, navy tie and—after stopping for breakfast on the drive through North Alabama—a small grease stain on my khaki pants. Over the air conditioner, my grandmother told me I should’ve put a napkin on my lap first. My grandfather fumbled with an Altoids tin.

Is it important to remember exactly how old you are when your grandmother’s family—who she has described your entire life, from the safe distance that separates Birmingham from Southeast Tennessee, as “frustrating” or “backwards”—decides to celebrate a fact of nuptial endurance in the wood-paneled community room of a Protestant church, during which you have been tasked to sit next to the guestbook at the entrance and say to each increasingly distant and underdressed relative, “Please sign in?”

I remember my grandmother sitting with her sister Era Mae as she opened presents, a pinned yellow tulip making the right side of her cream blouse sag. A congratulatory cake, matching white-and-yellow arrangements throughout, and—memorialized in a photograph—my grandmother standing between her siblings, hair coiffed, a single strand of pearls along the neckline of an unbelted black dress worn without regard for the occasion’s theme or day’s humidity.

*     *     *

Southerners, unsurprisingly, age; why is more complicated. After announcing he keeps so young by kissing “all the pretty guls,” Flannery O’Connor’s narrator considers 104-year-old General Sash:

The past and the future were the same thing to him, one
forgotten and the other not remembered… Every year on
Confederate Memorial Day, he was bundled up and lent
to the Capitol City Museum where he was displayed from
one to four in a musty room full of old photographs…

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” situates a dying, and then dead, Confederate General between the cultural and social fictions his wartime labor necessitated in a Reconstructed South, as well as the past that labor separated from the future, and present, it produces. “Late Encounter,” like most of O’Connor’s early short fiction, trades in religious undertones and images. Critics of O’Connor’s mid- and late-life writing have, since its publication, acknowledged certain and, quite frankly, racist and homophobic passages within O’Connor’s larger project to make more explicit how her characters experience, understand, or misunderstand the operation of grace through this world.

Critics of O’Connor’s mid- and late-life writing have, since its publication, acknowledged certain and, quite frankly, racist and homophobic passages within O’Connor’s larger project to make more explicit how her characters experience, understand, or misunderstand the operation of grace through this world.

My grandmother was born in 1935; my grandfather, 1932. They moved to Birmingham from Lawrenceburg and Talledega after my grandfather’s naval service in the Korean War and started a family. My mother was born in 1962, soon after her sister who, twenty-three years later, died from a rare genetic disorder. During those twenty-three years, my grandparents bought a houseboat, kept at the nearby lake, and lived a life that seems, based on advertisements from the period, precisely metropolitan: mentholated cigarettes, late-night games of bridge, rolled-sleeves, hair buns, well-tailored blouses with accent pieces and exaggerated features. A life to which I have no direct access, under which inevitably lurked the violence and “backwardness” typifying O’Connor’s fiction, but otherwise seems in photographs and memory normal—a life from which my grandmother, at an age just older than I was next-to-that-guestbook, with a courage rarely discussed, decided to flee, leaving behind her hometown, to follow the bright meridian of what she knew she deserved.

O’Connor’s fiction is rife with Southerners torturously denying or confronting their arrogance to comprehend the land of their first or only thinking. Her characters live in and return from New York or Japan; they earn doctoral degrees in philosophy and change their names; they try to educate orphaned prophets in the ways of modern rationalism. In a letter to Robie Macauley from September 1955, O’Connor writes: “I wonder at how you can pick up the feeling of foreign places like that as I cannot put down any idiom but my own. I presume there are some advantages to not being a Southerner.” O’Connor disregards her efforts to integrate theological concepts and registers into the idioms of her characters and narrators, but does illuminate the darker condition: that language, for all the travel and knowledge it is able to communicate, is experience. Displacement is expressed throughout O’Connor’s work as a problem of utterance. What we say—or fail to say—is re-homed in the experience we have left outside our past or trapped inside the idiom of that excision, which fails to make this bright future, this fought-for elsewhere, newly different.

“Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge,” Flannery writes in 1962. When my aunt died, the family that my grandmother had escaped converged for an afternoon in the remains of the life she had built, had selectively narrated to them for years. Inside this time my mother said it changed: my family’s shared, past experience into an unceasing experience of the past. “I know God has a plan,” Southerners are prone to say on funeral occasions, arriving themselves as O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin did at the understanding, “you must have certain things before you could know certain things.” Grief, like grace, is encountered or deepened through gestures of possession. Through these efforts, we know incomprehensibility.

*     *     *

I was given two blue-ink Bic pens to keep with the book, laughing to myself at the blunted handwriting unknown kin offered. Leaving the car, my mom told me I was only there to make sure everyone signed in, so Era Mae could review the ledger and later call the invited but absent guests, wondering with passive aggression if they’d got sick, or what had kept them from the party.

Where my chubby, adolescent queer body shrunk when asked about a date, I relished telling my family—as many Southern children have and do and will—that I wanted out, there’s more to this world; and that my life as a writer depends on staying away.

I was too young at the time to lie under the awkward questions everyone later subjected me: “Where’s your girlfriend,” for instance, or, “You aren’t going away for school, are you?” Where my chubby, adolescent queer body shrunk when asked about a date, I relished telling my family—as many Southern children have and do and will—that I wanted out, there’s more to this world; and that my life as a writer depends on staying away. Language that, in the old spirit of her own mother, my mom encouraged.

O’Connor was “roped and tied” into the Protestant South where, she says, with the dilution of time and matter, “the best of my writing has been done.” Her chronicle of this time exposes the fault line along which generations of families in the American South continually form: aspiration, communicated from the past, for a vague and better future is defined within the parameters of the stuck—fallen— parent. In the case of Tarwater and The Violent Bear It Away, this line runs in two directions: toward the past and death, into his uncle’s prophesying, and into the future, where Rayber offers a world that ironically contains and reproduces all the violence his modernity alleges to obviate.

“How do you like being in the country again?” [Rayber] growled. “Reminder you of Powderhead?”

“I come to fish,” the boy said disagreeably.

Goddam you, his uncle thought, all I’m trying to do is save you from being a freak.

Rayber—comically, ironically—thinks “Goddam” in his proselytizing efforts against the quiet orphan he suspects of religious zealotry. Celebratory sign-ins become carceral, and salvation is a function of unbecoming, or staying.

I study the photos from that anniversary party now—in one my great uncle covers his face in laughter—where, in looking around the room of her sister’s celebration, my grandmother refused to smile. She observed with eyes long incapable of ordinary sight. I wonder whether debility is produced by singular losses or trauma, or by the contexts these events reopen. The final pages of The Violent Bear It Away rank among my favorite—even though I’m still uncomfortable with framing Tarwater’s molestation as a prerequisite for prophetic consciousness—because the confrontation between, and the tolls of, understanding what the dead demand and the limiting registers of our sensation are created and perceived at breakneck speeds by O’Connor’s child. The novel’s dated position in its time reinforces the awful paradox of what language produces here: purpose from the absence of knowledge, and absence as the only communicable form of our shared lack.

For my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary we drove them through north Alabama, past the room of yellow flowers, to Nashville, where we sat rows from a performance of the Grand Ole Opry, after which we stayed in a hotel. We ate dinner in a garden where, on a bench canopied by lights, they sat, staring at one another, smiling in profile. I try to imagine what it would mean to look at this photo and think only as my grandmother would: staring across, glimpsing a light behind my grandfather, noticing the handrail a few paces past his shoulder leading down the stone stairway to our car. At what moment she had had her vision, if she recalled that moment in the blink of my mother’s camera. If the string band and hotel room was the fate she envisioned, in a nearby county decades ago, studying the twilight road along which Tarwater comprehended God’s terrible speed of mercy.

 

Born and raised in central Alabama, Engram Wilkinson studied literature and writing at Tulane. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offing, LIT, Anomalous PressWag’s Revue, Room220, and elsewhere. He is currently working on his first full-length manuscript, and lives in California, where he studies law. Engram can be found online at engramwilkinson.info.

Progress Notes

The first time I visit her, she lies in bed at the far end of the hall where residents with the worst kinds of dementia are placed, where the man in room 308 rigidly slumps in a geri-chair, eyes and mouth open wide as if in a trance, where the wild-haired woman in room 309 clasps a soft-bristle brush to her breast and rocks back and forth, tied to her wheelchair with a blue padded belt, where the bed alarms never stop beeping and the questions are endless, Where am I? Who am I? Will you help me? Two knocks on her door, room 310, and I enter. A radio sits on her bedside table. On the shelf across from her bed, a rubber snake coils against a pink ballerina music box. She stares up at a poster tacked to the ceiling above her bed, a photo of wildflowers on a high mountain slope. I wonder what she thinks about, if she can still think at all.

Her name is Rita. She is in her mid-fifties, decades younger than most residents, admitted for wound care because bedsores have broken through the tender skin on her backside, and her husband can no longer care for her at home. Her thin body is contracted, bent knees wedged between the bedrails, hands curled into tight fists. She can tolerate sitting in her wheelchair for an hour a day when her husband comes on his lunch break. After he leaves, an aide puts her back to bed and a nurse pours milky-brown, high-protein liquid into the tube in her belly to keep her hydrated and fed.

Her care plan goals are to get her to track with her eyes, move her head, or change her expression.

I know a little about advanced multiple sclerosis: she may suffer from painful spasms or burning sensations. She may have a lucid mind or significant memory loss, clear vision or blurred. Because I’ve heard she can no longer speak, I have no way of knowing for sure. According to her Activities Care Plan, I’m supposed to provide one-to-one visits three times a week for sensory stimulation: play music and ring bells, wave cinnamon sticks and rosebud sachets beneath her nose, or show her objects from my cart—bright fabrics, silk flowers, rhinestone jewelry—the types of activities I do for residents with severe cognitive deficits. Her care plan goals are to get her to track with her eyes, move her head, or change her expression.

Her long wavy hair, deep brown with a hint of silver at the temples, fans across her pillow, and several tendrils stick to her damp forehead.

I rub her arm.

She screams, high-pitched wails that rise from deep inside, as if with all her strength she pushes out the noise.

I turn on the radio.

I know staff can hear her in the hallway and residents listen through the walls. When I push their wheelchairs past her room on my way to a social program, they glance toward her door. One resident may shake his head and say, “Poor kid.” Another will yell, “Shut the hell up!” She annoys me too.

Each one of her screams is punctuated by a moment of silence before beginning again. I pull a picture book from my cart and hold it up to her face. She bares her teeth.

*     *     *

I spend my workdays serving coffee, painting fingernails, conducting exercise groups, and calling Bingo. A year has passed since I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in English, got married, and moved five hours from home. When I tell people that I work in the Activities Department of a nursing home, the same type of job I had all through high school and college, I always add that I plan on returning to college to get my master’s degree, that I intend on doing something else with my life. And before the move, I seriously did consider graduate school, even took the GRE, but my scores were so low that I lost my nerve. I threw away the admissions packets I sent for and said I needed a break. I said I needed time to study, to read and to write. Besides, I said, I was a college graduate and could find a good writing job anywhere.

But after the move and weeks of filling out applications, I realized I wasn’t going to get that writing or editing job. Just one company called for an interview, and it was for a position in collections at a bank. I let the machine pick up and continued to scan the Classifieds until I saw the ad for an activities assistant, a job I knew I could get.

So I help the residents plant flower gardens in the courtyard and paint birdhouses. I sing to them, songs like “Bicycle Built for Two” and “You Are My Sunshine.” I take them shopping at the dollar store and help them place two dollar bets on horses at the racetrack across town. I also read to them, sweet stories with happy endings. When I conduct the nursing home’s monthly poetry group, I photocopy lighthearted poems from Reminisce or Good Old Days magazines. I sit at a table with eight or ten residents and read the verses aloud. Then I ask them what they would like to write about.

Some stare off into the distance. Others nap.

“What happens this month?” I ask.

“Kids return to school,” one resident says.

I write down their words:

September first, and back to the red brick schoolhouse,

skipping or dragging summer-feet

in ugly brown Oxfords.

A far cry from black patent leather,

but “they’re practical.”

Their poems fit well inside the Resident Chronicle, the facility newsletter I put out each month. They see their words in print, next to the birthday list. Some cut them out and post them on the corkboards in their rooms; others carry the newsletters with them, tucked inside the waistbands of their sweatpants, ready to read to visitors, or again to themselves.

For a while, after work and on weekends, I write too. My husband works nights as a security guard at an abandoned factory on the outskirts of town, so I spend evenings alone, and those first few months I draft essays, laptop balanced on my knees, notebooks and journals strewn across the floor of our one-bedroom rental. Free from the demands of college homework, I write whatever, whenever, I want.

This doesn’t last long.

Tonight, get in bed and watch television. Tomorrow, write.

Blame it on the lack of deadlines to keep me motivated, blame it on the demands of a forty-hour work week, but after a while I am no longer writing. I watch television. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I Love Lucy fill my evenings. When I think about writing, I manage to talk myself out of it: I am too tired, I have to clean the bathroom, go to the laundromat, walk the dog, wash dishes, mow the lawn, sweep the garage, trim the shrubs, grocery shop. I begin frequenting craft stores, learn to make oatmeal soap, plaster trivets and cement stepping stones decorated with cobalt sea glass and bits of broken mirror. I make dog biscuits and roll out egg noodles for chicken soup from scratch. Or I just don’t feel like writing. Tonight, get in bed and watch television. Tomorrow, write.

*     *     *

Three times a week, I show Rita photographs of horses and cats, wave vials of citrus and peppermint beneath her nose, stroke her arm with a peacock feather, even read to her from Chicken Soup for the Soul—anything to get her to respond—but she screams or stares at the ceiling, not once indicating she knows I am there. When I record our interactions in her chart’s Progress Notes, I consistently write “No response.” One afternoon, the charge nurse asks me to give Rita’s contracted hands range of motion therapy, so I smooth lotion over the top of her right fist and stroke her fingers down to the tips, where her long nails burrow into her palm. She whimpers, and when I slip my thumb beneath her curled fingers to straighten them, she shrieks. The undersides of her fingers are gummed with sweat and smell like sour milk. I try to ease her hand open a little more, to rub lotion around the joints, but she screams louder. Afraid I’ve hurt her and that I’ll break her brittle bones, I let her fingers spring back into her palm.

In the hall outside Rita’s room, the charge nurse smiles sympathetically. “What did you do to that poor woman?”

I know she’s only teasing, but I don’t feel like laughing. I go next door for a visit with a catatonic man in the end stages of Alzheimer’s. I lean over the man’s bed, carefully wipe the sleep from his unblinking eyes with a warm washcloth, and listen to Rita wail through the wall.

Later, at home, I wonder if she cries out clear into evening, or if she’s finally stopped. I curl up in my own bed and let Lucy Ricardo’s terrible singing lull me to sleep.

*     *     *

I meet Rita’s husband after I’ve been visiting her room for a month. The conference room is cramped with a large table and a dusty, ceiling-high ficus tree. The state requires that the care plan team meet every few weeks to review and update the progress of new admits. I ask her husband, a small man with dark hair and a thick mustache, about her past interests.

“She used to like poetry,” he says, adjusting the bill of his baseball cap. “Used to write it too, even went to graduate school for her MFA, but never finished because—well, you know.”

And I’ve been reading her Chicken Soup for the Soul.

“Who are her favorite writers?” I think of the books high up on my shelves at home, the dog-eared covers and tissue-thin pages filled with blue ink and pink highlighter.

He folds his hands and shrugs. “The usual famous ones, I guess.”

Impatiently, I wait for the other departments to finish giving their reports—Nursing: her bedsores have almost healed. Dietary: she maintains a healthy weight. Social services: she screams on a regular basis—and after the meeting, I hurry to Rita’s room.

As usual, she lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.

“So you’re a poet,” I say.

I lean over her bedrails. “I used to study writing, too. Who do you like? Plath? Dickinson? Wordsworth? Blake?”

She turns her head and looks at me.

*     *     *

I scoot a chair up to my bookshelf and pull down dusty copies of Keats, Cummings, and Bishop. I leaf through my Norton and Heath anthologies, the comments I penned as an undergrad, the loose papers tucked inside, a quiz on “The Wasteland,” notes on “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.”

When I was in college, I used to take my textbooks with me to the nursing home and study on my breaks, sometimes when I was supposed to be doing quarterly activity assessments and care plans. During music performances, while the residents listened to fiddlers strum “Tennessee Waltz,” I critiqued essays for workshop, and during church programs, I scribbled ideas for essays on napkins. Back then I filled every spare moment with reading and writing, some mornings rising at 4:30 to fit a few more hours into my day. I wouldn’t turn on the television all semester. Now, a year later, I scoot a chair up to my bookshelf and pull down dusty copies of Keats, Cummings, and Bishop. I leaf through my Norton and Heath anthologies, the comments I penned as an undergrad, the loose papers tucked inside, a quiz on “The Wasteland,” notes on “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” I’ve grown into the habit of sleeping in until the last possible minute, hitting the snooze button so many times that I’m nearly late for work each morning. On my lunch breaks I drive home and settle into the Game Show channel, after work TV Land.

I wipe off my book jackets with a damp cloth. It is fall, and classes are in full swing. Right now, students hurry across campus on their way to the library, backpacks weighted with binders and books. Maybe a young student heads up to the second floor, to the quiet cubicle in the northeast corner, the heart of the literature stacks overlooking the sprawling lawn and administration building, my favorite place to study. Maybe this student opens an American lit book and begins to read. It is nearly seven o’clock, dusk, and through the branches of the giant elms lining the sidewalks, the streetlights dully gleam. Then the clock tower begins to chime, and almost 300 miles away, kneeling in front of my old textbooks, something stirs inside.

*     *     *

Her eyes are closed and she moans the afternoon I read Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips.”  I’ve spent the morning at the copy machine with a heavy pile of books, filling a three-ring binder with my favorite poems. I glance up from the page. The vertical blinds are drawn, and the leaves on the cherry tree outside her window have turned deep gold. Sun glints off the metal light poles in the parking lot, off the windshields of the parked cars, and she’s stopped groaning. She watches me, studying my face and hands, and for once, I can also really see her, the intensity of her green eyes.

When I reach the concluding lines—

The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,

And comes from a country far away as health

—I hesitate. Should I be reading something this grim to her? But she remains still, staring at me, as I skim the pages of the binder. I ask who she would like to hear next, Williams, maybe Blake?

She opens her eyes wide and inhales, and so softly I almost miss it, she mouths a “B.”

Doctors, nurses—everyone—say she’s nonverbal, so I’m not sure I hear her correctly.

She tries to lift her head from the pillow, but her hair is pinned beneath her shoulders. “B— Bla—,” she whispers.

“Do you mean Blake?”

Perspiration flecks her upper lip, and she closes her eyes. “Yes,” she breathes.

I suppress the urge to run out of her room and tell my co-workers they were wrong—she can talk. Instead, I flip through the notebook and find the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I turn to the first poem and start to read:

Piping down the valleys wild,  

Piping songs of pleasant glee . . .

And then I lose track of time. I read about bright tigers, little lambs, and chimney sweeps, about laughing meadows and London town, bleak fields and children’s cries of weep, weep, weep, weep. When I finally look up from the binder, I’ve read through most of the Songs, poems I haven’t read for a long time, that she hasn’t heard for an even longer time.

Before I leave her room, I turn on the radio. The announcer gives the weather report, and Rita stares at the ceiling, but I believe she sees something else. Instead of the mountain scene on the poster above her bed, she sees the words she still knows.

*     *     *

I would like to say it is the poetry that inspires me to fill out the application for graduate school, but it’s more complicated than that. Rita couldn’t finish school because of the rapid progression of her disease, and I know it sounds cliché to say that I feel my own life slipping away when I visit her room and see her deteriorated body, the days she passes in bed, but how else can I put it?

That fall, when she is able to sit up for an hour, and her husband doesn’t make it in, I brush her dark hair so that it falls in thick waves over her shoulders. She purses her lips so I can apply her lipstick, and I show her how beautiful she looks in a hand mirror. Then I take her outside. The courtyard is in the middle of the nursing home, surrounded on all sides by windows and resident rooms. I wheel her to the rose garden and pull up a patio chair next to hers. Inside, residents sit in wheelchairs waiting to be invited to an activity program or a meal. Some watch television. Others are dying. But I don’t look at the banks of windows encircling us. The roses are four-feet tall and we face them, white with pink trim, deep red with velvet petals. I read to her, and for a short time pretend we aren’t in the nursing home, in the center of the city, caught in the same routine. The howls of an ambulance at the hospital across the street, the beeping of the facility bus, disappear, and if only for a few minutes, we live somewhere else, immersed in the language of some other time, breathing in the sweetness of the last of the season’s roses, wisps of hair skimming our flushed cheeks in the crisp breeze.

But then one dark winter afternoon I visit her room, and from her bed she looks at me with what I can only describe as despair. The nursing staff has shaved her head nearly bald with clippers.

When I stop Rita’s nurses’ aide in the hall and ask why, she says the long hair was too hard to care for and that Rita’s husband gave his consent.

“But did you ask her?”

The aide continues down the hall, her arms filled with bed linens, and does not respond.

Several weeks later on New Year’s Eve, I apply to just one school, one thirty miles north of my hometown that doesn’t require entrance exams.

*     *     *

It’s early spring, and the cherry tree outside Rita’s window is thick with pink blossoms. The day before, I received the phone call I’ve been hoping for—I’ve been accepted into graduate school—and just like that, my life has changed. The binder overflows with hundreds of photocopies, some I’ve enlarged so she can read along with me though I never know if she can actually see them.

I’m not really thinking about poetry. I’m thinking about packing and moving, about registering for classes. I’m thinking about how to describe the stuffiness of Rita’s room, the rash of broken capillaries on her cheeks, and the flecks of dried blood on her chapped lower lip.

I need to tell her I am leaving.

Her room feels too warm, so I crack the window. “Is that better?”

She stares at the poster on the ceiling.

“Your hair’s really growing back.”

She raises her eyebrows. An inch of dark stubble covers her head. I haven’t shown her a mirror in a long time.

I begin to tell her that I wrote the night before, but then stop. What will she think if I tell her I am writing about the residents in the Alzheimer’s Unit, how they try the doors all day, insisting they need to get home, how when I take them for rides in the facility van, they beg to go back inside? What will she think if she knows I will also one day write about her?

I finally blurt out that I am going back to school to get an MFA. Then I hesitate. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all. Part of me feels as if I’m rubbing in what she will never have.

Dense white clouds drift past the sun, and the plastic blinds clack in the breeze. She doesn’t look at me, but there is no mistaking what I hear. “Good for you,” she whispers.

*     *     *

I brush her dark hair so that it falls in thick waves over her shoulders. She purses her lips so I can apply her lipstick, and I show her how beautiful she looks in a hand mirror.

It isn’t always good those months before I leave. There are days when she cries out during the entire visit, days when I sit beside her bed and her screams drown out the poems I read aloud, when I lose my temper and ask, “Do you want me to read to you, or not?” One afternoon she spits in my face. I glare at her and leave her room, though when I return to my office to record our interaction in her progress notes, I don’t know what to write. What is it like when a woman half her age bounds into her room with poems she’s picked out for her to hear? How does it feel when she tells her she’s going to graduate school to study writing while her hands, no longer able to grip a pen, have curled like dead leaves? When her husband visits once a day for an hour, and she’s so lonely for his touch, but can’t ask him to lie down beside her and hold her or even demand that he stay, when the old man in the hallway outside her door won’t stop asking where he is, and the woman in the room next door rhythmically thumps her wheelchair into the wall behind her head, and the whole place smells like piss and shit, and she is young—only in her fifties—and should be doing anything but lying in a bed, staring at a poster of wildflowers someone tacked to the ceiling.

Twice before I leave, she scrapes her fist against her G-tube until it pops out of her belly and liquid food soaks her sheets, pooling on the white linoleum beneath her bed. Nursing staff considers the first time an accident, but they scold her the second time.

“What are you trying to do?” I overhear her nurse say. She and an aide tape the tube down along her side. They smother her stomach with a pillow so she can no longer work it free.

When I show the binder to the middle-aged woman hired to take my place, she glances at a stack of care plan assessments in her hand instead. I flip through the photocopies, pausing at the pages with the corners folded—Wordsworth and Keats, Coleridge and Blake—trying to explain Rita’s preferences. “Don’t worry,” the woman says, “I know just the kind of inspirational poetry she needs.”

Then I stop trying to explain. I know she isn’t listening, and I tell myself I don’t really know what Rita needs anyway. I used to ask her husband to bring in her own poetry from home, but he never did. At first, he told me he forgot. Then he said he couldn’t find it. Maybe he wanted to keep that part of her for himself. I used to imagine him sitting at her desk, sifting through her notebooks, reading her words, remembering. Or maybe he kept the notebooks shut, tucked away on the top shelf of the bookcase. Maybe he thought the poems would awaken something inside that she would never be able to regain. Maybe he knew something I didn’t, that it would hurt too much, and it was best if she forgot. She once mouthed a B, maybe a D, when I asked her to tell me her favorite poet, and I listed off names. Blake, Bishop, Dickinson, Donne? She shook her head. Dickey, Berryman, Bly? No, she said loudly, her face red with effort. Doolittle, Browning? Spit gathered in the corners of her mouth, and she screamed.

I am leaving soon, starting a new life, but until then, I visit her room three times a week. The pink privacy curtain surrounding her bed is drawn back, and her folded bedspread neatly covers her feet. My mind these days is elsewhere, already focused on the future. Still, I sit beside her bed and flip through the notebook, choosing poems I think she wants to hear. The lazy slant of afternoon sun shines on her face and perspiration beads her forehead. Her light blue hospital gown has slipped off her shoulders, and the white sheet bunched up at her waist hides the tube in her belly. She listens to me read, her hands balled into tight fists against her heart, and stares up at the poster on the ceiling, looming peaks of snow-flecked mountains, sparse stands of subalpine fir, and a lush meadow of wildflowers, tiny lavender daisies and white tufts of bear grass, their pale faces forever turned toward the sky. For her, delicate fingers of lupine hold everything.

Jennifer AndersonJennifer Anderson is an English instructor at Lewis-Clark State College, and her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, the Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Cimarron Review, and Open Spaces Quarterly, among other places. She also collaborates on documentary films with her husband, Vernon Lott; their latest project, “The Act of Becoming,” explores the recent international success behind John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner.

 

Every Man a Fortress

We traded snippets about ourselves when the chaos allowed and found we’d both joined the Corps to make something of ourselves, serve our country, and shoot things—Schnieder wanted to be a Rifleman while I was already slated to be a Machine Gunner. Before enlisting, Schnieder had been a degenerate living in his parents’ basement. I’d enlisted eight months prior at seventeen, and had just graduated high school before shipping out. I told Schnieder how the Army Recruiter had blown off my appointment, and when the Navy Recruiter asked me why I wanted to join I’d told him, “To shoot things,” so I’d been sent across the hall to the Marines. We were scared, but determined. Neither of us had any intention of washing out. When we’d watched the rack-less Recruits being marched away he’d said thank you. And meant it.

I slowly rocked my weight to the balls of my feet and then back onto my heels again to alleviate the pain in my lower back. When the Drill Instructors had left, after putting the platoon at POA, they’d laughed and joked about how they’d come back to find a squad bay of Recruits passed out face first on the concrete floor. Many dark outlines of Recruits swayed as if drunk on their feet. When knees lock they cut off circulation, but when a Recruit stood at the POA he needed to “lock his body.” As new Recruits we hadn’t figured out to almost lock our knees, or rhythmically tense and relax them to keep blood flowing.

Heads bobbed and weaved as things started to gray out. I relaxed my knees, not realizing I’d tensed them, hoping it wasn’t too late to recover before passing out. If I fell no one would move to help me. The Drill Instructors had been clear that if a Recruit went down, no one was to help him up. They said we would be told not to help others throughout boot camp to destroy our expectation of assistance—seek nothing outside of yourself, the well-built Korean DI said, once every man became a fortress we would be Marines.

The florescent tubes hummed overhead. Light became dizzy staccato flashes. I tried to motivate myself by thinking back to why I joined the Corps. My memory of the morning blurred into a kaleidoscope of images. The initial scene of a single tower smoking seared into my mind. I could still see a 747 glide into the second tower and erupt out the other side a shotgun blast of fire, twisted rebar, and broken glass. Smoke, pouring out of the first tower and wreathing the second. The way flailing figures spun as they plunged to the street, their descent tracked frantically by cameras.

Images of first responders digging through rubble were replaced by the towers standing—just in time to watch them get slammed by 747s and come tumbling down again.

Towers crumbling to nothing. People running, screaming, as tidal waves of ash and debris flooded through the surrounding avenues. They just fell, one after the other, first the bodies then the towers.

I’d wondered if there had been trumpets that morning, as my teacher panicked and sat dumbfounded. From the doom on his face my stomach had knotted in fear that the rapture had happened and all of our parents had been disappeared off the face of the earth, teleported up to heaven—that my parents had been right all along. My classmates and I stared at the television screens with blank expressions. The cyclical nature of the newscasts, hashing out and then rehashing what had happened, showed us again and again. Images of first responders digging through rubble were replaced by the towers standing—just in time to watch them get slammed by 747s and come tumbling down again. The narrative stopped being linear in my mind and become a jumble of destruction on screens I had to watch. The humming of florescent lights took the place of sirens and screaming as teachers switched on subtitles. The same sound that had filled that day buzzed above me now, and the same scared looks and blank stares on faces lined up.

Silently the door opened, and Stahl stepped through. Silently it closed again.

“Look to your left and right,” Stahl said.

The platoon looked.

“Some of the men to your right and left won’t be here a year from now. Hell, some of them won’t even be alive six months from now,” Stahl said.

Staff Sergeant Stahl paced the length of the squad bay, his flashing corframs click-clacking, click-clack as he drove his heels into the floor. He told us about himself and how he was going to run the platoon with an iron fist while the First Hat was away bucking for promotion. Stahl was a “been there, done that,” Marine. He came from the Old Corps, when things had been much harder. And he’d served in Iraq, leading a Mortar Section in combat operations and earned several decorations for their performance. Stahl had taken lives, rifled through dead insurgents’ pockets for cigarettes and food. He’d seen teenagers, their hair already gray, break down, shaking and sobbing as they begged not to be the first through the door this time. He’d watched his men die, blood bubbling out of their nostrils as they screamed for their mothers. Stahl knew something we couldn’t imagine—we weren’t all going to make it.

“And some of you,” Stahl shouted. “Shouldn’t be here! Take a look around and you’ll see who they are. Schnieder wouldn’t even have a rack if it wasn’t for his rack-mate telling a bunch of Recruits twice his size to fuck off. You know what kind of Recruits can’t seize and hold a rack? Non-hackers.”

Stahl explained that “non-hacker,” like almost all military jargon, was not counter-intuitive. Later in our careers as Marines we would learn idioms and rhymes that seemed childish: “red means dead” to remind us if we could see the red dot below a pistol’s safety then the safety was disengaged; “brass to the grass” to remind us to load ammunition into machine guns always with the shiny side of the brass rounds down and the black connecting links on top; “tap, rack, bang,” to remind us of the correct immediate action of tapping the magazine, racking the bolt and trying to fire again when our rifle misfired; “treat, never, keep, keep,” to reduce the four weapons safety rules to something small and manageable. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded. Never point your weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot, keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire, and keep your finger safe and off the trigger until you are ready to fire, was easily remembered as “treat, never, keep, keep.” Non-hacker was the first in a long list, and the most self-explanatory.

He’d seen teenagers, their hair already gray, break down, shaking and sobbing as they begged not to be the first through the door this time.

Stahl explained it anyway.

“A non-hacker is someone who can’t fucking hack it, good to go?” Stahl asked. He didn’t look up to see if there were any questions. The platoon couldn’t move or speak when at the POA.

“Recruiters, they don’t go to combat and watch men die. They sit stateside and don’t do shit like the fleet dodgers they are. All they care about is numbers. So some of you were recruited by men who knew you don’t have what it takes.”

Stahl’s head whipped like he’d heard a sound. He stalked over to a short, fat Recruit with freckles, a red nose and red stubble on his head. The Recruit looked straight ahead while Stahl stared at him, inches from his face.

“Your Recruiter was slumming when he picked you up,” Stahl bellowed. “What the fuck did you do in the civilian world?”

The Recruit didn’t answer for a second, then spoke in a quavering voice.

“I–” the Recruit started.

“This Recruit!” Stahl screamed, spittle speckling the recruits face. “You no longer say ‘I’ do you understand? You will only say ‘This Recruit’ when referring to yourself.”

“This Recruit,” he started again, voice cracking. “Used to roller blade and hang out with his friends.”

Stahl took off the hat DIs wore, the same kind worn by Smokey the Bear. Holding his hat in one hand he ran the other down his face. When his hand fell it revealed an Oni mask of hate where Stahl’s face had been. The sudden transformation could have been comical in the civilian world only because it would have been safe to assume it jest. Stahl wasn’t joking though. His face turned purple with rage, a hue I hadn’t realized brown-skinned people could achieve. His right hand knotted into a fist with the pointer finger extended at the second knuckle that he slammed into the Recruit’s cheek, as if pointing at his eyebrow.

“And you didn’t think it might be important to lose some fucking weight for Marine Corps boot camp?” Stahl asked. “What did your friends say when you told them that you were going to join the Marine Corps?”

The Recruit looked ready to shit himself.

“They told me not to,” he said. “They told me I couldn’t make it.”

“They were right! You are, disgusting!” Stahl’s body made a retching motion; his head swung down to slam the brim of his Smokey Bear into the Recruit’s face.

The Recruit started to cry.

“What did your dad say?” Stahl asked.

“My father killed himself when I was young,” the Recruit started to explain, slipping back into the first person.

“Oh, you don’t have a dad?” Stahl said, interrupting. “Well it makes sense he killed himself, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t want to be your dad either!”

The Recruit wept openly. Stahl turned away in disgust and spat on the floor. His muscles bulged as he stalked between the two lines of Recruits. His head swung back and forth, looking for certain ones. When he found them he’d stuck his hand in their face, all his fingers and thumb pointing forward in what the Corps called a “knife hand,” and asked them if they had a father. Every time the answer was no. Every time Stahl leaned back and brayed at the top of his lungs about what degenerates the Recruits were, how no man would claim them as their children. When the Recruit’s race allowed, Stahl would say their father “ran back across the border,” or “got lost, drunk on the reservation,” or “their momma couldn’t pick which one because it was dark.” He broke them down, left them struggling against their sobs.

I was terrified. Stahl could pick out the bastard children.

When the Recruit’s race allowed, Stahl would say their father “ran back across the border,” or “got lost, drunk on the reservation,” or “their momma couldn’t pick which one because it was dark.” He broke them down, left them struggling against their sobs.

That information wasn’t in our Service Record Books, which had transported our basic information—height, weight, hair color, religious preference—to boot camp. Stahl had only been able to observe the platoon for a few hours that day before the inspection. I wondered what kind of predatory instinct allowed him to feel out weakness. I realized I was dealing with someone very good at his profession, what he grimly referred to as “making Marines.” But Stahl said a lot of cliché little idioms, and the next was something about “needing to break a few Recruits to make an omelet.” Stahl offered to fight any man in the platoon, said he’d take his rank off. He walked up to the largest Recruit, a six-and-a-half-feet tall, three hundred pound Texan with the last name Payne.

“What about you, corn-fed white boy?” Stahl asked, his voice croaked hoarse from smoking.

Payne stared ahead, “No, Sir!”

“Had to think about it,” Stahl said, stepping in close so his face starred up into Payne’s. “You sure? Maybe it’ll be like wrestling a steer?”

“Sir, no Sir!” Payne’s voice shook.

Stahl walked away and addressed the platoon, his heels clacking.

“That’s goddamn right you don’t!” he said, jabbing his finger in the air. “Gentlemen, welcome to boot camp. I make the rules here!”

But I had my own problems—“problem children.” These Recruits weren’t just Stahl’s pet projects, his little toys he’d play with on the quarterdeck until they broke or he got tired. No, the problem children represented the fault lines in the platoon’s granite foundation: the people who would crack under pressure, who made mistakes not out of laziness but ineptitude. Recruits that couldn’t figure out how to get dressed quickly enough when the platoon woke, couldn’t remember to say “Sir” at the start and finish of everything they said, who didn’t understand making the entire platoon wait on them several times a day couldn’t be justified with an excuse. Stahl hated them for it. Veins writhed in his neck and bulged from his forehead as he screamed at them. Spittle flew in explosions of syllabubs as Stahl barked diatribes-turned-psychoanalysis that probed the depths of the mind. Stahl examined Recruits’ foibles with the steady rhythm of an oncoming train, divining the gruesome future from their pupils.

Schnieder was one of them, so was Oou.

Schnieder’s carelessness struck early the morning when he wanted to move slowly. He’d forget how his shower towel hung folded from his rack, or to shave. The more Schnieder messed up, the more Stahl rode him, the more mistakes he made, the more attention he got—to the point where I shared in the punishments because I shared a rack with him. Stahl told me that’s how it went, that I needed to make up for the shortcomings of my brothers and I was failing not only the platoon, but Recruit Schnieder and myself.

“I’m sorry I’ve been fucking up a lot lately,” Schnieder whispered to me after a particular bad hazing session. “I’ll do better, I promise. Just don’t hate me. Stahl is trying to get everyone to hate me.”

“You’ve got to get better,” I replied.

Schnieder stopped making incessant mistakes and life got easier for us. After he’d kept it up for a few days he apologized to the whole platoon when we got turned to hygiene. From then on the platoon widely accepted him. Schnieder proved he could hack it. He’d walked through the fire, maybe not well, but well enough. Stahl even gave him a few kind words in passing. I could tell Schnieder’s heart swelled with pride that he’d turned things around. When other Recruits turned into problem children, Schnieder didn’t hate them; he accepted it as part of the process. But there was one problem child that tested all of our patience collectively, even Schnieder’s. I felt bad for him at first, because he was a nice enough guy.

The more Schnieder messed up, the more Stahl rode him, the more mistakes he made, the more attention he got—to the point where I shared in the punishments because I shared a rack with him.

“Things aren’t so bad, guys, right?” Oou would say. “Pretty soon we’ll graduate and boot camp will be over.”

Oou didn’t realize that after boot camp there would be war. No matter how many times Stahl showed him the dead in the papers and explained the similarities the dead Marines and Oou had in common, he didn’t understand. Oou always had a look of perpetual astonishment on his face. Always. No matter how many times he made the same mistake and the entire platoon got hazed for it, Oou was always surprised. Stahl knew how to fix him. Before lights out, when the platoon stood in line in front of the bunks, locked at attention, waiting for taps to play over the loudspeakers, Stahl called Oou front in center. Stahl made Oou drink first one canteen of water, then two. Then he had Oou refill the canteens and come back out in front of the platoon.

“No one gives a fuck about you, Oou,” Stahl said. “Because you’re weak, a non-hacker I couldn’t wash out. I failed you, Oou. You shouldn’t be here. And it’s going to get you and the men around you killed.”

Stahl turned to us, grin spilling across his dark face like milk.

“What do you think, 3111?” Stahl asked, addressing the platoon by its number. “If the rod should be spared, speak out.”

My jaw set. I wasn’t going to stick my neck out for Oou, who had been fucking up at every opportunity. I’d been sucked into the mind games, made to hate Oou for his shortcomings when I should have tried to help him. I thought about how Oou kept letting us down, how pushups bruised my palms stigmata. How he sat there looking like a child while the rest of us paid for hours. I knew Stahl would stop the punishment if someone spoke out, but I kept my mouth shut.

“Drink the other two,” Stahl said. “While you jump up and down.”

Oou made it half way through the third canteen before he threw up—once, and then twice. Stahl made him keep drinking and jumping, until the third canteen was empty and Oou bent over retching long tendrils of bile that hung from his lips.

“Should I have him roll in it?” Stahl asked.

He looked at the platoon for a reaction.

The platoon didn’t need to say anything. Stahl already knew the answer.

“3111, always too soft,” Stahl said. “Well Oou, I guess everyone likes paying for your mistakes.”

*     *     *

Before being sent out into the world as full-fledged Marines we’d had the boot camp version of a battalion meeting. The entire purpose of this meeting was to instill the idea in Marines that they should not do drugs on leave, or get arrested. But especially no drugs. Several DIs took the stage in an auditorium and pleaded with everyone to “piss clean” at the School Of Infantry. When we checked in to SOI, it was explained, as many as half would be randomly selected to take a urinary analysis. The Marine Corps zero-tolerance policy of illicit drug use made passing the test an imperative. If a Marine failed the test, he would be separated from the Marine Corps.

The first thing I heard out of Schnieder’s mouth after leave was, “If I have to piss, it’s going to be dirty.”

“What did you smoke,” I asked. “And when?”

The entire purpose of this meeting was to instill the idea in Marines that they should not do drugs on leave, or get arrested. But especially no drugs.

He had a sickly pallor and looked like he hadn’t slept all leave. As a short, overweight balding guy with the first signs of meth-mouth, Schnieder usually looked pretty bad, but now he looked terrible. I had no doubt he would be picked for a urine screening, and so did he.

“I smoked meth last night,” Schnieder said.

Sure enough, when the Marines formed up outside of the barracks the first thing that happened was roll call for urinary analysis. My name was one of the first called and Schnieder’s one of the last. We stood in line together, cups in hand, waiting our turn. I learned an important lesson that day. Not that listening and doing the right thing pays off. I learned that Marines were frequently men of extremes. Maybe the Corps owning Marines drove men to excess of drinking, drugs, and women, or maybe the kind of person that seeks out the profession of United States Marine is predisposed to immoderation. Schnieder had decided to go on a ten-day meth bender knowing that he was going to be tested, and if he failed it would ruin his life. This lesson didn’t stop with our piss test.

