The Water Understands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Civilization well;

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

It wets my foot, but prettily,

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

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

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

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

“Grebrrrgaba,” she said.

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

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

It chills my life, but wittily,

*     *     *

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

It is not disconcerted,

*     *     *

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

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

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

“Do you feel like pushing?”

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

*     *     *

It is not broken-hearted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Well used, it decketh joy,

The Proposal:

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

“Why?”

“Get a ring. Get married or something?”

Romantic shit.

We decided on a destination wedding: Jamaica.

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

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

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

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

“Ya, mon.”

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

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

*     *     *

Adorneth, doubleth joy:

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

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

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

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

 

Ill used, it will destroy,

In perfect time and measure

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

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

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

*     *     *

With a face of golden pleasure

Elegantly destroy.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

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

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

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

Intention

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

*     *     *

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

It’s tough to make discoveries without getting dirty.

*     *     *

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

If only it were that easy.

I forgot to ask about my sacral chakra.

*     *     *

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

 

 

Wander, Lost

Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*     *     *

Roam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my back has stopped hurting.

 

*     *     *

Halt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*     *     *

Stray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*     *     *

Rove

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

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

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

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

 

*     *     *

Drift

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*     *     *

Wander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*     *     *

Lost

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

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

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

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

 

 

Wet Glass Plates

Living alone in the city had done something to me. Until occupying a one-bedroom apartment on 18th Street with no one to keep me company except Sydney, a cuddly cat with the loudest meow, I never would have walked down the city’s busy streets without a companion. Now that I think about it, it seems silly, and I wonder, why? What was I afraid of? That people would see me and automatically think I had no friends? Or that people would look at me and mentally criticize me for being alone, or wonder what was wrong with me? That people—strangers—would actually notice me for a change? Even if they did, so what? And what was the worst thing that could happen? A man could pass me and say, “You’re looking beautiful today.”

Which is exactly how I met David John. One sunny Saturday afternoon, I ventured out alone. I wandered along until I found a nail salon and treated myself to a pedicure. Maybe that was it—the pedicure. Something about having my toes painted red always makes me feel pretty, and when I feel pretty it shows.

After my pedicure, iced coffee with a dash of cinnamon in hand, I continued to stroll along, taking in the sun and fresh air, glancing in store windows, and smiling into the breeze. Stopping to admire a boutique display, I quickly dismissed the idea of trying on the yellow and white, fitted, button-up top. That same window reflected a too-large bust and too-wide hips, obviously a good three sizes bigger than the twos, fours, and sixes that the mannequins wear.

The thin girls garnish attention; steal dates and elicit fawning. I wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of attention anyway.

A man approached, holding what appeared to be an antique camera. A photographer? His glasses and white-streaked black hair put him at about sixty years old, and although he was shorter than I am, his tan complexion and straight white teeth showing through his smile gave him a stately attractiveness—kind of an elderly hip-ness. And there was something welcoming about his smile. He reminded me of my Gramps, who always took a liking to younger females in an endearing and non-creepy way. We made eye contact, and he said hello as we passed each other. I was examining the one-eyed lens in his hand, trying to figure out what it was.

“You’re looking beautiful today,” he said without breaking the eye contact.

“Thank you.” I turned around to look at him again, and I’m sure I beamed a smile. It’s not often that men tell me I’m beautiful.

“Have you ever modeled?”

“No.” The response came out with a chuckle, almost as a question. Model. As in model clothes? As in for a magazine? As in standing in front of a camera while a photographer, and probably a hoard of folks—stylists, designers, makeup artists—stared at me? Right. I worked as a magazine editor. I knew the magazine-modeling type, and it wasn’t me.

“I’m serious. You’d make a great model.” He walked back toward me.

“Really?” I glanced down at my haphazard outfit, a black skirt and grey tank top that had come straight out of my laundry basket and my trusty red Old Navy flip flops. The only thing polished about me were my toes.

“Really. You have nice curves, and you’re not a stick like magazine girls.” He looked me up and down, then back to my eyes.

“Well, thanks. I think,” I looked him up and down. Tailored jeans. Collared, fitted, pinstriped shirt. Designer glasses, and long-ish salt-and-pepper hair. Definitely requires maintenance. He had to know at least a little bit about fashion—and modeling—to look as good as he did.

“Would you consider modeling?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, I have a salon and gallery just down the street, and I’m in the middle of doing a bunch of shooting on glass plates. So I’m looking for people.”

“Uh-huh.” Glass plates? Intriguing.

“Why don’t you come by, and I can tell you more about it?”

I glanced down the street, behind his shoulder. Where was this salon/gallery? Maybe I’d been there before, during a Second Saturday art walk. Was he an artist? Maybe I’d seen his work.

“Do you have a card or something?”

His card identified him as David John. Hair stylist/photographer. So, fashion photography? He must shoot his own promotional images.

“What’s your name?”

“Janna.”

“Janna. I’m David, nice to meet you.” We shook hands and he turned to continue on his way.

“Yeah, nice to meet you,” I said, looking at his card and flipping it over to the backside. No website?

Then he turned back again.

“Do you have a card?”

I checked my bag. Pencil. Pen. Sticky notes. Gum. Cell phone. No card. Anyway, do I just give this guy my number? I checked my wallet.

“No, I don’t have any cards with me. But I can call you.”

“Yeah, okay. Give me a call this week. Or just come by and I’ll show you my stuff.”

He walked away, and I thought, am I supposed to just show up at this guy’s salon in the middle of a huge photo shoot? Makeup artists and hair stylists all in a frenzy, and in walks frumpy girl, sporting not-so-stylish ensemble, asking for the photographer. There would probably be an uber-hip chick at the reception counter with short spiky hair dyed black and a long chunk of bangs dyed a funky color, like purple or something, wearing jeggings (which, I argue, are not to be worn as pants) and gold shimmery flats. She would be tossing papers and business cards around on the desk in a frantic effort to find the phone number of the stylist that didn’t show up for the day and she’d be cursing under her breath, right when I walk in, au naturel and eager. Talk about awkward. Still, I gave in to my curiosity.

He walked away, and I thought, am I supposed to just show up at this guy’s salon in the middle of a huge photo shoot?

“Actually, are you going to be back over there today?”

“Oh, yeah. I’ll be back around two. Do you want to come by today? Why don’t you just meet me over there at two?”

I looked at my watch. One o’clock. So, if he knew I was coming, he’d be expecting me. I could say, “I’m here to see David.” No having to explain who I was, or what I was doing there.

“Yeah, sure. I can do that.”

His “stuff” turned out to be some amazing artwork. Frankly, I was stunned. He owned a hair salon. Half salon, half gallery, pristine and decorated with a modern, semi-Asian décor. Black walls exhibited his photo gallery: black and white images of flowers, landscapes and architecture hung in sophisticated silver frames. They emitted a warm vintage hue—a rich glow that results only from experience and years of refining. The photos looked dignified, and I imagined how the black-white-silver combo would pop against the vibrancy of my own coral walls at home.

As I admired the work, David shuffled about the salon, gathering flyers, postcards, and magazines and shoving them at me. One article featured him as an artist and another he had written about his photography, which I found fascinating. He used the original photography process and shot on wet glass plates. He showed me one piece of glass and I could barely see the translucent outline of an image, until he held it up to its black background and a naked woman appeared. She’s stunning. Because of the salon, I had assumed that he wanted me to do some kind of fashion or hair modeling. Nope. Several of his images were nude women and he wanted me to pose for him.

I’m sorry, what?

Me?

My body does not look like hers.

The nudes were overt, yet not obnoxious and certainly not out of place with his florals and landscapes. There was that same vintage glow. But the concept didn’t quite click in my brain until David asked if I was comfortable taking my clothes off.

Naked? In front of a camera?

I don’t think so.

“I think so,” I heard myself say, without processing. “I mean I’ve never done anything like that before, so I really have no idea.”

Mostly I wanted to think about the prospect without him staring at me. Watching me. Waiting for an answer. I could always back out.

We agreed that he would call me, and I headed home wondering what had just happened. I needed to call Sarah—no, couldn’t call Sarah. She had enough of her own issues and didn’t need to worry about mine. Jenn? No, not Jenn either. That was a lecture waiting to happen. Who to call? Wait. What was I thinking? So he showed me a couple of articles written about him in a photography magazine and a post card for one of his gallery shows, but there was no way to be certain that he wasn’t a covert porn-psycho using the artist gig to entice gullible young females (i.e., me). And what was he thinking? Did he just see the same body that looks back at me from the mirror? Maybe I should have explained that I actually wear a size twelve, sometimes even a fourteen. Or if I told him that I weigh almost 180 pounds, then he’d have come to his senses and realized his mistake. Or how about the little bulge that rolls over the top of my pants. (Only sometimes, of course. When it’s that time of the month and I’m completely bloated.) Besides, there are freckles in funny spots that had never seen the light of day—not even in my bathing suit. Who was I kidding? There was no way I could pull this off.