I saw Schnieder in line at the PX buying a pack of smokes and a cheesy lighter. I tried to get his attention. I wanted to ask him what he was going to do about the piss test, if there was any way to fight it. While we’d waited in line, cups of piss in hand, I’d had the idea that maybe he could blame it on an over-the-counter medication causing a false positive. Explaining away the results was a long shot, but I wanted Schnieder to make it. He had become a part of my Marine Corps experience, and I was having a hard time imagining it without him—letting go.

Like a lot of guys trying to claw their way out of the gutter, Schnieder never imagined he’d be a Marine; Schnieder came from a life of meth and video games in his parents’ basement. When Stahl had got me down, Schnieder cheered me up with his lopsided grin and easy humor. The first time hunger drove me dumpster-diving, Schnieder stood watch and I’d split it with him.  When the San Diego skyline exploded with fireworks we’d stood and watched from the squad bay; it made us feel better to know that the whole world wasn’t boot camp. Something changed, though, and he’d started thinking about using again—talked about it with other junkies. Then Stahl had become frustrated toying with me, like a coyote giving up on a box turtle. When he shifted his attention to Schnieder, he sensed a weakness I missed, one that went beyond messing up the trivialities of boot camp.

I waived to Schnieder from across the PX; he just looked at the ground and shuffled out the front door. I never saw him again. He went UA; that is, he decided Unauthorized Absence was better than consequences. Schnieder was the first person I lost in the Corps.

Jason ArmentJason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He’s earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in, among others, Narrative, Gulf Coast, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review (Pushcart nomination), and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volumes 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Zone 3, Duende, New Madrid, Veterans Writing Project, Midwestern Gothic, and The Iowa Review. University of Hell Press will publish his memoir Musalaheen in 2017. He lives in Denver, where he coordinates the Denver Veterans Writing Workshop with the Colorado Humanities.

 

Somebody. Still.

I had wanted to be something in the world once. A teaching degree, a Masters degree, and several academic honors hang framed on my study wall. I might have had any number of careers but at twenty-five I made a choice and let the world go on without me: Bedside for my mother’s cancer right after college slid into marriage, morphed into children, and landed me in a seaside community buffered by comforts. A few decades later I was looking at fifty and an empty house. And hiding in the laundry room.

Four years out of college my best friend whisked me to France when my mother became terminal, and proposed over flaming omelets on Mont-Saint-Michel, an ancient French Monastery stranded by the tides at the edge of the northwestern coast. Despite the earnest look on his face I hardly noticed the romantic setting. I was all out of emotions: My mother was dying from ovarian cancer far away in Seattle and I was worn out keeping her and myself together. As the velvet box slid across the table my reasoning seemed so reasonable; we knew everything there was to know about each other, he loved my family, my mother would still be there for my wedding if we hurried. So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.

Nobody put a hand on my shoulder and counseled me to avoid making big decisions in times of big grief. Nobody warned me that grief was not a reliable emotion on which to base life-changing commitments. I had pushed the three-diamond heirloom ring on my finger with relief, chose the road most traveled and said yes yes yes to my oldest friend. I was tired. Marriage seemed an easy answer.

I looked down at the sparkling ring and said quickly, “How fast do you think we can pull off a wedding?”

Twenty years later, three talented children, one suburban community, twenty slack pounds heavier an invisible net began to cinch tight.

So instead of waiting to see how mother-less, cancer-less, home-less worked, maybe finally starting a career or living alone, I would snap on a silk garter.

The first episodes began in the laundry room, folding the never-diminishing pile of sports shorts, lacrosse jerseys, strings of candy-colored thongs, hipster boxers, and my faded, elastic granny panties. I discovered I couldn’t breathe. All I could hear inside my head was, I am nobody.

Then I closed myself in the coat closet and cried.

Was this empty nest syndrome, my second child departing for college at the same time my youngest decided to head to boarding school? In truth, they were all ready to go: happy, adjusted, busting at the seams to grow into adulthood.

Was I an ungrateful bitch, not appreciating my safe community, successful husband, beautiful family? No one could doubt my love, devotion, and dedication to my family. I sobbed into the raincoats hiding my despair; I wanted to do something else with my life, only I had no idea how to start again or where to start again. I wasn’t ungrateful I just wasn’t done. Who thinks this way?

My struggle intensified as the house got quieter. Anxiety chattered in my head, You only have yourself to blame, as I tried to catch my breath while the dryer tumbled. Back to gratitude! my mind raced. My mother had died at fifty-one-years-old. I was lucky to be alive to see my children grow. I shoved my saggy underwear behind the detergent and put a smile on my face.

*     *     *

The garage was staged with bins of extra-long sheets, towels and pillows for the two dorm rooms. Moving old photo boxes out of the way, a picture of my husband and his former live-in girlfriend, sitting an inch apart on a couch smiling at each other, dropped to the floor.

The photo haunted me for days.

He married you out of pity.

He loved your mom and wanted her to know you were taken care of.

But what froze my blood was,

He had never smiled at me like that before.

But let’s be honest, what was he looking at? I filled the days, months, and years with too much food, alcohol, and projects. Caregiving of other relatives took a toll on me all over again. I gained weight, had high cholesterol, and drank martinis nightly by the double. Filling my time and my belly had not filled my soul or made me attractive. Her face in the photo glowed, her chestnut hair swirled around flawless skin. I had stopped looking in the mirror.

The cost of my decision over that omelet flambé was finally here: I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years. I had sledded down the slippery slope of taking care of everyone else, riding a comfy cushion under my butt into oblivion. How could I possibly salvage anything of that twenty-five-year-old now?

When the house was empty of children we began to eat dinner in front of a news show every night, our meal balanced on knees, his laptop open beside him. I was bored to tears and brought to tears that this was how my life would continue to unspool forward. I lay awake at night, stroking my dogs, devising plans: I will go back to school. Find part-time work in a shop in town. I was qualified to be a dog walker, a cook, a housecleaner. I pulled the pillows over my head.

I gave up being someone—I was my apron, gardens, roasting pan, and children; wore granny panties and hadn’t had sex for ten years.

First, I thought, first I should salvage the marriage. I set a table for two, lit candles and prepared a nice meal the next day.

“Now we can focus on us for the first time in years!” I said, clinking our wine glasses together.

“Did I tell you I am going to Europe next month to extend the company?” he replied.

Could I have been any more invisible than that moment?

As his words hung between us I stacked the dishes and felt a bizarre rush of relief. In some ways, being apart would be good for both of us. As he chatted on about his trip, I suddenly realized that I had no intention of just sitting here waiting for someone to decide to come home for a meal. I wasn’t angry. I was certain.

I sat at the computer the next day and typed random requests into Google:

Continuing Education Classes Knitting instructor Writing courses

I applied to a workshop in Seattle, noting at the beginning of my essay,

“I am not pretending I know how to write. I just want to try.”

Someone in the program wrote back,

“Welcome! This is great. Here is what we recommend.”

Someone wants me?

Just one line, from a stranger. In rapid succession I scoured Craigslist for rentals and found a furnished flat for a six-week workshop, put down the deposits with my own inherited money, secured dog sitters, emptied the fridge, put the garden to bed, and found a ride to the airport.

“I’ll be back after you return from Europe,” I said as he packed. But both of us knew this was the defining moment of something else. And I had defined it. Unprecedented. Exhilarating.

*     *     *

A friend said to me before I left, “We are so confused, you were the ultimate mom, you did everything perfectly, why do you need to go away?”

My dog sitter said, “Do you know everyone is talking about you? Wondering if you are getting divorced?”

I shouldn’t move forward, but everyone else can?

*     *     *

The first hour in the flat I watched the clouds flick the tips of the snow-capped Cascade mountains and listened to the silence. Not fearful, just acutely aware I was making big, irrevocable decisions based on advice from a stranger. Would this work out? Did it matter?

At a second-hand store down the street I purchased two wine glasses, two plates, and a vintage tablecloth dotted with plums. I felt the blood zinging through me.

Who did this? Somebody.

I took a deep breath and went to bed alone.

Alexandra DaneAlexandra Dane is currently completing Cope: An Imperfect Story, her memoir about coming of age in the midst of her mother’s divorce and terminal illness. For the last four years she has honed her writing voice in Seattle, Washington with thanks to Hugo House and The Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in thewritersworkshopreview.net. Her weekly blog alexandradanewrites.com is an assemblage of thoughts on the small things that matter. She lives in Boston and Seattle.

Chassis

I knew I was in trouble when the Director asked me to cock my head to the right.

“I can’t cock my head to the right. Or the left.”

“Just like this.” He cocks his head to the right. But, see, he’s not wearing a fiberglass suit of armor with a helmet attached to the shoulders. He doesn’t look like a low budget Cyberman. Or, a lower budget Cyberman, as it were.

“I can’t move my head.”

“Okay. Just, look shocked.”

So the camera starts speeding, I take my mark, and it’s time to make this awkward robot costume convey shock. I try some Meisner. Why am I shocked? What is causing the shock in me? Well, I am trapped in a dirty robot costume, standing in a parking lot on Cahuenga. That should be shocking enough. Why am I here? Because at 11:30 last night I got a frantic text from the Producer telling me they’d lost their robot guy and needed me to come in and replace him. Obviously, this was a terrible thing to do with my time. So I was relieved when the Producer texted me a few moments later, saying she’d found a replacement. But, bright and early next morning, another frantic text. It seemed the replacement had also disappeared (this should have been a warning sign but my reasoning skills aren’t the sharpest in the morning) and I saw this all as a Sign from the Universe. Some inescapable force of nature had determined it was my fate to don a clunky robot costume and have at it.

“Can you try tilting your head up?” the Director asks. He demonstrates again.

I convey shock.

“That was great! Next shot.”

This is going to be a long day.

*     *     *

By 2:00 pm I’ve discovered this wonderful resting position. See, I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.” So I’ve taken to leaning against one of the cars on set and using the back of my helmet as a headrest. It’s surprisingly comfortable.

I can’t sit down in the armor and I can’t take it off because the AD assures me we are going up in “a few seconds.”

While in this position, I can see Houston through the tiny little eye holes, teaching the Producer how to punch. Houston is my fight partner. We go on sets and choreograph the fight scenes. That’s how I wound up involved with this project. Of course, I had no idea that I’d be the one having to throw the punches. If I’d known, I would have had the robot fight entirely from this awesome leaning position. Houston isn’t choreographing the Producer into the fight though. He’s just doing that thing that we all do where we constantly teach people how to throw a proper punch. You’d be surprised how few people can.

And the Producer is asking, “How many fights have you been in?”

Houston says, “Four, maybe. One of them was with that kid I was telling you about, in a Chinese restaurant. Then there was Japan, where I saw a fight and tried breaking it up.”

I can’t imagine Houston breaking up a fight. He’s all Krav Maga and Falcon Punch.

“Then there was the one at the football game in high school.”

Huh? I’ve never heard this one.

“Tim, have I ever told you about that one? It was a Stanford game and this racist guy behind me kept shouting awful stuff and spitting sunflower seeds on me. So I asked my dad if it was okay to get into a fight with him.”

I can picture Houston asking his dad for permission to get into a fist fight.

“Every fight I got into, I broke these bones.” He points at the little bones in the back of his hand.

“Where’s Tim?” I hear the Director call out. Like he can’t take the extra two seconds to locate the only robot on set. Maybe I blend in against the mustard-colored 1982 Mercedes Benz.

I say, “Here” but my voice just sort of meanders around the inside of my helmet, unable to squeeze through the tiny mouth and even tinier eye holes. So I push off the car, which takes more effort than I’m proud of, and do my robot saunter.

“We need the robot to fall over.”

“I can’t fall over.” A nickel in the jar for every “I can’t” today would really cost me.

“Can you just go prone and do a reverse pushup?”

“Nope.” I can’t even dougie. That’s how restrictive this outfit is.

“Guys. That suit cannot touch the gravel,” the Producer says. “It is worth 19,000 dollars and if we scratch it . . .”

19,000 dollars? This awkward piece of shit?

“Okay, so, Houston! Do we have those pads we talked about?” the Director asks.

“No. I don’t have the pads. The Producer does.”

“Yeah, but I asked you to bring them.”

Houston clenches his jaw, takes a deep breath. He has a short fuse when it comes to incompetence.

“I emailed you. I said, ‘I don’t have the pads. The producer does. She owns them. She has them in her possession.’” Houston has taken out his phone. He’s reading an email. “‘She is in charge of the pads. She has them. If you want them on set, ask her.’”

The AD asks the Producer if she brought the pads. I have to turn my whole upper body to see her.

“I didn’t realize I was supposed to.”

By now, we’ve moved on. I’m dropping to one knee, putting one hand on the ground. Like I’m hiking a football.

“Can you make a fist?”

“No. I can’t make a fist.”

My gloves are made of the thickest possible rubber, as if the designers were terrified that the suit would allow for any amount of dexterity.

…every take ended with us just sort of going on until we didn’t know what to do next. We’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.

“Try something like this.” The Director demonstrates making a fist.

*     *     *

Later on, I start to notice that the shadows are awfully long, and we still have most of the fight scene ahead of us. The Director makes an impassioned plea to the actors, who are circling the craft table. He says, “We’re running out of time, so we need to speed this up.”

For whatever reason I imagine us doing the fight scene in Benny Hill double-time. Maybe it’s the tunnel vision, but by now I’ve begun interpreting everything literally.

I overhear the AD tell the Cinematographer, “I’m going to start calling cut, if that’s okay.” Which is nice to hear. Until then, every take ended with us just sort of going on until we didn’t know what to do next. We’d start strong and then just peter out, like windup toys.

I’m supposed to lower one of the actors to his knees in this take, and the actor seems really worried. He says his knees are messed up. I’m not sure what that means.

Now, during the next take, he’s supposed to just wait on his knees a while. For a moment, I forget he’s there because he’s left my pathetic field of vision and I’ve taken to imagining that the universe is just two little disks, joined in the middle and if I can’t see it, it’s not there.

Then he stands up.

“You have to stay on your knees,” the Director says.

The actor goes back down, exiting the universe. I hear him say something about his knees bleeding.

“Action!”

I know every move. After all, I came up with half of them. But I can’t really see what I’m doing so it’s harder than I’d hoped. I start feeling like I’m actually inside a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize. It resists at every instant.

One of the PAs walks over and tells the Director his cat has gone missing. Someone else makes a meowing noise.

While a fellow actor wildly thrashes my armor with a rubber crowbar, I notice that the crew has shifted their attention to the parking lot entrance. I rotate my entire body around to see a white pickup pull in. The driver, who looks like Terry Crews in a golf cap, jumps out of the car and starts shouting at us.

“Either someone shows me a permit right now, or you get the fuck off my lot! Right now! This is private property!”

I hear someone say “Okay, pack it up. Pack it all up.”

So we’re all rushing around, packing up the crafts table, the props, the rigging, the camera. I’m very slowly making my way out of the parking lot. There are no extra hands to help me take off my armor, so I’m doing my best impersonation of an embarrassed robot, one foot at a time, while Terry Crews eyes me from his pickup.

Finally I manage to get my gloves off. I use my newfound dexterity to remove my helmet. My shell of solitude is gone. I suddenly realize how loud everything is. Everyone is shouting at someone, somewhere. Terry Crews is shouting at the Producer. Cars are peeling out, tearing up the road. The Props Master finishes removing my armor and now I’m in a form-fitting silver jumpsuit feeling more than a little naked.

I start feeling like I’m actually inside a robot, and the robot isn’t responding to my human desires to maim and brutalize.

I climb in the back seat of my car because it’s the only open door and Houston has my keys.

From inside the car I can see everyone is still shouting. I spot Houston talking with the Director. As the Director talks I can practically see the power-up bar above Houston’s head, slowly building up. Like when it reaches the limit he’ll have enough energy for a fireball, or go Super Sayan or something. I wonder if the Director realizes how close he is to the edge of a very steep, unforgiving cliff. Does he really want to start a fight with the fight choreographer?

It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled. I’m not really here. I’m just observing from my spaceship. Then Houston gets in and starts the car. I put on my seatbelt and think of Houston as my chauffeur. I’m still wearing the silver jumpsuit.

We’re driving to the AD’s house to regroup and for some reason Houston’s gone all The Italian Job, weaving through traffic, driving in the breakdown lane. I’m not sure why we’re trying to get there so fast but it’s all very exciting nonetheless.

Houston rants in the front seat and this is what I pick up between the growling: First, the Director blamed Houston for not rehearsing enough. Then, when Houston asked him about whether or not we had permission to shoot there, the Director said he had talked to management. Then, when Houston asked the same question again, the Director revised his story saying that he “called them, like, five times and no one picked up so I assumed it was okay.” Then, Houston didn’t punch him.

“I swear I’m going to punch him,” he says. I think about the little bones in the back of his hand. “If he tries to blame anyone but himself for this mess, I’m just . . .” Then more growling.

We’re the first people to arrive at the AD’s house. We sit on the porch and the sun starts to set over Silver Lake Boulevard. Ten minutes later, everyone except the Director has filed in. Each of them haggard, shell-shocked. The Producer has been crying. She asks if everyone’s here.

“Everyone except our fearless leader,” Houston says.

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

Someone calls him. His phone is dead.

The AD talks about some other shots they need to get today while the sun is out. But we need the Mercedes, which the Director is driving. They also need the Director, though I’m not sure why.

The Cinematographer is on the phone with someone in the car with the Director. He’s giving directions.

“760 Harvard Ave . . . 760 Harvard Ave. 760 . . . Harvard . . . Harvard. Harvard . . . Like Harvard University. Like the college. Like, ‘I went to an Ivy League college, Harvard University.’ Yes . . . 760. Harvard.”

Houston starts laughing.

“Did he just get in the car and drive somewhere . . . anywhere?”

Apparently, he is in West Hollywood. No one really knows why.

So later, an hour later, the Director, our fearless leader, shows up. He looks awful. I wonder where his cat is. I picture the little critter, wandering Cahuenga, playing with strays, smelling new smells. Seeing new sights. Then the sun sets and the cat is alone and hungry and his home is nowhere to be found. He licks his fur. He curls up in a ball and forgets everything that’s ever happened. He accepts the wild.

So now I’m putting the suit on again. They’re turning on the little blue bulbs around the eye holes so now everything I see is framed in little blue glowing lights.

I’m sitting in the passenger seat. I can’t even put on my seatbelt without help. They’re mounting a camera to the hood. And the driver, my lovely co-star, decides this is a good time to mention she’s almost blind without her glasses. And it’s night time.

“So, put on your glasses.”

“No, see,” the Director pipes in. Fuck. “If she wears the glasses then she’ll have to be wearing them in the next scene.”

“We could have her take them off.”

“No. We don’t have time for a shot like that. No . . . Are you comfortable driving just around the back roads?” he asks.

I can hear Houston restraining the urge to hit The Director.

“You cannot seriously be thinking . . .” he says. Then storms off.

“I couldn’t drive on the freeway. But back roads should be fine.”

“We could have Tim spot for her.”

Then we would literally have the blind leading the blind. Between the two of us we could barely read a stop sign.

“The AD will sit in the back and give her directions.”

So we start to pull out, but the light attached to the dashboard falls off.

Correction, the dashboard falls off.

So the Cinematographer is taping the dashboard back on. The Props Master is helping him. The AD is sitting in the back. The Cinematographer accidentally opens the sunroof. Suddenly everyone bursts into motion pressing every single button they can find trying to get it shut. They’re reaching over me, fumbling over each other. I can’t help but notice that the car has a bright red button on the front panel. Occasionally someone’s finger drifts over it then moves on. I wonder what it could be.

Finally, someone finds the right button, the sunroof is shut. The light is attached. The dash is attached. We’re ready to go. And I guess she’s not going to wear her glasses, so that’s cool.

It occurs to me that I’ve just replaced the robot armor with the car armor. I’m still separated from the world. Hidden, muffled.

Two rings of glowing blue frame the lights of Western Ave. and I start to realize that there’s a good chance I will die in this stupid robot costume. And the funny thing is I don’t really care. I can see the red tail lights and the orange streetlights reflected in the pavement. I can’t really see my driver, but when she asks the AD where to go next, she sounds confident enough. Of course she doesn’t seem to understand how to follow directions.

“Turn right here.”

She goes straight.

“Okay, it’s okay. Just keep going straight.”

She turns.

“This is fine. It’s fine. Turn left here.”

I watch a pedestrian skitter across the road.

I pull back from the eye holes and look around the inside of my helmet. My iron maiden. My little spaceship. It’s just me in here, alone. I’m not in a car, headed towards my inevitable early death. I’m in a robot. I trust him to keep me safe. I trust him to lead us home.

Then someone’s pulling off my helmet. We’re parked at the house. We’re not dead, which is nice.

We wait inside for the Director to make an appearance. Secretly, I think we’re hoping he’ll make things worse for himself. Blame someone else, maybe make some racist comments. But maybe we’re too exhausted for that. Even Houston looks haggard.

When he finally arrives, he sits down on the couch between Houston and the Producer. He doesn’t speak at first. He just stares at his shoes. Then, after a long electric moment, he begins, “Guys, my girlfriend is going to be so pissed when I get home, for the cat getting out. Just so you know, she’s going to tear into me so . . .”

So . . . so what? Are we supposed to pity you? Should we mount a search team? Jump in our cars and patrol Cahuenga? We could have the lead actress drive. Maybe I could spot for her.

After all the ridiculous events of the day I wonder if possibly this is some sort of elaborate practical joke, or maybe performance art. It would be called “A Dog Teaching a Human How to Wag His Tail,” or “The Limits of Tolerance,” or the always classic, “Sabotage.” I think about the robot, now in pieces in his box. They didn’t need me. They just needed someone to fill the skin, someone to carry it. I wonder if that’s all the Director is. Maybe this kind of thinking is dangerous.

The Director makes some comment about how we might have to cut the fight scene completely and Houston gets up. He doesn’t look the Director in the eyes, but he points his whole body at him, clenching his fists. They share a silent moment, filled with horrible potential. Then, something truly amazing happens: Houston just pulls out his keys and we leave in silence.

On the drive back we see an empty car parked in the middle of the street with its lights on, its engine running, and its doors ajar. It hums quietly to no one.

T. Lucas EarleT. Lucas Earle is a writer, filmmaker, and musician. His fiction has appeared in Electric SpecColored LensRazor Literary Magazine, and New Myths. His dark comedy, Abduction, premiered in LA Shorts Fest in 2013. His most recent film, in which he plays the lead, is Up Next. T. Lucas lives in Los Angeles.  http://www.tlucasearle.com/

 

Community

A few weeks before my brain broke, as I waited in a grocery store coffee line, an elderly man in front of me dropped his cane. I focused on it. The cane’s clatter, the man’s shaky stoop, careful and slow as he picked it up. How sad, I thought, the need to link one hand to the ground. How frustrating to have only one hand to fill your coffee cup, to add creamer and sugar, to stir.

*     *     *

Estranged from my extended family in preadolescence and raised in a home of three—myself, my identical twin brother, and my mother (my father, already a father, bolted before my birth)—I never considered myself part of a real family. I idolized TV families, normalized a mother and father, children of different ages, and as a teenager I formed pseudo families. Friends I referred to as brothers and sisters. Parents of friends I called mom and dad. Most weekends I attended hardcore shows, which I later traded for the underworld of drug addicts.

*     *     *

A week before my brain broke, as I sat in the waiting area of a drugstore pharmacy, I noticed an old man. Grinning, chuckling, his cane clicking the floors. “Excuse me,” he said, “I’m a little slow.” All around him people smiled and stepped aside to let him pass. The disabled, I’d soon learn, especially those who use mobility equipment, draw attention to themselves. They’re surrounded by pitying patronizers, people who infantilize and play Good Samaritan—forcing smiles as they open doors, stepping aside to let them pass.

*     *     *

For two years I felt at home in twelve-step halls. Gone were the betrayals and ensuing distrust that pervaded the drug scene. Twelve-steppers, we held weekend dance parties and cookouts. We visited each other’s home for birthdays and holidays. But something felt off about the program. Trading one obsession for another: caffeine, cigarettes, sex, food, petty fights, clean time, the number of meetings one can attend in a week (some, somehow, boasted double digits). Chanting “keep coming back” to those who relapsed, but never guiding them toward professional help, the rehab and detox facilities many of us had briefly called home. And while we were encouraged to celebrate our “recovery,” we were also encouraged to hide our last names and to contain the contents of our meetings within the walls of twelve-step halls.

*     *     *

Two weeks after my brain broke, after an MRI showed that my cerebellum had atrophied, a neurologist showed me pictures of my brain, led me in painful, exhausting exercises, and said, with a grin, “You have spinocerebellar ataxia.” When I asked him to define the condition, he refused, still smiling, and ushered me from his office, leaving me to wander into dangerous emotional territory. Maybe he needed to refuse an explanation—having seen patients break down in his office, faking a tight-lipped smile helped him survive each workday. He was wrong, however, to guess my diagnosis before the genetics test results arrived, sending me home with no explanation of the disease, aside from this: my brain may continue to shrink; the only treatment was physical therapy.

*     *     *

I’d romanticized drum and bass since high school. Not sure why. Call it a visceral urge. Like television, hardcore, and drugs, drum and bass felt as necessary as food and water, as friends and family, and though I felt less connected to bass heads than to recovering addicts, climbing twelve-steps seemed a sluggish, senseless exercise when I entered the drum and bass scene. I was twenty-one, had drunk plenty in my teens, but never in a bar, and after two and a half years of listening to the same recovery stories in church basements and attics, and in stuffy twelve-step halls, furnished with soda bars and old video games, I needed this: hooting and bouncing, sloshing drinks in darkened nightclubs as DJs spun out deep bass lines over breakbeats, transitioning to warbling bass riffs layered over doom-laden samples. I managed not to die or go to jail—a common twelve-step caution (If you leave these halls…)—once the club closed and we convoyed to an old house near train tracks, where we danced as we chased pills with beer, sniffed powders, and filled our lungs with smoke, until daylight revealed our faces.

*     *     *

My brain shriveled. My knees buckled. I bought a cane. “Excuse me. I’m a little slow.”

*     *     *

A month after my brain broke, before I began physical therapy, before the lab sent inconclusive results of my genetics test, leaving me without a specific diagnosis, a cause for my shrunken cerebellum—doctors use the word “sporadic” (sporadic cerebellar ataxia) to name an unknown cause of cerebellar atrophy—I researched spinocerebellar ataxia and learned this: The disease is progressive, fatal. Genetic. On my way home I wondered who else in my family suffered from this disease. Who else developed epilepsy and blindness and lost motor skills until they died too young? Each time my eyes wiggled, each time my vision blurred, my hands shook, or pain shot through my back or chest, adding to the constant ache in my hands and feet, the soreness in my legs as if I’d been standing five, six hours at a time, I saw myself in a hospital bed, a death bed, attached to tubes, my neck supported in brace. Drool dangling from my lip.

*     *     *

Twelve-steppers, active addicts, bass heads—each subculture welcomed me into a realm that for various reasons was closed off, misunderstood, or shunned by society. Each required a special skill, a bank of knowledge, or a particular interest for entry. Each contained its own jargon, a unique set of rules. Its members were dedicated. Obsessed. Despite the pitfalls each subculture contained, each one offered the gift of community.

*     *     *

Two months after my brain broke, the first time I followed my physical therapist into the gym, filled with people who seemed unlike me because they were elderly, missing limbs, or overweight, I felt out of place. Any moment someone would tell me how much harder their lives were, and that I should come back when I needed fake limbs or a wheelchair, or when I was eligible for senior discounts. Fear dissipated as I worked through exercises in a gym with these others, all of us fighting our conditions. While walking on a treadmill, practicing tai chi, lifting tiny barbells, I began to feel united with those who all my life had seemed unlike me—the obese, the amputees, the senior citizens who smiled through pain as we hurtled toward uncertainty.

Bernard GrantBernard Grant is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He’s also received residency and fellowship support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School. He holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, Stirring, and The Chicago Tribune. He’s the author of the nonfiction chapbook Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and currently serves as associate essays editor at the Nervous Breakdown.

Hollow

I dig my fingers into the pockets of my jacket and tilt my face towards the sun. The sharp wind of fall stings my cheeks. I want to drink in the spaciousness of this place, disappear into the rust red canyon, become the shadows dancing on painted rock.

Behind me, there are voices belonging to people pointing cameras and fingers at the enormity that surrounds us. One of the voices belongs to my travel companion for the day, Mark the meteorologist. He’s made a point to stop every tourist we pass, asking them where they’re from and what trails they plan on taking while visiting the Grand Canyon.

We met on Couchsurfing a few weeks earlier, and although I didn’t end up staying with him, I took him up on his offer to take me on a hike. The canyon is his backyard; he knows it the way I know the hidden creeks and wide curves of the slow-moving river down the street from my duplex back in Florida.

“Germany?” I hear Mark ask another tourist.

“Austria!” the man bellows.

I inch closer to the rock’s edge, peering down at the layers of sediment stacked beneath my feet. A shard loosens and falls into the canyon, a tiny part of this massive whole.

“Would you like me to take your picture?” the meteorologist asks his new friend.

“Of course! And then I take one of you and your girlfriend!”

My heart cringes at the word. I feign temporary deafness, but Mark calls my name twice.

The meteorologist and I don’t correct the Austrian. Instead, we hand him our cameras, stand dutifully in front of the unfathomable view, and smile, arms dangling like dead fish at our sides. My smile is tight-lipped, my eyes squinting into the Arizona sun. I won’t bother checking the photo afterwards to make sure he’s taken a decent shot.

It’s not the Austrian’s fault. It’s not wrong to assume that two people visiting the Grand Canyon together would be lovers. How would he know that I only met Mark this morning, in the half-light of morning?

“Thanks,” I say to the Austrian, retrieving my camera from his bulky hands. I try to keep the sarcastic tilt out of my voice.

Back in the car, Mark drives so that I can take in the last of the views on our way out of the park.

“Halloween’s tomorrow,” he says.

“Mhm,” I say. “You going to dress up?”

He laughs. “I just pass out candy to the kids.”

On the steering wheel, his left hand is hairless and naked.

“Are you a vegetarian?” Mark asks.

“Nope,” I say, snapping another picture of the view outside my windowcanyons within canyons. “Why do you ask?”

“I shot my first elk of the season, and I was wondering if you wanted to come over tomorrow night for some elk stew.”

Although my first instinct is to always say yes to venison, I pause.

“I’ll have to see what my friend has planned for Halloween.” How is Mark to know that Cait, the friend I came to the conference with, is leaving tonight?

The whole drive down from the canyon, I go back and forth about the elk stew. You should go, I think. He’s nice enough to show you all over the Grand Canyon, and now he’s inviting you over for dinner. Why not? You don’t have anything else planned.

But the question tugs at me: What’s the point? This is not my town, not my time zone. Kissing men who live in far-off places has lost its appeal over the years.

Later that night, I text him my thanks and an apology. It was a beautiful trip to the canyon. Thanks for being such a great guide! My friend already had Halloween plans so I’ll have to take a rain check on the elk stew.

The next morning, I spy a flyer in the bathroom of a coffee shopa brass band from New Orleans playing a Halloween show at a venue nearby. I buy a single ticket and wait until eight p.m. to apply a single coat of red lipstick.

Walking to the show, I push my hands into my jacket pocket and clutch my key between my fingers; I am a stranger to this city, and I take shadows for bodies waiting to pounce. The streets are dark, and shouts of laughter echo between buildings. I wonder if Mark still made the elk stew, and if he’s eating it alone in his warm house. How many children have come to his door, asking for chocolate and gummy worms in their cheerleader costumes and mummified getups? Beneath my jacket, I am dressed in all black. I think of what I will tell people if they ask about my costume, but I don’t speak to a soul all night.

Carmella de los Angeles GuiolCarmella de los Angeles Guiol is a Florida-based gardener, dancer, adventurer, photographer, and writer. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review, The Toast, BUST, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Thought Catalog, The Normal School, Slag Glass City, Kudzu House, Tahoma Literary Review, The Manifest-Station, and elsewhere. She is the 2016 recipient of Crab Orchard Review’s Charles Johnson Award for fiction. You can often find her working in the garden or kayaking the Hillsborough River, but you can always find her writing at www.therestlesswriter.com.

Nipple Gazing

Nineties Girlhood

No one ever praised me for being smart, only for being good. Good meant pretty and quiet, pressed like a flower in the middle of a bell curve. The first time I thought about becoming an adult had nothing to do with ambition but with a yearning to be beautiful. Baywatch was playing on the television. I asked my mother when my breasts would look like the actress’s. She told me to pray, that women in our family were flat unless they got fat, but then it didn’t matter. I added getting fat to my mental list of life’s worst possible outcomes.

In sixth grade my best friend Monica grew breasts. At a sleepover, she showed them to me, a set of full, pale wonders. I don’t remember nipples. She was like a mannequin, plastic yet somehow organic, important yet lacking function. She asked me if I wanted to touch them. More than anything. I averted my eyes and whispered, “No.”

Millennial Adolescence

I wore padded bras that promised both to lift and enhance. When a clumsy-fingered boy couldn’t undo the Wonderbra’s clasp, he pulled the straps and padded cups down so that he could squeeze and twist my breasts like stress balls.

I thought of Monica. If I’d had the courage, I would’ve said, “Yes.” Stood close enough to catch the lavender scent of her soap and using the tips of my fingers, I’d trace each curve and dent. Cupping her breast with great tenderness, I would’ve treated them like such delicate, special things, art to behold, not a battlefield to conquer.

In a record store, I discovered Easter. The album cover showed a girl whose arm stretched overhead revealing a swatch of pit hair. A dirty camisole caressed her small braless form. I bought the record to know more about the girl. Patti Smith’s music was messy, raw and thick enough to swallow, to carry in the gut of your soul. I quit wearing bras and cut my hair short. I relished the thrill of being mistaken for a boy. Boys didn’t have to be pretty or good. They just had to be.

Grownup  

After years of barista and thrift-store jobs, I got a grownup gig at an office full of button-ups and sensible heels. I grew out my hair and wore bras. No longer sure who I was, I scrambled to be the person I figured I should be. One by one my friends got married, moved away, and I felt left behind, terminally lonely. So I married a man whom I wasn’t sure I loved because he’d asked, because I needed to check off boxes. First comes marriage and then comes baby. Right?

Pregnancy made my boobs swell three sizes. My areolas transformed from pink wafers to bumpy brown Ritz. The new shade and shape disgusted me. It was hard to reconcile my feminist beliefs with popular aesthetics. Gumdrop nipples were the stuff of nude paintings, of tasteful porn. My sole association with dark, large nipples came from a long-ago overheard conversation.

That bitch had the nastiest nips.  Looked like a couple of salami slices!

I was relieved that my nipples could not accurately be compared to lunchmeat. Still, the remark clung to me burr-like for well over a decade until I adopted the prejudice as my own.

I relished the thrill of being mistaken for a boy. Boys didn’t have to be pretty or good. They just had to be.

I wondered if I’d ever be happy with my breasts again. It felt like a shallow thought for a new mother. Instead of evaluating shades of areola, wasn’t I supposed to be in a rocking chair, nursing serenely? At those most maternal moments, I was not peaceful; I wore a burp rag and a grimace. No one warned me of the throbbing ache brought by milk surging in, the skin pulling taut, and forging zebra stripes. Whenever my starving infant latched, I swallowed gasps of pain and squeezed my eyes shut, willing the ache to wash over me. I wished to be numb. The lactation consultant provided pamphlets, encouragement, and a rush of guilt when I’d brought up the f-word, formula. Breast is best! Infections came. I dreaded nursing. Where was the blissful bonding? I was struggling with one of the most basic maternal duties.

When I was pregnant I read all the books, ate folic acid, and avoided soft cheeses. I gave birth naturally in a Jacuzzi tub. I was determined to be a perfect mother. Now that the baby was here, I was exhausted; all my lofty ideals seemed ridiculous. My husband and I fought. He got angry, threw things. Slammed the door, disappeared for hours. I couldn’t leave, I had a baby. My body was weak, deflated, and I no longer felt I belonged in it. Purple pustules blistered the undersides of my breasts. I ignored them, figuring that like coarse hairs curling from an areola the pimples were another one of those secrets women hid.

When my left breast morphed into a lobster shell and a fever came, I went to the hospital. At three a.m. a doctor told me I had MRSA. I nodded. I didn’t understand, but I’d Google it later. The doctor said they’d have to act fast before the infection entered the bloodstream. They’d scheduled an emergency surgery. I nodded again. Alone in my hospital room, I read about MRSA. Sepsis. Death. I thought about my five-week-old daughter. It was my first time being away from her for more than a moment. I didn’t sleep; I couldn’t shake the thought of who would tell my sweet girl about periods if I died. At a gut level, I knew my husband wouldn’t. How could I trust him to raise my daughter?

As they wheeled me off to surgery, I stared up at the ceiling tiles and cried. I’d always thought mothers were brave and dignified. My eyes were swollen, and snot dripped from my nose. Before sliding into the cocoon of anesthesia I called my husband. No answer. Texted him that I was afraid. No answer. I decided I’d leave him.

I woke up struggling for breath with my chest wrapped tight, bound into androgyny. Grief clawed up my throat. I would never be one of those hippie mothers fearlessly breastfeeding in public under some flowering tree. Until that moment, I didn’t realize that was what I had wanted. Under the bandages my breasts strained to fill with milk, swelling like a choked hose.

The changing of surgical dressing was a magician’s trick, ribbons of gauze pulled from inside me like endless scarves. Milk pooled in the wound, blood dripped from my nipple. A golf ball-sized hole revealed everything from crust to inner core: reds, pinks, whites and yellows, all meat.

Matriarch

It took three months for the wound to close. The resulting scar resting on my nipple resembled a pirate’s hook. For a long while, my breasts were a stranger’s with their ripples of raised skin and that crescent scar. Almost a year dripped by before I stopped hating those indented streaks and started thinking of them as the flood marks of my history. Another year would pass before I learned to treat my body with tenderness, and demand that others do the same.

My daughter is four. We live in the Sonoran desert where she runs feral, wild curls racing down her bare back. One day we’ll go on a mother-daughter hike and I’ll tell her of the feats and wonders that her body is capable of. I’ll buy her a bra. Teach her how to press circular motions and check for the cancer that curses her genes. But that can wait.

For now, I give her three truths. We are more than our bodies. I’ll always love you. You are enough.

L.L. MadridL.L. Madrid lives in Tucson where the rain smells like creosote. She resides with her daughter and an antisocial cat. When she’s not writing for places like Gamut, Jersey Devil Press, and Spirit’s Tincture, she’s busy reading for and editing a peculiar little journal called Speculative 66. Links to L.L. Madrid’s works can be found at http://llmadrid.weebly.com/.

Falling—A Mothering (Or, a Tale of Postpartum Depression)

Leaves fluttering down on the grave in the fall, and her ashes. And I’m lying, it wasn’t fall, it was February. But the leaves were real. And it felt like she was supposed to die in the fall. Maybe I read that in a book, saw it in a movie. A girl who goes on a journey every fall because that’s when her mom died. Do you know that story? But it wasn’t fall, it was February and there was no crisp autumn sky or warm yellow light. The leaves were brown, like ashes, like skeletons gone brittle, like the webbing of vein when the leaf has rotted away and there was snow on the ground and we wiped away the snow, the brittle skeleton leaves, and underneath was the name of my nephew, his birthdeathdate in stone, and her ashes fell into the wet cracks and stuck.

*     *     *

Kian, he is three and he’s running down the trail littered in yellow leaves, hopping, with his blue cargo pants down around his ankles, the elastic waistband torn. The air is colder than I expected, it’s biting and his legs reddening and his smile wide and thick like it could swallow me—me, my body weakened still from years of overuse of overgiving of single motherhood, but it’s strengthening now and I feel my heart beat, throw blood to my fingers, cold, and toes, feel muscles flex and grab and lift him, his small tight body in the cold air and the smell of fall, of crisp, of broken, of decay, of getting ready to die—and his blood pump-pumps into his little red legs and his body dances wild in my arms.

*     *     *

I fell off the front porch and tore my pants, it wasn’t autumn, it was summer, end of summer, it was fall and I was falling. There is ground, drying grass, falling toward a face. Blood on orange linen, peer inside the torn cloth and a body, torn, starts to rebuild. The smell of alcohol is like an image, or a filter, glazing over a hazy moon. Moon bleeding, seeping, white, blue black gray sky. Pain colors over, red is blue is black is orange is torn.

*     *     *

I have written this many times and every time I do the mouth becomes bigger, so by now it is a gaping hole swallowing her chin and some of the universe with it. It is no longer a jaw slung slack, teeth and tongue opened inside; now it is a pit black circle, escaping even the shape of a circle; a passage not to her lungs and the breath contained there (not much longer), a tunnel not leading into her (cancer-spackled) body, but a bridge to nowhere to nothingness to endless open atmosphere-less space. But it was—before I wrote and remembered it too many times—a mouth after all. It was a jaw released by sleep and morphine from any tension or sense of placement or self. A jaw they would later crack closed to put her in the coffin because I don’t think anyone could stomach an openmouthed corpse. There is no gentle way to say it. It was, after all, a tunnel that led to her waterlogged lungs, where the breath was, for its final time, exiting.

It was a mouth, after all. A mother’s mouth. Her mouth. The first mouth that touched you, after all. That breathed life and breath into yours. That licked away the milky trails that marked your passage. That gave you sound before you were even part of this world that spoke you into being.