At home, I stripped and stood in front of the full-length mirror. The reflection wasn’t that awful from the side view—if I sucked in the tummy. Suck in. Release. What do I have to do to make it look how it does when it’s sucked in? I wished it would just stay that way. Every time I looked in the mirror, all I could see was a marshmallow where my mid-section should be. But then, did David honestly see me as he saw the other women he’d photographed? His photos were beautiful and tasteful. Artful. Sensual, but not provocative and not fashion models or centerfolds, that’s for sure. One striking photo showed a woman from the waist up, topless. Her eyes were closed and she seemed strangely peaceful and comfortable with herself. She appeared real enough to leave her scent lingering with her image. She made me wonder how I would look in a frame on the wall. And just exactly how does a woman achieve such confidence—the kind that allows the truth of her nakedness, imperfections and all, to be captured so blatantly?

I was surprised when David called. Like I hadn’t expected to hear from him. But he was serious. As we talked, my shoulders relaxed. The talking helped, so I told him that I was still trying to figure out if I wanted to do the shoot or not and asked if we could get together to chat a bit more before setting something up.

“I have time now, if you want to talk,” he said.

Damn. I wanted to have this conversation in person so that I could better gauge him. “Okay, well, I’d like to hear about what you aim to accomplish with your art.”

“Well, what I do is fine art,” he said. “This is not about exploitation, it’s about beauty. You have to understand, I used to hire professional models, but they all looked the same—so stiff and fake, like magazine girls. And I much prefer using every day people with beauty that is natural, not created or forced.”

Good answer. Something about “magazine girls,” always flipped my internal anger switch: the way that Magazine Girl gets portrayed, promoted, and popularized as the ideal; the way that women—of all ages—put said unrealistic Magazine Girl on an unattainable pedestal. The magazine editor inside of me cringed at being a part of perpetuating that damaging cycle. I could never be the next Marilyn Monroe, but maybe I could be something of an Anti-Magazine Girl.

But what about the actual images? If any of them turned up locally, I could just picture someone I know seeing naked photos of me and recognizing them. Then what? There’s me trying to explain to my boss—you probably did see a picture of me naked at that art show, what did you think of my breasts? My stretch marks weren’t noticeable, were they? I shuddered at the thought.

The magazine editor inside of me cringed at being a part of perpetuating that damaging cycle. I could never be the next Marilyn Monroe, but maybe I could be something of an Anti-Magazine Girl.

“Listen,” he said. “I encounter this all the time. Everyone who does this, or thinks about doing this, has different reasons. And they all have to overcome some thing.”

“Exactly.” How did he know this stuff?

“So what is your thing?”

How to speak coherently about the mess inside my head—there was no easy way to make him understand that I’m not the type who does this kind of thing—no striking beauty that turns heads here. This girl had her first legal drink before she had her first kiss. And certainly no promiscuity, either. This girl was also twenty-five before she bought a two-piece bathing suit, and then it was another two or three years before she mustered up the courage to wear it in front of her father. That was a disaster—even after losing almost forty pounds, he still pointed out my little belly-bulge. Girls like me aren’t the modeling kind and we certainly don’t pose nude. I told David that I didn’t want someone I know to see the photos and recognize me, and he said, “So let me guess. You’re the kind of girl who always does what is expected of her?”

Wow. Didn’t think it was that obvious. And the thing is, that’s exactly it. What would Dad say if he knew? Now there’s a conversation I didn’t want to have, even hypothetically. Hey, Dad, I’m thinking about letting a guy who kind of reminds me of Gramps take nude photos of me, what do you think? Most people who know me would be shocked to find out that I was even considering posing nude for a photographer.

David told me to think about it and call him when I was ready. I contemplated calling him to say that I wasn’t interested, but another part of me was tempted to test my limits—to see just how much discomfort I could handle. So I carefully shaved all the right places and showed up at the salon to meet David John for the second time. In his make-shift studio—which was really his apartment with his camera set up in the living room and one of the bedrooms converted to a dark room—he showed me more of his work and where he developed the photos. He actually had a nineteenth century camera—like something out of a history book. The monstrosity was mounted on a four-legged stand, with a light-shielding cape draped over the back. A faded blue director’s chair sat in front of the camera’s huge eye. Lenses of all sizes lined the kitchen counter and photos were propped against the walls along every inch of floor space.

“So do you make a habit of asking women on the street to let you take pictures of them naked?”

“Not usually,” he laughed. “But you seemed friendly and engaging.” He talked while rummaging around the living room. “Plus, I told you, you’re not a magazine girl.”

No kidding. My figure is even thicker and fuller than any of his photos that I’d seen. I could still change my mind. Was he sure about this?

“Okay, you can change in the bedroom and put this on.”

He handed me a green synthetic satin robe. Green robe? It wasn’t even a nice green. If this was going to work, I had to feel pretty (like with the pedicure), and the ratty thing of a robe wasn’t helping in that department. Next time I would bring my own—the pretty black one, real satin, with turquoise polka dots and ruffles. If there was a next time, that is.

Here we go. Either I would take my clothes off and put on the green robe (and I had no idea who else had worn the thing), or back out and leave. I slipped off my shoes and thought, how many other women have done this? I had seen several of their photos on glass plates, but I didn’t know how many of them there were. They all had a reason for doing a shoot like this, and I wished I knew what those reasons were.

Socks.

Other women. If we sat down for a cup of coffee and shared our experiences, maybe we would have something in common. Maybe they would tell me they also wanted to become more comfortable in their own skin. Maybe they would tell me they also wanted to create an alternate—a realistic—portrayal of beauty. Maybe they would tell me they also thought about other women out there who needed an Anti-Magazine Girl.

Pants.

Like my sister. She and I have always struggled with our weight, but I didn’t know if the extra pounds bothered her the same way they bothered me, or if she put pressure on herself, or if she compared herself to her skinny friends the way I did. What would she say if she knew what I was doing?

Shirt.

Friends? Oh, those thin, adorable girls who post selfies all over Facebook. This would definitely be a different kind of selfie. Not the kind you post online. A gift for the next wedding, perhaps?

Bra.

Coworkers? Also thin and adorable. Also more daring than I was and I bet they wouldn’t think this is any big deal. They all lived in happy couple-hood la-la land and didn’t seem to need the validation.

Panties.

Dad? Well he wouldn’t like it, I knew that much. He’d probably even make some comment about my marshmallow belly.

I stood there. Completely naked. Thinking about my sister, my friends, my coworkers. Dad. Why did they matter so much? I’m here and they aren’t, I thought. They don’t have to know. Dad doesn’t have to know and I don’t need his approval. My toes were cold. I felt my hair on my back. I’m not doing this for him anyway.

I put on the green synthetic satin robe.

I stepped into the living room/studio and in front of the camera. David brought a stool over and motioned for me to sit down. He flicked on the lights and I blinked at the brightness. My body temperature started to rise.

“Okay. Are you comfortable?”

I nodded. Heat from the lights made me start to sweat.

“Okay. Are you comfortable?”

“Good. Now just stay there for a minute.” He rummaged again and I tucked the edge of the robe under my arm to hold it in place.

“Ah, here we are.” David picked up something and then pointed it at me. It was the one-eyed lens he had the day we met—a light meter.

“Okay. Just relax. Deep breath. Uh-huh.” He mumbled a bit, talking to himself while he looked with one eye closed, then moved and looked again.

He’d probably change his mind as soon as he saw the faint stretch marks on my hips (yes, sadly, you can get them in your twenties). Sweat trickled down my back.

“Okay, you’re doing fine. Now stand up.” I stood and he continued his routine: pointing the light meter, looking and moving.

What about the triangle of freckles by my navel—how would they show up in the photos? Or that scar on my shin?

“Good.” He moved the light meter away from his face and adjusted his glasses. “Okay, now drop the robe. Just drop it.”

Hesitating, I closed my eyes and swallowed. What about my funky tan lines?

“It’s okay. Take a deep breath and just drop it.”

Deep breath and the green satin fell to the floor.

Eyes still closed. I couldn’t watch him looking at my nakedness. My back stiffened at the thought of him examining my body—how light affected skin tone. I stopped breathing. Did he notice the stretch marks and freckles? In the darkness behind my eyelids, I imagined him trying to figure out a way to politely tell me that he had changed his mind. That this wasn’t going to work after all. At less than three feet away, no doubt he found the blemishes. And if he found them, certainly the camera would too. His back-and-forth movements forced quick bursts of air across my shoulders and stomach. What was he doing?

I kept waiting for him to say something. I was still a virgin. No other man had seen me naked before. I had no idea how he would react.

Opening my eyes, I caught him mid-point with the light meter, looking with one eye closed. He looked and moved just as he had with the robe on. It was almost sterile, he the doctor and me his patient. No show, no performance, nothing provocative. He didn’t stare or gawk or drool or do anything expected from an older man at the sight of a younger naked woman.

It was just me, and my sweat and stretch marks and scars and freckles.