*     *     *

My body is a body that is cleaved. My body is a body that, I wonder, is it turned inside out? My body is a body in water. The passage that I am is neither open nor closed. Neither whole nor hole. Water passes from within and without, blood tendrils in the water, with shit and piss and amniotic fluid and leaking milk and up curls the blue bubble-wrapped cord linking me to the other side before death but after, what? And on the other end of the cord is Kian, though he is pre-name, he is blue water flesh fish, he is alien and covered in soft fur and he is eyeballs creaking open to brown blue fuzz more than color, not-color, not-name, not yet yelled into being I have not yet spoke him not yet I am calling up sound from the fur of my belly that I moaned just moments before when I cleaved and my cunt cracked the world and out from the watery depths pushed out, carved out, called out. Child. Stranger. Boy.

With my heart beat beating blood into me into him into us, with the blood tearing out of the passage of me as I tear, as the bear wrapped in fur coiled up in my belly bleats a drum-sound so ancient that the sounds—the ones that rip through from the other side to this one with a life in their teeth—get up on all fours up inside of me and begin their growl and ready their claws—he, who isn’t yet even he, is born.

*     *     *

There is a me I don’t know, even though I remember her, standing on the edge of a subway platform. There is a train, rattling in a dark tunnel, yellow lights and faces streaking by. Vision, soaked in red wine, the haze of liquor, the haze of sad, of alone. The me I don’t know is standing, peering down into the abyss of subway tracks. There is track, there is train, there is what if. Just that. Just, what if. Just, that wouldn’t be so hard.

*     *     *

Before there was death. There was breath. Before there was breath. There was cancer. Before cancer there was mother.

Mother was skin and breast and mouth. Mother was milk was sustenance was name. Mother was angry. Mother was sad. Mother was sorrow webbed like veinery around a heart, snaked by briar, beating quiet and soft inside. Hardly a whisper. Mother was unspoken sound.

She died in fall. She died in February. She died before I was born.

*     *     *

What you were never. Maybe never ever. Going to write. Were those nights you wanted. To throw. Him. Against the wall. There is no gentle way to say this. Were those nights that the purring of the blood beating through his body was like sirens in the dark, that those bluebrown eyes peeling open and wide without sleep were like nails against your skin, that the long imagined rope of tomorrow and tomorrow like this trailing out into the distance of infinite future was more. More. Than you could. Bear.

And it doesn’t even matter that I never did. The most monstrous parts of myself, dripping in shame like lighter fluid. Because shame is beautiful fuel to depression.

*     *     *

Her death. But that’s not where the depression came from. It’s the heavy blanket of my life and her life and lives stretched out behind us for miles and miles, skins and bones we tug and trip over as we walk. (Her abusive father, her War, her life as an immigrant.) (Her yelling, her anger, her panic.)

This is not it either. This is not what I was trying to say. What I’m trying to say is that she loved me—but her depression/anxiety lay over my childhood, a heavy blanket blanking out the sun, laying over the beats of my heart until I couldn’t hear it anymore. What else is there to say? I have forgiven her now. I have mostly forgotten her now. She wasn’t bad. She was Mother, she was Love. I fear my son will resent me no matter what I do.

Sometimes one foot in front of the other is too much to move.

*     *     *

There are soggy tears that fill his bones, softening them like papier-mâché and I think how can he ever grow strong and tall and how have I failed him.

Because I promised you that I wouldn’t give this to you. This heavy heart beating, clouds rolling filling cobwebs in my brain. Because I promised that I would not give you this, our family lineage, that trails back through winding capillaries like gray country roads, that fires across rusty synapses and sits coiled in the depths of DNA. The promise I could not keep for you. All I ever wanted to give you. And here am I, drowning in dampened cotton web skies praying that I could keep this from you.

*     *     *

Sometimes life is just a pause. An in-breath. A space between the drops of rain.

*     *     *

I wonder what the swallowed sky is and where I can find it and put it and give it to you in a bow-tied box like I always always promised. No one told me that joy is something you have to fight for, have to claw your way to through flesh and sinews and roiling clouds.

I have been running, now, from it, from the fuzziness and fog of it, like a poison mushroom cloud and now I have to turn, again, and claw my fucking way through.

*     *     *

I lift him, skyward, and feel his heart in beats and pauses against my skull. I feel blood, thick as life, down the shoots of my limbs, as his body dances wild in my arms.

*     *     *

I open my mouth, wide, wider than the infinite night and nothingness. In moanscream in bearbleat in languageless sound: I call you.

Falling. We tear through.


Courtney E. MorganCourtney E. Morgan received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she has also taught creative writing. Her collection of stories, The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman, was a semifinalist for the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest and is forthcoming from FC2 Press in Spring 2017. She is managing editor of The Thought Erotic journal on sexuality and gender. She lives in Denver with her son. www.CourtneyEMorgan.com.

When a Neighbor Dies

When I get home from my morning run, there are two police officers hanging around my driveway. They look like babies, plump skin and short bangs under their caps. Barely in their twenties. They stand under our ancient weeping cherry tree, and scant snowflakes flutter down between the tired skeleton branches. It’s not cold enough to see our breath.

“Are you here for this house?” I ask, a bit incredulous, pointing up our driveway.

One of the officers shakes his head.

“That one,” he says. Next door.

A more senior officer stands at the neighbors’ side entrance, and I see Mrs. J. behind the screen, her hair choppy, flyaway. She’s in her gray sweats.

I shower and make my coffee, wondering about what might be going on. When I sit down at my desk, I see that a white van has pulled up in front of our house. I text my husband.

The medical examiner just showed up.

That can’t be good, he texts back.

I wait for friends or colleagues to ring the front doorbell, to envelop Mrs. J. in a hug, perhaps the first time they will have ever physically touched each other.

Our neighbors are older, but not old. Mrs. J. might be sixty. She travels a lot for work. I overlap with her when we garden, but she’s got a sharp edge, exudes weariness. Mr. J., an unfit man in his early seventies, is more acerbic, off-putting. He parks his worn pickup truck in front of our house, the bumper plastered in NRA stickers. Our days are punctuated by his loud voice calling sternly to his hunting dogs or hacking out a dry cough. When my husband went over once to help him with his printer in their basement, I pictured the walls covered in rifles or shot guns and kept an eye on the clock to see how long they’d been down there together. We’re in an unfinished, uncomfortable discussion with Mr. J. about whether he can paint their side of our fence, and it makes me glad that it’s now December and no one’s wanting to paint anything for at least another four months.

Two guys open the back of the van and pop out a gurney, its spindly wheels dropping to the street. They disappear up the walkway, and I keep guard out my window like a meddling Parisian concierge. It’s impossible to work. The shorthaired cat sleeps by the heater vent behind my desk, the longhaired cat stalks something outside in the front lawn; the sky above all of us is city-gray. The medical examiner team emerges on the walkway.

They have to carry the gurney carefully over the brick steps. Their burden: a thick plastic body bag zipped and belted to the stretcher. Its contents are large, bulky. Man-like. Past the walkway, the wheels drop, and the men roll out to the street. Through the leggy branches of the weeping cherry, I watch them load the gurney into the back of the van. The doors snap shut. Several minutes after the van drives away, the police cars disappear, too. Then it’s quiet out my study window.

I wait for activity. For the adult daughter who lives nearby to arrive, skid into a parking spot, and run up the walkway with her blond hair covering her face and her short-legged blond dog yipping at her heels. I wait for friends or colleagues to ring the front doorbell, to envelop Mrs. J. in a hug, perhaps the first time they will have ever physically touched each other. But the street is silent.

In the afternoon, Mrs. J. leaves on an errand. Our two kids come home from school, and I tell them the shocking news that Mr. J. probably died. We don’t know our neighbors well, nor do we have warm feelings about them, but we see them every day. We are disturbed by the turn of events. It is devastating to imagine losing a spouse.

I phone my in-laws.

“What do I do? When should I stop by?”

“As soon as possible,” my mother-in-law tells me.

So I draft a vague card and deliver it before dinner.

Dear Mrs. J., We are so sorry for what has happened. Please let us know if there is anything we can do for you during this difficult time.

I include our phone number because I’m not sure she has it.

Mrs. J. answers the door in her sweats, rubber cleaning gloves up to her elbows, a cell phone between her shoulder and ear. I hand the card to her, and she closes the door.

We have a neighborhood email list, and I decide it’s my duty to inform the street of Mr. J.’s passing.

“But you don’t know that he actually died,” my husband says.

“I saw a body,” I say. Isn’t a body irrevocable evidence? It’s too awful that no one has stopped by—not even their daughter—to support Mrs. J. There is drama on the street, and I feel information needs to be disseminated. I craft the email.

Dear Neighbors, I wanted to share the sad news that Mr. J. died this morning.

I’m not oblivious to my own preoccupation with what has happened next door, self-indulgent sympathy for a couple I have mostly bad feelings about.

I dislike(d) Mr. J. immensely. We’ve overheard wicked, abusive yelling matches between Mr. J. and his daughter, one time with his wife. His dogs bark furiously at us whenever we are in our backyard; we can’t let the kids retrieve their basketball because we worry for their safety with those dogs. I blame both Mr. and Mrs. J. for the used syringes and cigarette butts we sometimes find on our side of the fence, and wish they had more control over their adult daughter and what she does at their house. The best news to our being homeowners would be that the Js. are moving away.

But there’s no other way to say it: the sad news. Death on a gray winter day is sad. And, equally compelling, is the proximity of tragedy. I’m not oblivious to my own preoccupation with what has happened next door, self-indulgent sympathy for a couple I have mostly bad feelings about.

My husband’s caution tickles my send finger. I decide to wait to publicize the news until I’ve talked with Mrs. J. in person.

The next day, there is no sign of her, no sign of the daughter, no sign of any activity. The dogs are silent. I look at the yellow light from a bedroom, what in most homes would exude warmth now speaks of only loneliness to me. The cold humidity pushes against our two houses. I text Mrs. J.

Hi Mrs. J. I will drop off dinner for you tonight. I’ll bring it by around 6:00. It will be packaged so you can put it right in the freezer if you don’t want to eat it today.

I see a welcomed closure, for myself. I will deliver the food. If I don’t make direct contact with Mrs. J. tonight, at least I will have fulfilled my neighborly duty of expressing sympathy and providing food and offers of support. I don’t look forward to listening to her tell me the details of her loss, but there is no way to avoid it when our two side doors look right at each other and we tend to pick the same sunny days to weed. At least the fence painting disagreement with her husband can be put to bed.

It rains, and I cook curried cream of chicken soup to memories of the Amadeus cinematic funeral scene. I bake cranberry nut bread. I shop for firm grapes and make a last-minute decision to include two small squares of dark chocolate, gourmet and indulgent. Everything fits in a few disposable Tupperware and some layers of aluminum foil. I am particularly attuned to portioning small sizes for Mrs. J., what I entertain as a “widow’s dinner.” I pack it all in a plastic grocery bag.

I leave the kids to their homework and ring Mrs. J.’s door. The dogs are back. They bark murderously from the inside, and bells jingle as someone undoes the locks.

Mr. J. answers the door.

He stands there in front of me, filling the doorframe. I hadn’t remembered him being such a large person, and his presence looms over me like an indictment. The day before, I might have seen him wheeled out of the house by the county medical examiners, but tonight he stands at the threshold of his house while I hold a plastic bag with dinner for his widowed wife.

“Hi. Mr. J.,” I say, feeling ridiculous about everything that’s gone through my head during the past thirty-six hours. Confused. And also disappointed. “Um.”

Mrs. J. appears behind her husband. Neither of them is smiling, but then they never were before, either.

“Hello,” she says.

“Hi. Sorry.” Does my script from when I thought Mr. J. had died still apply? “I saw the police here yesterday. Also, the medical examiner.” They look at each other, raise their eyebrows. The dogs smash their muzzles against the screen, frantic, trying to get to me. “I don’t know what happened. I thought you could use—some help.” I hold up the small—so small—bag of food. “I made you a few things to eat, just a little something. Very little. I’m not sure it will feed,” and I make eye contact with Mr. J., “everyone.”

They look at each other again.

“Should we tell her?” Mrs. J. asks her husband.

“I don’t care. But do it outside,” Mr. J. says, and yells at the dogs to get back while Mrs. J. slips out. She raises her arms like, what can she do?

The day before, I might have seen him wheeled out of the house by the county medical examiners, but tonight he stands at the threshold of his house while I hold a plastic bag with dinner for his widowed wife.

We step over to the bushes that my husband and I planted near the property line the first year we moved in to block our view of Mr. J.’s marathon television-watching. It’s the first time I’ve noticed translucent red berries tucked into the branches, although in the evening light they look blue. Mr. J. closes the door, disappears.

“Oh, I don’t need to know anything, really,” I say, trying to convey both concern and disinterest. She takes a noisy breath.

“Our daughter’s awful boyfriend overdosed here last night. She was going to break up with him…. But she never wanted this.”

I picture the stuffed body bag. A large man. The colorless, cold body first of Mr. J. with his square frame and glittering pokes of silver facial stubble, his pockmarked cheeks and irritated frown, and then not Mr. J. A man we’ve never met. Never seen, presumably much younger, younger than me.

“Of course not,” I say. The Js.’ porch lights are boxy and dim. I can smell a wood burning fire from their chimney, a smell that always makes me think of my grandparents, and skiing. On dark winter nights, I am grateful for that smell.

“She’s beside herself. I have to leave town for a few days, but Mr. J. will be at home with her.”

I have to fight myself from saying, If there’s anything I can do to help. I hand the food to her.

“It’s very small,” I say. “Honestly,” and I hide my mouth like I’m telling a secret, “we were worried it was Mr. J.”

She laughs out loud. Sometimes, she does share a giant laugh with our kids.

“No, no.” Mrs. J. shakes her head. “Nope.” She thanks me for the food, says Mr. J. and their daughter will save it for lunch the next day, and we retreat to our separate houses.

“Thank god I didn’t send that email,” I say to my husband after telling him that Mr. J. is, in fact, still alive. “Can you imagine?”

“I actually was kind of glad he had died,” my husband says.

It’s true. Since we aren’t able to break up with our neighbors, death would have been our lucky out. Instead, we have the blue lights of their television to flicker outside our windows all winter, and several contentious fence-painting discussions lined up for when the first crocuses peek out of the ground. I set the table for chicken soup and cranberry nut bread. It will feed the four of us.

Milena NigamMilena Nigam is a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, The Fourth River, Compose Journal, and Halfway Down the Stairs. For many years, Milena worked as a research psychologist and as the director of a non-profit evaluation group. She has recently finished a collection of short stories.

Are We There Yet?

I imagine my father as a small boy, sitting on stone steps. Chin in hand, he glares at the dry towel and swim trunks he’s thrown beside him. The façade of the Hayward Plunge, a public swimming pool near his Oakland, California home, stands in harsh rebuke. How dare you, it seems to say, Chinese aren’t allowed. Not until the end of the month. An hour earlier he’d tried to push his way in with his crowd of friends—all white friends from Cleveland Elementary—but was pulled aside. Not you, they’d told him, pointing at the door. Even if he had told them that he was a fourth-generation American—the truth—it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Later he would know that “Yellow Day” was the next to last day of the month. The last day of the month was “Black Day.” When the last black swimmer exited The Plunge, the pool was drained and scrubbed, then refilled with freshly chlorinated water, ready for a month of “White Days.”

His friends should be done in an hour, maybe two. Shading his eyes from the California sun, he studies the traffic along Mission Boulevard. There’s a brand new 1940 model Cadillac just like his father’s. There’s the bus for the Cleveland Heights neighborhood, the route they need to take home. He memorizes the bus numbers that stop here. After three Cleveland Heights buses pass, he starts to sweat, black hair hot to the touch.

When his friends finally emerge—wet hair combed into blonde and brunette rooster-tails, chlorine smell in the damp of their towels, loud boasts about who can hold his breath the longest—he brushes off his pants and falls in line. When the bus arrives, he sits silent on the ride back to their neighborhood.

*     *     *

As the mellow strains of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” wafted from my clock radio—always tuned to KFRC, the Bay Area’s rock station—I closed my bedroom door and pushed aside the heap of dresses on my bed. I’m such a dork, I thought, I’ve got nothing to wear to my first high school dance! I fingered a homemade white polyester number, the one with the zipper that I’d accidentally sewed shut, snipped open, and resewed three times that summer. Mom had helped me pick the pattern, its modest V-neckline and long puffy sleeves perfect for church. And that was the best of the lot. All my other dresses—A-lines, shirtwaists, and shapeless shifts—had hems at the knee, the proper length for the Lutheran parochial school which, in 1969, I’d just graduated from.

When the last black swimmer exited The Plunge, the pool was drained and scrubbed, then refilled with freshly chlorinated water, ready for a month of “White Days.”

My best option—indeed, my only option—was the green-and-cream herringbone wool jumper with a high-necked Victorian blouse I’d just received for my thirteenth birthday. The deep U of the jumper dipped beneath my bustline, accentuating my small breasts. Its hemline struck mid-thigh, six inches above the knee. Although the blouse and jumper were school clothes, they were far more fashionable than anything else in my closet. I pulled on my blouse and jumper, rolling up my slip so it wouldn’t hang below the hemline. Instead of cabled knee socks, I slid on cream-colored fishnet tights, carefully leaving three inches at the toes and folding them under before sliding on my boots. I hated when my toes got strangled in the fishnet holes.

Dad looked up from his medical journal, peering at me through thick black-rimmed glasses as my heels clicked across our family room’s wood parquet floor. He took it all in: the faintest blue eyeshadow, the thread of eyeliner behind my black cat-eye glasses. The slight curl at the bottom of my waist-length hair. The cream-colored fishnets tucked into white go-go boots.

“Where are you going?” he barked, his crew-cut as severe as his expression. His face held no hint of a smile.

I recoiled at the unexpected heat in his voice. I tried to be nonchalant, enunciating clearly around the new metal braces on my teeth, but my voice trembled. “Umm… there’s a dance tonight. It’s Friday.”

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” His face was still unreadable, but there was an edge I couldn’t quite name.

Because I just met some new friends and they’re counting on me, I wanted to say. I swelled with pride. Two weeks into my freshman year, I’d already found a group of girls I could look for at “our spot” on the lawn at lunchtime. With them, it was easy to fit in. They’d just graduated from Holy Ghost; I’d graduated from Prince of Peace. We shared the parochial cloak of penance and guilt. From them I got a quick lesson on Catholic strictures: school uniforms, cruel nuns, and Stations of the Cross. I told them about my seventh grade teacher, mimed how he’d hurl erasers at misbehaving students. We all laughed with relief that those days were over.

I was especially glad of their attention. For five years, from fourth through eighth grade, I’d been virtually friendless, unexpected fallout from our move to the milk-white California Bay Area suburbs. Mom insisted that my brother and I attend a Lutheran parochial school, as she had years ago in Oakland. Not only were we the only minorities in a sea of Germans, we were also forever the “new” kids. I was an impossible interloper, an awkward Chinese girl with buck teeth and turquoise cat-eye glasses, already a year and a half younger than my fourth grade classmates when word got out that they wanted to skip me another grade. No one invited me over. Mom shrugged, saying only, “Well, maybe it’s your fault you don’t have any friends.”

But now everything could change. Instead of thirteen kids, there were over 500 in my freshman class. I was ready to remake myself, I had something to prove. No one knew I was so young. I steadied myself; I wasn’t used to defying Dad.

“Because I thought it’d be fun! I haven’t been to a dance before.” Before he could object, I assured him, “Oh, and I’m getting a ride there and back, so that’s taken care of.” I was proud that I’d thought ahead. I knew better than to inconvenience him or Mom with my plans.

Dad’s shoulders slumped as he shook his head. But why? Was he upset that he wasn’t going to win this argument? Was he distressed at my new assertiveness? Did he think I was too young to be out with boys?

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” he repeated, but now his tone had turned bitter. What he said next shocked me. “Because no white boy is going to ask you to dance.”

*     *     *

Almost forty years later, as I readied my late parents’ house for sale, I came across a thick tattered file marked, in my mother’s hand, simply “Castlewood.” An odd unease fluttered in my chest. Castlewood Country Club, originally built as a residence for the Hearst family in the dry heat of the Pleasanton foothills, was at that time the premier country club in the East Bay, boasting two golf courses and two clubhouses. My parents had joined the club in 1970; my wedding reception was held there in 1984.

But there was something wrong, the stink of a story passed down. Mom must have told me, because Dad wouldn’t have. He could pretend—and hope—that none of life’s disappointments would touch me, if only he could keep them to himself. But his war with Castlewood, and with himself, remained a scourge.

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” he repeated. “Because no white boy is going to ask you to dance.”

When we moved to California in 1964, Dad took up golf. At first my brother and I laughed—wasn’t golf an old man’s sport? But for Dad, a young doctor with a new private practice, it became a vital link. Not only was it a personal challenge, it was the perfect vehicle to socialize with colleagues. The theory was simple: if you like someone, you’ll refer work to them. Businessmen and businesswomen have used this tactic—golf, Rotary, community fundraisers—for years.

By 1966, Dad was playing golf twice a week. Most Sunday mornings he’d be on the links with his doctor friends, returning home tired and happy, tan lines on his arms. He’d mix himself a drink and press himself into his easy chair. Other times he was more circumspect. Four hours on a golf course told you much about a man. “I won’t play with him again,” Dad said one afternoon. “He cheats. And if you cheat at golf, you cheat at everything.”

Often Dad was invited to Castlewood Country Club, rounding out a foursome of doctors. But there was a hitch: as a guest there wasn’t a way to reciprocate. “Your money’s no good here,” his friends would joke, reaching for the bar bill, the lunch bill, the greens fees silently slipped onto their tabs. Dad felt uncomfortable, used to paying his own way and more. His friends enthusiastically sponsored him, so he applied for membership.

Castlewood turned him down. The day it happened, Mom took me aside. “He was blackballed,” she whispered.

Blackballed. Two years later, when I defied our Lutheran-Missouri Synod pastor and joined the Rainbow Girls, a Masonic youth organization, I finally understood the term. We cast secret ballots. When a prospective member’s name was called, one by one we’d silently file past a small wooden box where we’d pick a white ball for yes, a black ball for no, roll it down the box’s chute, hear it land with a dull thud. After everyone had voted, our leader, our Worthy Advisor, would pull out a little drawer at the bottom of the box and could immediately see if the vote was unanimous. Any black ball was grounds for rejection.

Dad was stunned and humiliated. His friends were outraged. In the file marked “Castlewood” I found letters they wrote, signed by dozens of colleagues, asking the club to reverse its decision. He’s a stalwart member of the community, they wrote. He’s of the highest moral character. There is no reason to exclude him from the Castlewood community.

The club turned him down again.

When I looked at the date on the Castlewood letterhead, I felt a chill. Dad had received his second denial in September 1969, days before my high school dance.

*     *     *

In the end, Dad was right. No one asked me to dance.

In a turn of poetic justice, the Castlewood Clubhouse, the gracious Hacienda built by Phoebe Hearst, had burned to the ground on August 24, 1969. Dad’s rejection letter had slipped out quietly just before the flames began.

*     *     *

Six months later, in early 1970, Castlewood sent Dad an invitation. “Please join our club,” they said. “It’s the premier golf course in the area.” Dad was furious. “No way,” he declared.

I can see Mom now, sitting at the kitchen table, smoke curling from the cigarette in her outstretched fingers. How to approach this? On the one hand, being members of a premier country club would be the culmination of a dream for Dad and her. Isn’t that the height of assimilation? Also, they’d be paving another inroad for the Chinese community, setting a precedent, making it easier for the next family. Two strokes for pragmatism over idealism. But on the other hand, isn’t the club just using them to help rebuild the clubhouse? Bringing them on as members, and then slapping them with a capital assessment? It was so transparent—the “I’ll be your best friend if…” bribe. But who wants to be part of a club that rejected them twice?

Mom finally decided, the voice of reason. “You like the course. Your friends play there,” she told Dad, citing the two most salient points in her favor. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

*     *     *

Why join a club that rejected you twice? Nowadays, people don’t get it. Even my twenty-four-year-old son, Bryce.

In the warm light of our Seattle kitchen, Bryce, arms folded over his chest, grimaces. Absurdly, a huge cow face is visible on his thrift store T-shirt, its bucolic stare in stark contrast to Bryce, whose eyes darken. He leans against the counter, now cleared of dinner dishes, although the familiar scent of black bean prawns in lobster sauce hangs in the air. He tucks a shoulder length strand of reddish-brown hair behind his ear. Folds his arms closed again.

“How could Goong-Goong do that? Doesn’t he have any pride?” I’m glad that my father, long gone, can’t hear this accusation. Pride—of his heritage, of his integrity—was something Dad had in spades.

I try to explain using my mother’s reasoning, and at first it sounds hopelessly quaint. Bryce shakes his head, regards his tattered sneakers, and it’s obvious he’s not buying it. In 2016, what inroads do Chinese still have to make?

Why join a club that rejected you twice? Nowadays, people don’t get it.

He doesn’t get that in 1969 America, any progress toward acceptance was seen as a victory.

What could possibly justify my parents’ decision? Bryce and I posit circumstances. What if those who blackballed Dad were outed as racist, and enough other members banded together to offer Dad a membership?

“Okay,” he says evenly, “but those people will still be around, snubbing him.”

“But they lost. And he doesn’t need them, he has his own friends. Goong-Goong’s essentially saying, ‘I made it, I’m here.’ By joining, he’s sort of shoving it in their faces.”

His mood brightens as he nods, a sly grin—just like my father’s—rimming his lips. “Yeah, kind of an ‘up yours!’” Bryce eases up his six-foot two-inch frame and reaches into the refrigerator for the carton of guava juice that I know is his favorite. As he pours a glass, he turns thoughtful. “And if they saw him hanging out with his white doctor friends, maybe they’d be less apt to see him as ‘other.’”

This is our point of mutuality, where I know we have to come. At this age, defiance becomes him, the cloak of impermeability between young adulthood’s earnest twenties and realist thirties. Although he doesn’t know it yet, the diffusion of layers is gradual and, in most cases, silent. When I crossed the Rubicon to adulthood, did the ends suddenly justify the means?

I’m reminded of what my brother recently revealed to me—When you wanted to join the Rainbow Girls, Dad called his Mason friends and made sure you wouldn’t get blackballed. Dad, behind the scenes, making sure I wouldn’t suffer the humiliation that he faced. Trying to make it easier for me and the following generations, and letting us think we did it on our own.

But in today’s modern era, there’s still a question in the back of my mind: Would I press to join a club, an organization, perhaps even an executive team, that’s rejected me twice? Would I be able to rationalize it away, the fox with the grapes?

What would be worth bowing for?

Bryce drains his glass and again stands adamant, intensity smoldering. Now his voice brims with authority, and although I listen hard for the subtle equivocation that my female cousins and I often layer into our voices—well, here’s my opinion, but I’ll understand if you have a different one—I hear none of that. For us, adopting a “saving face” strategy was, and still is, a double-edged sword. Within my family, that nuance allows everyone’s dignity to remain intact. But out in corporate America, it smacks of indecision, or even worse, weakness. Breaking that habit took me twenty years.

“Okay, maybe it was okay for them, but I’d say ‘screw it,’” he concludes. “You don’t want me, I don’t want you.”

It’s an eye-roll of a statement, but—to my surprise—I’m shot with envy. That note of surety in his voice—is it just the bravado of youth? Is it simply a man’s truth in a man’s world? Why should I feel threatened that he, a sixth-generation American, has allowed himself the luxury of letting idealism trump pragmatism? I smile ruefully and shake my head. Is that just his white half talking?

Because by my choice—and a roll of the genetic dice—people look at my son and think, “American.” With his height, titian hair, and a name that bears no witness to his Chinese heritage, he passes for white. No one will call him “chink.” No one will expect him to be quiet and passive, to defer to others in the room. No one will ask, “Where are you from?” with any expectation of an answer outside the United States. With his lifetime immersion into twenty-first century America, all his cultural references are grounded deeply here.

Shouldn’t I be happy for him that his inner cultural identity matches his outer? On our family’s five-generation journey toward cultural acceptance—from laundryman to gambler to Army pilot to doctor to engineer—are we there yet?

With a start I feel the heavy drape of his arm around my shoulders, hear the jingle of car keys in his hand. He’s heading to a music gig, ready to end this standoff. With a gentle pat on my bicep, his unspoken, “Are we good?” is asked and answered. As I lean into his cotton warmth, my frown disappears and my mom persona returns, the one that forgives him everything.

I slip out from under his arm so he can make a graceful exit, and he turns toward me with a lopsided smile. “I’ll be back later tonight,” he says, and I reply as I always do, “So I’ll leave the light on for you.” He nods, our silent contract—to watch out for each other—complete.

He steps into the cool of the night with a singular ease. As I close the door I finally feel the truth of his reassuring pat on my arm. For him there’s no air lock, no threshold change, no cloak of whiteness between out and in. What he inherited from my father was a square chin and towering height. I’m glad of what he didn’t inherit: that hulking, leaden chip on his shoulder.

Amber WongAmber Wong is an environmental engineer who enjoys life’s ironies, like being an engineer who writes. A fifth-generation American, she explores how the statics of culture—ethnicity, gender, even one’s profession—bend the dynamics of modern-day America. Winner of The Writer’s Connection essay contest, her work has also appeared in Slippery Elm, We Came to Say: A Collection of Memoir, We Came Back to Say, and seattletimes.com. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University.

Elvis Has Left the Building

The second I escaped high school, I went to work at my father’s full-line music store in the little corner hovel called the M.I. department, which stood for Musical Instruments. There wasn’t much to do but restock the clarinet reeds and trombone grease, make sure the ¼-size violins had bows in their cases, and dust and tune the guitars. Sometimes wannabe rockers stopped in, salivating over the vintage equipment before maybe buying a dollar’s worth of Fender picks. I invented names for these regulars—Boat Shoes, Holy Roller, Prescription Drugs, Tire Kicker, Bell Peppers, Boss Hog, Shell Shocked, Porky, High Butt, No Butt, Long Chin, Big Ears. It went on and on. I kept notes on index cards which I filed like a salesman’s box of leads—it was the kind of thing that made me look busy. Jon, a used car salesman, was hard to nickname anything but who he pretended to be most nights of the week—Buddy Holly.

I first met Jon on a slow summer weekday. I was sitting behind the display case that held distortion boxes and microphones, and I noticed at first glance his skinny legs and severe paunch, the twinkle in his eye when he saw me looking. He had a small head and face, as though he was still sixteen, and his manufactured-white smile beamed from a leathered face that suggested decades of hard living. He looked like Charlton Heston’s younger, slightly corrupt brother. “Heston’s Brother” was the best I could do on the spot. I figured I’d dig a little deeper so I asked him how he was doing.

“Just off the lot for lunch,” he said. “So delighted to find such an oasis.” He wasn’t looking at me. He regarded instead the inventory hanging on the walls and perched on floor stands, each guitar or bass apparently a little miracle.

Jon stopped before a used Stratocaster on the wall and looked it up and down. He then turned to me to ask what I thought of the current state of Fender guitars. My inexperience was apparent to anyone with half a brain. Usually such departments are manned by balding ex-rockers, bitter from their dreams dying a slow death over the decades, day-by-retail-day. Or else Guitar Center dudes on commission whose high pressure makes the teens with rock star fixations bow down and break.

Even so, Jon built me up just by asking such a question. He furrowed his brows and cocked his head, waiting for my reply. And when I gave it, his eyes narrowed and he nodded slowly, a nod of gradual understanding—he saw my point, he was being educated. All this would make it harder to say no to him, I realized half-in, whenever he started that ancient dance of horse trading that happens under the roof of every used gear shop on the planet. But I liked the attention, and he assured me he wasn’t looking for high-end equipment. In fact, he had a certain disdain for such stuff. He needed only that which “looked the part.”

“What part is that?” I asked.

He shrugged, said, “The ’50s.”

For a moment I thought I lost him, like I should’ve known this. Summer’s a slow time for music stores and I found that being alone didn’t provide very good company. To keep customers there longer I asked questions and listened. Sure enough, I asked Jon how his music was going and he smiled.

“Monty’s Classic Cars,” he said, leaning against the glass counter as though bellying up to the bar. “He’s got a lazy Susan stage, see, a slow twirler. In the middle’s a wall, and behind it’s us, every Friday night. And on the other side? A ’56, ’57 Caddy, you know, pristine as the day it rolled off the Clark Street plant. In the audience, cocktails and skirts and deep pockets. Real nostalgia types. I says, ‘What you want us to play, Monty?’ He says, ‘Jon, go to hell’—he knows me, see, we go way back, he wants me to play it all. No holds barred. Everything.”

“What’s everything?” I asked.

He tapped his temple; it sounded hollow. On his fingers were gold rings, his wrist a matching watch, digital. I imagined brass fixtures all over his bathroom. I thought I might call him Brass Fixtures.

“I got all Buddy’s music right here,” he said. “No sheet music required.”

“Buddy who?” I asked.

He looked incredulous. Then, features softening and eyes narrowing, he turned his back to me, crouched a little and rolled his shoulders. When he reappeared, he was wearing black-framed glasses with clear lenses. And there he was, Buddy Holly, kind of. For some reason we then shook hands. I told him my name and he said, with a little hiccough, that it was nice to meet me. Then he surveyed the merchandise anew for a good ten minutes in silence. And in silence he left, having bought nothing and still wearing the glasses.

*     *     *

A week later I was busy at my desk calling people at random from the white pages, conducting a survey. It was a slow day. The question—Do you, or anyone in your household, believe music can change the world in any profound way?—had so far failed to generate a single “no.” I don’t remember how long I’d been at it before I noticed Jon standing at the counter, looking at me with his eyebrow cocked, a knowing look that made me blush. I got up to go greet him.

He wanted a drum machine, the kind that put out basic beats—4/4 rock, say, or rumba—at the touch of a button. I showed him the only one we had, a trade-in, which made him frown. Then we began the ancient horse trading dance. He looked skeptical and frowned some more. I told him it worked great. He pointed out a nick in the corner. I said internally it was perfect. He asked if we had anything else, knowing we didn’t. I offered him a musician’s discount—slight raise of his eyebrows—then a “friend” discount. Nodding okay, he peeled off the cash from a brass clip, and then took out his Winston 100s.

He lit up and inhaled, talked with smoke curling from his mouth and nose. To some, finishing a deal was like finishing sex. “Sherry’s got these steaks,” he said, apparently meaning his wife. His gold wedding band sported a gigantic diamond nested in a slab of turquoise. “Get home at seven, eight, she’s got one in front of me with mashed potatoes and gravy galore.”

Suddenly, at ten in the morning, I wanted a steak. And the way he smoked, it looked nutritional. I gave him his receipt and he set it and the drum machine aside, business done.

“Why the drum machine?” I asked.

He closed his eyes, placed the palm of his hand on the left side of his barrel chest like he was going to pledge allegiance. “Man, it’s raining in my heart,” he said.

“What’s wrong? Monty’s not work out?”

Taking a last puff, he stamped out his smoke in the sandbag ashtray. “These tears I can’t hold inside,” he said. “I lost my drummer.”

“Did he explode?” I asked. Everyone who came in that place knew Spinal Tap references like believers know Hallmark bible verses, but Jon wasn’t fazed. Though being blown up didn’t seem too far off the mark.

“Lost him to an Elvis cover,” he said, almost spitting. “This town’s off its nut.”

It was true—for a few months in the late ’80s, Portland went through an Elvis craze. Impersonators were popping up everywhere. And to Jon, the only thing worse was a bad Buddy Holly act. He took it personal.

“Only have to use this hopefully once,” he said, motioning toward the drum machine like it was a dead animal. “Got a guy coming in the studio tomorrow. We’ll see. Finding a dependable drummer’s like finding a faithful woman—damn near impossible.”

He looked so down. Musicians were either high or low. Never, it seemed, anywhere in between. There are two ways to cheer them up. Deride the success of popular musicians or else ask them about the equipment they own. I tried the latter route. “Jon,” I said. “What’s your studio like?”

His face softened as he proceeded to tell me about the practice space he’d constructed in his garage. “It’s Cricket Studio, redux,” he said, pronouncing the x. “Cement floors for reverb, see, that sweet, real echo, and walled in with acoustic egg-foam. It’s so natural. Looks and sounds like a dream.”

“Wow,” I said. “Nice.”

We spent a moment in a kind of quiet reverence, a call came through and I ignored it, and when Jon finally left, a warm smile was spread across his weathered face.

*     *     *

Jon came in one more time, a couple weeks after he’d bought the drum machine, but I didn’t recognize him at first. His hair was dyed black and he wore large gold-framed sunglasses. As I finished up with Debt Collector—swooping in always on a cash tailwind, this day’s haul a brand-new autoharp and a set of bongos, which he planned to strum and beat on as his wife delivered a natural birth—I began formulating a nickname for this new shady character in the corner. Wishing Debt Collector “happy hunting,” I went to assist who I thought was a stranger, the nickname “Coiffed Bozo” coming to mind.

“Can I help you in any way?” I asked.

Jon peered over the tops of those huge gold frames at me, ran his hand through his hair, and gave a left-sided sneer and struck a smoldering pose—knees bent, hips going circular with rhythmic thrusts that were nearly violent; keys and coins jangled in his pockets. He ended with a, “thank-you-very-much,” and shot me a wink.

I wanted him to stay forever.

“Elvis the pelvis?” I said. “What happened to the Wholly Buddy Hollies?”

“Call it professional differences,” he said. “I lost the whole band.” He reached for his cigarettes, paused and let the pack slide back into his chest pocket. “So I’m finally going to give the public what it wants,” he said. “Got a gig this very night, in fact. It’s The King henceforth.”

Before I could reply, a call came through for my department and I went to go answer. It was an old lady looking for a marimba. As I tried to talk her down to a child’s xylophone, each vibe a different pastel color, I kept an eye on Jon, who’d wandered over to the guitar straps. A white jump suit with sequins and flared lapels materialized over him and he stood there as though in a cloud of gold dust. But he hated Elvis, I thought, and then gone went the jump suit; only Coiffed Bozo remained. The old lady asked if she’d dialed correctly and I said, “Yes, and we no longer have any marimbas,” and hung up.

As I returned, Jon looked over his shoulder as if to check if we were alone. “You shouldn’t miss this, Eric,” he said. “Going to give them some real royalty tonight, an Elvis they’ll never forget.” His eyes flared at me over those golden frames. “I’ve planned a big finale, in fact.”

He filled me in on the whereabouts of his gig. Being underage, I didn’t know if I could get in, though I heard the place was pretty lax in that department. I told him I’d try. He bought the gaudiest guitar strap in the house—white leather with clusters of colored beads—and left wearing it over the shoulder, his step a little heavier than usual.

*     *     *

I sat at the end of the half-full bar nursing a bottle of Heineken I’d managed to procure without an I.D. check. Fastened to the wall above the bar loomed the grille of some old American-made behemoth, and as I sat under it I had the strange feeling I was slowly being run over. Early middle-agers were showing up full of thirst and irony, free on a Friday to relive their youths or what they wished was their youths. Playing as background, largely unnoticed, Jon’s band on stage looked casual, jeans and collared shirts, nothing period. I wrote the tunes they covered down on my napkin: Earth Angel, Louie Louie, Sixteen Candles, Little GTO. Jon’s hair was still dyed black and styled. His plaid shirt and jeans said something different, though. His voice was far from perfect, but he belted out a variety of extended highs and tremulous falsettos, and shifted rapidly from treble to bass and vice versa. His face was shiny with sweat by the second chorus of “Earth Angel.”

At the end of “Lonely Teardrops,” I saw Jon disappear at the rear of the stage through a narrow black door. The bass player and drummer played on for a full two minutes. I think I was the only one who noticed his absence until suddenly the stage lights were lowered to only two spots—one illuminating the black door, the other glowing at the front. The band stopped, and slowly the crowd turned their attention to the two spots.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice came over the P.A. when it was finally quiet. “But especially for you ladies tonight.” It was Jon’s voice, husky and full of secrets. I saw the door crack open an inch. A cardboard cutout of a bloodhound came down from the ceiling over the front of the stage, followed by excited gasps that may have just been laughs. Swaying, I spotted its fish line and followed it over the ceiling pipes and down to the black door. Finally, the hound came to rest on the right stage monitor, facing the audience in the pool of light. I imagined Jon behind that door frantically fixing the line to a cleat, and I laughed. Here it comes, I thought, Jon’s finale. I looked around and many faces appeared to anticipate comedy.

“All the way from Graceland”—a pocket of contrived screams as though on cue—“let’s give it up for the one and only, Mr. Talent himself, the three-chord wonder who never got a song written for him he couldn’t ruin, The King—Elvis Presley!”

Five seconds passed, ten. Then a blast of music tore through the speakers before the volume was adjusted for normal ears. It was “Hound Dog,” but the band, bewildered, wasn’t playing. The black door flew open and Jon entered the light. This time the gasps were real. He was wearing the same kind of flared jump suit I’d seen materialize on him earlier that day, only of a deep red, plus the gold shades. Strapped across his chest lay an old, stringless f-hole guitar rimmed in red and green rhinestones. He swaggered over to the pool of light in front beside the cardboard image of the bloodhound, the rest of the band watching from the shadows.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” the real Elvis sang.

Sequins sparkling, Jon stiffened his body and froze in the pool of light.

“Cryin’ all the time,” the King continued.

Moving within the illuminated space, Jon bent at the waist and chopped the air, shifted and jerked in the light. He opened and closed his jaws machine-like, appearing to mouth the lyrics and serenade the bloodhound. He continued his robotic routine with mounting energy, the bends and chops more absurd and exaggerated. When a wide swing of his unbent left leg knocked the dog over, people applauded.

As the music went on, Jon gradually gave it up. He stood there, glaring over his shades at the audience and shaking his head. He took a flask out of his vest pocket and openly drank. Then his mouth moved, not to the last bars of “Hound Dog,” but to some other discourse. Veins stuck out on his sweaty neck. The song ended and in dead air Jon was left, alone near the spot in flared polyester, and I heard the end of a bitter fragment. A hush fell over the place.