Jenna Marlies MaronJanna Marlies Maron is an independent author, editor, publisher, and writing instructor. She is the publisher of Under the Gum Tree, a creative nonfiction literary magazine, and the co-curatior of TrueStory, a nonfiction reading series and open mic in Sacramento. In her new ebook, How to Manage Depression Without Drugs, she shares her personal journey of struggle and triumph. As a writer she opes to inspire others to action by telling her personal story, and as a publisher she hopes to provide others the opportunity to do the same. She holds an MA in Creative Writing and teaches composition at Sacramento City College and William Jessup University. When she’s not curating stories, you can find Janna tooling around town with her husband Jeremy on their red Vespa or holding down the fort at ThinkHouse Collective, a coworking space in Midtown Sacramento.

All Hallow’s Evening

A few days before Halloween, we drove home from a friend’s church where parishioners had decked out the trunks of their cars with lights, plastic skulls, and spiders, even fog machines, then backed them up into rows in the parking lot so the kids could Trunk or Treat.

“Mom!” Blaine hollered, pointing out the window. “I see the first star.” Six years old, he was wearing a black hood and black costume with a gold skull on the chest. At least this year, I convinced him to wear clothes beneath the thin material so his privates didn’t peek through the seams.

I leaned right and peered into a darkening blue sky where a bright light winked. It was as likely a satellite or a plane but I couldn’t tell for certain.

“Did you make a wish?” I asked.

Brows furrowed, he said, “I’m thinking.”

Beside him, his older brother Tristen was dressed as a zombie in layers of clothes slashed with scissors and muddied. Make-up gave him sunken eyes and cheeks and a bloody gash across his neck and forehead. For trick or treating, he got into character by putting his arms out, cocking his head, and letting his mouth fall open with a moan.

In the rear view, I caught my own visage in white paint with black eye sockets and lines around my cheekbones. At the church, a girl of about thirteen had asked what I was. I’d been folding and putting away chairs to make room for games while the adults finished decorating their trunks. My clothes were every day black so for a moment I’d forgotten the make-up.

“The Grim Reaper,” I said, setting a chair beside another.

“Who is that?” she asked.

“Death,” I said.

I met her quizzical gaze and thought about how to elaborate, what sort of explanation to offer. There was no Grim Reaper in the Bible that I remembered, but there was an Angel of Death, probably carrying off someone’s firstborn though the details are sketchy. To my relief, the girl was pulled away to the cakewalk before I had a chance to say another word.

*     *     *

Just the day before, we went to a memorial service at Sonrise Church for two sisters, a six year-old and an eleven year-old. They were hit by a car while playing in the leaves outside their home. It was a Sunday, dusk. Monday was Leaf Day. Leaves were piled along the curb and gutter to be swept up. The father was taking pictures and then went inside for a moment. In recounting the scene on the news a week ago, a woman who lives two blocks away said she remembered hearing the mother’s wailing even above the sirens.

The church was filled with the girls’ classmates, friends, family, neighbors, uniformed police, and firemen, and members of the small community. My boys had briefly gone to school with the girls before transferring to a public school. My husband and I taught school just a few blocks away from where they lived.

On two enormous screens, there was a picture of the girls wearing knitted hats with one piggy backing the other. After a song and prayer, a video played of each of the girls from infancy onward: working sand at the beach, dancing in their living room, hiking, hiding beneath covers with friends, cuddling in the arms of parents and grandparents. In one clip, the mother walks her youngest daughter to the bathroom to flush a goldfish down the toilet and send him off to heaven. As the water whooshes, they wave and speak, “Bye-bye.”

After the video, the pastor and the father sang, and then, one by one, family members shared stories about the children. Their mother remembered Saturday night dance parties with the music playing loud, the kids ping-ponging room to room, all of them singing along to the words. We had heard the parents had not left the house since the accident the week before, that they had refused visitors and phone calls to all but a few immediate family, but here, supported by several hundred in the community, they managed to give a eulogy, sing, and tell stories about the children that made us laugh and cry and cling to one another. On his father’s lap, my youngest watched with curiosity, asking questions about who the people were, but my oldest, Tristen, was already a puddle in my lap, his head butted up into my armpit. It took real effort for me not to succumb to sobbing.

I spoke with a friend later who agreed it must be their faith that held them up. Neither one of us could imagine speaking coherently to the hundreds of people in the church only a week after losing a child, much less both children. “That’s the appeal of religion,” she whispered sharply under her breath, “I see it. I do. I just don’t believe it.”

“That’s the appeal of religion,” she whispered sharply under her breath, “I see it. I do. I just don’t believe it.”

I didn’t know what I believed any more. Raised Catholic, we left the church when I was young. My parents couldn’t stand the hypocrites. “Love thy neighbor until he votes for the wrong guy,” my father had once said. A hospice nurse, my mother wore a crucifix to work every day but never talked about faith. When pressed, she only said, “I have to believe there’s something beyond this.” What that was or why she had to, I could never work out.

I attended a Catholic grammar school for a few years, but since then I have rarely been to church. In college, I studied Buddhism and Hinduism and visited temples in the Chicago area. On several occasions, at the recommendation of a friend, I met with an Argentinian shaman who gave me explicit instructions for herbal baths and candle lighting to help me find inner peace. During a particularly lonely period in my life, another friend gave me an Ojo de Venado, a deer’s eye shaped with clay to look like an elephant to ward off an evil eye. It had been made by her mother in South Texas and blessed by a priest in Mexico. I wore it without fail for weeks. If there has been anything consistent about my sense of religion or faith, it is my openness and curiosity.

The church my sons and I were visiting for Halloween in our own neighborhood we’d only been to three times, twice for trunk or treats, and once for a proper church service at my friend Meeta’s request. She is an Indian who is both a practicing Christian and a practicing Hindu. “Our pastor is a woman and we have several gay members,” she had said, as if that explained why we should attend. Meeta is only a little less conflicted than I about faith, and just as open. Her husband is a Christian of German descent. Her children are learning Hindi, and celebrating Indian traditions and holidays as well as Christian ones. The last time her parents visited, they attended church with his family. Her mother took communion. Meeta asked how her mother was comfortable with such a thing. Her mother adjusted her sari, threw up both hands, and said, “Oh Meeta, God is god.”

Though I had only attended a handful of church services in many years, I looked forward to the girls’ service, if only to be in the company of others who were grieving, to find some succor in the community and friends, comfort in a place of worship, something to help me recover from the shock of tragedy. The pastor at the girls’ service focused on the story of Adam and Eve in the garden and how they spent their days with God and were given only one order: not to eat from the tree. I listened intently, eager for the story, even as I wondered, Where is he going with this? Soon, it was clear. He reminded the people seated before him that Adam and Eve had chosen to eat from the tree despite God’s admonishment, and so they were responsible for the fall of humanity. Adam and Eve admitted death and suffering into the world with their one transgression, not God. God was not responsible for death. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Don’t blame God for this? That’s your message? It reminded me of my sons’ reactions in a fight or after an injury: deny fault. One might be bawling and holding his arm tenderly, while the other—a stick still in hand—will swear he had done nothing.

I looked hard at the pastor. His words gave me no comfort, only a growing irritation. He paused at length with his arms out and then urged us to remember where the girls were now: seated at the right hand of God, bathing in the warm light of their savior, Jesus Christ. I looked down at my eldest son’s tear streaked face. His eyes met mine then he leaned his head into my shoulder. My stomach fell to see him distraught. He knew a few Bible songs but we had never talked about Christ. If I’d ever mentioned Jesus, it was likely as a driver swerved into my lane or turned in front of me. What to say now?

*     *     *

The boys had only been to one other memorial service nearly a year before, for my mother, her death from a heart attack at sixty-three, unexpected. For weeks, I could do little but cry with my brother and sister, watch my sons play with their cousins, unable to rouse myself to join them. My mother was the sun I orbited, whose warmth and guidance I depended on. My sister and I joked that we needed our mother to help us grieve her death. No one else could have known what to say or how to help. We held her service in a sprawling park and garden, a place that had always inspired her. As my sister and I grieved, we also struggled with the children’s grief. For weeks, they asked where their grandmother was, where her soul or spirit had gone.

“Some people believe that when you die, you go to heaven,” I had said at one point to my sons. I described heaven as a warm, sunny place where the person gets to be with family and friends who have died.

“Do you come back?” they asked.

“No,” I said.

Can you come back?” they asked.

“Well, your spirit and body are different, and when you die it’s your body that dies. Your spirit lives on, and yes, some folks believe that it can come back in other ways.”

“How? Where does it go? Can you choose where you go? Is the soul the same as a spirit? Is a spirit the same as a ghost? Why?”

“How? Where does it go? Can you choose where you go? Is the soul the same as a spirit? Is a spirit the same as a ghost? Why?”

The whole conversation tumbled down on me like an avalanche. I grasped for responses that made sense. We talked about the beliefs of different faiths. My sister married a Jewish man and was raising their children in the Jewish tradition, so I reminded them of Hanukkah and the Hebrew prayers and candles. They kept returning to the idea of reincarnation, linking it to the trees and flowers that died in the fall but came back every spring. It was a logical connection. The next thing I knew we were imagining my mother as a cloud watching over them, a tree, a stuffed animal they slept with. Then one of my sons asked, “But what if I want to see her for real? By then, my sister had already supplied me with the answer she gave her own children when they were inconsolable, usually right before bedtime. “You can always ask Grandma to visit you in your dreams. That’s what I do,” I said.