He scanned the audience, peering over those shades. His breath came hard and deep, stretching his vest to the bursting point. “Sheep, listen,” he said, his voice cracking without a mike. Sweat poured down his face. “What you’ve just seen is a mockery of a man of fashion, of style, not of music or substance. Elvis was a shit-for-brains idiot, a fraud! What the hell are you thinking?”

“Do ‘Jailhouse Rock’!” someone yelled, garnering agreement and applause.

The drummer came out from his kit and approached Jon, as did the bass player, all to inebriated clusters chanting “Jailhouse Rock.” Jon unstrapped his guitar and took it by the neck, raising it high above his head, the gaudy strap he bought from me falling to the floor like someone’s old skin. The men backed away, out of the spot, so for a second it appeared that Jon was fending off invisible demons, and the crowd grew quiet again.

Jon was about to bring the guitar down—to what purpose I do not know—when a large man from the side bear-hugged him from behind, squeezed him so tightly the guitar fell from his clutches, where it clanged to the floor, its headstock snapping off. The band then started to play as the man guided Jon through the black door.

Almost as soon as the door closed, it flew open again and Jon ran the length of the stage and leapt. His flared lapels flapped like wings, and he hit the dance floor running, the crowds parting all the way to the doors. I tried to meet him there, but he went right past without seeing me. I watched him sprint away on the gravel with a desperation that suggested he may have cut the large man to pieces.

Back in the bar, it was just seconds after Jon exited before someone said—to the great amusement of everyone, including me—“Elvis has left the building!”

And I just about did the same before deciding to belly up again. Behind the bar as I was reflecting on what I’d seen, wondering where Jon had went and if I’d ever see him again, I heard excited talk of something called “karaoke.” A machine was being wheeled out with the promise of turning people into whomever they fancied, provided they were literate. A line of potential dolts formed, and I ordered up another drink, intending to settle in for a long stay.

Eric DayEric Day teaches and writes in Phoenix, Arizona. This piece comes from his collection Raised by Trees, which he hopes to see one day soon in book form.

Down in the River to Pray

This is what I knew:

My nephew Benji graduated from drama school. When he crossed the stage to accept his diploma, he wore a sultry Lauren Bacall wig and a cream-colored satin evening gown with padded shoulders. His make-up was perfect, his lips the color of blood and desire. My mother told me he looked stunning. And that after the ceremony he argued with his father and my sister, his stepmother but the mother who raised him.

Then he left for New York.

It was 1988.

Fourteen years later, my mother told me Benji had disappeared. He came home one day from his job at a restaurant and trashed the apartment he shared with a roommate. Then he left. No one knew how to find him or if he was even alive.

Her voice dropped to a whisper as she added, “He has HIV.”

I put a story together, which, at the time, didn’t need to be correct: it just needed to be a story that made sense. I thought estranged. I thought “We don’t know where Benji is” meant Benji moved and changed his phone number because he didn’t want to talk to his family any more. Many of us have been on one side or the other of that wall, but we know it’s a wall that exists because we agree to it. We know we can find or be found if necessary. And six years after Benji disappeared, it was necessary that I find Benji.

I needed to find Benji because my mother died and left Benji and her other grandchildren a little money. Because she didn’t know what happened to Benji, she stipulated that the money would go to “living grandchildren.” If Benji wasn’t alive, his share went to the eight other grandchildren, not to his father, his next-of-kin.

As my mother’s executor, I had to find Benji, if he was still alive.

I thought about the last time I’d seen Benji. It was the mid-1990s. I was in New York for business. We met at a restaurant near the Met. He didn’t mind coming uptown, he told me when he picked the restaurant. His face was freshly washed, and he wore a shirt with an open collar. It must have been fall because I remember us eating at a table on the sidewalk and Benji wearing a brown tweed sport coat.

Benji held his fork in his left hand while he cut the pork cutlet, then switched his fork to his right hand to take a bite, the way he’d learning growing up in the Midwest; he hadn’t adopted any big city cutlery affectations.

“I’m still waiting tables,” he said, when I asked what he was doing.

“But I’m rehearsing a play,” he added, slurring his words like a Chicagoan does.

I smiled. “That’s great. How often do you perform?”

He shrugged and stabbed another piece of cutlet, holding it on his fork, suspended in front of his mouth, while he answered. “It’s just some people I know—in this warehouse space, but I think it could lead to some auditions.” He put the cutlet in his mouth.

I noticed his sport coat didn’t fit well, and I thought he probably bought it at a thrift store just for our lunch. I didn’t know how Benji usually dressed, whether the satin gown at his graduation was to shock his parents, upstage his drama school classmates, or to come out. Maybe he didn’t own a sport coat because he didn’t lunch uptown that often. Maybe he didn’t wear men’s clothes. At the time, I assumed he thought I would feel more comfortable if he didn’t look showy, and I had been oddly touched. My cheeks reddened at the memory of Benji considering my comfort when he got dressed that day. The idea that Benji might have covered his flamboyance for me was touching in the mid-1990s, embarrassing in 2008.

I hadn’t been a very involved aunt. I was 18 and Benji was 5 when my sister married Benji’s father, a widower with five children. It’s true that I was focused on college, on love, on my own marriage, but I also avoided my sister, who could be dramatic, telling stories that were inconsistent with previous stories—and sometimes with reality. I could understand if Benji went dark just to avoid her.

I thought it would be easy to find Benji. We leave so many tracks: credit cards, tax returns, rental history, work records. A few phone calls and Google searches, and we can find a childhood sweetheart, a college roommate, a lost child.

But I was wrong; it wasn’t easy.

“We don’t know where Benji is” was not just parent code for “Benji doesn’t want us to know where he is.” It wasn’t just Benji code for “My father, a crewcut cop, is uncomfortable around me because I wear makeup, and my mother lives in her own reality. So I am not going to make the trek home for Thanksgiving when I can make some good tips if I stay in New York and wait tables.

All of that may have been true, except that Benji really had disappeared.

*     *     *

By the time Benji arrived in New York, in 1988, more than 22,000 people in the city had been diagnosed with AIDS. The records from that time don’t distinguish between HIV positive and AIDS. They don’t distinguish male or female, black or white. They don’t break the numbers down by neighborhood, age, or method of transmission. They document diagnosis and death. At the end of that year, just over a third of those ever diagnosed were still alive.

*     *     *

I’d been an investigative journalist and an academic researcher. I had skills—information-finding skills, people-finding skills. I knew how to dig, uncover what was buried. This is what I found:

Social Security did not list Benji as deceased. The last address they had for him was the apartment he’d left a mess.

He was not listed among New York City inmates.

No criminal or civil charges had been filed against him, not for panhandling or prostitution or assault or anything.

He was not listed as a sex offender in the state of New York.

He’d last been treated at Bellevue Hospital as an outpatient in early 2002; as an inpatient the previous year.

His Medicaid card was expired.

There had been no death report for someone with his name in a public place nor of someone with his name having been taken from a public place to a hospital in any of the boroughs that make up New York City.

They could check by description.

In 2002, Benji was thirty-six years old. He was five foot eight, slim, but not an athletic build. His skin was white. His hair was brown, his eyes were hazel. His eyelashes were long. He had long fingers. His features were delicate. He looked like he wouldn’t be able to grow a beard, but he could get a surprising five o’clock shadow. He had a big smile with large teeth that had never known orthodontics.

They said there were no reports of anyone with that description.

*     *     *

I didn’t want to talk to my sister or her husband about Benji. I didn’t want to go into their pain. I didn’t know what the story was that they had decided they could live with, or how much of it was true. I wanted to find Benji without talking to either of them, but my sister called me. She knew what the will said.

“We didn’t know Benji was missing until two months after he left his apartment,” my sister said, adding that they found out when his boss called to say he had Benji’s last paycheck and wanted to know where he should he send it. My sister immediately called Benji’s roommate who told her about the damage and gave her the number of a friend who’d helped Benji move his things to a self-storage locker. My sister’s voice took on a tone I recognized from the time when she was a teenager about to tell a secret to me, seven years younger. It’s the tone of voice a soap opera character uses just before they cut to commercial. “She said he might be living at the storage locker, but no one had seen him for weeks. They were all very worried.”

I started to imagine what I would have felt if I were the parent remembering the argument the last time I’d spoken to my son, the angry parting, emptiness, loss, longing, an ache that I would have woken up to each morning—sometimes not right away, sometimes after a few minutes of feeling like the world was normal, the conversations over whether to call him or wait for him to call.

I thought about Benji living in a five-by-five-foot windowless storage unit. I tried to imagine a scenario in which he could have lived for six years with untreated HIV, without the kind of job that reported earnings, without ever being picked up on the streets because he didn’t have the kind of income that came with Social Security contributions.

My sister told me she and her husband looked for him as soon as they heard he was missing. They drove from Chicago to New York. His father staked out the self-storage locker. I imagined him sitting in a rented car, maybe a Ford Taurus, by himself, sipping coffee and eating take-out burgers, replaying old conversations, rehearsing the one he might have.

After a week, Benji’s father talked to the police, one cop to another. No, he didn’t want to file a missing person report.

Then they went home to Chicago.

“I called the storage place six months later,” she said. “They told me Benji’s things had been auctioned. No one had paid the fees. They never even let us know to come and get them.”

Before we hung up, my sister told me the story she believed, the story that I knew didn’t have to be true as long as it made sense: “I think he threw himself off a bridge,” she said.

*     *     *

I called Benji’s younger sister, the sibling he was closest to, the way the oldest sometimes is with the youngest. The one he would trust to lie to their parents when they asked her if she’d heard from him.

“I really don’t know where he is,” she told me. “The last time I saw him was a little more than a year before he disappeared. I went to New York to visit him. He’d changed. I mean, he was a real jerk. As I got into a cab to go to the airport, I told him so. I said, I’m not going to come back if you’re going to be an asshole.”

Fuck you.

“I talked to him after that, though,” she said. “Once, right after 9/11.” He was OK. She told him she loved him. That was the last time she talked to him. She was quiet, and I thought maybe I could hear her weeping, so I talked.

“Do you remember the time I visited?” I said. “It was during the Olympics. Oh gosh, you must have been eight, and we all went to the pool, and you and Benji pretended to be synchronized swimmers.” I described the two of them diving into the water then bursting out with exaggerated smiles and arms extended, then submerging again to do handstands on the bottom of the pool, their legs extending above the surface and scissor-kicking, nowhere near synchronized.

We laughed.

“I’ll find him,” I told her.

*     *     *

I flew to New York.

His apartment—his last known address—was on the East Side, near the East Village, in a dirty yellow brick building above a space that’s been a sandwich shop, a Thai restaurant, and a vegan cafe. He could walk from there to Bellevue.

Benji’s roommate didn’t live in the apartment they’d shared any more, but I found her. It wasn’t that hard. She asked me to meet her at a park near the East River. We sat on a bench where we could see the Brooklyn Bridge. It was October, but warm enough to sit outside without a coat, even with the breeze off the water. The sun was sharp, and we both wore sunglasses. I noticed we also both wore black. I hadn’t paid attention to that when I dressed, but it was obvious, the two of us sitting side-by-side on the bench, as though in a pew.

She lit a cigarette and took a drag. “We met at the restaurant where we worked. We usually worked different shifts so it made it easy to share a flat. We weren’t what you’d call friends. Benji had his own friends—artists and other actors.” She flicked her ash. “Most of them were waiting tables, too.”

He’d been hospitalized for AIDS-related pneumonia the year before he disappeared, she said, but he’d gotten better and been re-classified as HIV positive. She dropped the butt of her cigarette and ground it cold. “He was getting treatment, but he was starting to get paranoid.”

I turned toward her. “What do you mean?” I asked.

She took a deep breath. “Benji was a good roommate. He didn’t cook much, but like, he always cleaned up the kitchen—even if I was the one who left it a mess. We often slept at different times, and he was quiet. Considerate of that, you know?” She reached in her purse for another cigarette, but didn’t light it.

I nodded. “He was always good with his younger brothers and sister,” I said, “willing to play with them and be silly.”

She fumbled with the cigarette. “Then he started complaining that he didn’t get parts he’d auditioned for because other actors had trash talked him and accusing his friends of shit like that. I came home one day and found everything in the kitchen broken. He’d slashed his mattress with this huge carving knife. He’d pulled everything off the walls.” She lit the cigarette.

I imagined Benji tearing down a poster of a Mapplethorpe photograph, the kind you can find rolled up for quick sale from any of a dozen street vendors, tearing it into strips. I thought about him throwing a jar of mustard at the wall. It shatters. He is surprised at how the thick liquid dulls the sound of glass on wall. He expected something like the clear tinkling of a breaking window when a baseball hits it. He was no good at baseball.

I thought it would be easy to find Benji. We leave so many tracks: credit cards, tax returns, rental history, work records. A few phone calls and Google searches, and we can find a childhood sweetheart, a college roommate, a lost child. But I was wrong; it wasn’t easy.

I think about him grabbing a bottle of PBR from the shelf of the refrigerator, knocking the neck on the counter. The bottle breaking jagged, below the cap, him lifting it to his lips and drinking, the points of brown glass piercing his lips, blood staining his mouth, the taste of beer and blood, the rustiness running down his chin. He throws the empty bottle at a row of spice jars above the stove. The cheaply made rack, held only by a single nail, falls to the stove, spices mixing with alcohol in the shallow pans under the coils of the electric stove, the smells of cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg mingled with hops reminding him of Thanksgiving at his parents’—pumpkin pie and bad beer.

She let the ash gather on the cigarette, not smoking. “And he wrote something on the wall above his bed, in this really red lipstick.” She wrote it in the air, as though using the ash of the cigarette to make words: “If you want to know why, call my parents. And he wrote their phone number.”

I didn’t ask her why she didn’t call. “Do you know how I can reach any of his friends?” I asked. She gave me the number for James. She said he was a painter.

I stood up. “Thank you for coming,” I said. We hugged. She started to walk off, then stopped and turned. “You’ll let me know if you hear anything,” she said.

“Of course.”

*     *     *

In 2002, people were living with HIV. It had been more than ten years since Freddy Mercury died of AIDS, more than ten years since Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. In New York City alone, more than 62,000 men were living with a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS. Fewer than 2,000 of them died that year.

Recording-keeping became more sophisticated, statistics more detailed. In 2002, Benji was one of thirty-three men in his neighborhood who were HIV positive, without AIDS. Probably one of a dozen white men.

*     *     *

Before calling James, I looked him up on the Internet. He’d had one or two shows in small but good galleries. I scrolled through the images. They were grotesque. Distorted. Open wounds. Blood on chin.

I met him on a bench in the plaza by St. Mark’s Church. Pigeons collected at our feet, looking for handouts. Leaves swirled with the light breeze. James wore expensive jeans. Cashmere scarf. His nails were recently manicured. Lots of product in his bleached blonde hair.

I wanted to ask so many things—things I didn’t need to know to find Benji, but wanted to know, to feel that I knew him, and somehow that seemed wrong, like I’d had my chance to know Benji and I would just look curious, like someone gawking at the scene of an accident.

I pulled a red pashmina from my bag and wrapped it around me. “I didn’t see Benji very often, but I remember that he asked me to dance at my wedding,” I said. “He was nine and very awkward, but he took it very seriously.” James smiled. “He was a terrible dancer,” he said. We laughed.

I asked him about his art, and then if he ever painted Benji. If he said yes, I knew I would offer to buy the painting. He knew it, too. He shook his head. “No,” he said, too quickly. “I wanted to. He had this vulnerability, this softness.” He closed his eyes as though imagining Benji before he turned violent. “He never let me.”

He crossed his legs. “The irony,” James said, “was that Benji had just qualified for Medicaid. He was excited to be able to get treatment.”  He paused, and I waited out the silence. “But he was becoming very erratic—he’d be fine one day and the next day just plain mean.” He picked fights with all his friends. Burned a lot of bridges. “We weren’t surprised when he lost it that day at the apartment,” James said. “We all knew it was the disease, or maybe the drugs—I mean, it wasn’t the real Benji,” he said, “but most people couldn’t take it after a while.”

“Benji called me from the apartment that day and said he had to get out of his place,” James said. He showed up with AJ, who worked with Benji at the restaurant and could get the catering van. They loaded Benji’s things, whatever they could carry that he hadn’t broken, and drove to a warehouse with storage units. On the way, Benji gave James his watch. He gave the AJ something, too. James didn’t remember what. He uncrossed his legs and crossed them again. “I offered him a place to crash. AJ did, too. But Benji said to leave him at the warehouse.”

James looked at the birds gathered at his feet. I heard him swallow and take a breath. “I called the police and asked what we should do if we saw Benji on the street and he was acting crazy.” He looked up, towards the sky above the church. “They said not to approach him.”

We sat quietly for a while, then James stood up to leave. “You should talk to AJ,” he said as he gave me a drive-by hug. “He was the last person to see Benji.”

*     *     *

New cases of AIDS peaked in New York City in 1993 and 1994. Benji was twenty-eight years old then.

*     *     *

I called my husband and told him I would be staying in New York a little longer.

“Are you getting somewhere?” he asked.

“Not really. The trail’s pretty cold.”

I told him what the police at the precinct told me: Hundreds of men in their mid-thirties died every year in New York City and remained unidentified. If a missing person report had been filed, they might have connected one of them, but probably not.

“Benji isn’t even a cold case,” I said.

“Why didn’t his dad file a missing person report?” my husband asked.

“I don’t know. It wouldn’t help me find Benji now,” I answered.

“You know, Lo . . .” My husband’s voice was tender. “If Benji had AIDS-related dementia, and he wasn’t being treated, odds are he’s dead.” My husband is a physician, and he took care of the first case of AIDS in the small town we lived in during the 1980s. No one else would.

“I know,” I said. “I’m starting to think my sister’s right—that Benji was depressed or psychotic and jumped off a bridge. There’s just no trace of him.”

Benji alive but missing made closing my mother’s estate more difficult, but my job as executor, my feelings as Benji’s aunt, and my attraction to tracking down answers to difficult questions had become jumbled. I didn’t want Benji to be dead. I also didn’t want to learn that some of my sister’s stories were true; it was easier to believe she consistently made things up.

“Maybe you should come home,” he suggested, still tender.

“I kind of feel like maybe I’m doing some good just by meeting with his friends. They seem to get something out of talking about him. He just disappeared. No one had any closure.”

“Why didn’t his parents have him declared dead?” my husband asked.

“Probably they just wanted to hang onto a little hope,” I said.

“Well, if you’re hanging onto hope, wouldn’t you file a missing person report?” he asked. I didn’t answer.

Hope, someone told me once, is believing in the best possible outcome without any evidence to support it. Some people don’t find comfort in hope; they find peace by ending the ambiguity and uncertainty. They create a story with an ending. They would hold a memorial service where family and friends could talk about the person the way they wanted to remember him—his smile, his generosity, his innocence. They would console one another. Embrace. They would have a meal together. They would laugh at the funny stories about him and wonder if it was okay to laugh. The way I was doing with Benji’s friends.

*     *     *

The restaurant Benji worked at had closed. AJ had a job at a different restaurant, an Italian place in the Village. He said I could meet him there before the place opened for dinner. He unlocked the door for me and led me to a square table with a red checked tablecloth. He brought me a plate of lasagna and a green salad with vinegar and oil dressing. “You want some wine?” he asked. I did. He brought me something red and put a small arrangement of chrysanthemums on the center of the table. They smelled like Homecoming.

I picked up my fork and took a bite of the pasta. The cheese stretched from my fork to the plate. I spun my fork to break it off. I didn’t feel hungry, but I appreciated AJ’s thoughtfulness and tried to eat. The cheese was hot. The sauce rich with garlic and basil. A little sweet—a sauce with a little sugar. I stabbed some lettuce.

“No one saw Benji for a week after he moved to the warehouse,” AJ said. “One day he walked into the restaurant, through the door that led from the alley to the kitchen. He was still wearing the green cotton T shirt he had on when we dropped him at the storage locker.” I imagined it pitted and stained, the sourness of his unwashed skin mingled with the cloying smell of weed clinging to his clothes. His eyes bloodshot. A week’s worth of stubble. His hair unwashed and stringy. I could picture him standing in the kitchen, all stainless steel and clean white tile.

AJ picked up a fork and turned it around in his hands. “I thought the boss would tell Benji to get out, to go home and take a shower, get some sleep. But he put down the knife he was sharpening and reached under his white apron into his pocket and pulled out a silver clip with some bills. He took the bills out, licked his fingers, then culled a series of twenties from the pack.” I imagined the bills as freshly starched and ironed as the chef’s apron. AJ continued: “He held the money out to Benji and told him to take them, and take as much time off as he needed.”

Benji took the bills. He threw them in the air as though they were ticker tape. He looked up at them and laughed as they drifted to the freshly washed floor. For a moment, he looked like a child. Then he looked at the boss and narrowed his eyes. “I don’t want your fucking money,” he said, and walked out. “I went after him,” AJ said, “but he told me not to come near him.” No one saw him after that.

I asked AJ if Benji had anyone special.

He dropped his head. “Not really. Everyone loved Benji,” he said. The way he said it, I knew AJ loved him more.

I apologized for not being able to eat. I told AJ I didn’t have much of an appetite. He nodded. I took a sip of wine, but I was still looking at AJ when I put the glass down and set it partially on the salad plate. The glass wobbled before I caught it, but some of the wine splashed onto the newly laundered tablecloth.

I stood up. “I’m so sorry,” I said. He stood up. I touched his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around me. I waited for him to pull away. His eyes were wet. Like mine.

*     *     *

Between 1990 and 2004, there were 2,272 suicides by residents of Manhattan. Seventy percent were males. Almost sixty percent were white. Twenty-two percent were in Benji’s age range.

Ninety percent chose falling, hanging, overdosing, shooting, or getting run over by a train.

Only eight percent were found in an outdoor location other than their residence (see “falling.”)

Non-residents—those who travel to New York to commit suicide—are far more likely than residents to jump off a bridge into water.

The police don’t keep records of people who jump off bridges. They would tell an unreliable story. Not all the bodies surface.

Impact, not drowning, is thought to kill most. The body hits the water at eighty miles per hour, shattering bones and brain and internal organs. Like getting hit by a train.

*     *     *

I called the attorney handling my mother’s estate and told him to send a registered letter to Benji’s father: We all hope and pray that one day we will find Benji, but we are distributing the estate with the assumption that Benji is deceased.

After, I walked by myself to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. It wasn’t the closest bridge to Benji’s apartment or to the warehouse or the restaurant, but it was the most popular bridge for suicides, even though it wasn’t the highest. Perhaps people choose it because with its granite and limestone arches like windows in a medieval church, it is the most graceful.

The wind was blowing, and the air off the East River was cooler than it had been. It smelled of fish and diesel. I pulled a long black chiffon scarf from around my neck and draped it over my head, crossing it under my chin and tying it behind my neck. With my dark glasses, I might have looked like a 1960s movie star.

I thought I could feel the bridge sway a bit as I walked in the pedestrian aisle, a level above the cars, and I wondered if it was the wind or the traffic or my imagination. Or maybe it was me that was unsteady.

Near one of the stone arches, I stopped and opened my purse to pull out a tube of the most scarlet lipstick I found earlier in the day at Macy’s. I leaned against the rock as I applied the lipstick, tracing lips from memory. Then I looked out over the river, at the ferries and tugboats. Below, I knew, the water eddied around the column that reached deep below the surface. I gripped the railing. The metal felt smooth and hard and cold.

I walked to the middle of the expanse, to the lowest point in the parabolic curve formed by the cables that connect the bridge to its supports.

I wondered if the wind blew that day, and if it was cold.

I wondered if it was dark.

I wondered if Benji looked at the skyline of a city he thought would fulfill his dreams.

If he closed his eyes.

I wondered how long he stood there before climbing over the railing onto the steel beams that extend out over the water and walking to the edge.

I wondered if a crowd gathered.

If anyone said a prayer.

Lois Ruskai MelinaAfter careers in journalism and higher education, Lois Ruskai Melina is focusing this chapter of her life on creative writing, particularly literary nonfiction. Her essays have been published in the anthologies Borne on Air (Eastern Washington Press) and Forged in Fire (University of Oklahoma Press). An excerpt from her unpublished memoir appeared in Oregon Humanities magazine. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

 

“Down in the River to Pray” is a Best of the Net 2016 nonfiction winner, selected by Kiese Laymon. Congratulations to Lois Ruskai Melina!

The Half-Buttoned Effect

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

She’s standing right in front of me, wearing a light green dress with buttons on the back. A row of buttons, like a dotted line drawn from her nape to a random point halfway down her spine. I count the buttons: one, two, three, four, and five. Number three is not fully buttoned. Half of it is peeping out through the buttonhole, the other half taking refuge under the green fabric. I wonder whether the fabric would feel warm to the touch. It has to, having spent the last hour or so sitting patiently on the warm, pink skin of a woman whose lover’s hand has been running up and down her buttoned back all throughout the poetry reading. How is it that my eyes see the half-buttoned button, but the lover’s hand doesn’t feel the incongruity? Am I imagining it? What if it’s the room’s dim lights creating the half-buttoned effect? Lights are tricky things, I’ve been told, and when they’re scarce, they can be trickier. There are rows of colorful, or perhaps colored, light bulbs, dimly lit, dimly lighting the room. Rows of bulbs glowing in harmony, with not even a single blind spot.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

I am not listening to the reader. I am wondering whether it’s perverse to think about sliding the button in the buttonhole. There is no sexual imagery here, but I suspect that if I turn to any of my new American friends in the room, point out the half-buttoned button, and express my desire to slide it in the buttonhole, they will most likely reconstruct me in their minds, perhaps questioning the sexual orientation of the new-in-America girl, or maybe her mental health. I’ve noticed the curiosity of my new American acquaintances about my sexuality. To figure me out, I suppose, they need to know whether I would kiss a girl more passionately than I would look down at a man’s tight pants cravingly. I imagine that in order to figure out the mystery of me, the other, the oriental-looking person with a female-looking body, they need to place me in a number of familiar frames before they can let me in, before they can let me slide in and out of their social spaces, their communities.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

I spot one of the people who’s been particularly curious about my sexual preferences. He’s leaning against a wall, eyes focused on the reader, perhaps listening diligently. He’s again wearing the red wool hat that I saw him wear earlier this week. Why does he take it off and put it back on every few minutes? I inquire my skin to find out if it’s cold. It’s not. Why’s he wearing the red wool hat then? I make up my mind: the hat has to go. Something should be done. Earlier, before the reading began, I saw strawberries, red like a wool hat. They were all over the room, in hands, in mouths, in eyes, in minds. Strawberries are red, and so are women’s lips, and wool hats. Strawberries are inviting, and so are the buttons. Strawberries were red, and yet they disappeared quickly. But the red wool hat doesn’t want to go. I wonder if the world always works that way, and whether misplacements are to be found everywhere. My mind begins nibbling at the word ‘misplacements.’ Something’s misplaced.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

No one sees the lizard. Only I do. I see her sauntering all the way from behind a purse left on the mosaic floor to a pair of white sneakers worn by an innocent-looking, hatless kid. The lizard’s running fast, as though running for her life, which nowadays seems to be equal to running from zombies and aliens. Nobody’s following the lizard, though. Not even anyone’s eyes. Only mine are. And they do so in the least threatening way. I’m not going to hurt her. She should be able to see that in my eyes. Maybe she’s afraid of my oriental looks. Maybe she thinks I look like someone who would bring terror to her peaceful life and disturb the familiar. I wish I knew lizard language so I could tell her I’m hurt and disappointed that you should prejudge me so. She doesn’t see the disappointment in my eyes, maybe because she’s not looking at me carefully enough. No one these days seems to. She’s sitting with her back to me. I can see her shoulders covered in green. I see her perimeter. Had I a paper and a pencil, I’d sketch her back when she had her back to me. I’d sketch how everyone’s backs looked like when they had their backs to me. I wonder if I should draw a lizard, too. She’s running toward the door, and my irises are running with her. Is she feeling lonely? Scared? Homesick? Is she leaving because she feels like a misfit? A misfit.

I want to reach out and slide the button back in the buttonhole.

I wonder who the man leaning on the door is. The big, wooden, brown, heavy, confining door. It was open earlier, but someone closed it. Noises? Yes, noises. They did. They closed the door. They came, they assaulted us in the room, they arrived with no warning, and blessed are we who have a big, heavy, thick door to close and to keep the noisy ones out. I see them everywhere: doors and doors and doors and doors. Inside and outside. Include and exclude. Within and without. Fitting in and fitting out. Belonging in and belonging out. Eyeing the half-buttoned button, I wonder whether she didn’t fully button it in the first place, or if the button was loosely buttoned and eventually slid out. That happens. If there’s not enough space to fit in, you will be forced to slide out.

I want to reach out and slide the button out of the buttonhole.

Born and raised in a small southern town in Iran, Saeide Mirzaei moved to Tehran in 2004 to join the MA program in English at University of Tehran. Although the move proved a bit of a culture shock for the provincial girl, she soon came to realize that her gender defined and restricted her existence, regardless of where she lived. A second culture shock, pronounced by her racial and ethnic otherness, occurred when, in hopes of becoming the voice of Iranian women, she moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to join the MFA program in Creative Writing at UA only to learn that “once a woman, always a woman.” She’s now in a PhD program in English at University of Minnesota, where she’s also working on her book project, a cultural travelogue about her life in Alabama.

 

“The Half-Buttoned Effect” is a Best of the Net 2016 nonfiction finalist, selected by Kiese Laymon. Congratulations to Saeide Mirzaei!

Nothing Beats a Beergut Breakfast

After I pass through security, I’ll have left them. Beergut, Special Son, and I hang out in a loose triangle several feet away from the glass doors. Nothing left to say or do, the time of my flight to Seoul heavy and ticking. I avoid Beergut’s icy gaze, look to metal crossbeams. The airport houses enticing shops, carvings, totem poles, renovations showcasing the upcoming Olympics. My eyes fall to the red spot on Special Son’s cheek, strawberries from this morning’s waffles. Had he been walking around like that all these hours? A sob ripples through my ribcage and I pinch it in. On the early ferry in the cafeteria we had our last breakfast as a family.

One of Beergut’s friends once said, a man leaves a woman for another woman. A woman leaves a man for herself. I’ve spent the past months thinking about my future self in the second person. I’m doing this for you.

In less than a couple of days, I’ll be as far away from my old life as I can get. Standing there, I am certain of only one fact: that up until now, this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.

What am I doing?

*     *     *

The morning of the day I decided had started like any other. The far wall shook; the horses were kicking their stalls again. I opened my eyes to the same tin roof and wooden beams. Last night hadn’t been cold enough to bring a two-litre bottle of hot water to bed, but now, breath nearly visible, I yanked the duvet above my shoulders to block the draft. The Quonset had a breath of its own, corrugated sheeting rose and fell. Now the dome creaked, whispered: Aren’t you tired of living in a shed, camping for a living?

Beside me, Beergut stirred and grunted. His square torso rose from the sheets, feet slapped on the loft floor. He yawned like a cartoon bear. “Getting up, Babe?” He squeezed my knee-bulge. “Want some pancakes?”

“Don’t bother.” I rolled onto my side. As Beergut gathered his clothes, I followed his every move. Even after everything, I liked to watch him dress, hypnotized by the pace of deliberation.

He stood in boxer briefs and a frayed t-shirt. A good three inches shorter, he didn’t have to duck like I’d learned to. As he slipped chicken legs into dirt-encrusted jeans, the metal loops of his belt (’70s-era) jingled. On went the maroon turtleneck, the oil-stained sweatshirt from his industrial college friend. Beergut ran fingers through what was left of his salt-n-pepper hair. I caught a whiff, wanted to tell him he needed a shower, but was sick of being a nag. No doubt he knew that he wasn’t like Special Son.

“How about bacon and eggs?” he asked.

Had that whole conversation about needing to eat healthier been forgotten in the past twelve hours? I’d gone up two sizes this past summer. True, every day I wore the same elastic waistband sweatpants, but it niggled now and then. When I’d met Beergut, I’d been running 10Ks. I didn’t answer.

“Soft-boiled egg?”

Now he was talking. I pushed out a yes, throat tight.

Island life. Morning on the Property, another day’s purpose buried in the back lot with the tangle of fir, arbutus, and moss-covered car parts. Jen-with-a-J had the morning milking; the WWOOFer had the evening, which meant this was my day off. Just another bowl of time-gruel slopped out.

“What’s wrong, Babe?” Beergut laid a dry back of hand to my forehead, searched my eyes with baby blues.

“I don’t know.” I didn’t. As Queen of the Quonset, my loving partner was responsible for cooking breakfast. Is every woman so lucky to be doted on?

I rolled towards the window so he couldn’t see the meaningless tears. Drawing into the fetal position, I clutched Teddybear to my belly. Usually I’m a morning person: a smug, jump-out-of-bed-chirping-with-the-warbler type that drives night-people mad. Recently, I hadn’t felt like any kind of person.

“I’m going to stay in bed for awhile. Call me when it’s ready.”

“Ok,” Beergut slipped into his clogs. I squeezed my eyes as I heard them thud down the workshop steps. From the landing the dog squeaked his yawn, four paws padded down; the front door opened and slammed as Beergut let him out. The clogs tapped to the main door, the sticky click of the knob and then, “Hey, you got that fire going, lazy bugger?” Before the door slapped closed, a peal of giggles rose like the tinkle of wind chimes. His dad was up so Special Son would be tickled.

I closed my eyes against the dim light. The roar of nothing tolled against my brain, as the far-off din of Special Son’s one-sided conversation told me to keep going. Another day like the eight hundred that had come before.

*     *     *

“How do you like your coffee?” Beergut asked in the kitchen. Our first morning together called for such a question.

“I like my coffee strong and my men weak.” I’d stolen this line from a co-worker (another lifetime). Beergut chuckled. Good, still got a laugh. I inched towards him and he grabbed me around the waist, a caveman in the mancave (as my friend had labeled the Quonset, before he’d introduced us).

“That’s not true,” Beergut said.

“No. I like my coffee bitter and my men sweet.” I retreated to the armchair at the far end of the room. Men. I liked them all ways. Had I been an egg, I’d have been over easy.

And how did I like my Beergut? Stale, hot, bitter—no, sweet. Definitely not rich. More complex than instant, but no fancy espresso. A simple roast, home brewed like his yeasty beer. Once tasted, I’d known—this is for me.

Beergut had a schoolboy face for a senior, smitten in wrinkles. He lumbered over for a kiss. “I’m kind of fond of you, you know.” His breath smelled like diesel (not in a bad way) and I was pulled in.

Be careful of coffee. The older it gets, the more likely it is to give you indigestion.

*     *     *

At my place I sat and waited for breakfast. Across the room, toast popped up; to my left Special Son chewed his egg (yolk broken). Beergut placed a soft-boiled egg on toast before me. My favorite. The best was cracking into the eggshell with a butter knife, farm-fresh yolk soaked into toast, plate scraped with the last bit of bread. The warm yellows and whites slid down my gullet like morning light itself. But not today. The egg, consumed without enjoyment, slopped sticky on my palate. A gulp of lukewarm coffee followed, bitter.

The fire crackled in the corner heater. I looked out the picture window, past the couch where the dog sprawled, to the dullness outside. In front of Beergut’s sawmill, the puddles were scanned for pings of rain. No movement.

I knew exactly what every living creature on the Property would be doing that day. The spiders, those most prolific residents, would spin webs throughout the junk of everything. Sister Sally would wander up from her books and computers to feed the horses and, if it wasn’t raining, let them into the back field. The dog would stare at the driveway hoping for bug shadows. The cat was already stalking mice or birds; later she’d disappear into the woodshed to nap. Lately, Beergut had tired of the gun club and making wood. This meant a new/old hobby was around the bend—model airplanes again? In the lag time he’d read nautical fiction and transformed into the most boring old man in the world.

Special Son would pretend to watch a DVD upstairs, stomp down every half an hour to see if we’d decided on something entertaining. One question hung in the crux of his differently wired brain: What happen now?

I glared at him. “For Godssake, don’t you have anything to do?”

“Linda, Linda, check firewood…” He rambled out the door and out of sight, knowing that when I was in this mood he’d better stay the hell away. Even if our neighbour wasn’t home, he’d hang out on the road for a while, mutter about all his work.

Bugdog looked up with hangdog eyes. “What do you want?” I asked.

The dog ran away from me, thrust his schnoz in his master’s lap. Bugdog was sensitive to emotions, especially negative ones. Whenever Beergut and I fought he would run between us, asking for reassurance, a Nervous Nellie negotiator.

Beergut patted the dog twice then returned to stirring his coffee. Despite Dr. Riley’s telling him to cut down sugar, Beergut was back to his usual four teaspoons. The spoon clanged against the pottery mug for what seemed like five minutes.

“Dear Lord,” I said. “Isn’t that coffee mixed yet?”

Beergut’s chair creaked as he swung around. He peered over his spectacles. “What’s with you, Babe?”

A thirty-two-year-old child, I pouted. It was my least favorite month, gloomy to gloomier, the only holiday commemorating dead soldiers. The shit at the farm deepened, the routine dragged, the tarp system irritated. To make matters worse, as was often the case, that morning Beergut had neglected to service me.

“You’re unhappy,” he said.

“I am NOT.” I was practically spitting venom now.

“Sugarplum,” he said. His voice buttered my prickly cockles. “Listen to yourself. You are.”

It was true. I was becoming more miserable each day so I knew myself better unhappy than happy. And it was getting worse. I blinked back tears.

“You’ve got to ask yourself why you feel this way,” he said, “and what you can do about it.” He set the mug down. “You need to go hiking.”

*     *     *

Atop the ravine, I made double sure the emergency brake was on. Heaving the door open, I tumbled from the red truck. Bugdog whined from the back. I folded down the club seat, he plopped onto the gravel, and I looped the chain over his shaggy neck. Raindrops spit from the sky, which blended the grays and browns of a tightly woven Cowichan sweater.

I put the hood up on my raincoat as we crossed the road with care. It could be surprising, big trucks roaring around this bend. Finally, we stood at the sign that marked the trailhead. The air smelled of wet asphalt, dirt, and pine needles.

I was glad Special Son’s face hadn’t been at the upstairs window when we pulled out. Pale, drooling, square-jawed. Black empty eyes. For me, that face marked what Beergut didn’t see: longing, dependency, raging boredom—Special Son’s prison. When he was nervous or thinking he’d crook his finger and suck on it, and he did that at the window, whenever the dog and I went without him. I swallowed. Guilt is better than resentment, I’d decided, but it doesn’t sting less.

I let Bugdog off the leash. Up the rocky path we spiraled up steep switchbacks, the twinge of hamstrings pushing hard. Bugdog trotted ahead, sticking within eye distance as trained. His furtive sniffing told me he was on a dog mission I had no business knowing about.

Just me and the dog. Mostly everything I did off the Property didn’t include Beergut, which suited me fine, I liked my space. Besides, I’d never known different.

A retirement-aged couple was headed down. “Good morning,” I said.

“Hi.” Unison. They looked the same—wiry hair tucked under Tilley hats, horn-rimmed glasses, matching strides. No doubt they’d been together since the beginning of time.

As they passed, I felt a familiar twinge: loneliness. One pair of human eyes seeing this path, this dog-rump, this couple, this Garry-oak path explored with nimble feet. Despite my independence, all we didn’t share bothered me. Beergut didn’t exercise. Considering his bad habits, the deck was stacked.

*     *     *

Lonely was a far cry from how I felt that first summer. Waking up beside Beergut, I was home.

Daylight stretched onto the queen-sized. I reached up, cracked knuckles.

Beergut scooched closer, wrapped arms around me in a tight, antique spoon.

Nestled in, I felt giddy about today, miserable about tomorrow, how a criminal might feel on a spree. She knows the gig’ll be up, all possible endings spelling trouble. Perhaps she’ll get away with it, but doubtful, for she’s the reckless sort, not a sneak. So things catch up. Best-case scenario: capture without injury, jail. Another possibility: shot in the crossfire. If she’s crazy or depressed or just plain sensible, she might choose to go out by her own hand, avoiding all consequences but one. The criminal mind knows and sees the cage of the limited future pass in a blink of imagination. And yet, the abandonment of doing is beyond compare, crossing impossible barriers most humans shy away from. That’s what it’s like for a woman falling in love with a man twice her age.

Beergut rubbed one bony knee against the small of my back. “What’re you thinking about, Beautiful?”

“How happy I am.” I shrugged off his grip.

He played with my hair. “Then why are you crying?”

I couldn’t answer right away. Emotions often bled onto my pillow in waterworks; overcome with criminal intuition, I sometimes fell asleep bawling. “I just … worry. About … the future,” I said.

Beergut wiped my cheek-apples with his palms. “Worry about the present.” I rolled towards him and he kissed me with gummy-worm lips. “Better yet, enjoy it.”

I wrote love letters. Beergut kept them in the safe near his side of the bed, tucked away with important papers and bullet casings. One line I wrote stuck with us both forever: I can see this ending before it’s begun.

*     *     *

Hiking always made me think of God. I used to pray, but living with an atheist had changed things. God—vague, interior—no longer existed as the picture from the Lutheran church wall, a backlit Jesus cradling sheep. I put more faith in Beergut than God. How faulty was that?

We reached the muddiest part, waist-deep in ferns. Bugdog slowed to check the puddles. His tail accelerated. Roughly at the two-thirds point, I rounded a fallen tree and arrived at the first fairy door. These were planted all over the mountain, sometimes in hard-to-find places. This one, a wooden door no bigger than my hand, was placed on a large boulder. It looked as though a sprite lived there; in front it had laid shards of broken pottery, pretty stones, coins.

Gramma M, who’d died two years earlier, came to mind. The ultimate morning person, she rose before dawn, puttered to the radio, readied devotions, prepared breakfast for whatever family was visiting. Breakfast had been homemade yogurt with fruit, nice breads, havarti sliced thin with a special cutter. Gramma had more faith than Mother Teresa, wore out Bibles like a marathon runner wears out shoes. I needed a spiritual guide like her, but churchy stuff didn’t fit into my life now. It called for something flakier, like a fairy. Did fairies exist?

Maybe only on this island. I fished in my pockets for a token. I’d never left one before, but today felt different. All I had was a gum wrapper, a piece of baling string, and a dull penny. I placed the coin queen side up near the whimsical door.

Have faith. My faith rested in nature, the trail. I experienced flash-like certainties that a higher power pushed and pulled things. Beergut would demand proof, but I could offer none. Faith stood like a fairy door on rock. You had to believe it would open into a magical cavern, that logical matter didn’t support it.

Snippets remained from my religious past, such as Psalm 121: I lift my eyes up to the hills. From where will my help come? This mountain comforted me, but I simmered with questions. My biggest one: how do I fix things/ get happy?

Ahead, Bugdog rounded a corner and threw a squirrel into panic. The creature flashed brown as it hightailed it up the nearest Douglas fir.

The reasons were always with me, a wound gathering pus. If you don’t leave soon it’ll get harder. Gramma? No, it was me.

*     *     *

Hiking wasn’t the only thing that Bugdog and I did for fun. My molars rattled as gravel spun out from my tires. Wind whipped my face, blackberry brambles from the ditch whizzed by; all but the moment was obliterated.

“ROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!”

Going on a “roar” meant taking off down the road by bicycle while Bugdog tore beside me, black lightning. He overtook me then waited at the mailbox, panting.

We turned around and strolled back up the hill.

A few minutes later, Beergut met me in the kitchen with a peck and squeeze. “How was your roar?”

“Amazing.”

“Want your breakfast now, Babe?”

“Think I’ll take it outside.”

He handed me a plate with a perfectly toasted sandwich: English muffin, egg, cheese, bacon. Beergut set his mug amid desk-clutter and he scrolled through today’s Old White Man Blog about the Evil Federal Reserve. Special Son was already upstairs.

I didn’t care what the others were up to when it was sunny. The picnic table ten feet away from the front door called to my parched skin. On a day like this, I’d savour my coffee, think only what happens now, and not give a shit about the future.

*     *     *

I pulled myself up the final rock face, keeping a healthy distance from the edge. Here, the clearing stretched forward, bluff sprawled then plunged to the ocean. The summit was marked by a bench—in front of which a concrete slab with a groove stood; this permanent bowl commemorated “Rosie.” I pulled the water bottle from my backpack and topped up the cusp for Bugdog. He sniffed cautiously, then lapped it up.

I plunked my slightly chilled ass onto the bench. The view never failed to impress, even sullied by clouds. To the East, I could see across the channel to the next small island; to the West and North stood the big one. In clear weather I might see all the way up the coast, but that day only the white wisp from the pulp mill was visible. By the position of the outbound ferry I calculated the time as somewhere around 11:30.

Reasons to stay. Home. The Property, just as much mine as his, pulled me up the road. Dorothy was right, there’s no place like it. Romance. Beergut and I never celebrated Valentine’s, anniversaries, or the like. Instead, we drank kit shiraz, danced in the kitchen to our favorites—Cowboy Junkies, Ian Tyson, Bob Dylan. Beergut, saturated with charm, made a rural James Bond, and I was putty. Joy moments. Jumping into the lake on a hot day. Looking down at the gulf from the mountaintop. Getting a furry headbutt from my favorite calf. Falling asleep in the tent on the back acres. Roaring. Every now and then, I remembered I was alive.

Two crows sat on a boulder, cah-cawed. Bugdog, never interested in birds, studied puddles again.

Reasons to leave: I’m done. Being ignored, taken for granted. Telling Beergut I needed respite. Him laughing. The life I could have. Without him, details unknown. I can see this ending before it’s begun.

I knew with a bolt: get out, and soon. I knew where to escape, the idea embedded in the soil of my brain for years: go East, teach English. I didn’t need a fairy after all, just my own head.

God started spitting on my face. Rain. I shivered as Bugdog questioned me; it was time to go. I made my way down the steepest bit, grabbed onto trunks for stability. The rough bark bit my palms, drew me from numbness. I started crying. Passersby wouldn’t notice because water flowed everywhere now, heading downhill.

*     *    *

Some men say, I love you. Beergut said, I want to make you pancakes. Six little words–forever in time nothing rings as pure. Whenever he felt especially affectionate, out came the old Joy cookbook. The main room smelled dense of grinds from the big green can. The sizzle of the grill under his skillful machinist hands sang eternal devotion. True hearts, Cinderella’s Prince twittering lovebirds draping ribbons over everything and all that bullshit.

I ate it up, his love, in pancakes, smothered in no-name syrup. Because that was my way of saying, I love you back.

*     *     *

“Plane doesn’t wait, doesn’t wait!” says Special Son. He’s right. If I don’t say goodbye soon, I’ll be cutting it close to boarding time.

I can’t look at Special Son in the eyes, even though I’d carefully lied that The Leaving had nothing to do with him.

Always cheerful, he doesn’t change tone. “Bye, Old Girl!” We hug. Special Son and I never embrace, not since the talk about inappropriate touching, so it feels like a necessary gravity between strangers.

“Well.” I turn to Beergut, lean into his musty embrace. Already, I choke tears through nostrils. When I cry, my nose runs, but I never have a tissue so I just snuffle.

“Marry me,” he says, for the umpteenth time. His breath slaps moist against my earlobe. His tension of every limb presses against me.

His desperate tone makes me think, at long last he knows I’m leaving. For weeks, he’s been laughing it off. And here it comes down to putting me on the plane, the switch in his brain saying, maybe she’s serious. No shit, Sherlock.

I shake my head as our lips touch briefly. Stepping away feels like letting go of an old dream. I shrug off the familiar electricity of his skin, his being.

*     *     *

I squeeze my eyes shut, angry at the rupture I’m tearing into my life. But the fairy doorstep pops into my head. A crack in the rock, new greenery springing up through the crevice. A voice (likely my own) tells me to get on the plane. And I listen.

I spin on my heels and dash past the smoked partition, no glance behind. Look back and turn to a pillar of salt, like that wife in the Bible. I can’t see squat through snotty tears, but, from the food court, I can smell breakfast.

G MorckGenevieve Morck, an alumna of the MFA Writing Program at the University of Victoria, now lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She wears many hats, including those of an ESL professional, hiker, biker, yoga dabbler, and bingo caller. She recently completed a Masters of Education degree from Simon Fraser University (just for kicks).

Home is Home

The car goes around a bend. The windows are up, the air cool, and we are hemmed in from every angle by the afternoon sun. In the back seat, my mother clasps my palm, as though to assure herself that I am really here.

We ease onto IBB Way. On either side, the town lies low and still, unburdened by the inflow of the season. The streetlights are sequined by Christmas décor. At the closest roundabout, tiny stars and bells garland an iron sculpture. I marvel at the clear sparkling roads, the sequence of space, the swept-smooth sidewalks bordered by chiseled lawns. But when I mention this, my mother says Calabar is no longer clean.

At first her words stop me. I am fresh from Lagos, after all, that great city of ambitious minds and endless bridges, dirt and sweat as much a part of its architecture as concrete and steel. That ugly place I have come to love; perhaps because of its unapologetic frenzy, its startling contradictions. Then I turn back to the window, looking out at a carnival billboard, unsurprised that my mother and I see Calabar differently now.

*     *     *

Before, the Calabar of my childhood: a slumberous Nigerian town content with its pace. Marian Road, the coolest road, was a long single strip of tar that cracked through elegant buildings. Aunty Margaret, the star primary school my sisters and I attended, fared opposite the wide sprawl of Desam House. Up ahead sat High Quality Bakery, where the sweet-tasting air made me fall in love with bread. Further down, behind a small grove of trees, came Sacramento Estate with its mosaic swimming pool. I would often stare at the turquoise ripples, terrified of slipping in.

My sisters and I excelled in school, showed up at birthday parties, played hopscotch and ten-ten and noti. We went to mass on Sundays. Afterward, if we behaved, my cousin would take us to see the Sunday-Sunday Show at Cultural Centre. In the dim theatre, I would shore up my laughter to match everyone’s, especially at the parts of the play I did not understand. On weekdays at four p.m., when NTA 9 began to broadcast, we would settle on the sofa and disappear into the tube, thrown into an animated world where Voltron was Lord. On Thursday nights, the series Checkmate moulded us into its taut grip. Then there were the commercial breaks, when we sang along with Joy soap and clapped in beat with Milo. Later, if I thought no one was watching, I would gloss my lips, sit in a bathtub filled with foamy water, and imagine I was the sloe-eyed girl in the Joy soap commercial.

Reading was our truest calling. American and British classics stood like boulders on our upper bookshelf. The African Writers Series bled across the middle, an orange and white turf. I ignored them all in my early life, bewitched by Enid Blyton. Friday nights were for movies, and Saturday mornings for trips with my father to Cyril Supermarket, those glorious aisles of sleek paperbacks. Nobody thought it strange, me being a writer. My mother used to keep my stories and manuscripts in her bedside drawer.

One weekend, my sisters and I formed a club called Summer, a mash-up of Blyton’s The Famous Five and The Secret Seven—or so we believed. It had a mournful anthem and a tallying system that favoured the oldest. We held meetings in the garden. If we’d awakened to rain, peach-coloured hibiscuses would flood the walkway in the shape of sodden tissue paper. We rarely cleaned up the mess. Instead we leapt and landed on our invented kingdom. At times an adult walked past and warned us not to climb any tree. We never listened. Standing on a firm branch of the almond tree, basking in its green shade, a weak flame of sun straining through, made us feel as though we were the few on earth exactly where they ought to be.

On the other side of the compound, the whistling pine tree loomed over the landscape. It was a grand monument to Christmas. Every December, when a loop of blinking lights was strung around it, the season became more real, more noble than a time to give and get, to see family and friends, all billowy dresses and cross-body bags.

During the Akwa-Cross Trade Fair, we pretended not to know my cousin was the man in the Father Christmas costume. After mass on Christmas Day, we would drive to Calabar Road to see the Ekpe masquerades. They swept past in their swaggering might, staff in right hand, followed by a large band of drummers and singers. I liked to think of the Ekpe as black stick figures stuck in giant red doughnuts. Still, I crouched in the back seat when they moved close.

By the end of each outing, a dark plot for another would be gleaning in me. The world beyond our house, it seemed, was where excitement truly lived.

*     *     *

But home is where my blood is. Home is home. Why else, on my arrival, does my eight-month-old niece fit into my arms with no protest, as if she knows who I am? My younger brother is taller, his voice deeper, and as I sense the way he masters his thoughts before speaking, my soul bellies-out with pride. I watch my father too often—giving orders to workmen, walking to the garage—and the new fragility in his gait worries me.

I, too, am getting older. Christmas Day is like any other day. The smell of Christmas—a crisp, heady presence that stoked my childhood—is gone. What is left of the whistling pine tree is a stump of wood. When my mother tells me again about the Biafran War in the late 1960s, I listen more than I speak.

I found myself recounting the sum of my memory, hoping to remember if we had ever spoken of what might come next, wondering how I became a visitor in my own home.

Now, my sensibilities are wholly present, so I come to terms with this version of a person: my mother but not yet my mother, hiding in a half-collapsed hut in Ogoja during an air raid, wading through the Cross River with the Ikom Bridge blown off, missing school for three years because there were no schools. At this point, her lower lip curls. My mother is the rare Nigerian parent who really did come first in class.

On the 28th we gather before the TV to watch the carnival. Girls dance by, long-limbed and smooth-skinned, appliquéd wings flaring at their backs. A boy leaps off a tower of shoulders, his nimble body the nearest thing to grace. The camera switches to a wide overhead view. In the bright curve of revellers, skin and satin meld, and the scale of it gives me the sensation of inhaling wonder.

At night, a friend visits. We sit and talk. It pleases me, that I still know when she is about to laugh. We head out to find a cab. Outside the gate, I slow my hurried footsteps, smothered by the moment: the warm, humid air settling where it will; the stadium lights hurling a delicate, pearlescent glow around; the fireworks blowing and fizzing up high. On Marian Road, crowds thrive in place of cars, moving in every direction, as though in search of a new spectacle. One can almost believe the carnival has always been here.

*     *     *

It began with the roads. Some were tarred, others widened, the land gaining a sudden vastness that shocked the sloth from it. Although Calabar had always been reasonably clean, a social awareness campaign elevated the culture, so that cleanliness shifted into something divine. Driven by opportunity, foreign investors rushed into Tinapa, a free-trade zone and resort modelled as a first on the continent.

The government set up an annual Christmas festival with a string of balls, a series of concerts, a boat regatta, a beauty pageant. Even before they built the Christmas village, a cluster of shops with everything from snacks to souvenirs, there were stories of hotels being overbooked, of families renting out rooms. The carnival, our best card, made an arrival with five unique bands. By then, the rest of the country couldn’t help but notice. Cross River State found its voice as a major tourism destination.

The air moved at a speed that forced us to breathe anew. My younger brother didn’t care for NTA. Cartoon Network was what he loved. My big sisters and I grew up and moved to other cities, other countries. A few years after I left, my parents hired a team to cut down the almond tree. It had tangled with the electricity cables and disrupted power. The whistling pine tree turned into a haven for boisterous owls. Nothing more. When I received the news of its felling, I made a fine drama of it on the phone. “We’ll plant another one,” my mother said in a steady voice.

My short visits were days of discovery—a water park, a movie theatre, a fast food restaurant. Every unknown sight drew a flush of joy. Every slight change took on an exaggerated breath. Once, driving past a new store with my younger sister, I gestured at it, light at heart, but she shrugged like the whole thing was normal. I found myself recounting the sum of my memory, hoping to remember if we had ever spoken of what might come next, wondering how I became a visitor in my own home. There is a saying in certain Nigerian languages. A loose English translation reads, “The legs with which you go to Lagos are not the same legs with which you will return.” In my case, to come from Lagos was to be pleased with progress in the only place that is fully formed in my dreams, but to assume the fear that one day all I saw in those dreams would vanish.

I wanted to know who designed the new state logo, why Paragon Video closed, what was Jasper? From my younger siblings, a classic “Ushie” response would emerge, coiffed in the same dry wit I threw at anyone stunned by the ordinary. It brought to mind the night, many years before, when my mother told us how on NTA News, she had spotted the owner of Cyril Supermarket in a line-up of armed robbery suspects. We’d asked what would happen to the supermarket, and my mother opened her palms, a motion along the lines of “what other thing could possibly happen?”

I remember, even then, being suffused by a kind of despair. What bothered me most wasn’t the entire business, in truth, but the idea of the books that lured my imagination into life rotting away elsewhere.

*     *     *

I ride along to Marina with two old friends. Awaiting us is a well-tended resort overlooking the pier. The chain of carnivals is over—the mood in town that of recovery. At Eleven-Eleven, through the wound-up window, I see glitter caught on a slab, maybe some fallout from a costume. In front of makeshift booths, photographers display street portraits taken amid the festivity. Some of them will never be claimed.

The parking lot in Marina is almost full. We find a spot and walk down the promenade. We place our orders in a thatch hut. Across from us the Cross River leafs out, mile upon mile of grey, an unending panorama of water. From this distance, the canopied foliage opens out, launching itself into the horizon. Where once there were slave ships, a speedboat service appears to be at its peak. It is nothing at all like my childhood. In the crevices of my memory, this place will forever stay a seafood market.

A waiter approaches, his abashed bearing already saying what we’d rather not hear—the cold drinks and roasted fish are finished. We move to a lounge opposite the carousel. Here, still, the Chapman I crave is absent, so I make do with a soft drink. It loses its fizz as we catch up with our different lives. At issue is a decision: which city has the most absurd rents—Lagos or Abuja? We agree, in the end, it is a matter of relativity. Soon the bill comes, small enough for only one of us to handle. I think how when I eat out with friends in Lagos, I am quick to make sure we all contribute, even if someone offers to pay the whole sum.

On our way back to the car, I watch a teenage boy on the carousel, forehead low on the pole as though in prayer. Perhaps his insistence on claiming a space meant for a child is some form of rebellion, some twisted refusal to accept he is no longer one. Perhaps he is merely looking out for a younger sibling. Only when my friends speak do I realise they have noticed him too. One says she wonders why he is on a children’s amusement ride. The other admits she’d once done something similar. I imagine myself in a far-off park, all set to be the lone adult in a balloon race, but shame gets the better of me and my vision flounders.

The day after, I leave for the airport two hours before my flight. My mother draws close to me in the back seat. Yet I feel the pull of Lagos, a life I love and loathe alike, the days ordered by briefs and plans ruined by traffic. I will the world to do as I please, to bend time and circumstance into a straight line. The purpose, of course, is to trade in the hectic city for the laid-back town of old. But such a thing is impossible, delusive, even. And I wonder, as the car ascends the sloping airport road, if accepting my divided self will always be impossible too.

Suzanne Ushie - Photo_ResizedSuzanne Ushie grew up in Calabar, Nigeria. Her short stories have appeared in Fiction Fix, Conte Online, The Writing Disorder, Gambit: Newer African Writing and elsewhere. Her essays have been published by Saraba and Brittle Paper. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she received the African Bursary for Creative Writing and made a Distinction. She is a 2016 OMI Fellow at Ledig House.

A Few More Miles

It never gets easier, you just go faster. —Greg LeMond

After my father’s stroke, after months of rehab, after coming to terms with the fact that the blind spot on his right side—his lost peripheral vision—was the new normal, his doctor told him he couldn’t ride his bicycle.

Last fall he had aortic valve replacement surgery to fix a heart condition he was born with, the same condition that ultimately killed his own father. The surgery went according to plan. They didn’t know he’d suffered a stroke until two days later, when he had recovered enough from the anesthesia for someone to notice that he was acting funny. In the aftermath of his surgery and the stroke, my father says his heart is twenty years younger, but I know that twenty percent of his brain is gone forever.

He lost his ability to work his job of twenty-nine years, he lost a good bit of short-term memory, which forced him into an early retirement, and now this: his beloved bicycling. This too was going to be taken away from him.

I have a picture from early September, before the surgery, of my parents at Scooter’s, an ice cream shop they like to ride to together on a black Burley tandem. They celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary with a ride and two giant sugar cones. My mom held hers in the air, as if giving a toast. Dad did the awkward selfie lean, trying to get them both in the picture.

And what now?

Life is a stage race like the tour, not one all-out sprint or time trial. There are days of sun and days of rain; wins and losses; successes, failures, and recoveries.

After a winter of too much TV, daily walks around the neighborhood no matter how cold it was, painstakingly typed comments on my Facebook page because of how slowly his writing skills are returning, I was afraid he would give up. I feared my father—this man who called me on his fifty-eighth birthday and told me he’d set out to ride fifty-eight miles in honor of the occasion, but tired out and only rode fifty; this man who had ridden every single mile of two coast-to-coast bicycle trips, from California to North Carolina—would become a couch potato. I feared he would sit at home and watch Fox News all day.

*     *     *

Greg LeMond was the first American to win the Tour de France. It was 1986. I was two years old. This was before Lance Armstrong became famous, and then infamous; before helmets were required; before all of the doping scandals. Back when hardly anyone in the United States was paying attention to the Tour.

I grew up admiring LeMond. Every summer my dad and I would sit on the couch in our family basement and watch the Tour. I cheered for whomever my dad favored that year, with English journalist Phil Liggett’s voice—synonymous with quality sports commentary—in my mind.

As a child I was carted around the Midwest to bicycle road races. I cheered for my dad from a big orange blanket along the sidelines. There were usually children’s races, too, and when I was old enough I rode my pink tricycle down the short, straight course at one of them. I pushed those black plastic pedals as hard as I could, my chubby little legs pumping up and down. I received a bronze medal strung on red, white, and blue ribbon, and ate pink cotton candy with my family to celebrate.

When I was six, I got a pink two-wheeler for my birthday. It came with training wheels, but soon my dad was teaching me to get along without them. He’d run behind me, holding onto the seat for moral support, and then he would let go. I would fly down the sidewalk, skidding to a stop with the coaster brakes when I reached the corner, waiting for him to help me cross the street and begin again.

The joy that pink bicycle brought to my childhood was not so different from the joy bicycling has continued to bring me throughout my life. There have been many family vacations spent camping and riding, afternoons pedaling around with friends in the neighborhood where I grew up, escapes from campus on warm afternoons in my small college town. There has always been a bicycle in my life.

When I graduated from college and moved to North Carolina, I had never owned a car, or even had a driver’s license. Everyone thought now that I had a college degree in hand surely I would grow up, learn to drive, and buy a vehicle like any self-respecting adult in North America. But I was about to begin graduate school in theology, and the idea of buying a car seemed laughable to me. I didn’t want to drive and never had, which was why I hadn’t gotten a license when I turned sixteen. Instead I sought out an apartment that was within walking distance of campus, the grocery store, and a coffee shop, arguing that those were the only places I was likely to hang out for the next two years. That proved mostly true.

Graduate school didn’t last forever though, and when I finished my master’s degree I took several part-time jobs and no longer had time for walking and waiting at bus stops. When my parents came down for graduation, Dad spent an afternoon on the porch with the old purple commuter bike he and my mom got me when I was fourteen. He overhauled the drivetrain, trued the wheels, and added a rack on the back to which I could attach panniers for carrying my groceries. It was everything I needed in a reliable vehicle. Then he presented me with a Duke-blue tire pump with a big bow on it. My graduation present.

*     *     *

The transition to daily commuting was not entirely smooth; there were obstacles ranging from flat tires to fitness to inclement weather. Few things make me want to stay in bed more than waking to the sound of rain on the rooftop in February. If the temperature is below 40, I may even start wishing that I had a car.

I get up anyway. I make coffee. I check weather.com. I forgo a shower, because it never seems worthwhile when I know I will be doused with rainwater shortly. I put extra socks and shoes in my waterproof courier bag, pour what’s left of my coffee into a thermos, and tuck that in the bag as well.

Donning a navy blue raincoat, black nylon pants with velcro at the ankles, and my oldest sneakers which smell like wet dog from previous soakings, I am out the door into the rain. I swing my leg over the crossbar of my white road bike and push off down the street. The drops fall freely, without concern for the inconvenience they’ve caused me, weighing down my long hair, obscuring my vision. I live near a golf course and the long, flat stretch of road that runs alongside it presents a different view every morning. On bright, chilly winter days I watch the sky turn pink and orange through the tree line as the sun rises. On humid days my eyes pick out benches and sand traps through the dense fog. In summer, I see early risers getting in a quick game before work.

On rainy days the course is abandoned. In the early morning dampness everything looks a brighter shade of green. The air is clean and invigorating as I start to pedal harder, moving toward my destination by the strength of my own legs. I have been dreading this since I woke up, yet it is never as bad in actuality as it seemed from the warmth of my apartment.

Bicycling is hard work and, especially in the summer, that work induces sweat. In four years of bicycle commuting, despite lots of sunscreen, I’ve watched my face become more and more freckled. I’ve chosen to ignore catcalls induced by skimpy clothing, because when the heat index is over a hundred degrees, who really cares what the homeless guy I pass each day on Ninth Street has to say about my legs? I haven’t the energy. I’m focused on movement, labored breaths, the feel of the sun beating down on my back, and the heat radiating from the pavement when I stop at a red light.

I’m picturing Greg LeMond riding into Paris and I am willing myself to keep going, to beat my only competitor, the voices inside my own head:

Grow up and get a driver’s license.

Its unattractive for a woman to be so sweaty all the time.

We live in a car culture; get used to it.

Cycling isnt safe in cities in the United States.

Why arent you in better shape after four years of this?

This last one runs through my head every time I ride up a street with a respectable hill. It never gets easier.

Not long after LeMond’s historic win in 1986, he was injured in a hunting accident on a trip with his uncle. He survived with thirty shotgun pellets inside his body, and spent two years in recovery before his career picked up again. He went on to win the Tour de France twice more, in 1989 and 1990. LeMond was among the best in the world, yet most people in the United States didn’t know who he was. Oh, sure, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after his comeback in ‘89, but what about all of those years leading up to that? Years when people believed that American cyclists would never be able to compete with Europeans? His victory in ‘86—the first ever for an American cyclist in 85 years of the Tour de France—happened in relative obscurity when compared to the fame that later followed Lance Armstrong. LeMond was never a celebrity in that way.

Most of life is like that. The goals we set, the things we care about, what we hope to accomplish—very few people will see them. Training rides, weightlifting, junior races—LeMond did these things like every other racer, building his career one day at a time. Cycling, even as a commuter, is a mental game as much as any competitive sport I have ever played. When I am sticky with sweat, when my mouth is dry and my muscles burn and I want to quit, I think about LeMond after that accident and the pain of getting back on a bicycle after physical trauma, when people said he was finished. I think about LeMond racing and not winning. And then I think about a poster on my brother’s bedroom wall of LeMond sprinting for the finish line at the 1989 World Championships with two European riders on his wheel, in the rain. His muscles bulge, wet hair is plastered to his forehead, and his mouth hangs open as if releasing a battle cry. His eyes are focused straight ahead on the finish line. He is going to get what he came for.

As I pedal up these modest hills in North Carolina’s Piedmont, I have to fix my eyes on the road ahead and keep pedaling. Life is a stage race like the Tour, not one all-out sprint or time trial. There are days of sun and days of rain; wins and losses; successes, failures, and recoveries.

*     *     *

Someday I will lose him.

That is the thought most present since the stroke. That, and he is still here. We get to keep him for a while.

Death, mortality, finitude—these are not new concepts to me. I have pondered their meanings philosophically. I have experienced the yawning chasm of loss. My uncle, Steve, when I was in 6th grade: heroin overdose. My other uncle, Joe, when I was in 8th grade: liver failure due to alcoholism. My seventeen-year-old friend Ryan: car accident. Gravel, tree, the curve of a road that led not to the endless possibilities of life beyond high school, but to one final ending for him, confusion and grief for the rest of us. But these losses never prepared me for the reality that someday I will lose my own parents.

Since the stroke, my father has been more open. He cries easily now. He simply cannot hold certain emotions in any longer. Home in Kalamazoo for Thanksgiving, I sat in a chair across from him while my sister played the grand piano in the living room. A month after his surgery, the scar across his chest was still pronounced, his heart healing while the rest of his body was in limbo. Tears filled his eyes and I watched him blink them back in what appeared to me a silent denial and quiet sorrow, and also, somehow, gratitude. He could have died. He knows this. Instead he is sitting here, listening to his daughter play piano as he has so many times before.

“I cry more easily since the stroke,” he told me on the phone last week, verbalizing what I had already seen. He says it like it’s a physical side-effect and, though I don’t know much about medicine, I assume this is his way of explaining displays of emotion previously so out of character. Before this, there was only one time I remembered seeing my father cry, and one time when I heard it in his voice over the phone and tried to ignore it.

The first time was after we packed up the Volvo to drive to North Carolina the summer I moved to Durham for graduate school. My clothes and books and a few stray boxes of kitchen stuff were packed tightly into the trunk, my cat was in her pink carrier in the back seat, drugged up for the long drive, and Dad had loaded my bike onto the roof rack. He, my mother, the cat, and I would be road-tripping down, and then they would drive off and leave me in a city and state I had never laid eyes on before, where I didn’t know a single soul.

In the driveway he told me he was proud of me. I politely pretended not to see the tears in his eyes, while more welled up in my own.

And then there was the night before his surgery, when he called me.

It was only in the weeks right before the surgery that its seriousness took hold of me.

They will break his sternum, I thought. They will cut open his heart. They will break him open; will they be able to put him back together?

On the phone that night before the surgery he tried to hold his voice steady, but I could hear everything he wasn’t saying—everything I wasn’t saying—in the tremor of his voice. A friend was picking me up as I said goodbye; she and I were going to our favorite brewery for a drink. I was in a hurry, and I felt guilty about that, but I also think now that it wasn’t just about getting where I was going. It was about my inability to fathom my own fear that this conversation could be the last one I ever had with my father.

It wasn’t. And yet it was the last one I ever had with that version of him. They cut him open, they sewed him up, they gave him back to us—but he will never be the same.

If you spoke with him, you might not know that anything is wrong. His short-term memory was the primary loss; most of the other difficulties have been overcome, gradually, with therapy. So he pauses mid-sentence, dancing around the word he wants but cannot find, his brain trying to form new pathways where the old ones have been erased—trying and sometimes failing, though succeeding more often now than in those first few months. Still, it isn’t enough. The loss of memory and the loss of sight on his right side, led to the loss of his job. He is only fifty-nine and was not ready to retire.

We used to talk about how someday, when he was ready to retire, he would come down to North Carolina and we’d take a bike trip together. Bicycling had become the glue to our relationship, which has been difficult as I’ve become an adult. I don’t see eye-to-eye with my parents on much when it comes to politics and religion and—though they are supportive of my work, my art, my impractical career choices and graduate degrees—there is a breach between us that often seems impossibly wide.

A couple of summers ago I rode on the back of the tandem with him for the first time. It was a strange experience, riding a bicycle and not being the one in control of steering it. I told my mother when we got home that he was the only person I could imagine trusting enough that I would be willing to give up that control. He’s been cycling for decades, and I trust his experience. Also, I am his daughter.

Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway is a dream of mine, and I thought one of these days perhaps we’d do it together. He rode sections years ago on those coast-to-coast trips—another thing I dream of doing with him—though I’ve known for a while that he probably didn’t have a third one in him. But part of the parkway—that, I always thought we could do together.

*     *     *

I guess he couldn’t take it anymore.

He didn’t listen to his doctor. He trusted the fact that he has ridden the same routes in Kalamazoo for decades, that his favorite route is all right turns. He chose to believe that he could learn his new limits and that, even though he’ll never be able to drive again, he could learn to bicycle once more.

In April, on the first day he rode, he posted on Facebook—grammar and spelling only slightly jumbled—that it was the best day since his heart surgery six months before. The best therapy he could ask for, he said. His heart was ready for this.

But his eyes might not be.

Yes, six months after surgery he rode his bike. I did not believe that would ever happen again. But even in my joy I knew that this was not a step on a brilliant recovery narrative. His eyesight is not coming back. These limitations are here to stay. And so he will adapt. He will have to limit himself. And many of our plans will not fit within those limits.

He tells me how he double- and triple-checks before crossing busy streets. How, because of the way his vision was affected by the stroke, cars look closer than they actually are. We take comfort in this: better that they appear closer, making him overly cautious, than the other way around.

He rides with friends, some new, some old. They look out for him. And yet, he tells me, one day a couple weeks ago he started to cross an intersection and stopped at the last minute when he realized there was a car coming he’d missed the first time he scanned. He stopped in time.

But it scared him. It scared me, too.

I would never tell him to stop riding. I cannot. I cannot bear the thought of losing him, but I will lose him either way. The father that I love will waste away if he cannot do this, of that I am sure. And I would rather he take this risk in order to live than that he give up and tumble into despair.

My father worked too hard for many years. He coached my soccer teams, went to all of my figure skating competitions, worked third-shift and overtime so that my siblings and I could have the education and opportunities he did not have.

I wanted him to have the retirement he planned on, and that is gone now.

Today, he will go to occupational therapy. Today, he will check Facebook, and “like” the link to my latest blog post. Today, he will say something political that I disagree with, and I will choose to ignore it because I love him too much to fight anymore. Today, I still have my father and I don’t much care about brilliant recovery narratives, climbing mountains, or triumphant entries into Paris.

I will never get on the back of that tandem with him again. I will never ride the Blue Ridge Parkway with him. But maybe, next time I am at home in Michigan, we will take a spin out to Scooter’s. We will ride together a few more miles.

Meghan FlorianMeghan Florian earned an MTS from Duke University and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. She is the Creative Writing Editor at The Other Journal. Her work has been published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon, Religion Dispatches, and elsewhere. She lives, writes, and teaches in Durham, North Carolina.

Party of One

Wo shi yi ge ren.”

Chinese for I am alone. Party of one. In English the phrase sounds celebratory: you’re alone, but hey, it’s still a party. Chinese lacks that aura of metaphorical festivity. You just count. One. I contemplate counting as I report my solitary number to the hostess at a restaurant in Suzhou, China’s city of canals.

I’m used to being a party of one. At home in Minnesota, my husband, Will, often sends me on my own to the opera or ballet, offering himself up as a chauffeur if it means I’ll excuse him from actually having to sit through the performance. I’ve traveled alone before, to New York and LA and Europe. I’ve hiked alone in the forests along Lake Superior.

But this trip is different. I’m 56. It’s my first time in China. I studied Chinese almost 40 years ago, before it was easy for Americans to travel and study here. Now I’m speaking more Chinese than I’d anticipated, surprising myself and the occasional Chinese service worker, like this hostess in Suzhou.

I picture what she sees as she looks at me. A middle aged white lady, walking around China alone during the off-season. The light rain has fogged my glasses and frizzed my hair. I am short. I am stout. I am sporting a travel-safe purse, strapped across my chest like a beauty queen’s sash. My sturdy walking shoes and water-resistant winter jacket proclaim neither the crisp sophistication of an international businesswoman nor the one-world panache of a globe-trotting bohemian.

If it proclaims anything, my appearance is screaming, “Help me, I’ve lost my tour bus.”

But when I open my mouth, I speak calmly in Mandarin. The hostess shakes her head, blinks and stares. It’s what most Chinese people do when they hear me. My accent isn’t great, but at least half the time they understand what I’ve said.

*     *     *

Friends were impressed that I decided to travel to China on my own. Being a party of one isn’t usually impressive. More often than not, it’s just embarrassing. I felt embarrassed when I went alone to a Garth Brooks concert about a month before my trip to China. I didn’t tell anyone I was going, and I was nervous about being there alone. What if the audience started singing? Or worse, dancing? Who would help me if someone spilled beer on my head? These perils didn’t typically arise when one went solo to a movie or the opera, but this concert would be different. It was being held in a big arena. Did people even go alone to shows like that? Would the other concert-goers feel sorry for me? Would they think I was a strange, pathetic creature in late-middle age, lacking the social wherewithal to find even one person to accompany her to a major, 11 sold-out performances, entertainment extravaganza?

Going to Garth Brooks was a lot like crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. You just have to step off the curb.   Once I’d bought my ticket and gotten myself downtown, there was no choice but to keep going.

But I really wanted to see Garth Brooks. The country megastar had been the soundtrack I’d used to raise my children. It started when my son, Anthony, was about two. He didn’t talk much. I didn’t know too many other at-home moms. It was before any of my friends had children, before I’d figured out whether and when I’d resurrect my professional life. But Anthony had a cowboy hat and boots, and he loved dancing to the Garth Brooks CDs I’d play on our living room stereo. And in that long stretch of empty between end-of-nap and dinner, I would wait for Will to get home and I would watch my son dance and I would listen to Garth’s fast licks and riffs, the bright major chords, the lyrics that celebrated wild red-haired girls and rodeo riders and all those friends in low places. The thumping tempo was a heartbeat pulsing through my lonely afternoons.

Years later, when the papers announced the concert, I knew I had to go. None of my friends wanted to come with me, and I knew better than to ask Will. A reasonably devoted husband in most ways, Will hates country music almost as much as he hates downtown traffic. He didn’t even offer to give me a ride.

Will did give me a ride to the airport the morning I left for Asia. I was nervous before the trip, like I’d been before the concert. What if I didn’t have the right visas? What if my luggage got lost? What if I was so overwhelmed with loneliness that I became too dispirited to sightsee, and wasted days and nights in my hotel room, a hermit hiding from adventure who’d traveled across the world just to order room service, watch TV, and mark time for nearly four weeks? What if there was no TV?

“You’ll be fine,” Will assured me. Easy for him to say. He couldn’t guess how sad I might feel when I finally stood under the image of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, but was standing there alone.

Still I knew I had to go. Our daughter, Lydia, was on a yearlong study program in Asia. The college had invited the parents to a banquet in Vietnam. It was too expensive for Will to come with me, but I wanted to see Lydia during her long year away. And Vietnam was just a stone’s throw from China. I’d waited decades. I had the vacation time. I was used to going places on my own. And I knew enough Chinese to be able to request a table for one.

*     *     *

My meager language ability wards off total isolation as I travel through China, but I’m not delusional about my skills. When I ask the Suzhou hostess for a table, I reflexively extend my right index finger upward, pantomiming my solitude in case my pronunciation isn’t clear. When it comes time to order I’m relieved that the menu translates the word for eel, a local specialty that I’m eager to try.

In the end it’s just as well that I’m on my own, because I’m making a mess with my chopsticks. The thin slices of eel keep slipping back to the plate, even when I try to secure them with a strand of fresh ginger from the miniature condiment bowl. A waitress rushes over, holding out a fork, but I smile and wave her away.

Kuaizi hen hao,” I declare, the chopsticks are fine.

I’m hoping she’ll understand from my smile—and the fact that I know the word for “chopsticks”—that I am not the type of traveler who requires culturally inappropriate tableware. Still, the eel is coated in thick, sweet sauce. When the waitress returns with extra napkins, I’m happy to accept them.

*     *     *

And there are times when I’m happy being alone.

Art museums, for example, I like to read the signs and learn the history. Sometimes I just want to sit in front of a painting for a long time without worrying if a companion is getting bored. I’ll stare at the brushwork, marveling at the texture of Van Gogh’s strokes or at how the flecks of gold leaf still adhere after centuries to the surface of a Gothic altarpiece. As much as a book may transport the reader, the author’s pen hasn’t physically touched the pages; the same is not true for paintings. I think of the artist’s hands, the brush on the canvas, the decades or centuries that separate me from the corporeal reality of the work’s creation. Sometimes my heart races. I am a private time traveler, a party of one to my own imaginings.

*     *     *

I become a real time traveler when I cross the International Date Line, a party of one en route to Ho Chi Minh City. It’s almost midnight when I arrive. The streets are mobbed with cars and motorbikes. Lights in every color canopy the way to my hotel. Decorations for Christmas, just a few days away, the hotel driver tells me, and for the Vietnamese New Year, which will follow two months later. I am dazed from almost a full day of flying, and the lights are like a dream.

I have a few days for sightseeing before Lydia’s group arrives. My first morning I walk to the Reunification Palace, the Ben Thanh Market, the Central Post Office. Crossing the streets takes practice. The daytime roads are even more jammed than they’d been the night before, and few of the intersections have signal lights. Traffic never stops.

At first I’m terrified, so I slyly attach myself to groups of other pedestrians when I need to cross a street. Eventually, however, I’m stranded at a big intersection. Individual walkers here and there are getting across, but there’s no one else standing on my side of the curb. I wait. The engine din and stream of motion seem endless, but finally I get a sense of when the traffic will break. I find a focal point across the street. I keep my eyes forward, inhale the diesel-choked air, step off the curb and walk. My steps are even in time and equal in length; I trust the cars and motorbikes to weave around me.

When I reach the other side I look around, wondering if anyone has noticed. I wish I could tell someone how Zen it felt to become one with the chaos of traffic, to let go of my fear and adapt to this wild rhythm. None of the strangers walking past me in Ho Chi Minh care. No one gives me a thumbs up or offers a high five. I have stepped into the maelstrom of Ho Chi Minh traffic and will do so dozens of times over the next few days, but I will never share my triumph. I will coalesce into the swarm, become part of the city’s rumbling, ceaseless energy; but each time I step into the street, I will join the crowd alone.

*     *    *

Going to Garth Brooks was a lot like crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. You just have to step off the curb. Once I’d bought my ticket and gotten myself downtown, there was no choice but to keep going.

It was a long walk in from the parking lot to the arena. I stepped sprightly in my close-toed shoes and “secret-stretch” jeans, keeping my eyes forward until I found my seat. No one around me especially cared that I’d arrived, but I felt ready to celebrate. I hailed a vendor and bought myself an over-sweet, over-priced strawberry daiquiri that was served up in a souvenir plastic container shaped like a long-neck guitar. No one stared. No one spilled beer on my head. And the music was fantastic. When Garth played “Friends in Low Places” I sang like gangbusters, one off-key voice merging with the crowd’s.

*    *   *

Sometimes being alone works out better than expected; sometimes you don’t expect to be alone at all.

After Vietnam, Lydia and I travel together to Shanghai. She’s been here before, but back when we were making our plans she said it would be fun to go to Shanghai together. I’d imagined her showing me the sights, showing off her Chinese, the two of us strolling through Shanghai’s museums and along the Bund. Turns out Lydia is tired after a semester of studying. She has papers to write and friends to see. I am a party of one for most of my sightseeing in Shanghai, and when Lydia goes out with her friends one evening, I decide to stroll the Bund alone.

The Bund is Shanghai’s most famous street, lined with Art Deco and Beaux Arts banks and hotels that were built in the 1920s and ’30s, monuments to commerce and European imperialism and Shanghai’s age of glamour. On the other side of the Bund a raised pedestrian boulevard overlooks the Huangpu River. I cross to the promenade, aided by traffic lights; in China’s big cities, being a pedestrian requires no special skill.

From the promenade I look across the river to Pudong, a new part of Shanghai. It’s a city of tomorrow with skyscrapers created from orbs and angles and open spaces that soar like a fantasy amalgam of outer space, Disneyland, and dystopian cinema. At night the skyscrapers dazzle with bursts and patterns and rhythms of moving light and color, fireworks wrought in architecture. Behind me, along the Bund, the grander, more dignified facades are also illuminated, with stately lights that shine motionless and white. I walk the promenade, as if suspended between the river and the century that separate these two places: the stasis of history on one side, confronting the chimera of an inchoate future on the other.

I’m not nervous, alone at night. There are plenty of people out, but the promenade is not unpleasantly crowded. In just two nights, I will be in Hong Kong and will hear on my hotel television that 35 people were trampled to death on New Year’s Eve at the exact spot where I’m walking now. Someone will throw some money into the air and the far larger crowd gathered for the holiday will go out of control. But tonight I can easily find a space against the wall to stop and look out at Pudong, and I feel comfortable taking my time.