In truth, I wanted to give them Jesus, that warm, loving light, that handsome man with his arms out to receive the children, that invitation to heaven’s delights in a body free of pain and age, and returned to everything and everyone we loved here on earth. I wanted that for my children very badly, but between their grandmother’s death and the death of two young girls, I simply could not. I didn’t buy it. I still wasn’t sure what I believed but I had an intuitive sense that if there were an omnipotent creator, the stories likely didn’t have at their outset the damnation of scores of innocents. And those stories would have done little, if anything, to minimize the children’s grief.

My explanations for death felt a little like explaining the Grim Reaper or Halloween, a hodge podge drawn from so many practices and traditions that the actual thing itself sounded a little like Frankenstein. If I wasn’t going to give them Jesus and heaven, what was I teaching them exactly? That their grandmother might be in heaven? Or wandering like a ghost to protect us from evil? Orbiting space like a star? Or reincarnated in a three foot-long plush alligator? And yet, what the pastor had insisted at the girl’s service, that Adam and Eve had brought death on humanity from not listening to their father, was no better an explanation and no less strange.

I wanted the boys to have faith, but in what? In the human capacity for magic and miracles. I wanted them to wield their word swords to fight bullies or rescue an injured animal. I wanted them to see how kindness is a form of worship, compassion a devotion, that prayer and meditation open their bodies to light and wind like the halls of a great castle. I wanted them to remember and respect the dead. I also wanted to ease their grief, though my own experience has shown that one’s joy is only as deep as one’s grief. I felt a sudden kinship with Meeta’s mother: if I believed in any one tradition, I believed in the whole lot of them.

*     *     *

Nearly home after the trunk or treat, the dark closing in, Blaine has had time to consider his wish. “Can I tell you what I wished for Mom? Can I?”

“Sure,” I said.

“I wished that Grandma could come back to life and be with us.”

“Oh sweetie,” I said, “I wish she were here, too.” Then after a moment, I added, “It’s a complicated wish.”

“I know,” he said, and looked out the window. How? I wondered. How do you know? What do you know? But I didn’t ask.

*     *     *

In the year since my mother’s death, I have felt her presence in a tangible way, like someone standing too close in line behind me at the checkout but not close enough to touch. I tell my sons this. We talk about going to Chicago to see Grandpa for Christmas, their cousins and aunts and uncles. We debate whether or not there will be snow. Without hesitation, I think, If my mother has a hand in it, there will be.

Sure enough, on Christmas Day, a two-inch dusting blankets the yard. We press together around the open sliding glass doors and listen to the hollow silence of it surround us like someone cupping our ears. Later, we follow the kids outside as they race to follow animal prints crisscrossing the yard. My father starts a fire in the pit out back. Eventually, we circle it as we lean into one another. We hardly feel the cold.

Darlene PaganDarlene Pagán teaches at Pacific University in Oregon. She has a chapbook, Blue Ghosts (Finishing Line Press), and a full-length collection forthcoming from Airlie Press called Setting the Fires. Her poems have appeared in Field, Calyx, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, Hiram Poetry Review, and Hawaii Pacific Review, among others. Her essays have earned national awards and appeared in venues such as Memoir(and), Brevity, The Nebraska Review, and Literal Latté. She is a member of Broads on the Side and enjoys hiking, biking, the beach, the rain, and any play involving her sons.

First Season, Shotgun

A mild winter meant a busy first shotgun season for hunters in the rolling hills of southern Iowa. My father and I had made the hour drive from Des Moines south on I-35 to my grandfather’s land midday Friday for the hunt that night. When we arrived, the evening air was cool, but not cold, and the snow covered the ground in patches. Now I found myself finally out in a deer stand, listening to the reports of shotguns miles away.

The stand my father had suggested for me was a metal ladder attached to a metal seat that leaned against an oak tree. It wasn’t very high—only eight feet—in comparison to some of the fancier stands hunters used that made it easy to climb trees and sit twenty to thirty feet off the ground. The idea was that if you were really high up the deer wouldn’t be able to smell or see you. My stand wasn’t like that. It relied almost entirely on location. My stand was on the middle of a finger in a thickly wooded area, with deep draws on either side running down to meet a stream at the bottom of a valley. I could see a large portion of a slope to my right, a slope with a deer trail tracing its way between trees and rocks down into the draw.