*   *    *

Time has changed how we experience being alone. There are some types of modern solitude that I love, like shopping online. It’s efficient and convenient; it protects my anonymity while eliminating any need to worry about being a party of one at the mall. And internet commerce doesn’t make me feel especially alone. Like most people, I shop online for lots of reasons, not just to protect myself from the embarrassment of public fitting rooms. Moreover, nothing about the items I purchase reveals the solitary process through which I acquired them. I can wear these new goods without being marked a loner.

There are, however, other technologies whose sole function is to promote and celebrate solitude. Those innovations make me uncomfortable.

It’s the difference between selfies and the selfie stick. Selfies, the smartphone’s unintended gift to autobiography, are innocent enough. A cell phone, after all, has many functions; it’s not just a tool for promoting narcissism and isolation. So a traditional selfie can result simply because you happened to find yourself alone at a marvelous place and were so overcome by the moment that you impetuously decided to use your phone to take a picture. There’s no shame in that.

Selfie sticks, on the other hand, destroy any possibility that one’s narcissism was unintended or one’s solitude unanticipated. Indeed, these collapsible rods, designed for the sole purpose of improving the photos one takes of oneself, require considerable forethought. You have to know you’re going somewhere interesting, anticipate the desire to take a picture and acknowledge the fact that you will inevitably want to be featured in the picture. You must also at some point have recognized the difficulty of achieving a flattering composition and angle, and spent the time and money necessary to acquire the photo-enhancing stick. Then you have to remember to pack the stick and carry it along. But the final mortification is that you use the stick in public, revealing to anyone who cares to notice the level of effort you’ve put into ensuring that your party of one photo will be the best picture possible.

I knew I’d be alone for some of the highlights of my trip to China, and I suppose I knew I’d end up taking pictures of myself at places like the Great Wall. Still, in all my planning and shopping, I didn’t think about getting a selfie-stick. I’m not immune from the seemingly insatiable modern desire to consecrate one’s image. But I prefer the illusion of spontaneity. I prefer not to broadcast the fact that I’ve anticipated my vanity photos, or that when those photo-worthy moments occurred, I knew I would be alone.

*    *   *

The Bund is Shanghai’s classic photo op, and I have enough archival drive to want to memorialize my presence here. People all around me are taking selfies. Young men who seem to be here alone photograph themselves with Pudong in the background; clusters of young women photograph themselves individually first, then take group selfies with their friends. I am virtually the only non-Asian around, and it is hard for me to tell if my fellow promenaders are locals or tourists, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone is taking pictures; no one is asking anyone else for help.

I am similarly self-reliant. Phone in hand, I stand with my back to Pudong, extend my arm, and smile brightly. It takes several shots for me to capture a picture in which the lights of Pudong are in focus and I—frizzy hair, blotchy skin, eyes open way too wide—don’t look totally crazed. Finally, I’m satisfied. In part. Truth is, I would have loved a picture of Lydia and me on the Bund.

*   *   *

Before my trip I hadn’t worried about being alone on the Bund, because I thought I’d be with Lydia; but I worried a lot about being alone in Tiananmen Square. Not because of safety or the possibility of getting lost or the legacy of the 1989 government crackdown on the student democracy movement. When most Americans think of Tiananmen I know they picture that grainy news photo of a tank barreling toward a lone student who’s raising his fist in protest.

Not me. My picture of Tiananmen goes back at least a decade earlier, to the beginning of my obsession with China. I was 15. I had been focused on French and German and getting to college where, my parents used to assure me, my “time would come.” Then I met my summer Park and Rec boss, Roy: handsome, blond, seven years my senior. Roy was also studying Chinese. I was interested in foreign languages and cultures and travel. I didn’t have to fake my interest in China, the way I had to fake just happening to run into Roy outside the YMCA on days I knew he’d be driving by on his way to work.

Maybe Roy wished he’d had a little sister. Over the next couple of years he took me on several platonic “dates,” during which we ate dim sum, went to screenings of Chinese revolutionary cinema, or shopped for propaganda posters. One day he bought me a poster of Tiananmen Square. It showed a long view of the square, facing the side with the iconic picture of Mao flanked by revolutionary slogans written in Chinese characters on horizontal banners. The Forbidden City, Roy explained, lay just beyond.

None of it was political—Roy had no agenda with Mao or with me. But I fell crazy in teenage love, not just with Roy, but also with this world of melodrama and rosy-cheeked peasant soldiers, and with this language that was written in tiny pictures and pronounced with tones. It all whirled together in my mind: China, Mao, the fact that a super-cute older guy was routinely spending time with me alone. At the end of our outings Roy would drop me off at home and say goodbye with a wave and a frustratingly appropriate kiss on my cheek. It sparked a fervor that was not purely revolutionary.

*   *   *

When I drop Lydia off at the airport, my heart clutches as I wave and watch her head off to rejoin her classmates. I’m on my own again, traveling in a seemingly magic bubble of sunshine. Beijing is the last city I visit. It is notorious for pollution but when I arrive the sky is blue, the air is crisp. I don’t want to waste the light, so I leave my hotel moments after I check in. I walk to the nearby park and climb the hill to a pagoda that offers a panorama of the Forbidden City, former palace of the emperors. The north gate is just across the street, but the buildings and courtyards that comprise the emperors’ palace stretch south for almost a mile.

I am standing in the hilltop pagoda, looking out at the Forbidden City in the fading winter sun. It’s getting late but I know just where I need to go. I hold my hand up between the sun and the horizon line. I’ve got at least one hand’s width, at least an hour. It will be about a 40 minute walk around to the south gate. I have four nights in Beijing, and it’s already been a long day with a train trip and hectic transfer to my hotel, but Tiananmen, the south gate of the Forbidden City, is the place I’ve most dreamed of seeing. I start walking, fast.

*   *   *

My poster of Tiananmen Square had hung on my dorm room wall all through college. I carried it with me long after I’d let go of my feelings for Roy. That image was the backdrop to my young adult years, like Garth Brooks was the soundtrack to the years I spent at home when my children were small. But truth be told Tiananmen, and China, was more than a backdrop. I studied Chinese in college and in graduate school, which is where I met Will, who was studying chemistry at the same university. A few years later I was married and distracted from thoughts of working or traveling in China. Eventually I rolled up my Chinese posters and stored them away.

But I didn’t forget. I held on to some of the Chinese I’d learned, to my fascination with anything having to do with China, to that image of Tiananmen Square. Over the years I’d drag Will to whatever Chinese movies or dance performances came to town. I took a few Chinese classes. I ate dim sum whenever I could. Meanwhile, by the time Lydia reached junior high, Chinese language study was commonplace. With just a bit of motherly prodding, she chose it as her elective.

By then my Chinese was pretty rusty, and I had learned from Maoist era textbooks. My knowledge wasn’t always useful. I could say “diligently serve the people” but could not ask for a cup of tea. I’d learned the word for “comrade” right away but did not learn the words for “Mr.” or “Mrs.” until my third year. Still, I helped Lydia with her homework, and a lot came back. Not just vocabulary. When Lydia went on a 6-week study trip after her junior year in high school I scrolled each week through the photos her program posted on a blog. When I saw a picture of Lydia with the group, grinning and standing proud in front of Mao and the revolutionary banners in Tiananmen Square, I cried. Happiness for Lydia, pangs of yearning for me.

When my chance came, I knew I had to go. I’d had a picture of Tiananmen Square in my mind since I hung that poster on my wall in college. In the months before the trip, getting to Tiananmen was the moment I’d most anticipated. It would be the most important moment, the moment I thought would be the hardest to experience alone.

*    *   *

When I get to Tiananmen the sun is skimming the tops of the buildings. I am almost but not quite breathless from my walk and from excitement. Although the square itself is a huge open area, the police have somehow funneled access through a security gate and metal detector. I pass through quickly and find there are also stanchions keeping people off the road that runs in front of Mao’s picture.

I’m jammed in with a crowd and can only look from an angle, but after almost 40 years, I’m here. I stare up at the enormous image of Mao, and the banners with their Chinese characters whose shape and meaning I’ve had memorized for decades. I am surprised to see that the “banners,” as I’ve always thought of them, and Mao’s picture, seem to be made of metal. My poster was printed from a black-and-white photograph that had been hand-painted to add color; in it all the edges of Tiananmen seemed soft. But the image I’m staring up at is crisp and hard, like the cold blue sky where the sun is quickly fading.

The crowd at first is more focused on the road in front of the gate than on the gate itself. They seem to be waiting, as if for a parade.

Nimen deng shei?” I ask a stranger. Who is everyone waiting for?

My Chinese is not good enough to understand her reply. It doesn’t matter. After about 15 minutes the police move the stanchions away. I’m able to move to the center, directly in front of the image of Mao.

I stay at Tiananmen long enough for the sky to darken and the picture of Mao and those revolutionary slogans to become illuminated. My poster had an old-fashioned look; I hadn’t imagined that Mao’s picture and the slogans were electrified. I read the familiar characters, mentally pronouncing the Chinese while translating into English: “Long Live the People’s Republic of China,” and “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s People.” Behind Mao, the entrance, the actual Tiananmen or “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” is also illuminated. Tiny rows of lights outline its Qing dynasty architecture. The atmosphere around me is festive. People are here for the view and to take pictures, as they were that night on the Bund.

I am the lone westerner in a crowd of Chinese people. I am thousands of miles from home. I don’t really speak the language. It is cold and night is falling and I will have to walk two miles back to my hotel. But I feel like I belong here. In so many ways, I’m like everyone else in the crowd. I’m excited. I’m doing what everyone else is doing: walking around, taking pictures, trying to get a better view. I can even read all the Chinese characters; it’s just those two big banners, and I’ve been reading those for decades. I’ve imagined myself at this exact spot for almost 30 years. The place is bigger and sharper and brighter than I’d ever imagined, but it’s also more familiar than I ever dreamed it would be.

This is the moment. I wait for a gap in the crowd and step up to the waist-high metal barrier. I turn my back to the gate, pull out my phone and hold it in front of me. I position Mao in the background centered between the slogans, and I take my picture.

Tracy HarrisTracy Harris is a writer, pro bono political asylum attorney, and art lover living in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in Lascaux Review and Mason’s Road. She is a frequent participant in the Cracked Walnut series of literary readings throughout the Twin Cities, and a former member of the editorial board of Water-Stone Review.

Counter Intuitive

The cop that wrote me up for trying to use a fake ID at an Ocean City bar was wearing yellow-striped shorts, an embarrassing reality that defused any grand aspirations of mine to spin the tale into one of proud delinquency. Where that cop is today, I do not know, and he does not know where I am, and it’s unlikely that, beyond the hour during which I sat on the curb reciting personal information for his report, our lives will ever cross again. Where those shorts are now is also a mystery—they could still be adorning his skinny, tan legs as he apprehends more underage drinkers; they could have been passed along to another officer; or they could have become undesired, as the yellow fabric faded and the threads loosened at the seams after many long, taxing hours under the Maryland sun. Once undesired, clothing can be interred in a messy closet, tossed out, or, in some cases, given a shot at new life via donation. If given to a thrift shop, those yellow-striped shorts would join the massive ocean of used clothing donations made by Americans every year—4.7 billion pounds, by some estimations.

During busy hours at the 96th Street Housing Works, one in a chain of thrift shops operating in New York City, it can feel like all 4.7 billion of those pounds have arrived in a single afternoon, unloaded unceremoniously at the donations counter for the attendant to sort through. I know this because I am the attendant, serving 40 hours of community service assigned by a Maryland judge as punishment for my use of that fake ID in Ocean City. My options for completing the hours were plentiful—volunteering at a soup kitchen, picking up trash in Central Park, cleaning animal cages for the ASPCA, and so on. I chose Housing Works at 96th Street at the recommendation of a college classmate, who called the labor boring but manageable.

I look down at my own body and imagine myself stripped down, my possessions assessed and passed along.

During the chunks of hours I put in over the weeks following my sentence, the Housing Works manager assigned me a variety of duties. Sometimes I swept the floors and wiped down the furniture. Sometimes I re-racked the clothes to comply with our color ordering scheme—red, pink, orange, yellow, green, blue, gray, brown, beige, black, white. Once, after a rack of blazers was stolen, I was told to act as a security guard and walk around looking for possible thieves. (What they expected me to do with the type of guy that pilfered items from a thrift shop was never explained, nor was how to differentiate a potential criminal from our less-than-polished clientele. I puffed out my chest anyway and stalked around the place, keeping an eye out for suspiciously stuffed pockets or hurried hand movements and fantasizing about foiling getaways with Heisman-worthy tackles.) But most of the time I stood at the gloomy and gray linoleum donations counter, as I do now, waiting for people to come in and drop off their stuff. In five minutes, I will have completed 39 hours. Today will be my last day.

A woman walks up to the counter. She’s wearing a pantsuit and has very straight brown hair and the click-click of her heels turns our hard thrift shop floor into a metronome. She probably just got off work. Along with the lunching hours, the end of the workday is the busiest time for donors to drop off their used clothes at Housing Works. In between are lengthy stretches of inactivity during which I struggle to stay awake. A man, her husband I presume, trails behind her with two black garbage bags.

“Welcome to Housing Works,” I say with a hint of enthusiasm, although she’s definitely not listening—could I have said “Welcome to Hell” without her even flinching? Her husband plops the bags on the counter and I untie the knots. Out spill high-end dresses, designer jeans, and a pile of silk scarves. One of those donations. Along the wide spectrum of quality that encompasses our endless and varying donations, this woman represents the superior end, the end created by Manhattan socialites who need to un-stuff their closets for the new season so they dump their dated collections at Housing Works for us to paw through. These prized contributions aren’t frequent, though. More often donors will leave sartorial flotsam: torn sweaters and stained shorts, frayed hats and scuffed sneakers, undesired uniform shorts and even some underwear every now and then.

At the bottom of the second of the couple’s two bags is a cardboard box with a sewing machine in it. Can this woman have ever even considered repairing something once it ripped? I stack it next to a dusty Cuisinart on one of our appliance shelves. The fact that we take household items in addition to clothing leads to the expected—old plates, spare pillows, video cassettes—and also the unexpected. One woman dropped off a bag of about 300 female condoms, looked me in the eye, and demanded I put them somewhere where they’d be sure to sell. One man deposited a set of wall curtains, each several hundred square feet in size. My manager knew that the few people who shopped for wall curtains probably didn’t do so at a thrift shop, and ordered me to tear them into pieces and throw them out. They proved to be perforated by an army of needles that stuck into my palms as I angrily ripped at the cloth, a bandana across my face to block my inhalation of the colloidal fabric that levitated from the shredded curtains. Another woman donated an unmarked box of assorted clear plastic pieces. A half-hearted attempt at assembly revealed the contraption to be a used breast pump. This too was deemed worthy only of the bottom of a trash can.

The reality is that a sizable portion of donations find their way to the garbage. The donated items are transported from the counter and placed in the storage room several yards behind, separated from the store only by a plastic curtain. The curtain hides us as we choose what to keep and what to discard, an essential barrier since some donors would be appalled if they could see how quickly we decide to throw out their former possessions. Although I don’t think this woman in particular really cares whether we keep her stuff or throw it out or if I put on six of her dresses at once and tap dance on the counter.

The source of our endless garbage is twofold. Sometimes people assume we can make use of items that we actually can’t, such as wall curtains or a used breast pump. More often the owners of these doomed donations had always meant to throw them out and wanted to leave that task to someone else. The thrift store donation counter is a hassle-free alternative to garbage disposal. Donors let us sort through paper, plastic, and glass. They let us decide what to do with their unwanted belongings. They let us feel the guilt of throwing away former favorites. They don’t want to look a teddy bear in the eye before tying the plastic knot above his grave. And best of all, they can shirk this responsibility all in the name of charity.

I scrunch up the garbage bags and the woman swivels on her heels to leave the store.

“Would you like to fill out the tax write-off?” I half-yell at her as she distances herself from the counter, waving the form like I’m bidding her goodbye from the deck of an outgoing ship. But she casually throws up the back of her hand as if lazily batting away a fly: she is like most donors, simply wishing to flee the scene of this hot-potato game of garbage passing. Some leave before I can even identify whatever they’ve left, the retail version of ding-dong-ditch.

Others do accept the chance to claim the deduction. The form asks that donors be thorough and specific about the things that they’ve donated and to determine values of items based on 40% of their original retail price. Most donors, predictably, stretch the limits of this suggestion. They scribble down a loose definition of their donations—“clothing”—and pause for a moment before deciding that they are worth as much or more than they originally cost. Somehow a moth-bitten hat has accrued value in the decade since it was first bought. They snatch up the yellow carbon copy of the form and zip out of the store, having been paid to not deal with their trash.

This is Housing Works. This is how it works. And I have an hour left.

*    *    *

An old couple walks in. The woman is pushing a black cart full of junk, and the man with her holds a stuffed garbage bag in each hand, also, presumably, full of junk. They shuffle their way to my counter. I brace myself for the incoming storm of clutter.

“Welcome to Housing…” I say, trailing off. The man spills out one bag onto the surface while the woman plucks objects one-by-one from her cart and lines them up. The items that emerge are virtually unsellable. Packs of cards with a third of the deck missing. A board game without the top to the cardboard box. Cracked bowls and dirty cups. A stack of withered books interspersed with the couple’s personal papers—are they really donating their own mail? A lamp with a severed power cord. Ragged T-shirts and mismatched socks. A Reagan-era PC that stares apathetically back at me.

I expect them to bolt from this glorified garbage dump, but instead the woman begins recounting a story for almost every item that sits on the counter. The cards and board games were purchased to entertain their grandchildren when they were born, but they have since outgrown such trinkets. One of the sets of bowls came from a vacation to Venice several decades ago. The books have all been read and reread.

“It’s time for someone else to enjoy them,” the woman says. I stack them up.

“He claimed he could fix this,” she says, gesturing toward the lamp. She looks at him and he chuckles. “I guess not…” she says.

The woman puts her hands on the sides of the computer and tilts it up to look at it. “We haven’t turned this thing on in years,” she says, “And my daughter bought me a new one in the spring anyway.”

They don’t explain every T-shirt as I fold them, but they do offer anecdotes for a special few. A University of Wisconsin shirt with a faded badger, the school’s mascot, draws a story of their son’s college days. A Regent Seven Seas shirt is the product of a recent cruise trip, an Obama ’08 shirt an expression of their political affiliation.

Eventually the counter is clear. I mention the tax deduction form but they brush it off.

“The money doesn’t matter,” the woman says. The man compresses the empty garbage bags and tosses them into the cart. I offer the couple my standardized gratitude for their donations. They smile and then weave their way through customers to the store’s exit. The bell above the door jingles as they pass through.

I transport all of their donations into the storage room. They all seem a little bit less shoddy now that a lifetime of stories has been attached to them. My grandmother used to have board games for me. The lamp could be resuscitated by any passable electrician. Was my first computer somewhere in the basement at home?

One of my superiors joins me behind the counter.

“Look at all this shit,” she says, scanning the items that the elderly couple dropped off. She pulls shut the curtain that separates the stock room from the counter, hiding our ruthless sorting of donations from our unsuspecting customers.

“Keep the books, the housewares, and the computer. Everything else is trash,” she says, and leaves me behind the curtain to dispose of the unwanted items. I scoop up the stuff, hugging it against my chest, before unloading it into the dumpster we keep in the storage room. What little order the couple had preserved is undone as I toss away their erstwhile belongings. The board game pieces scatter within the can and nestle in the corners of the bag. The shirts unfold and cardboard royalty slip from the deck of cards and down through crevices in the pile of rubbish.

I tie up the bag and sling it over my shoulder. I walk through the store, a bizarro Santa carrying the world’s rejected possessions. At the curb outside I stack the bag on top of the others from the day, totaling perhaps a dozen. There are homeless people waiting for the drop-off, a daily sight outside of Housing Works. As soon as I turn, they undo my knot and start rifling through the bag. I glance back one more time when I get back into the store. One homeless man has found the jackpot: the stack of old T-shirts. He jams them under his armpit and scoots down the block with his prize. The faded badger peeks out nervously from under his brown jacket.

Back in the storage room, I turn over a milk crate and sit down to start pricing the couple’s books, as directed by my boss. We have instructions on how to assess the value of the many used books that we receive—criteria revolving around the size, condition, and renown of the book, and even the original price tag if it can be found—but the process is somewhat arbitrary. I absentmindedly stick freshly inked 6s and 7s from the pricing gun to books I’ve never heard of.

I begin to think about all of the items that the couple donated. Where they began—toy stores, housewares outlets, clothing shops, onboard cruise ships, and where they ended up—a garbage dump, adorning a homeless man, or sentenced to an idle eternity on a Housing Works shelf. I look down at my own body and imagine myself stripped down, my possessions assessed and passed along. My pants and shirt hung on racks at Housing Works, my shoes pecked at by crows at some lonely landfill, my cell phone disassembled and separated into computer chips, my keys melted down and re-constituted as nuts and bolts. I sit there on the milk crate, naked. Then my skin is ripped from my flesh and fashioned into hide. The meat is torn from my body and molded into burger patties for a fast food joint. My eyeballs are extracted with tooth picks and frozen in glass and modeled in a museum. My hair is shaved off and stuffed into the cushion of a desk chair. My ligaments are tied into rubber bands and used to bind the elderly couple’s piles of mail. My bones are stacked up and tossed into the Housing Works garbage can, where bugs nip at them until nothing remains but a few chalky specks.

At the bottom of the pile of books I find The Moviegoer, a novel by Walker Percy, my namesake. My thoughtless streak of pricing comes to an abrupt stop. I put the gun down and hold the book in my hands. What are the odds that one Walker would find another in the bottom of a stack of forgotten books? How had this title avoided being carried away by a vagrant, left under a bed in an apartment, tossed casually in the garbage, burnt or buried? Surely this passing of men in time and space, this interaction between person and object, this evanescent moment of possession should be recognized! I set the price gun to $61,092, those digits a standard numerical representation of my date of birth. I stick the white rectangle on the cover, flattening it with my thumb. The book will have to be repriced, assuming no one is willing to shell out sixty grand for a shabby paperback from a thrift store. But for the moment it holds my mark and indicates that it once passed through my hands. I take it and the rest to the bookshelves in the store and spread them out. There is room enough that only one line of books needs to be formed, but I nevertheless hide The Moviegoer behind two others, saving its bogus price tag from a quick death for at least another day.

It is 7 P.M. I take off my Housing Works lanyard and leave it on the desk in the back office. I fill out my final shift’s paperwork and make sure the previous ones all add up to forty hours. I thank my boss, put my jacket on, and exit the store, to buy and sell, to collect and dispose, to cherish and forget, to meet the man behind the counter and attempt to explain value.

Walker HarrisonWalker Harrison is a young writer living in New York City. He works for a start-up and writes both fiction and non-fiction in his spare time. He studied applied mathematics and creative writing at Columbia University. His most recent published work can be seen in the Cobalt Review‘s annual baseball issue.

A Box of Chocolates in China

I cling to the back of a motorcycle, my hair wild in the wind, arms clenched around the slim waist in front. I am flying through the night, lights winking as we buzz around bumper-to-bumper traffic in a Chinese city of three million. Have I lost my mind, never having been on a cycle in my life? Am I so immersed in the culture I just don’t give a damn? Or is it love, crazy love?

How did I end up here? I responded to an ad: Volunteer for a month teaching in China. From that point everything careened out of my control.

*     *     *

I am flying through the night, lights winking as we buzz around bumper-to-bumper traffic in a Chinese city of three million. Have I lost my mind, never having been on a cycle in my life? Am I so immersed in the culture I just don’t give a damn? Or is it love, crazy love?

The orientation took place on a tree-covered campus in Virginia. Eleven of us sat through the spiel of The Chinese Lady Professor whose project we had become. She assigned the volunteers: four to elementary kids in summer English Camp, four as high school tutors, and two to a northern university near Russia.

I looked around, perplexed. “You haven’t assigned me.”

You will teach the teachers.”

What!? I wanted little kids, games with flash cards, like cat and dog. Fun. “I work with high school students,” I said, “and I was hoping for something different.” I didn’t say easier, but that’s what I meant. And she knew it.

The Lady Professor paused and looked over her list.

“But you filled out the questionnaire that you would work . . . let me see . . . wherever needed. I need you to teach the teachers. English teachers in China recertify just as you do, every few years. The government requires they be taught by a native speaker with a Masters in English. It’s you. Don’t worry, you’ll be great, trust me.”

Trust you! I should walk out and drive home. Well, I didn’t, but I sulked, and the snit lasted awhile. During break I had a talk with myself in the Ladies Room: Okay, put your money where your mouth is. You talk about teaching in a foreign country, your next great career. Quit talking, get off your ass, and do it.

I smiled at The Chinese Lady Professor. “Okay, I’ll do it. I’m supposed to fill up four hours a day for a month, right? So, where’s the curriculum?”

“You’ll bring it,” she responded, with what looked like a smirk.

*     *     *

August, 2001. Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China.

I stand in front of my class with the first of my brilliant teaching strategies, The Quotation for the Day.

“Each day we’ll start with a quotation. I’ve brought dozens. We’ll talk about the quotation in English without worrying about grammar. Chat away. It would be fun if you’d bring quotations too. Something meaningful, maybe a family saying.”

No response. They smile.

Twenty-two faces look up at me, nodding. I am Teacher, what they call me on day one and every day afterwards. Not my last name, not my first name, not anything I suggest. Simply, Teacher. Twenty-two Chinese teachers will treat me like royalty, argue over who has lunch with me, who takes me shopping, who gets me for dinner.

Now, however, they just smile.

“In my country when we don’t know the origin of a saying, we claim it’s an Old Chinese Proverb. For instance, here’s my favorite.” I write it on the board: Give me a fish and I eat today. Teach me to fish and I eat for the rest of my life.

They smile. A timid voice from the back, “We don’t know that one. It’s not Chinese.”

“Oh, okay. Do you have one you’ll share?”

No takers.

“Come on. In my country we participate in class. I need a quotation.”

They smile. Silence. Finally a hand in the air. It’s Ivan, twenty-one, the youngest in my class. Ivan’s not his name, or course, but they insist on using the English names they chose in university—Ivan, Leaf, Stream, Moon. I call them whatever they want.

Ivan waves his hand. “I have one, my favorite.”

Everyone smiles, waiting.

‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.'”

Now no one’s smiling. They’re looking around, nodding, laughing, and the ice is broken. They agree it’s wonderful, and they all know it.

“From my favorite movie, Forrest Gump,” says Ivan. “Forrest’s mother says it. The movie is about surprising things in life, and I agree. Life is about surprises.”

From that moment, the first hour of my first day in a class in China, I find that almost everything I have assumed is wrong. The Chinese I meet are not shy conformists, not unassertive, not out of the global mainstream. They are not immune to capitalism, ignorant of world history, lousy foreign language speakers, or all afraid of their government. Not characters out of a Pearl Buck novel. Not much different from me.

For one month I am enchanted and battered by the kaleidoscope that is China. My students stun me with knowledge, embarrass me with personal questions, frighten me with insights, challenge me with assertions, and humble me with kindness.

*     *     *

A few days after my arrival I walk my neighborhood, forced outside to fight loneliness. The students leave me after lunch, and except for special invitations, I’m on my own until next morning pick-up. The other volunteer Americans live outside the city, teaching kids in English Camp. They have each other, but I’m alone, feeling sorry for myself.

Ridiculous. So you can’t speak the language or read the street signs, just go out and wander. I grab a hotel card with directions in Chinese, pay attention to landmarks, and meander through the neighborhood. I find the river, sit under newly planted trees, and read.

Every day going to the river, I pass an old woman, squatting on her haunches, hawking fruit, glaring at me. Intimidated, I walk across the street to avoid her. One day, though, I look the old woman directly in the eyes and call out, “Ni hao,” the one phrase I know in Chinese—hello.

She jerks around, taken aback. A grin spreads across her face, revealing toothless gums. “Hello,” the old woman shouts in English, cackling like a hen. “Hello, hello, hello.” Every day afterward she waves and calls as I pass.

After the old lady welcomes me to street life, wandering becomes part of my day. I scramble through back streets of the market, swatting flies, my nose assaulted by dried blood, foul water, rotten fruit, and urine. Pigs’ heads, chicken carcasses, ducks’ feet, and unrecognizable innards dangle on iron hooks, but I don’t ask what they are. I adore Chinese food and help myself to most everything on a buffet, but usually I don’t ask what I’m eating. One day with Ivan I had broken my rule. “This is delicious, like corned beef. What is it?”

“Donkey,” Ivan replied, “a specialty of this restaurant. Not cheap.” Since then I’ve not asked. The only thing I refuse is fried scorpion, which looks too much like what it is.

*     *     *

One day in class as we discuss American history—and my students know lots of it—I digress to McCarthyism and the ‘commie scare’ of the 50s. I end by commenting, “It was a dark chapter in American history.”

A few days later Laura, my oldest student, recounts her experiences in the Cultural Revolution. She’d grown up in a house full of books until the Revolution, when she read Western classics secretly from torn-out chapters hidden throughout the house. “I could never get the whole plot because we had only a chapter here and there. Now I read the whole book and say, ‘Oh, so that’s how it ended.’ . . . The Cultural Revolution was a dark chapter in Chinese history.”

I choke, hearing my words echoed verbatim. I am stunned, almost frightened, by the power I have in this classroom. In some ways, my students are sponges, and I wonder if I should be more careful what I say.

The class talks of religion, politics, books, AIDS, postpartum depression, teenagers, and even Falun Gong—which we were told during orientation not to discuss under any circumstances. “Are there forbidden subjects in China?” I finally ask.

My students are indignant. “There are no forbidden topics. What are you talking about?” There’s nothing they don’t want to know, so after a couple of days, I quit worrying, and talk about whatever they request.

One day someone asks me to sing the American national anthem, which I wouldn’t have done earlier. I joke that it’s too hard, I can’t sing, and I don’t know the words, all true. They insist. So instead of The Star Spangled Banner, I belt out, completely off key, My Country ‘Tis of Thee. At least I know all the words.

They love it. After a round of applause, they beg me to write every word on the board so they can copy it. Then suddenly the entire class is singing it with me. A few tears sneak down my cheeks while I sing like a kid about my country in a sterile classroom halfway around the world. I never really thought about the words before.

What’s happening? Something’s getting weird here.

*     *     *

“What do you want to discuss today?” I ask the next morning. No longer hesitant, my students fight to pick the Topic of the Day.

“The One Child policy,” someone answers, and a lively debate ensues with strong opinions on both sides.

“We must keep it. It is the backbone of our strong economy and our new place in the world.”

“No, it’s immoral and should be illegal. A government should not dictate such things. It’s a family decision.”

“The peasants are the problem. They get exemptions that no one else gets. That’s not fair.”

“If we want to increase the standard of living and feed everyone, we need it.”

“Soon there will be no one to take care of the elderly, too few young people, and too many old people.”

“But that wouldn’t happen if young people still had the old values of responsibility. They’re too busy moving to the cities, getting ahead in their jobs, making money, buying clothes, and going to clubs.”

“What happens if you have more than one child?” I interrupt.

“We lose our jobs,” a couple of my students respond simultaneously.

“My mother had an abortion two years after I was born,” says Ivan. “She was sad and didn’t want to have it, but she had to or lose her job. Sometimes I wonder what my sister would have been like.”

I’m excited now. Here’s a topic I’ve wanted to explore since the day I arrived. “During the weekend I went to Pingyao with the other Americans,” I say. A six hundred year old UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pingyao is a village in the country, architecturally and historically significant. “We were walking down the main street when I saw a blackboard in the square with chalked numbers. Our guide thought it had something to do with numbers of children. Anybody know?”

“I know,” says Stream, the only one of my students who lives in the country. Principal of a rural elementary school, he rides his bicycle two hours round-trip each day to come to my class.

“Peasants are allowed more than one child,” explains Stream, “depending on circumstances. They can have two if they are elderly or disabled, or if the first child is a girl—they need boys in the country. But no more than two children are allowed. Sometimes, though, the peasants don’t care about the rules, and they’ll have three, four, or more. If they do, then the village committee fines them for each additional child. What you saw in Pingyao is the name of each peasant who owes a fine. His name will stay on the blackboard until he pays. The fine is huge, and the peasant is poor. Sometimes his name is there until he dies, and the family inherits the debt.”

At this point my students ask me what I think about the One Child policy. Each side wants me to support its conclusion.

“I came to China thinking it was a bad policy, but now I’m not sure. I’ve never seen so many people, and I can only imagine what it was like before the policy. I understand why the government thinks it’s necessary, but I also understand women like Ivan’s mother who grieves for her unborn child.”

I’m thankful not to have such a decision. Keep a child, lose a job; keep a job, lose a child.

*     *     *

We continue the exhausting One Child debate during lunch, and after my students finally leave, I head upstairs for a nap. Strains of The Wedding March waft down the hall next to the elevator—not music I expect in China. I peek around the corner and find a wedding in progress. The band stops, the bride and groom begin their toasts, and they spot me, embarrassed, spying on the gathering. The couple stops in mid-toast, and I prepare to flee. But they leave the table, come to the door, and pull me into their reception.

The bride wears the red dress of the traditional Chinese wedding. A formal ceremony, like this one—in a hotel, red dress, banquet, orchestra, cake, flowers, hundreds of guests—occurs months or even years after the civil ceremony. Couples wait until they, or their families, can afford the huge celebration, and sometimes it never happens. A number of my students have been married for years with no red dress yet.

The bride takes my hand and pulls me to the head table. Suddenly I am an honored guest, and the entire wedding party drinks a toast to me. Traditionally they drink three ‘neat’ cups of alcohol as a toast. I throw one down, and although they cheer, holding up two more fingers, I decline.

I escape as soon as I can, but the wedding makes my day. The entire incident takes place with none of us having the vaguest idea what the other is saying, smiles and gestures the international language we all understand.

I am never lonely again in China.

*     *     *

If I want to be lonely, or even alone, Cherry will not allow it. My most assertive, boisterous student, Cherry becomes my guide to life outside of class.

“Tomorrow we go to the Night Market,” she says one day. “We’ll eat and arrive when it opens at eight, stay a couple hours, not until midnight when it closes. No one comes to Taiyuan without visiting the Night Market. It’s one of the most important parts of our culture, and you won’t believe it.”

“Okay.” I don’t argue with Cherry. No one argues with Cherry.

Born into poverty, she grew up with a disabled widowed mother in a cold water flat on the top floor of a building with no elevators. As a child Cherry trudged to the basement every day, mixed water and coal to make ‘coal cake’ and hauled it up four flights of stairs. After supporting her mother and three younger siblings for years, she married late. Cherry is short, with a ragged, spiky haircut and crooked, brown teeth, but what she lacks in appearance, she makes up for in guts.

A feminist, Cherry takes no guff from men and considers most of them dependent and self-indulgent. “I will quit teaching, get a PhD in international relations, and go into government. If my husband doesn’t like it, I’ll divorce him, and he can stay here.” So much for the stereotype of submissive Chinese women.

I love this woman, but sometimes she’s a little scary. When she bargains, she turns into a harridan. A couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of telling Cherry I wanted silver zodiac charms, after which she bargained with a street vendor, and it got ugly. Bargaining is serious business in China, elevated to high art, and when Cherry swings into gear, I don’t want to be within an arm’s length of her. She’s formidable, even mean. Maybe it’s my American sensibility, but extreme bargaining embarrasses me, so that day I moved away and pretended not to be with her.

The charms were cheap, and I was willing to give the woman her asking price, but Cherry would not have it. “She’s cheating you because you’re a foreigner, and I won’t allow it.” I suspect her attitude was about more than that, but I said nothing. We stood at the stall for twenty minutes while the arm gestures increased, voices of the two women rose higher until they were shrieking, and a circle surrounded us, like spectators at a boxing match. This was high drama, even for China.

Cherry won, of course. She snatched the money from my wallet, threw it contemptuously on the table and smiled at me, her crooked, gold capped teeth gleaming. I was humiliated and felt like a cheap, unsympathetic foreigner. The woman who lost the duel gave us both a disgusted look, muttered under her breath, and spat on my shoe. An ugly scene.

*     *     *

I dread to think how many conflicts Cherry might instigate in an area as big as The Night Market, which is where she takes me now.

Sales start at eight, but vendors set up when they leave their day jobs. By the hundreds they migrate to their stalls, and the largest Night Market in Northern China unfolds. For blocks along both sides of the street, hawkers sell everything from toilet seats to trashcans, blouses to baby clothes, candy to vinegar, bicycle wheels, pirated CDs, fruit, jewelry, junk. And a unique meat on a stick—donkey penis.

You name it, someone’s got it, and if he doesn’t, he’ll go around the corner and get it. Men, women, and teenagers—everyone’s got something to sell. I’m flabbergasted by the conspicuous consumption, the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs, and the selection of wares. What’s going on? This doesn’t look like communism.

I ask Cherry, the political scientist, who sets me straight.

“In China we are communists in government, not in economics. We are as capitalistic as you Americans, and a person’s income in the marketplace is limited only by how hard he works. Everyone here has a regular salary, but they make a lot more at market than on the job. Someone’s always thinking of something new to sell. Everything in China changed after Mao’s death, when Deng Xiaoping declared a socialist market economy. ‘To make money is good,’ he said. He was a wonderful man. We missed him when he died. With him, we became a nation of entrepreneurs.”

At dinner a few nights before, Ivan had put it more poetically. “Deng Xiaoping said that whether you are a black cat or a white cat doesn’t matter. If you can catch a mouse, you are a good cat.” I had nodded as if I understood.

I don’t understand Deng Xiaoping’s cat, but I do understand that if what I witness here at The Night Market is duplicated in thousands of cities and villages throughout this country, China could become the world power of the twenty-first century.

*     *     *

A few days later Cherry continues to expand my understanding of The New China. “I’m taking you to The English Corner tonight.” She has become the self-appointed director of my social calendar.

“Every Friday night anyone who wants to practice English shows up in the square to chat for a couple of hours with hundreds of others who want to speak English. Everyone from kids to grandmothers. There are no rules, except we cannot speak anything but English the whole time. You’ll love it, you’ll be a big hit.”

And she’s right. I am mobbed like a movie idol, everyone pushing in to chat with me, even a press reporter who’s gotten wind of my presence. This might seem incomprehensible, but Taiyuan is not a city where foreigners drop in every day. I am a sensation. The reporter inundates me with questions, wanting my impression of his city: Do you think Taiyuan is pretty? Polluted? What do you like about the place? Dislike?

The city is horribly polluted, under a gray industrial haze so thick I never see the sun. Everyone knows this, and the reporter does too. I want to answer honestly, particularly about the environment, but I’ve become Chinese enough to put on a good face, so I don’t tell the entire truth. Instead of talking about the filthy air, I compliment the new trees by the river.

One mother elbows the reporter and pushes her son in front of me, commanding, “Speak to the foreigner.” And to me, “Speak to my son. He’s twelve and needs to practice.”

In perfect English, without an accent, the wide-eyed boy asks, “Do you have a Chinese Corner in your city where everyone comes to practice Chinese on Fridays?”

I am too humiliated to answer and pretend not to hear.

*     *     *

After the English Corner I lie awake, thinking about the global impact of language. I feel guilty not having learned any Mandarin. Typically I learn a little language when I travel and I carry a phrase book. Not this time. I had bought books and cassettes, but my attempt to speak lasted two days. Pronouncing ma with four different inflections did me in, to say nothing of thousands of indecipherable written characters.

“Don’t you hear the difference?” asked Li, the Chinese student I recruited to help me before I left home. “These are four different words, pronounced in distinct ways. If you don’t get it right, you could make a terrible mistake. There’s a rising tone, falling tone, even tone, and a lilting tone that combines a fall with a rise.” You’ve got to be kidding! After I called my mother a donkey, I called the whole thing off. My attempt to learn some Mandarin was depressing me to the point where I no longer looked forward to the journey.

The language thing makes me wonder about the role of our country in the twenty-first century. Do we suffer from complacency, arrogantly assuming everyone will speak English? Will we follow Great Britain into history books as the next ‘has been’? China has mandated that beginning in 2002 every first grader will study English. Already, privileged kids compete for spots in weekend and summer English camps, for which their parents pay steep prices. The government has put out an international call for native English speaking teachers for all areas of the country, offering special stipends in the far northwest autonomous region near Tibet.

“You should stay and teach in Urumqi,” urges Cherry. “Five hundred US dollars per month, a free apartment, and transportation costs. You could come to Taiyuan for holidays and visit me.”

Five hundred U.S. dollars a month is a fortune in China. I could live like a Hong Kong ex-pat, even hire a cook and a maid, and I think seriously about this for maybe two minutes. I have obligations at home—family and a full-time job. I’ve barely been able to carve out a month for this adventure, so staying is out of the question. I tuck the idea in the back of my mind and return my attention to my current students.

*     *     *

The month speeds by with invitations to homes and restaurants, and before I know it, I’m packing my bags with a mixture of excitement and despondency.

My last day in class, my last day in Taiyuan, almost my last day in China, I arrive to a class bustling with energy, too excited to keep a secret. “Surprise,” they call out. “We have a party for you.” What am I to do with my careful plans for the last day? I am, after all, American, and a teacher to the core—always evaluations.

“Oh, forget the evaluations,” I concede. “Let’s party.” They’ll never tell me the truth anyway—they like everything I do.

Out comes the food, the dishes I have come to love in this great sprawling buffet of a country. Laura has been up since four a.m., making me moon cakes, time-consuming holiday treats—sweetmeats wrapped in fragile bamboo leaves, tied with delicate ribbons of straw, works of art. I am touched almost beyond words.

“Why would you get up so early to make these?”

“Because,” she responds, “I love you.”

*     *     *

After the party Ivan asks me to go out that night to celebrate his twenty-second birthday in a dumpling restaurant. Not his mom, not his dad, not his friends. Me.

“I will pick you up on my motorcycle, and I swear I will drive as carefully as if you were my mother. I feel as if you are my godmother. So I will take great care.”

After three hours, three dozen dumplings, and a bottle of rice wine, before he takes me home, I extract a promise from Ivan. He will follow his dream, break out of the teaching he never wanted, return to university, and become the journalist he thinks he can be.

I sit on the back of the motorcycle, my hair blowing in the night wind, and chant my mantra: I am in love with this country, I am in love with these people, I will return, I will return.

*     *     *

AFTERWORD

Two weeks after I came home from China, on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center came down. My college daughter sat on the roof of her dormitory at Columbia University and looked downtown as black smoke billowed into the sky. Emails poured in from my friends in China: Are you okay in Virginia? . . . Do you live close to the Pentagon? . . . Is your daughter safe in New York City? . . . Did you lose friends in the collapse? . . . We are sad for you, for your family, for your country . . . Our hearts are with you . . . China grieves for the U.S. . . . We love you.

In August, 2001, I walked on The Great Wall, marveled at The Forbidden City, wandered in the Temple of Heaven, gaped at the Terracotta Warriors, and cried on the stones of Tiananmen Square. I know this because I have photographs of me in those places; but when I think of China, I don’t visualize Beijing, Xian, or Shanghai. I see twenty-two faces filled with love and friendship in a gray classroom in a gray city that no one visits. When I hear complaints—everything’s made in China, the Chinese poison babies and dog food, China causes the crisis of the dollar, China instigates North Korea—I do not join in.

For me, China is no longer faceless.

Esther JohnsonEsther Whitman Johnson is a former high school counselor and English teacher from Southwest Virginia who now travels the globe doing volunteer gigs on five continents, often writing about her journeys. She has completed a dozen international builds with Habitat for Humanity, the last in Mongolia, the next in Bolivia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad River Review, Main St. Rag, Artemis, Dirty Chai, Colere, Earth’s Daughters, Virginia Literary Journal, among others. She was first runner-up for the 2014 Ron Rash Poetry Award and winner of 2014 Asheville Writers Memoir competition. “A Box of Chocolates in China” is the short version of a chapter in her travel memoir in progress.

Preparing a Place

I am looking for someone. On the subway. At the hospital. Walking the sticky streets of the in-town neighborhood where I live in the shadowy, noirish, lost-dog summer nights. It takes me a long time to realize what I am supposed to be doing. Two years, maybe.

In my self-involved twenty-something way, I consider two years an unbearably long time. I think I’ve already seen enough of life to retreat from it. Enough has already gone wrong, gone past, or one way or another ended up in the “out” basket to give me grounds for resignation. A two-year long marriage, though much of that time was spent living in a “commune” with other people. I was fired twice from teaching jobs and left a few other jobs without waiting to be asked. Cohabiting with a student was a contributing cause in one of these departures. Missing school breakfasts at a residential school for special needs students was the official reason in another—when they work that hard to find a reason, you know they are so looking forward to saying goodbye.

I did my share of saying goodbye as well. I walked away from the hippie house where I lived for two years with the people I “loved,” a verb I was not afraid to use in those days and seldom used afterwards, until (as I wrote then in a poem) “love turned to words.” Sometimes hard words: I specialized in resignation letters, well-reasoned kiss-offs. The home of my youth, a family by choice, best friends, communards, all left behind. A second stab at community ended more quickly and bitterly.

Disillusioned, I filled the hole with “relationships.” One with a teenager with a drug problem, followed by a couple of unequal liaisons. When I found myself on the gives-more-than-receives end I wrote another goodbye-cruel-world letter and followed the wisdom of I Ching: the superior man knows when to retreat. But as seasons passed, my retreat became a surrender, my withdrawal an isolation. One winter night in the last days of February, a friend drove me to a rundown building in a Boston neighborhood city and helped me carry my stuff up a narrow, winding stairwell. He told me to call him if I needed anything, but I didn’t have a phone.

I would dearly have preferred some sort of window treatment to the metaphor of vulnerability, of naked anonymous exposure to an uncaring world, offered by my uncurtained window. But the prospect of doing something about it defeated me. I had no idea how to acquire curtains, or how much they cost.

I chose the path of solitude. I wondered how far that path would go, and whether I would know it when I came to its end.

I lived in that dark old building like an alcoholic who didn’t drink. My life was shabby, unwashed, neglected; hand to mouth; colored with occasional outbursts of irresponsibility. I permitted a cranky old car still registered in my name to rot on a city street, its tires slowly flattening. (This karmic trespass caught up to me a decade later.) The dog I was taking care of for a girl, the remnant of a last entanglement, sometimes crapped in the empty room of my apartment, especially on the nights I neglected to walk her. Sometimes I didn’t bother cleaning it up for days.

No telephone. No shower. I had a job in a hospital that would bore a high school dropout.

My condition cried out for intervention, rescue, a humanitarian mission. I was a failed state in need of a strong injection of external resources.

I needed someone.

And amazingly some part of me realized it. Because I began looking.

*    *    *

In the spring of the year in which I tried to resign from the human race but failed, I found myself wanting people. Female people, mostly. I worked on talking to the girls at my time-killing job in a city hospital. A short, cute blonde dropped by the room where I operated a mimeograph machine to chat, telling me she was engaged to a guy who lived in a different city—yet here she was in my doorway again. I liked her and her message was decidedly mixed, but I couldn’t get over the engagement thing. I was in my second adolescence: shy, insecure, defensive, while given to unexpected bouts of absurd over-confidence. I had a low threshold for complications of any sort. I needed someone to set the bar clearly; then I would leap over it, catch my foot, fall on my face. Another co-worker took me home to meet her father, but the invitation, as she carefully explained, was “not a date.” That made it safe. I changed into my sneakers so I could walk on a beach in Quincy and left my leather shoes at her house in a paper bag.

Back in my colorful, clannish North End neighborhood I frequented a Store 24 where the night clerk, a dark-haired siren, chatted to me about the joys of being Italian. Nothing developed there either because while she was attractive, she wasn’t the one. The talkative young wife out looking for her dog one spooky summer night found me instead. We stood on the sidewalk making tentative sense of the universe while a man stood in a doorway calling her name with growing irritation. No place for me there.

When I began to cross paths with Anne, however, the slender, smart-sounding admissions clerk who worked at the other end of the hospital taking insurance information from the poor souls who stumbled into the emergency room, I was at once struck with worry over what she would think of my life. The gloomy apartment, the bathroom in the hall, the shabby room where I kept the dog who sometimes used it to—well, I covered that point. But did I mention that when I failed to come home at night she would break into my cupboard and eat an entire bag of sugar, for instance, or something equally un-doglike and throw up on the floor?

I knew my living conditions posed some challenges.

I’m not sure who made the first move. Anne’s memory is that she made a point of walking by the little room off the corridor where the distribution clerk (me) pretended to be doing something. She saw me reading a book and flashed me her special smile. Somehow I failed to respond.

What I remember is nearly running her over in the corridor; and then Anne apologizing (though it was as much my fault); and the glow of the physical contact remaining with me for the rest of the day. I took it as a sign.

We had a casual date. The little complications of life make me stumble. The girl at the hospital who took me on outings that were not, we agreed, dates said she would see me for lunch in the cafeteria as usual. But I was not having lunch as usual, I was having lunch with Anne. A social coward, I neglected to mention this fact, and so, an hour later in the noontime hubbub of the cafeteria, two women eyed one another while I stumbled over an introduction. The not-a-date girl took the hint and backed off. The next day she brought me my shoes in their paper bag.

Anne and I went out to a jazz club (definitely a date). Anne only pretended to drink whatever she ordered. I drank only the one-drink minimum, because I couldn’t afford more. We listened to the music and talked between sets, both of us relieved to get past the first date.

Things progressed, but then came the Sunday afternoon when we met for a walk. The day was hot and the North End lethargic. Should I tell you how being “hot” affects Anne, burning her pale blue eyes and wilting her enthusiasm? (Well, I suppose now I have.) We went back to her apartment where she appeared to tire quickly of my company. I was on my way to the door when, apropos of something, I uttered the phrase “when I was married.”

“You were married?”

I told her the tale. It took a long time. I highlighted the more intense events, Penny’s dramatic runaway, the confrontation with the psychiatrist who wanted to lock her and her married partner-in-escapism up in a psych ward. I acknowledged some of my own subsequent (and concurrent) peccadilloes, such as my failure to realize that the girl I was doing a thing with, as we said then, had become addicted to heroin. What “thing” did I believe I was doing if I failed to notice this elephant in the room?

I was wooing Anne, I told myself, like Othello arousing Desdemona’s sympathies with his war stories. Some role model. (I knew Othello, a voice whispered, and you’re not him.)

*    *    *

A couple of weeks later, I waited patiently in a bland administrative corridor far from the crises of Anne’s emergency room or the surgery wards, where I delivered medical orders and prescriptions and picked up gossip.

“What are you doing here?” Anne asked, leaving an unhappy meeting with a supervisor who was unable to find time for her until after her shift. “I told you not to wait.”

I made no answer. My presence was the answer. I was there because I was remembering how to be a human being. And because she was the one.

Though she had told me not to wait, she was happy to see me. We left the hospital together and, for the first time, ended up at my apartment. This was not a moment free of conflict and apprehension for me. I have already mentioned a few of this place’s special qualities, such as the absence of a bathroom or a phone. My apartment was on the fourth floor of a dark, damp, ancient building in an ethnic neighborhood with an Old World feel that was clinging to its clannish black-coated, black-veiled, foreign-film, urban-peasant lifestyle with its desperate, garlic-scented fingertips. The sixties never happened in the North End. A long-haired single male was unlikely to find anyone to rent to him, but for some reason an old building squeezed between banana warehouses was owned by an embittered Polish immigrant with her own hang-ups.

She rented me the place for very little. We got along well enough until Anne showed up in my life.

When Anne came to my place that first afternoon and completed the thirty-second tour the place merited, she offered no judgments though I could almost taste the blood from her bitten tongue. She stood in the doorway of one of the small, dark, unkempt rooms and said, “Is this where you sleep?”

Suddenly I realized that we were going to make love for the first time.

My eccentric bedroom space, however, presented a problem. The bedroom window, as it still embarrasses me to recall, lacked a curtain even though my windows and those of the apartment in the neighboring building were kissing-cousin close. The view from my bedroom window was what you saw in old, black-and-white movies set in atmospherically depressed tenements: another tenement. I lived in a noir.

I would dearly have preferred some sort of window treatment to the metaphor of vulnerability, of naked anonymous exposure to an uncaring world, offered by my uncurtained window. But the prospect of doing something about it defeated me. I had no idea how to acquire curtains, or how much they cost. And nobody in my life I felt I could ask. As the expression goes, you can either light a candle or curse the darkness. I didn’t even bother to curse. I changed in the dark and went to bed.

But now, finally, after a year alone in my dungeon, there was too much on the line.

“But what about the windows?” I asked, desperately. “I have no curtains.”

“We’ll just have to hang something over them.”

My god. A problem solved.

Instead of getting mad at me, throwing up her hands, storming out of the house in disgust at my inadequacy, telling me I was pathetic, or merely leaving in a dignified huff, Anne found some sheets and draped them over the windows so we could take our clothes off and go to bed together without fear of the world watching.

A revelation. An approach to life that challenged my hopeless embrace of misery by making things better. Not a world revolution, maybe, but a personal revelation.

After that we were an item, a relationship that punctured the shell of my obstinate self-defeating singularity. I didn’t get better all at once. I was often distant, grumpy, unresponsive to conversation, sleepless, dream-haunted. Anne’s old friends came to visit, but I withdrew into puerile silence. I didn’t want to share her attention.

But changes happened. Anne talked me into getting a telephone in my apartment, though the poor technician almost fell off the roof trying to find a wire to plug it into while some crazy woman screamed at him. “Oh,” I said, “you’ve met my landlady.” I got the phone so we could discuss plans (your place? my place? nobody’s place?), but it turned out I wasn’t very good at talking on the telephone.

Our relationship was not seamless. I did not realize how much younger than me Anne was because I found in her a maturity and responsibility I lacked. I had thrown away the need for those qualities when I jettisoned the ideas and values (or so I believed) of the conventional, middle-class world and assumed I would find somewhere else to live. Now that I had sunk those illusions and gone down with my ship, I did not find it easy to pick up the useful everyday real-world skills I had shoved somewhere into the back of my brain, like some abandoned needlework project left to get tangled up in a closet. My personality was buried under the old shoes in the back of that closet. Not only was I unable to solve the conundrum of how to cover my bedroom window, I slept without sheets because I did not wash clothes, except in extremis, and sheets were just too big a job. I did not buy anything I literally couldn’t do without, and that narrowed the field to food and cigarettes. I had minimal social skills and couldn’t get on with anyone who required a demonstration of them on my part. When I interviewed for a job, I could not think of any reason to offer why I wanted it except for a pressing need to pay my rent. The hospital personal director hired me while candidly predicting, “You won’t stay.” (Yes, but I hope to be vertical when I leave.) My minimal conversational skills did not include inviting anyone to my place because I was ashamed of it. I couldn’t picture abiding anyone’s company for more than a half an hour without withdrawing into a sullen silence, which limited my circle to those few “old friends” accustomed to my depression and strangeness.

So Anne’s ability to improve my performance in the basic area of sustained companionship, in addition to her demonstrated practical skills in areas such as washing sheets and installing them on my bed, established her in my reckoning as at least a peer. She wasn’t. She was only a year out of college.

Still, she had lived long enough in those youth-oriented days to have her share of relationship history and disappointing conclusions. As I was to discover when the time came, at least in my view, to take the next step.

*    *    *

We met at the end of an evening that we had spent apart in a coffee shop on Cambridge Street, midway between my place in the North End and the apartment she shared with roommates on Beacon Hill. The winds blew; the night was cold. City lights hid most of Orion, but I had seen its brighter stars when I crossed the windy desert of City Hall plaza, because nowhere in the city was the air colder and clearer than that expanse of empty pavement in front of the old town’s modernist city hall. Still, I took that walk gladly because something was on my mind.

“I think we should live together,” I said, sitting across from my salvation. “This figuring out what we want to do every night is getting me down.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready,” she replied at length.

I took a breath and drew on my deep experience of relationships.

“It’s natural. It’s what people do when they’re serious.”

I did have other arguments at hand. My domestic qualifications might not have shone in anyone’s first impression of that dump on North Street, but I was making progress. We now had sheets on my bed. I had given up smoking. The dirty foster-dog had gone back to its owner, an ex-girlfriend. (Anne was always delighted to meet my ex-girlfriends. They hung on the border of things, possibly because I was willing to take care of their dog or paint their apartment. Anne’s approach to ex-lovers was goodbye, good riddance, get out of my life.)

Some of my rusty life-skills, besides dog-walking and painting old apartments, were returning. I could cook well enough (rice and stir-fried vegetables) to keep two people alive. Anne was a vegetarian who did not cook often and at times appeared to subsist solely on bread. Besides, we had good times together. Stir-frying the stuff we bought from sidewalk vendors at Haymarket; going out somewhere inexpensive (such as to someone else’s apartment); walking back to her place; then having a little too much to drink before stumbling into bed together.

“I don’t want to rush things,” she replied.

I persisted, lowering my voice in the emptying cafe, muttering in a wounded, exasperated manner more to salvage my pride than to convince her, now that my bold proposal had apparently been rejected.

But Anne was talking to herself as well.

“All right,” she said abruptly. “But I never want to be in the position of having to divide up our things afterwards.”

I continued talking to myself, somehow having failed to hear the “yes.”

“Smile,” she said, with some exasperation of her own. “We’re going to live together.”

“We are?”

Later, much later, she told me she agreed because she was afraid of losing me.

I should have said, “I’m not like that. I’m faithful: like ice, like fire.”

Besides, I might also have said, “If we break up, you can have my things as well as yours. My ex-wife has already taken the good stuff.”

We left the cafe and separated for the night. She would be getting up early the next morning; I wouldn’t. We kissed goodnight on the sidewalk beneath invisible constellations.

I turned away and took a running step or two in the darkness. My heart leapt up.

*    *    *

It was the decision to live together that brought her parents up from New York City so we could eat together in a traditional Boston restaurant like the Union Oyster House and look at each other. All I could tell her parents was that I wrote poetry; I’d already quit the job at the hospital. The personnel director was right; but so was I, since I left with a lighter heart than I’d arrived with.

Oh and by the way, I’m not Jewish. We were all very cautious and careful and stepped lightly around one another, but I could tell her parents were kind people.

*    *    *

Committed now to cohabitation, we looked for an apartment in the North End, checking into any place with a sign out, and found a pretty spot on Copp’s Hill with the best of neighbors, a cemetery across the street. The landlady showed us the apartment, but then asked if we were married. We knew this could be a sticking point in old-country Catholic North End, but Anne said “no” without hesitation: to live in sin you must be honest. The landlady politely, but decisively, showed us the door.

We hadn’t even talked about marriage. Marriage was a serious step as I knew well, having already taken it once and fallen on my face. Who greased the stairs?

In Cambridge, where community standards were lower, we found a rare affordable apartment, a second story loft looking over a big front yard where the owner parked his enormous black shiny truck.

We lived happily above the truck in Cambridge. I collected unemployment (my favorite job), wrote poetry, connected with a group of other aspiring writers. We started our own “tabloid” lit mag published on newsprint. Liberating herself from the hospital, Anne was temp typing and applying to graduate school. Harvard accepted her, but UMass-Amherst came across with a better fellowship deal. When she took the better offer at an institution a hundred miles from Boston, I was faced with leaving my little poetry scene in Cambridge to follow her to the Pioneer Valley. Each twist in the road is a choice, a decision, a renewal of commitment.

We moved to Amherst and lived in the woods. Almost literally.

A year went by. Living, eating, washing the dishes. Getting excited over the scent of autumn in the air, the first snow, spring, the first flowers, conversations over books, movies, or newspaper stories in which we never precisely agreed but seldom seriously disagreed. Poking fun at one another’s foibles. At our own.

I found part-time work as a research assistant: a low-commitment opportunity that left a lot of time for long walks in the woods, followed by periods of notebook scribbling. Anne drove to the university (after I taught her how) and finished her course work in a year.

Things could have gone on this way. I would not have said anything was missing in my life. Money, opportunity, a career? I lived apart from the goods of the world—except, of course, for food, coffee, sweets, warmth, a roof over my head, books, and a warm body next to mine at the end of the day. Otherwise, I buried myself in words.

When the second autumn of our woodland idyll came, Anne said she had something to tell me. She was pregnant.

“When did we make this choice?” I asked myself. Now we had the conversations we should have had earlier, but they were tough and slow-going. I gave the wrong answer in one of these, or rather was unable to commit to any answer.

“Then I’ll have to get some counseling about my choices,” Anne replied.

The next time I was able to get together with myself, however–I mean with whatever it is inside of us we need to pay attention to and can sometimes hear if our inner ears are working–then the right answer was very clear. Very obvious. And felt good.

Did I want my life to go on just as it was? How long? Forever? Change nothing? Make no marks? Leave no footprints?

“We should get married and have the baby.”

Did I say it just like that? I don’t really remember.

Maybe she said it first and then I came to the same conclusion and thought I was the one who thought it up. Eureka! What an idea.

Life went on. You have made a decision. Your wife is pregnant. She discovers she wants to eat chicken, so you buy it, cook it.

Then one day you wake up before dawn and drive to the hospital. Something inexplicable happens—something totally unbelievable though it happens every day, all around you—and that changes absolutely everything in your life for about twenty-two years. Or, by another accounting, forever.

 

Robert KnoxRobert Knox is a husband, father, rabid backyard gardener, Boston Globe freelance writer, and blogger on nature, books, films, and other subjects. His short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary publications, and he was named a Finalist in the Massachusetts Artist Grant Program in fiction. Recent publications include stories in The Tishman Review3288 Review, and An Earthless Melting Pot. His novel on the origins of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, Suosso’s Lane, was published in October 2015 by Web-e-Books.com.

I’ve Never Touched One

The year was 1993 and I was eight months pregnant and trapped in an elevator with an unstable guy who was rumored to have murdered his wife. I wanted to get out, but thought it would be rude, since I’d already told him I was going to the top floor for something to eat. Mr. Thomas was a large, shy man in his late 60’s and I was his social worker. We were in the Times Square Hotel, a residence for homeless people that my organization had recently converted into the largest supportive housing residence in the world. The place had been a rat-infested mess when we first took it over, with ceilings and walls falling down and crack addicts sleeping in the lobby with their weapons nestled to their faces like security blankets. We’d had to put Vicks Vapo-Rub under our noses when we entered just to stand the smell. 60 Minutes later said it looked like the Waldorf Astoria, when they did a story on it, and we were enormously proud to have created a beautiful home for people who had done with so little for so long. We were willing to do whatever it took to keep them living there for the rest of their lives, safe and stable. If we knocked on a resident’s door and were cursed out or spit upon, we simply went back the next day. And the next, and the next, and however many nexts it took to gain their trust. There was a grand piano in the elegant lobby with a sign “play me” and artists like Cindy Sherman lent their art for exhibitions and hung it alongside that of resident artists. Much like the physical renovations, it was thrilling to watch our residents morph from vulnerable discombobulated shadows into a closer semblance of the person they were meant to be.

I was dizzy with fear, my knees started to feel like they might give out on me and I thought, this is how people die.

The work veered from mundane to high stress, like being on the front lines in a war. Most homeless people aren’t dangerous—they’re just like us except a cruel combination of busted genes, bad luck, and betrayal conspire to derail their lives—but we were filling the place with 650 of them and many had serious chronic mental illness and substance abuse issues; the transition could be profoundly disorienting for those who had lived on the streets for years. Situations arise. In our line of work it was generally assumed to be your own fault if you got hurt by a resident, as most incidents were the result of bad judgment on the part of the worker. I’d had a table thrown at me, a gun pointed in my direction, and dodged a machete, which fell unexpectedly from a dropped ceiling, but I’d never been hurt. I’d been lucky but had a tendency to let my clients be overly familiar with me, which presented risks; starting with my first job as a student teacher I’d been criticized for acting in ways less than professional, when I’d allowed an emotionally disturbed student to braid my hair.

I was a young scrappy girl doing this as a real job, not to ‘give something back’ to anyone for gifts that had been bestowed upon me, which was the case with many of my co-workers who came from more privileged backgrounds. I went home to a tiny studio apartment all too similar to the ones in the Times Square Hotel and my sole income came from the salary.

I’d just come from a meeting where our treatment team had sat around a large conference table discussing Mr. Thomas and brainstorming ideas to help him avoid the impending meltdown he seemed headed for; he’d recently become uncharacteristically agitated, more withdrawn than usual, and was mumbling to himself. We wanted to head off the kind of emergency that brought out dozens of policemen in riot gear to address an EDP, or emotionally disturbed person, as many of our residents were labeled. I mentioned his intense loneliness and how embarrassed he’d been when I’d talked to him about his urinary incontinence. He said he could not discuss such things with a member of the opposite sex and that he was “still a man.” In the meeting, to the horror of my co-workers, I’d suggested we consider buying him a prostitute for a night or two, using our petty cash fund. We were located in the heart of the sex-for-hire-industry after all. I explained that we could coach her not to tell him she was being paid and the whole affair might give Mr. Thomas a boost of masculine confidence and let him know he was still connected in this world. The idea was shot down, not surprisingly.

After the meeting I’d hopped in the elevator to head up to the fifteenth floor garden roof deck when Mr. Thomas happened to enter just before the doors closed. I felt a twinge of claustrophobia and the nauseating smell of cigarettes, grease, and urine was impossible to escape. He began nervously running his left hand through his short hair while his right hand stayed suspiciously inside his bulging pocket. I couldn’t see his hand or get a good look at what was going on over there, because I did not, under any circumstances, want him to see me looking at him down there.

Mr. Thomas alternated his gaze between floor and ceiling, as if an invisible flying insect was trapped with us. We stood side by side in silence, me with my enormous belly sticking out and he with his—then he started cracking his knuckles loudly, as if preparing to throw a punch, and clicking his teeth together while sliding his jaw forward. I was dizzy with fear, my knees started to feel like they might give out on me and I thought, this is how people die. I had fainted once before, early on in my pregnancy, so the idea of passing out in a secluded room with a potentially dangerous man was not out of the question. But, I wanted to eat and was still trying not to be impolite, so I stayed. What’s the worst that could happen in the fifteen seconds we’ll be in here together?

We rose, floor by floor, as if they were centuries. “You going to the roof?” I asked. No reply. “It’s amazing how many plants are up there now, huh? The garden group has done a great job. . . . ” I trailed off as it was clear he didn’t want to talk.

Finally, my protective Mother instincts kicked in and I reached to push eight and get out of there.

“Um. I’ve never touched one before,” he said abruptly and sort of snort-chuckled.

What? Is he talking to me? I had three thoughts, in rapid succession: First, he was hearing voices telling him to touch one or more of my private parts. Second, he said this to his wife right before he killed her. And, third, maybe . . . he’d never touched a pregnant belly.

I was prickly with heat and my breathing was shallow. But, with only two floors to go, I thought, screw it, and took his hand in mine, both our gazes still fixed forward and unwavering, and placed it over my baby bump.

“If you leave it there, you might feel the baby move.” Amazingly, he left his hand in place and after a few seconds we both felt the baby kick. I turned towards him and he looked stunned, and then said, “Oh! Wow!”

“Boy or girl?” he asked. “We won’t know until the baby is born,” I whispered. And just like that, we were in on a surprise together, practically swapping stories and braiding each other’s hair.

The doors opened onto the bustling roof garden and sweeping views of midtown Manhattan. It felt like the elevator had its own time and space dimension and I almost didn’t want to get out. We walked in different directions, he towards the garden, and me, the food. I came out feeling like a better person–more alive, awake, and appreciative of everything around me. Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that have the biggest impact.

I’d trusted the tiny little voice inside my head that day, the one that told me to connect to the humanness in this man, and it had changed my relationship with him, forever. Whenever I find myself in situations where I’m not sure what to do, I try to amplify that voice and to drown out all the superfluous noise about how will this look, or, what will people think, or, can you REALLY trust your instinct. It has been my experience that you can build your instincts the same as you build any other skills, by practicing.

And, Mr. Thomas was right, it was a boy.

Anne McGrathCommunity organizer and event planner Anne McGrath is devoted to the art and craft of storytelling. She has been featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essays and Speak Up, and lives with her husband, two sons, and two dogs in Rhinebeck, New York.

Taking the Edge Off

 

  1. IT’S BEEN A LOVELY DAY (EVEN IF I DID WANT TO KILL MYSELF)

“I find that being in a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.” —Anne Enright, The Gathering

Greetings all,

After a pleasant Thanksgiving with Mom and my siblings where he won all the after-dinner games, my father suffered a massive stroke. He’s currently on life support in the county hospital. Mom was also admitted, so they are on the same floor!

Dad is not expected to live, and Mom is referred to hospice, meaning the final months of her life.

That’s all I know at the moment, receiving hourly reports here in Manhattan, but please send loving thoughts as we all make this transition. 

My parents died exactly one year apart. It was as though a hole opened in the universe and sucked them away.

The upbeat, even cheerful tone reveals the depth of my denial, up to and including the exclamation point. And here’s the weirdest part, and if anyone can explain it by logical means, please let me know. My parents died exactly one year apart. It was as though a hole opened in the universe and sucked them away.

From early childhood, I suffered from depression. At various times, I believed that if I killed myself, I assumed power over pain and death. I tucked suicide into my back pocket, an option and sometimes a threat, to extract as needed. You can’t kill me because I’ll kill myself first.

“Who wanted you dead?” When I finally succumbed to asking for help, that’s what the grief counselor asked.

“Oh!” I said cheerfully. “Everyone!”

 

  1. IT WAS THIS

When your parents die, your molecular structure breaks down and is re-arranged. You literally become a different person. –Mark

The morning after my father died, I woke with energy and enthusiasm. I loved my first espresso in the bright Manhattan morning. I was ready to run out onto Broadway and dance around. Then my mood shifted. Mark, my partner of ten years, was distracted. He had a show coming up. When he is concentrating on his work, he hardly acknowledges me. This makes me crazy. Or it used to. Before I learned how to cry, if anyone ignored me, I felt invisible. Being invisible was akin to being dead.

I thought I can’t stay one more second in this stupid relationship.

“Are you ready to be a pioneer in the middle of nowhere?” I asked for the third time that morning. When Mark failed to respond, I said, “You don’t care about my feelings.”

“I’m tired of your feelings,” Mark said. He danced around in a fierce circle and pounded the air with his fists. “Why would I want to live in the middle of nowhere when I can be in Manhattan?”

I didn’t bother to respond. I could not wait until he left the apartment, and then I could not wait until he returned. As I followed him around the apartment, I felt like one of our dogs, dependent on his attention. That day, across the nation in sunny California, a famous writer hung himself, and I totally got it. At least I thought I did. I was more arrogant then. I thought Now he’s captured everyone’s attention forever. He’s saying: ‘Here is my pain and here its breadth and height and depth, its weight. This is how grief smells.

 

  1. HOW TO CRY

You only become yourself when both your parents are dead. -May Sarton

When Mark and I finally returned to the sea and sky of the Pacific Northwest, my father no longer in it, I was unprepared for the blow. Nearby, in hospice, my mother’s body died more slowly. For the months it took her to die, my universe shrank to the length of trails near our cabin and my mother’s bedside, and, when the only other choice on offer was drugs, the support group.

“Want something to take the edge off?” Sarah, the physician’s assistant, turns her face toward me, and for a moment, I’m bathed in her gaze. I exist.

“Yeah, a lethal injection,” I say. “Of course I want something to take the edge off.” I think I’m hilarious and ironic, but Sarah returns to the laptop she usually taps instead of looking at me. Suicidal ideation. I could be in big trouble for letting that slip out.

“If you refuse medication,” Sarah says, “the hospital offers a bereavement support group.” Crying lessons, I called the sessions I began to attend every week. As my mother shriveled, I hunched into a brown metal folding chair and shared secrets with strangers with whom I had nothing in common. Except, of course, death. We had death in common. That thing, that word you weren’t supposed to say. Just as I wanted all of Mark’s attention devoted to me, in the group I didn’t want to listen to other people’s sorrows. I wanted to writhe on the floor, my fellow mourners tossing tissues at me, or at least kicking the tissue box in my direction.

“Do not hand a tissue to someone,” the counselor said. “That’s an attempt to stop the crying.”

“Isn’t that why we’re here?” I asked. “To make the pain stop?”

Everyone looked at me and smiled. The other group members were always so nicely dressed, and smart, and dignified, yet I sensed that if I rolled around on the floor and sobbed, they’d be fine with it. And very quickly, despite myself, I did become interested in their lives. For one hour every week, I didn’t have to make tidy. I didn’t have to pretend my father passed. I could say my mother is dying. For one hour, I could rage at the dead and dying, or, more likely, at myself, or I could feel nothing at all. At times, I could even laugh.

 

  1. THE SCENIC ROUTE

Addiction to family impacts us on a cellular level, and because of this, escaping is like withdrawing from heroin. –Grief counselor

In Central Park, on my last day before returning West, the witch hazel started to bloom. When I arrived at my cottage in the West, the witch hazel my mother gave me burst with golden stars. I could hear her voice that winter afternoon in Port Townsend when she saw pots of witch hazel for sale on the sidewalk: “Would you like that for your birthday?” And without waiting for my response, she leaned over and swept the heavy pot onto her hip.

Grief became a screen that separated me from those I loved. Although I craved comfort, I forgot the rules of engagement. On some days, I couldn’t even remember how to talk. But worst of all was the exhaustion. My limbs felt heavy. I dragged myself from bed to espresso pot to shower, and then onto the forest paths to walk for miles, so tired I wanted to lie among the mosses and sleep. Several times, tended by my golden retriever and collie, I did. At night, if I finally managed to sleep, I jolted back awake, sometimes filled with terror, the child who has lost its parents and become prey.

Mark stuck it out. He wrapped himself around me like a warm and fragrant blanket, and his touch allowed me to relax in what felt like my own final days.

When we visited my mother, Mark always seemed to know how to be, perhaps because he tended his own mother as she died. He touched her and talked, or just sat quietly with a calm I lacked. My mother had no idea who I was, and without her recognition, it was as if I lacked a self. I dreaded visiting, and then felt guilty for my dread. Once, when ten days passed between visits, the hospice owner, Rosemary, said, “Long time no see,” and I obsessed about it for weeks.

The hospice consisted of two private rooms in the sea-facing home of a couple who grew organic fruits and vegetables. Chickens and dogs rambled around the property. Rosemary prepared meals from scratch and allowed my mother to eat or not eat as she chose. “She’ll eat when she feels like it,” Rosemary said, but I wanted to spoon feed my mother as if she were a baby I could somehow keep alive.

Sometimes, when I returned home, I imagined kayaking toward the horizon, and how it might feel to slide, gently, into the sea. Before my mother was moved into Rosemary’s house, she often kayaked alone, her arms whirling and her body almost invisible in the shallow seat.

“Should you be out there without a life preserver?” I called from the cliffs above the bay.

She shook her head. You really don’t get it, her look said.

 

  1. THE GRIEF-CAVE

In essence, a testimony is always autobiographical: it tells, in the first person, the shareable and unsharable secret of what happened to me, to me alone, the absolute secret of what I was in a position to live, see, hear, touch, sense, and feel. -Jacques Derrida

On that December morning in Manhattan, after my father’s sudden stroke, when I felt almost merry, there must have been some kind of shock to my immune system. Within weeks, I was struck by one cold and flu after another. Then came kidney stones, two or three bouts with trips to the emergency room. A tooth abscessed, requiring multiple surgeries and a gum graft, which then failed.

Being sick served a purpose. I could burrow into my grief-cave. In our Washington Heights sublet, I hung double layers of dark curtains over the windows, and when that wasn’t sufficient, I bought a silk eye cover. I inserted two layers of ear plugs. I had tumbled over some kind of edge, and my internal structure collapsed. I yearned for that merry day when the patriarch died, and I was, at last, free. Now I wanted to take the scenic route, as my mother always called it, and arrive someplace else.

“Is this normal recovery from a bone graft?” I asked the surgeon when the graft failed.

“No,” he said.

After a month in my isolation chamber, I started the walking cure. On my first day out, an airplane crash landed in the Hudson beside me. When everyone survived, I counted that as hope for me, too. I walked Manhattan for miles, up and down, back and forth, and around the length and width of Central Park. I didn’t listen to music or talk on my phone or look at people. I didn’t really even think.

One night while heading home at night, north on Broadway near Columbia University, I passed a brightly lit café. As I glanced inside, a young woman froze in place, swayed slightly, and then collapsed. I looked around for someone to help, but a policeman arrived almost instantly, and then another stood in the street to flag down the ambulance wailing its way through traffic.

I ran through the dark to our sublet. Once inside, I leaned against the wall, started crying, and could not stop. I replayed the image of the young woman’s collapse, an endless reel of a horror film. My heart pounded.

“What happened?” Mark asked.

“I wish that ambulance was for me,” I said.

Gradually, and then suddenly, like electric shock, a memory appeared as stark as that crashing plane in the Hudson. During my first semester at college, I held three jobs and still couldn’t make ends meet. I took on another, as an artist’s model, and was assaulted. The following morning, I showed up for one of my other jobs: serving pancakes and eggs to my peers. As I stood behind the food cart dishing out plates of food, I fainted.

“Get her out of here,” someone said. The food service inspectors were due at any minute, and when I awoke, I was back in my dorm room pounding my head against the wall.

 

  1. COMFORT MEASURES

Social contact constantly rearranges our DNA. -Anna Fels

After my mother could no longer drive, my parents were locked into a six-mile radius around their home. “You need to write your wishes,” I told them, “what you want after your death.” My parents sat in their usual places at the maple table we’d had since I was a kid, their one splurge covered with multiple layers of plastic, so that a lifetime later, the surface remained immaculate.

Obediently, my parents leaned over the bright green Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Paradigm or POLST. They wrote rapidly, and without consulting each other. They knew exactly what they wanted and what they didn’t want. As if completing an exam, they handed the forms to me.

What about afterwards, I asked. Did they want a funeral? Cremation? What did they want then? They needed to write down their wishes about that, too. They glanced at each other and frowned.

“I want to donate my body to research,” my mother said.

“And then what?” I asked. “Do you want to be buried or cremated?”

“Buried,” my mother said. But when I asked her where, she had no idea.

“I don’t need a grave,” my father said. “Just scatter my ashes on the bay.”

“No scattering,” my mother said. “You’ll be beside me.” When my father shook his head, she looked him straight in the eye. “You’ll see,” she said, in a humorous mock-stern tone she often used with him.

I asked around our little village and learned that my parents qualified for a site in the historical cemetery. I contacted someone on the cemetery commission, an elected office, and secured one of the last available sites. My parents seemed disinterested in my efforts, but one afternoon, my mother asked me to drive her there. Just six miles from their cabin, the cemetery overlooks the bay, and the Olympic Mountains rise directly behind. The plot I’d chosen was beside that of the Native American founder of our village.

“You can have a line of poetry if you want,” I said, “on a stone.” She shook her head. Once again, I wasn’t getting it.

“Daddy,” she said.

Then I understood. She meant the grave was for him. That he would die first. And she was, of course, right.

 

  1. WAKE TO SLEEP

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. / I learn by going where I have to go. -Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”

I’d been frightened about my mother’s physical death, but with the guidance of the hospice nurse, who’d known my parents for decades, the active dying, as it’s called, was gentle. That first night, two of my sisters and I sang every song we knew, including those she taught us when we were small. The next night, as my sister held our mother in her arms, I read from a book my mother gave me when I was in fifth grade, Words for the Wind. For the thirty minutes or so that it took me to read “Meditations of an Old Woman,” a poem I’d set to music in my teens, my mother stopped her intense dying breath, opened her eyes, and fixed her gaze on mine the way a child does as she’s being read to sleep.

After my mother’s burial, my father’s ashes tucked into her coffin, I felt flattened. Every day, I roamed the trails behind my house. All these decades, my parents lived just through the forest on this land where I grew up, anchoring me to the world. Some of the trails along the shoreline dated from the original people who lived here for ten thousand years. It was my job as a child, and then as an adult, to keep those trails clear.

Once a week, I continued to meet with my fellow mourners. Several of us lost significant amounts of weight, becoming almost skeletal. I could not imagine how I had ever been able to do anything, or that I would ever again function in any kind of normal way. “All responses are correct and normal,” the counselor told us. “You can’t rush grief.”

Most of us focused on regrets. We hadn’t spent enough time. We hadn’t done enough. “She wanted a scarf,” said one widower. He looked down at his hands. “The scarf only cost six dollars, and I wouldn’t let her have it.” One slept in her beloved’s shirt, and another carried her sister’s purse. Yet another tore the clothes from her mother’s closets and flung them into garbage pails, dragging them to a distant shed.

“Don’t rush into any changes if you can help it,” the counselor advised. Yet everyone else pushed the survivors to change. One widow wondered if she should move closer to family, as her sisters were insisting, and abandon the house she loved. The widower’s kids wanted him to shed the too-large family home where he’d spent so many years caretaking. “But then I’d have to pack,” he told us. “I don’t have the energy.” A young woman wondered if it was proper to stay on in her mother-in-law’s house.

“Am I even related to her now that my husband’s dead?” she asked.

One widow suffered none of these pangs. She joined us only once, and she spoke of her husband’s death with glee. “My girlfriends and I are headed for Hawaii,” she said.

“Take us with you,” we murmured. She didn’t need us, and we were glad. But we lacked the will to minister any such kindness to ourselves. In that icy Northwestern winter, our grief seemed frozen into our flesh. We might yearn for bright sun on sandy beaches, but it wasn’t going to happen. Not yet. None of us could even manage hugs. Despite the intimacy of what we shared, we never exchanged numbers. We returned to our warrens like snails to shells, to reappear the following week.

Until we didn’t. When we were done grieving, we simply vanished. Time collapsed and fell forward, moment telescoping out of moment, until I barely remember any of them at all, but for that stretch of time we embraced without touching.

K.C. PedersonK.C. Pedersen lives on a saltwater fjord in Washington State, holds an MA in writing and literature, and blogs at www.kiriepedersen.com.

Boiler Rat

The power plant loomed out of the morning blackness, hulking above the Iowa corn fields like some menacing, malevolent, medieval castle. It was surrounded by trees in soft fall colors, planted there in an attempt to showcase it as environmentally friendly and to soften its sharp square lines; but you can’t hide that much ugly.

I passed the memorial park, a rock with a bronze plaque listing the names of men killed during the plant’s construction and subsequent overhauls with space at the bottom for more names, a reminder that if this plant was on your yellow brick road, your life sucked.

The little park had a sidewalk leading to and around the rock, along with picnic tables and benches nobody used. The families of the dead men had moved on—ol’ ladies remarried, kids grown and scattered, living out their own dramas, looking for their own big rock-candy mountains.

It’s better if you don’t survive an industrial accident. Then you don’t have to watch your family leave, because when the money stops, they leave. When Big Mike got that hook buried in his head and they had to cut pieces of his skull out of his brain, his wife and kids were gone by the time he learned to walk and talk again. It’s better for the company, too, if you don’t survive; it’s cheaper for them to buy your family off than to take care of you the rest of your life. Most families settle out of court, and by the time the lawyers take their cut, there’s not much left.

It was the last overhaul of boiler season. The guys had come in from all over the country with pockets full of money from other jobs; enough money to do whatever it was they did—drugs, booze, road whores. The outfit had pulled all three of its boiler crews in for the job, and it was western.

From the parking lot the boiler was silent, and I wondered if night shift was made up of ghosts caught in some never-ending, boilermaker hell, going about their tasks in quiet agony, forced to serve for eternity the same evil they served in life—the almighty dollar. Only this time they know the payoff—broken homes, failed relationships, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, and industrial carnage. I thought about turning around. I felt like my soul would be damned as soon as I brassed in, but I’d cut that deal long ago. Someday, I will join that ghostly crew and be greeted by their vacant stares, recognized, and welcomed.

A Navajo woman was selling burritos at the gate. They’re tasty, but go off like a five-hundred pounder two hours after you eat one. I passed.

Two of the big 750s were still on line, and as I got closer to the plant the hum of operation—the rumble of the boilers, the rushing sound of I.D. and F.D. fans, the roar of the suck trucks, and the rev of ninety-ton cranes—became a wall of sound that drowned thought.

On big projects, how many men they plan on killing is figured into the price of the job, just like lost, stolen, and broken tools.

By the time I got to the unit we were tearing into, I could hear the big boiler groaning in protest at the violation and pick out the individual sounds of the overhaul in heat—the hiss-crack of the gougers and the pop of molten metal hitting pavement; the angry snarl of nine-inch grinders cutting their way through water walls; the high cymbal clash and deep clunk of light metal and heavy iron being moved; the rhythmic pound, pound, pounding of nine-pound beaters and the thump of separation with its clouds of rust, fly ash, and insulation; the knock, knock, knocking of the air chippers busting out refract, and the piercing, teeth clenching whistles of the suck truck’s big vacuum hoses.

Up on level 8, the nightshift was barely visible through the clouds of fly ash. Their eyes were blank and twelve-hours tired, and their faces were covered in brown dust. They looked at me without seeing. They’d been thinking about cold beer for the last three hours and just wanted the shift to end. They’re tough rock-and-rollers for the most part, getting old before their time, with no way out.

I headed down the catwalk to the back of the boiler where we had our gang-boxes staged and where the crew met for the morning safety meeting. Boom-boxes pounded out AC/DC, Metallica, and Monster Magnet from inside the firebox.

The crew drifted in one at a time. A couple of them looked and smelled like they’d been out all night. A few more were animated and wired for sound—obviously on meth. A lot of them are level-one primates with no recognizable human response mechanisms. Oh, they know when they are hungry, horny, and thirsty, and they do feel pain, but have no sympathy for the pain of others. They aren’t the kind you would want around your daughter. Most of them I’d shoot if I saw them in my front yard—out of common courtesy for my neighbors. On a good day, when they aren’t sick, throwing up, and soiling themselves from the excesses of the night before, they wipe their ass and toss the shit-paper on the floor. You try hard to keep from becoming a product of your primitive environment, and it makes you antisocial in most people’s eyes, but direct in yours. You become blunt, with language that is socially unacceptable, and like the rest, addicted to adrenalin. Still, there are a few good guys in the mix. Lem walked up and we nodded in greeting. I had worked with Lem for ten years. Lem was one of the good guys.

Some of the crew were coughing, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the whole crew was down with whatever they had. I wondered if I still had any meds left from the last time boiler crud went through the crew.

The safety meeting was the same ole BS from the general foreman, foreman, safety men, and company ass-sucks who couldn’t care less about safety—all trying to justify their existence. On big projects, how many men they plan on killing is figured into the price of the job, just like lost, stolen, and broken tools. The reality is that broken bones and stitches hardly foster comment, and managing the risk is the best that can be hoped for. But management loves the sound of their own voices. Hell, when I got hauled out in the meat-wagon in ’94, they didn’t even pay the doctor bill. If they cared about safety, they would drug test some of their pushers. The general foreman was sweating like a whore in church, and his brother-in-law, a foreman, had a syringe sticking out of the pocket of his coveralls. It’s the same with all these outfits; they load the job up with their non-productive sons, sons-in-laws, and sons-of-bitches, and then demand productivity from the rest of us. The meeting and the paper work they make us sign are just so they can cover their asses when something does happen, and for the company to get a break on its insurance. If you pay attention at the meeting, you can pick up on the political intrigue and power struggles, but I had no time for it. I was there for the paycheck, not the “intelligent” conversation.

They put the word out that they were in a bind for welders again. Welders had been dragging up and going to other jobs. Boiler outfits deserved that though; they call all over the country to get skilled labor to travel into their jobs, and then act like they’re doing them a favor by letting them on the jobsite when they get there. They asked us for phone numbers of any welders we knew who might want to come out. I did know a couple, but I kept my mouth shut. That outfit was too chicken-shit for me to take a chance on losing a friend.

I saw Lem at the gang-box and asked about his kids. He had two boys playing in state finals in football and was thinking about pulling the pin so he could go home and watch them play. The foreman stopped to line us out, with slurred speech and animated motions. I was headed for the water-wall-screen and Lem, for the v-bottom. I grinned at Lem and he rolled his eyes. We made plans to meet on the turbine-deck for lunch.

I slipped into my harness, grabbed my tool bucket, and crawled through the manway into the boiler. Some kid was working next to the hole and sprayed me in the face with his grinder. Pieces of metal imbedded into my skin like thousands of hot needles. I didn’t say anything to him and worked my way to the other side of the boiler where I dug my welding hood out of my bucket and started attaching tube shields.

I had put on six or eight shields and was leaning back on my pelican hooks, fishing in my pocket for a can of chew, when I noticed that the boiler was quiet. I could hear the distant hum of the suck truck but nothing else. I checked my watch to see if it was lunch time, but it was only 10:30. I looked around but didn’t see anybody. I looked over at the manway and saw a foreman from another crew motioning me to come out of the boiler. I crawled through the hole and asked, “What’s up?”

“They want everybody out of the boiler.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Don’t know. I think something happened in the bottom-ash,” he replied.

Ten minutes later they passed the word that they wanted everybody off the unit. When I got to the ground, I saw the head safety man directing everybody to meet in front of the office trailer. I walked up and he tried to ignore me, but I stepped in close to him and asked, “Who is it?” He finally looked at me and said, “Lem.”

I asked him, “How bad?” and he just shook his head.

“What happened?”

“Scaffold collapsed…somebody cut out one of the panels supporting the scaffold.”

We stood around in front of the office trailer for about an hour until the project manager came out and said, “Lem died on the way to the hospital.” We were told to hit the gate and come back in the morning, a routine I was familiar with, having been through it eight times before.

I went back to my travel trailer, showered, put on the best clothes that I had, and walked across the street to a quiet little bar to get good and drunk, think about Lem, and honor him in the only way I knew how.

It was a nice quiet place, and I took a seat alone at the bar and ordered up two shots with two beer chasers. I sat one shot and one beer in front of the empty stool beside me—Lem liked his booze—and proceeded to slowly and quietly get plastered.

A couple of hours later, I sat staring at Lem’s drinks in front of his empty stool. The fluted shot-glass reflected dull amber light through the whiskey, and the sweat from the beer bottle had pooled onto the bar. I tried to remember his face, laugh, and the color of his eyes, but he was already fading. My eyes filled with tears. I slammed down another shot, slid off the barstool and headed for the door, drinking any more would be disrespectful.

The next morning we had a meeting with the corporate damage-control team. They had flown in from California the night before on a private jet to stick their fingers in the dike. They all had brand new company coveralls on—I didn’t know they even had company coveralls—with the fold creases still visible. They all had brand new welding gloves on—the same gloves that they took money out of our checks for—so they could look like one of the guys. They all had brand new company hardhats that they carried under their arms, so as not to mess up their hair. They talked about what a great guy Lem was, but they didn’t know him, had never met him, had never shared their lunch with him or loaned him a few bucks till payday. But you’re always a great guy after you buck out. They looked put out, their tidy corporate lives had been interrupted and they had to look at us, the industrial human rags that had been employee numbers up until now, and it was uncomfortable. They said we needed to put the tragedy behind us, because we had a lot of work left to do to get the unit back on line. We knew they were only worried about busting the bid and losing their Christmas bonuses.

Out on the unit, the thing I noticed most that day was how the hands couldn’t look each other in the eye. They looked down as if ashamed, as if they felt complicit in Lem’s death—and maybe we were. We all knew about the drugs, the lack of supervision in the boiler, and the job-first-people-second attitude. Hell, most of us had participated, or at least accepted all of it as the cost of employment.

After the meeting, I got back in my hole and sat on my bucket for most of the morning, eyes welling up, at times overflowing. I took my welding hood and put it on so I could hide under it when the tears came. I thought about the meeting and how the execs had called Lem Leonard. I realized I had never known Lem’s given name, and he had never known mine. Most of us went by nicknames—Tiny, because he was big; Ladder, because he was tall; Hook, because he hooked up the crane; Eight Ball, because he hooked up the hands; and Fubar, because he was. I wondered if it was some primeval survival instinct that made us do that; if I know your name and speak it, I own your soul. My friend Charlie came and pulled up a bucket. We sat for a long time without saying a word—what could we say? Finally, he stood up, put his hand on my shoulder, turned and started for the hole. I said, “Hey Charlie…what’s your real name?” He looked at me for a moment, smiled and said, “William, William Charles.” I stuck my hand out and said, “Mine’s Robert.” We shook hands and he crawled out through the manway.

I rolled up my bucket highway tight and headed for the parking lot. There was a job in Texas I could get on. The conditions would be the same; the dangers, the drugs, and the systemic nepotism would all be there, but at least I wouldn’t be working for the same shitbirds.

 

Robert RobinsonRobert’s work has appeared in the following publications: The Flyfish Journal, Fly Fisherman Magazine, Fly Rod & Reel, Fur-Fish-Game, and World Unknown Review. He lives, hikes, and fishes in Utah with his dog, Touch. His blog can be found at flyfishingthehighcountry.com.

What Goes Around

“What is this place?” my father asked.

“It’s Seattle, Dad,” I said. “From up high.”

Lunch for two at the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant had seemed like a good idea when I’d wrested him away from his wife, Donna, that clear summer day. I’d hoped he’d be able to point out the marina where he’d docked his boat for years and lived aboard long ago, the places where he’d worked. We looked down at the tiny buildings and bug-sized cars. A ferry pulled out of the dock at Elliott Bay, container ships motored toward the port; sights we’d both seen many times albeit from a different angle. He tried, but the view meant nothing to him. His city, his waters, spread out before him, all just out of his mental reach.

Dad had been a sailor, out on Puget Sound from spring to fall each year. My summer birthday, my milestones, and then my children’s, all celebrated without him. Once he and Donna were back at home for the winter with the boat moored, they went back to their professions—he was a carpenter, she was a schoolteacher. I saw them at Christmas. We spoke on the phone. Donna was a constant presence, finishing his sentences and answering questions I’d intended for him. Seldom were he and I out together, just the two of us.

Before we left his house that morning, Donna handed me a tote bag with an extra pair of slacks inside. “See you in a few hours,” she said.

I’d been working on accepting my father’s frailty—his memory loss and shuffling gait— but extra slacks? The times I’d watched him at his house, he’d always made it to the bathroom. Donna was being overly cautious, but I knew better. I shoved the bag into the back of the car and left it there.

On the drive downtown, I tried to get Dad talking. I asked about his day and he struggled to answer. His memory seemed to have gotten worse in the two weeks since I’d seen him last. He couldn’t remember where we were going, but I hoped as soon as we got to the Seattle Center and he saw the Needle, all would come back to him. He’d remember the year he finished the work on the revolving restaurant; the long-ago day before the elevator was installed when he climbed the stairs to the top.

We pulled into valet parking and I jumped out and ran around to Dad’s side to make sure he had his cane.

“The Space Needle, Dad,” I said. “Remember?”

“Oh?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

Maybe the Center had changed since he saw it last. Surely once we were inside and things looked the same as before, his memory would return. We rode the elevator up and were seated next to the window.

“What do you want to eat, Dad?” I asked him.

“Whatever you’re having,” he said.

He hadn’t even looked at the menu. Was that because he could no longer decipher the words? My stomach twisted. My dad—the prolific reader. The self-taught man, who recited poetry and brought home stacks of books from the library. I took a deep breath and launched into a hopefully foolproof subject. I pointed to the wall moldings. “Dad, you were the carpenter who installed the woodwork in this restaurant back in the sixties,” I said.

He looked up. “Oh?” he said. “Nice.”

I told him how my husband, Gary, used to treat our daughters to lunch at the Needle on their birthdays when they were growing up. How, as each girl’s birthday approached, a dress was chosen, shoes shined, hair bows set out. On the appointed day, I stood on the porch and waved goodbye as they skipped to the car and drove off with their dad. Later, after their trip to town, they bounced in the door clutching the requisite plastic Space Needle—in which a special drink had arrived at the table spouting dry ice vapor—and chirping about the elevator ride, the observation deck. About Daddy.

When night came, I’d tuck that day’s birthday girl into bed, her little body squirming with happiness, and listen to the details of her over-the-top day. I’d listen and be transported to my own childhood with a dad who routinely missed my summer birthday. A dad who—like the bumper sticker says—would rather be sailing.

In the sixties, the court determined the slice of my childhood I was to spend with my father: every other weekend and a week in the summer. But the court hadn’t got the memo: Dad reserved weekends for solo sailing trips. Our visits dwindled to a few hours a month, and no overnights. Once he married Donna, our contact lessened even more.

If he’d been grim or ill-tempered, I’d have been grateful not to see him. But those hours when we were together, when he joked and sang and held my hand, only made me ache for more. I’d spent some years trying to find a replacement dad—a fatherly teacher, an elderly neighbor man—never quite right but sometimes good enough. Now I was with the real guy. He might not be his old self, but he was here.

I didn’t tell him that day how hard I’d worked to bury my resentment. Instead, I chattered at him about the weather. Small talk was my strong suit; I could go on all day about nothing. It was the important things that stuck in my throat.

I demolished my fish and chips. Dad picked at his. He was happy enough. He smiled and told me how much he appreciated our lunch, but he might as well have been at McDonalds. The waiter took away our plates and brought dessert.

“Look, ice cream!” I said. His favorite.

Dad reached for his cane and turned in his seat, trying to get up.

“Where are you going, Dad?” I said.

“I gotta pee,” he said.

I looked for the restroom sign and found it nearby. We’d have to climb a long narrow stairway to reach the men’s. Not only that, we were sitting on the outer rim of a restaurant that was revolving 360 degrees per hour. Our table would soon be in a different place, nowhere near our current landmarks. The chances that Dad could find his way back alone were nil.

“I’ll come with you,” I said, adding, “I have to go, too.”

I followed him. I couldn’t help but hover. I took his elbow and put my hand on his back to guide him. The stairs loomed in front of us. People bustled up and down. The men’s room was off to the right of the steps about halfway up to the women’s room and the entrance to the observation deck. I followed close as he climbed the stairs. I’d have to let him go in by himself, and for the time it took him to finish, I wouldn’t be there to help if he needed something.

What had I done, bringing him to this place without backup? As if I knew what I was doing, thinking I could handle anything that came up. I hadn’t once let myself consider what Dad’s decline meant in real life. This was supposed to be fun, an elevator ride into the sky to look down at his city. But for my dad, the day had been disorienting, meaningless. He’d have been happier at a park. Why had I gotten it so wrong?

The minutes ticked by with no sign of him. Heaven only knew what was happening in there. He could’ve fallen, or worse. I watched the faces of the men leaving the washroom for signs they’d witnessed a disaster. Finally, I stopped a middle-aged man and asked if he’d seen my dad in there.

“Yeah,” he said, “he’s doing okay.” I breathed a little easier.

Soon Dad came out the men’s room door and started back down the steps. As he came closer, I noticed a wet stain on the front of his slacks. Not just a tiny little drip, but a splash that went from his front zipper down his left pant leg. It could’ve been water but… no. For a moment, I wanted to run away. Let someone else take care of this old man who so often couldn’t be bothered with me. But one look at him—confused, weary, and wearing wet pants, I pushed that thought away. I pictured the bag with the extra slacks inside 500 feet below us in the back seat of my car, wherever the valet had parked. Dammit. I didn’t know what made me feel worse, that I’d left behind Dad’s extra pants or that Donna knew him so much better than I did, or ever could.

Just then it struck me, the reason I’d been determined to make this day happen. Why hadn’t I seen it earlier? I’d told myself this lunch was a treat for Dad, a chance for him to enjoy the view. But my mind had played a trick on me. True, I didn’t have a party dress or dry ice or a plastic souvenir. I’d have had to wait until he didn’t have much choice in coming here. But I’d made it happen at last, my own special Space Needle date with Daddy.

I stepped forward to hold my father’s arm, and help him navigate the last few stairs. He brushed the wet spot with his hand as if to make it blend in somehow. I kissed his cheek. Gave him as big a smile as I could muster, and looked around to place myself in the ever-turning dining room. With luck, he’d forget about his soggy slacks by the time we reached our seats. Assuming I could find our table.

Joyce TomlinsonJoyce Tomlinson graduated from Antioch Seattle in Arts & Literature and received her MFA from Pacific University in Oregon. Her work has been published in Gold Man Review, Full Grown People, Crab Creek Review and We Came Back to Say, an anthology of women’s memoir. She is currently at work on a book about her relationship with her father.

Panic at Twenty-four Frames Per Second

Dead Birds is a documentary about the aboriginal people of New Guinea. Behavior Modification shows early attempts to treat autism. Orange is an erotic film in which a man peels and eats an orange. Slowly.

I worked my way through undergraduate school as a film projectionist, screening movies for the university’s classes. It didn’t pay much, but had other benefits: flexible hours, easy work, interesting subject matter. The only problem was that I was assigned to show the most popular films in the college’s library so many times that after only a few months on the job it became impossible for me to stay awake while they were running. At some point I trained myself to fall asleep during the opening credits of these films and wake up just before the loose end of the trailer began to flap against the projector stand.

Color Chromatography demonstrates—you guessed it—color chromatography. Sirene is a 1968 animated short about the destruction of the natural environment. A Normal Birth shows a normal (human) birth; at least three people would faint during each showing. This is Marshall McLuhan. I assume no explanation is necessary.

Behavioral Studies of Obedience was a favorite of the psychology department: a sixty-minute film summarizing experiments by Dr. Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, in which an actor posing as a doctor was able to persuade some of the study’s subjects to administer what they believed were painful, even lethal electric shocks to another actor in an adjacent room. The telecommunications and film department couldn’t get enough of Why Man Creates, an Oscar-winning twenty-five-minute short by famed film title designer Saul Bass. I must have shown that movie more than 700 times in the four years I worked for audio/visual services, sometimes four times a day. The film professors also ordered older classic feature films for their classes—Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Dark Victory. And two evenings a month the student union would sponsor a more contemporary feature film—Easy Rider, Woodstock, Last Tango in Paris—at one of the campus’s bigger venues: outdoors in the Greek bowl or in a large hall in the student center.

º

I’m telling you all this because it’s important that you believe I know what I’m talking about. Because if you’re a film buff, as I am, what I’m about to reveal will sour your future film-viewing experience as sure as there will always be a dirt-blackened piece of Bazooka imbedded in the carpet under your theatre seat. Yet all you need do to continue enjoying classic films is to read no further. Turn three pages and go on to the next story or essay or poem in whatever journal you’re holding in your nervous fingers. That’s what I’m advising you to do.

Why would I offer you information so disturbing, so disruptive, that it would merit this warning? My reason may be as simple as the fact that misery loves company. Or you may imagine me as Mephistopheles, seducing you, as Faust (whose story has been made into no less than four different movies) was seduced, with an appeal to your obsessive thirst for esoteric knowledge. After all, here you are, still reading after I’ve advised you to stop. What can I do in the face of such determination? How can I deny you what you’re willing to risk so much to discover? But I’m not a monster. I’ve given you an out.

Now your curiosity begins to get the better of you. Your heart quickens; you feel you must read on. A true film buff, you thrill to the obscure and thrive on the arcane. While viewing Ken Russell’s 1969 film Women in Love, only you among your friends noticed that sliced bread was used in a scene that takes place in 1920, eight years before pre-sliced bread was commonly available. In Casablanca, guns switch from one hand to the other or disappear entirely between takes. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ hand shifts from his left pocket on one side of a cut to his right on the other faster than you can pop a Junior Mint. These are the kinds of things you search for, and revel in.

But this story has nothing to do with trivia. You can find that stuff on the Internet.

By now you suspect I may be teasing you, that I’m dangling my “secret” in front of you as though it were an unreleased clip from Terry Gilliam’s latest attempt to film Don Quixote. I may as well forge ahead, you think, see what it’s about. Maybe you’re so sound of mind that you needn’t fear what I might say. I could be over-exaggerating (though I assure you I’m not). Wouldn’t it be wiser to be safe, to heed my warning to stop? What secret could possibly be worth the risk of ruining one of life’s great pleasures? Don’t be the Sam Spade of this story; don’t carry things too far. This is your last chance.

 

There are just two things you need to know in order to see a film as a projectionist sees it:

  1. The largest film reel that fits on a 16mm projector (the kind I operated) holds sixty minutes worth of film. 35mm reels hold less—maybe thirty minutes—because the film is twice as heavy. Since full-length feature films are longer than sixty minutes, they’re always on more than one reel, sometimes four or more.
  2. To achieve a smooth, apparently continuous film screening, two projectors are used. The first is for odd-numbered reels, the second for even. The projectionist handles the “switchover” from the active projector to the one loaded with the next reel.

So, how does a projectionist know exactly when to switch?

Before I answer, here’s another question: did you notice anything unusual near the bottom of the first page of this essay? Did anything catch your eye, distracting you for a second or two, perhaps diverting your attention, interrupting the flow of your thoughts? If not, go back and look now. Do you see the black circle near the right margin about three inches from the bottom of the page? What if I told you that from now on, every print book or journal will have a black circle like this one after the final paragraph of every chapter or story to signal that you should go on to the next page? In fact, just to make sure you don’t miss it, there will be a “warning” circle two inches above the final one. How long do you think it would be before your subconscious begins to keep a constant watch for that warning circle? Would it distract you from what you’re reading?

This is the solution film distributors came up with to solve the switchover problem. A small hole is punched in one frame of the film ten seconds before the end of each reel. When that frame passes through the projector at a speed of twenty-four frames-per-second, a small white dot or flash appears in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen. This GET READY! warning is followed ten seconds later by another flash: SWITCH! And the projectionist flips the switch on the second machine, where the next reel has been cued-up at the first frame.

No doubt you’re thinking, a twenty-fourth of a second? That’s what all this is about? Big deal!

I admire your confidence, but yours is the reaction of someone who has never noticed the dots, or perhaps thought they were just random scratches in the film. All that has changed as of this moment. Now that you know what they are, you’ll always see them. Soon you’ll find yourself obsessed by the watch for dots, your heart drumming in your chest at the “GET READY!” signal, your nerves tightening. It seems too long to be just ten seconds. A panic sets in. Did you miss it? Suddenly, the second flash, SWITCH!, and you relax, you can breathe again, and you return to the film with fitful attention, almost ignoring the plotline, impatient with the dialogue, silently estimating, over and over, the interval until the next reel change. And so you’ll become, like me, an anxious addict, counting the minutes, twitchily waiting for the next visual twang, finding relief, at last, only in a brief flash of light.

º

I’ve dragged you to the brink of the abyss, but the final step you must take yourself. I have one last instruction for you, one I know that, having come this far, you will not be able to resist. The next time you’re watching an old movie, keep an eye on the upper-right-hand corner of the screen starting at the twenty-five minute mark. I’ll bet you’ll see switchover dots. And, having once seen them, will never be able to not see them again.

º

Jim Brega Jim Brega earned his BA from San Diego State University and an MFA from the University of Illinois. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Lime Hawk, Hippocampus Magazine, Red Savina Review, Plenitude, and r.kv.r.y. He lives near San Diego. You can find more of Jim’s work on his blog: jimbrega.com.

 

 

The Housekeeper’s Daughter

My brain is starting to unravel. It’s gone bad. I can feel everything loosen up, softening, rippling under the inverted moonlight of my eyes. It’s really gone bad.

I’m starting to see the big picture now, and I’m not sure what it isblurred candy shadows, a scorched candlewick, the skin of eggshells, a smile in the dark?

Late at night as Los Angeles purrs in its sleep, I dip my fingers into my decomposing skull. It’s soft and gooey, a non-Newtonian fluid keeping secrets I itch to uncover. I creep and dig, my fingers rummaging through the mess and I’m tired, tired of being me. So tired, exhausted, withered and disgusted with whom I’ve become. I’ve realized I am so predictable. Day to day I spend too much time wishing. Wishing I were different, wishing I had a better life, wishing I were new; an other worldly being to blow away the masses, open mouthed and drooling, wishing I were animal; peligrosa y cruda. I have spent my entire life wishing.

When I was a child, my brother and I used to go to work with our mother. We were the housekeeper’s kids. Come to raid the fridge, devour cable TV, swim in the poolour underwear our swimsuitsand play with the dogs and cats. It was another world to be consumed, set ablaze by our wide eyes, a privilege, a dream.

We were the housekeeper’s kids; I was the housekeeper’s daughter.

Alone, I would nap in king size canopy beds and dream about my future, hoping to one day live in the homes my mother cleaned up along the curves of Benedict Canyon, Mulholland Drive, Los Feliz, Brentwood, Coldwater Canyon, Malibu. Wishing, always wishing.

I’d slide from room to room touching everything, leaving behind my fingerprints, imprinting myself onto glass paperweights, stationary bikes, unused seat cushions, bay windows, paintings I could not understand, white pristine bed sheets, photographs, flowers in the garden, mirrors and most of all the air, the lovely clean air. Imprinting, leaving behind splinters of my soul so I could come to collect when I was older.

Being the housekeeper’s daughter never bothered me. I loved it. My mother was often embarrassed, not wanting me to tell others what she did. It never bothered me, not even when she cleaned the houses of some of my best friends. Today it still doesn’t bother me, but my view of it all has altered.

My mother’s patronas used to be 99.9% perfect; refined creatures of beauty with long slender legs, graceful fingers decorated with golds and silvers, smooth skin, bellies that never growled, and little to no nalgas, which made no difference because they possessed tits that had been well cared for. I wanted it all.

Today, I no longer want what they have. It’s all the same, just different packaging.

Today, I am the housekeeper.

I slide from room to room, a snake licking the unclean air. Whispers breathe onto my scales and I know their secrets. I know when husbands no longer sleep with their wives, I know when one glass of wine has increased to two bottles of whiskey, I know when a pets passing bruises the ceilings and walls, I know when annoyance becomes deep and fractured hostility, I know when disease becomes another family member, I know when redecorating has become compulsive, I know when a child’s broken bones or explosive temper becomes another knot in the dining room table, I know when the longing for a mate dissolves beneath the bed, forever a distant dream.

It’s all the same, just different packaging.

They are my family and I don’t want any of it.

I don’t want their muck.

I don’t want to wash their tear stained pillowcases.

I don’t want to smooth their wrinkles.

I don’t want to be their secret keeper.

I don’t want to mold them new lives.

I don’t want to see them cry.

I don’t want to feel their fear.

I don’t want to smile when they lie to me, to their partners, to their children, to themselves.

I don’t want to help pick up the pieces.

I don’t want to throw out the trash.

I don’t want to scrub away the scum.

I don’t want to dust away the memories.

I don’t want to be their treasurer, retaining their troubles.

It’s all the same, just different packaging.

I want my own life.

I want me.

I want my future.

I want I want I want.

I want eternity to figure out what I want.

But tomorrow I will be their treasurer, their secret keeper.

They are my family; I breathe their air.

I am no longer the housekeeper’s daughter. I am the housekeeper.

Tomorrow I will keep wishing, as I always have, little girl or not.

A.R. CastellanoA Los Angeles native, A. R. Castellanos writes poetry, fiction, and memoir that draw upon her vibrant and tenacious ancestral heritage in Guatemala and California. Her conjured worlds encompass feral spirits, otherworldly legends, and the disconcerting realities of domestic workers in Hollywood celebrity homes. Her work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Chaparral, and Duende, among others. Aside from writing, Castellanos loves watching movies over and over again with her dog Nola, a rare breed of wolf-bear. For more please visit https://arcastellanos.wordpress.com.

Negative Space

First you notice the writing students in front of you slowing down, then pausing, and moving into the street.

Yellow tape is stretched across the sidewalk tied to a tree and a lamppost. You can’t read the black printing.

The now visible police cars and years of TV say crime scene.

The red lights flashing across the street shift your focus.

More yellow tape, an ambulance, several officers, EMTs, and perhaps a witness or plain clothes somebody talking to a police officer.

Behind all of them is a building with balconies. Black rails. Glass. Red brick. You count the stories.

The grass is green and the bushes are in bloom with pink blossoms.

There is a blank space. White. Like whiteout on a picture. Like an unfinished painting. Cleanly erased. Lacking relief. Flat white.

You don’t stop at the yellow tape. The students with you keep moving into the street around the cars and back on the sidewalk.

A woman outside a church says he jumped. Students pass by and you look up at the building.

Are you searching for the balcony? Counting floors again. Imagining.

You turn and walk on and wonder if all these writers and poets and playwrights are constructing narratives.

Are they building plots, forming characters, metaphors?

You turn back. Stop. Walk a few more steps. Stop. Turn back again. Wonder why?

The urge for a cigarette, a drink, your lover’s embrace floods you.

Close your eyes and breathe, fill the space, and shake like a dog just wet from the ocean.

At the lecture hall, stand in line for your decaf Americana. Find someone to sit next to. Ask him if he saw. Ask her what she knows.

Open your notebook. Open your iPad. Check your email. Start writing.

Ted ChilesTed Chiles’ fiction has appeared in several literary journals including Canteen, Wacamma, Smokelong, Quarterly, and riverbabble. Vestal Review nominated his story “A Recursive Love Affair” for a Pushcart Award. Chiles lives in Santa Barbara, California with another writer and two cats. In a former life he taught economics, the most dramatic of the social sciences.

 

 

Some Lines of Feeling 

“Autumnthat season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tendernessthat season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

― Jane Austen, Persuasion

 

The oppressive, heavy, humid heat of another climate change Ohio Valley River summer makes way for fall. Makes way for winds that blow away lingering dew drops in the morning grass. Makes way for skies that do not lighten until I’m almost home from working the night shift. This is my favorite time of year, the time of year that makes me stop and think, pause and reflect on change as green leaves turn fiery before drying up and blowing away. As the wind blows goosebumps along the patches of skin left bare between my scarf and cardigan, and as pumpkins and Indian corn overtake berries and peaches at the farmer’s market down the street, I always think of the past—how different things are now, how many people are missing from my life. More than anything, fall makes me think about academia. As wool and double-knit takes the place of summer dresses in my wardrobe, I think about dry leaves crunching underfoot as I make my way along sidewalks between classes. This is my new year, much more than January 1.

And most of all, I think about Ralph.

In my early twenties, after a failed first attempt at college and several years spent aimlessly drifting from job to job, I enrolled at a community college in downtown Louisville. The buildings housing the classrooms where gifted professors rekindled my love for literature and creative writing—and kindled my love for philosophy and social justice—were sandwiched between high rises, fast food joints, and subtly-labeled services for the invisible: homeless shelters, rehab centers, food closets, and soup kitchens. Their clientele stood on the sidewalks between the main campus building and the languages building four blocks away, men and women who had seen better days and who now spent their days asking for spare change. I gave what I could, but didn’t often carry cash.

I spent most of my lunch breaks at the Taco Bell across Broadway from the liberal arts building. Fast, cheap, and convenient, it was the perfect college meal. Taco Bell is where I met Ralph.

Weathered, beaten down, clad in so many layers of ripped and soiled jackets and pants that he could have weighed anywhere from 150 to 450 pounds, Ralph towered over my 5’1 frame. With his dusky skin darkened even more by car exhaust and street soil, he was like any number of the homeless I passed during my school days; except he wasn’t a number, he was Ralph.

I still can’t tell you how we clicked, the homeless Army vet alcoholic and the drifting, artsy-district dwelling, nerdy white girl. Maybe we were both drifting. Maybe we were both seeking what we’d lost—him to napalm and bomb-wired boys blowing themselves apart in Vietnam and protesters spitting in his face when he got back home, me to years under a lover’s controlling fists—but we did. Maybe it was the softness in his gaze under his wind-hardened face. But whatever it was, instead of walking past him with an “I’m sorry, I don’t carry cash” explanation when he asked for “just enough change for a taco, please, ma’am,” I gestured with my head to the door, saying “I have extra on my card. C’mon. I’ll buy you some lunch.”

It was awkward at first. I didn’t know how to eat without a book in front of me, and he hadn’t really eaten anywhere but soup kitchens and church basements in “Oh, ‘bout twenty years,” but we found ourselves in a booth by the window, a tray of tacos between us. He tried to grab a taco and leave, but I asked him to stay. I don’t know what spawned that—I don’t like eating with other people; I never know what to do with my hands if they don’t have a book in them, and can never figure out how many bites it’s polite to take in between words, but it seemed right. Not “right” as in “Oh, the right thing to do” charity line, but right as in “the right thing to do at the moment.”

“Do you go to that college?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Whatya studying?”

“Everything,” I shrugged. “I’m an English major, but I keep taking classes I don’t need. Philosophy and the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, mostly.”

He laughed, bits of lettuce falling in his lap from the taco. “I wanted to go to college. Thought I’d teach math.”

“I’m awful at math!”

“Well, I am now, too.” He pointed to a scar under the tight gray curls along his temple. “Uncle Sam took learning from me. I can’t remember much no more, can’t read no more, either.” He took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. “Do you want to teach? Or write your own books like them you’re carrying in that heavy backpack?” he asked, pointing.

“I want to teach, yes, but more than anything, I want to write. Seeing my name on the spine of a book in the library—that would be heaven.”

He nodded. “You will. And I’ll buy it. You seem like a smart young lady. Stay in school. Don’t be like me. These streets—they’ll kill ya.”

I smiled. “I will.”

He stood up. “Gotta run. Places to go, ya know.” He winked. “Thank ya for lunch. It’s nice to be seen.”

I nodded. “I know.”

He stood up. “Gotta run. Places to go, ya know.” He winked. “Thank ya for lunch. It’s nice to be seen.”

I don’t think either of us expected it to, but that lunch became routine. Once or twice a week—any time I got sick of packing sandwiches from home—I crossed the street to Taco Bell, and, more often than not, he’d be outside. “The manager, he’s a good man,” he told me. “He lets me sit out here, so long as I don’t bother nobody.” Over tacos, we exchanged stories. He told me about growing up in a coal mining town in Eastern Kentucky and going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and how he “never could read past kid books, but numbers—man oh man, I loved me some numbers. They was the most beautiful thing.” He dropped out, though, because he couldn’t pass English. He told me how a boy who’d never gotten in so much as a fist fight—Mama, she’d’ve kilt me”—could still be drafted to Vietnam, and how that same boy could watch his buddies get blown apart by bombs wired to the local boy who’d visited them every day for weeks. That blast, he told me, “shot something into my skull. I don’t know what, but I ain’t been right since.” After recuperating in a field hospital, he was flown home where he was greeted by protesters spitting in his face and the news that his high school sweetheart had married someone else. I told him about growing up an honor’s student who passed math because my little sister did my homework, and being in love with language and words, and being diagnosed with dyscalculia and A.D.D. in college, and about dropping out to take care of a man who wound up abusing me. There was a lot of head shaking over both stories.

Some weeks, I didn’t make it, especially during exams, but any time I did, Ralph was waiting for me. The last week before winter break, we ordered, same as always—ten soft tacos, four without lettuce for me, and two large sodas—but before I could dig my wallet out of my backpack to pay, he stopped me. “I been saving the change I get,” he said. “For Christmas.” The cashier rolled her eyes at the mound of quarters and dimes he plunked down, but to me the change sparkled like new snow. When I thanked him, he shrugged. “I always wanted a little girl. If I’d’ve had one, she’d be about your age.”

 

Louisville comes alive during Derby. Something about horseracing and bourbon brings in celebrities and inspires local women to dress in outrageous hats and fancy dresses. I’ve never understood the draw—in fact, I spend most Derbies passing out leaflets about the horses who didn’t run fast enough to qualify and wound up glue or dog food—but after meeting Ralph, the horses stopped seeming like the biggest casualty.

Derby brings in celebrities, like I said, and celebrities bring in glitz and glamour. Louisville rolls out the red carpet—trash-lined streets are suddenly swept clean, empty lots are planted with flowers, and artists are commissioned to turn horse statues into works of art. The homeless—of which we have nearly 10,000—are not sparkly, and so shelters are paid extra to put out more beds, and churches line their basements with cots, all to get the homeless out of sight and out of mind. I used to think this was a good thing; regardless of the motivation, any extra beds were a blessing. That is, until I realized that there are some people, like Ralph, who don’t want a borrowed bed.

Before that Derby, Ralph had never told me where or how he lived, just saying “I get by, same as everybody else.” On one of our lunches, Ralph was unusually quiet, mumbling short answers and looking at his lap and not at me.

“Is something wrong?”

“I ain’t got my home,” he responded.

I looked at him, trying to figure out a polite way to say “I know you’re homeless,” when he continued.

“The cops, they didn’t think tent city was the right place for us to sleep. So they took their bowie knives, like the one I used in the army, and sliced up the tents. They said we needed to sleep inside at the shelter for our own health.”

I touched his hand, not knowing what to say.

“So, I’m at a shelter. But it ain’t home.”

I don’t remember what else we talked about that day. I wish I did because it was our last lunch.

 

Who we are comes from what we do in a crisis. Do we remain calm and collected, or do we panic and freak out? Or, shamefully, do we run away and hide? If this is true, I don’t like who I am. Or at least, I don’t like who I was then. The moment I should have stood strong, I backed down and ran the other way.

If this was a movie, some feel-good Lifetime movie of the week, I’d end this telling you about how Ralph grew to like the shelter, got sober, and went back to school. There, he’d have a Good Will Hunting worthy moment where untapped gifts were brought to light, and he’d go on to MIT or Harvard. But this is real life, where happy endings are not guaranteed.

Around the same time tent city was being sliced up, Taco Bell went through a management change. The old manager, who let Ralph sit outside, quit. The new manager, a younger, hipper guy who wanted the restaurant to draw more students, papered the entrance door with event fliers and signs, offered a student discount…and put up a “No Loitering” sign. I don’t think he was malicious; I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing.

I don’t remember what else we talked about that day. I wish I did because it was our last lunch.

The week before Derby, I was walking across the street to meet Ralph. I only had a week left of classes before I transferred to a four-year university across the river in New Albany, and had a parting gift—a new jacket—in my bag for Ralph. The wind was warm, promising summer, and my feet skipped as I neared the Taco Bell. Just as I was about to wave hello, a cop car pulled in and rolled to a stop next to Ralph. Ralph looked up, expressionless, as two officers exited the cruiser. The younger put his hand on his gun when he realized how tall Ralph was, then pulled out his cuffs. “You have the right to remain silent…”

“What’d I do?” Ralph asked.

“Loitering. You can’t sit here. It ain’t safe.” In my memory, the officer sneered this, but I’m not certain if it’s my own rage darkening the exchange or if he was that callous.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, hurrying over. “He wasn’t loitering. He was waiting for me.”

“For you?” He looked me up and down, taking in my skirt and sweater, probably wondering why a clean-cut, obviously nerdy college girl was hanging out with a homeless man who smelled of yesterday’s booze and the desperation of the shelter.

“Yes.” I tried to ignore the trembling in my voice. “We eat lunch together every week.”

“Well, the manager, he called, said he’s been out here every day for hours.”

“He sits here all the time.”

The second officer walked over. “Welp, not anymore. See that sign? It says ‘No Loitering,’ so I’m going to need you to step away and let us do our job.”

“I can’t read that, sir,” Ralph said.

“Why? You blind?”

Ralph shook his head, defeated.

“He can’t read. That isn’t a crime,” I said.

“Look,” the first officer said, “you can either walk away or be arrested, too.”

“For what?”

“For being an accessory to a crime.”

“An accessory to loitering?” I asked in disbelief.

I wish I could say I stood my ground, that I was cuffed and put in the back seat behind that metal grille with Ralph, that I’d been with him as he was taken downtown. I wish I’d raised a fuss, called the media. But I didn’t. Ralph shook his head at me and got in the car. I raised a hand in farewell, but I don’t know if he saw me. I hope he did. I wish I didn’t remember how defeated he looked, a big man reduced to a scared little boy.

 

I never saw Ralph again. A soldier haunted by brain damage and the ghosts of alcoholism and long-dead friends, a man who saved his change to buy me lunch for Christmas because he always wanted a little girl, was reduced to a number, another victim of a system that measures success in beds filled and ignores lives lost.

I used to ache every spring at the memory of my friend in the backseat of that cruiser, but I stopped letting myself remember. Now, though, it’s fall, and like every fall, the leaves crisp and change colors, and I remember Ralph. Not the goodbye, but the “hello,” the budding of a new friendship and all the missed chances and opportunities.

“Write a book,” he told me when I told him I wanted to be a writer. “And I’ll buy it, and have someone read it to me.”

It isn’t a book, my friend, but a memory. Wherever you are, I hope you know I remember.

Karyl Anne GearyKaryl Anne Geary is an adjunct instructor at Ivy Tech Community College and works on a children’s psychiatric unit. She is the founder of the Rojong Yoin Writing Community in Louisville and is working towards an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Spalding University. Her essays and poetry have been published in Lunch Ticket, Sweet, New Southerner, so to speak, Stonecoast Review, IUSoutheast Review, and Barbaric Yawp. She is currently working on a collection of essays about growing up in Kentucky, and a segmented memoir about healing from personal trauma while simultaneously working with child trauma victims, and blogs at karylannewrites.wordpress.com.