The sun became blood red as it set, the silhouette of timber striping it black. Slowly it dipped lower and lower on the ridge to my west until it vanished, leaving a pink sky filled with long thin ribbons of clouds so far away I wondered where exactly sky ended and space began. My breath showed in front me for the first time that day. The warm weather had made slush of the snow and I regretted choosing sleep instead of hunting all day. When the woods started to look gray in dusk’s fading light I knew to pay attention. My father had explained that at the end of the day, hunters would be coming home for the night in trucks and on four wheelers from the public hunt that butted up against my grandfather’s land, and the noise of the engines would put pressure on the deer to make a quick getaway. The deer, just waking up during twilight in the woods and starting to forage for food in adjacent fields, would slip back into the shadows of the oaks. The trail on the slope across the draw from me was one of those avenues deer would use to jump off the main paths to escape danger and circle back around to the fields, listening for pursuit.

I opened the chamber of my shotgun to make sure I’d remembered to load it. The big gun lay across my lap, loosely held in my gloved hands. I’d never killed anything large before in my life; sure, some frogs and a few possums, but nothing bigger than me. As I stared at the cracked bark of an oak tree in front of me I wondered what it would be like. I daydreamed about shooting a big buck with one clean shot right through the heart, dropping it in its tracks. How I’d drag it back to my grandfathers house in a feet of Herculean strength and proudly hang it in the barn to be skinned and gutted by another, lesser hunter while I ate and rested. A man from the government would come out and measure the antlers. He’d measure and remeasure, always stopping to shake his head and recheck his math. Sure enough, I would take the state record. My father would stand in awe of such a huntsman, accomplishing something he had never been able to.

I could see the deer’s eyes register the gun, and then look back at me.

I blinked hard a few times and tried to keep the oak’s bark in focus. As the world got grayer the intricate cracks in the peeling bark were harder to make out. Twilight seemed like a dream place between day and night where I couldn’t trust my eyes. Sometimes they would play tricks on me when I looked around at the gnarled trees on the forest floor. One knobby bush in particular had morphed many times, from a dog, to a bear, then to a man. I wondered if twilight was playing tricks on my mind as well, making me imagine strange visions of my own hunting prowess. I slapped myself in the face a few times to make sure I was fully alert and wondered if this period of mistaken eyes and straying thoughts was why my father cautioned me to be careful at dusk.

“In the dark, things will be different,” he had said. “You will need to keep your wits about you, and trust yourself.”

I started to doubt everything. The visions of hunting prowess were replaced by missed shots and falling out of my stand. When small creatures made noise in the dark thickets I jerked up straight in my seat, my heart banging my chest. The grayness of twilight became richer until it was nothing more than a thin film of white on a dark world. Soon I wouldn’t be able to see across the draw to take a shot at a deer. I sat as quietly as I could, willing my heart still and slowing my breath to a noiseless exchange of air. Then I heard it: a faint cracking of sticks at the top of the far slope, near a dirt road. I listened to a deer slowly walk in from the road, trying to make as little noise as possible, but unable to be completely quiet as it worked through the trees to the deer trail.

I turned my body sideways in the stand and trained my eyes on the trail. The deer walked into view and stopped for a second. I didn’t have a good shot; the deer was behind too many branches. The shot to the trail was a long one at around forty yards—too far for such an amateur marksman. I trained the bead of my shotgun through a clear place in front of the deer and waited for it to walk forward. The deer just stood there, though, listening and looking around. I was afraid to move, to set down my shotgun, because if I could see the deer then it had a line of sight to me. For agonizing minutes I held the heavy shotgun still. Sweat started to bead on my forehead and my shoulders grew white-hot with pain. I wondered how much longer I could hold up the gun when the deer started walking.

I held my breath. I knew I shouldn’t but I couldn’t help it. The deer walked until it was in the middle of the shaking bead on the end of my shotgun. For a second I hesitated, wondering if I shouldn’t wait for a moment, let the deer walk a little closer. The bead on the end of the barrel kept coming and going out of focus, alternating clarity with the deer behind it in my vision. For a moment the bead would be crisp, the only thing in the world I had in my sight, then the woods would snap back into focus all around me, then the deer would be crystal clear. The moment I realized the deer had antlers I pulled the trigger.

The blast deafened me. I pulled the shotgun’s stock from my shoulder, holding the gun like a soldier at port arms while I looked around, bewildered at the sound of bells. I blinked hard, trying to get the striped imprint of trees illuminated by the blast out of my eyes. Slowly I pulled down on the wooden fore-end on my Remington 870 Express. The spent red cartridge sprung out of the chamber flipping end over end, arcing first upward, then down in a crimson streak. A sweet, acrid smell filled my nose and mouth; the gunpowder announcing its fruition to all of the senses. I slowly slid the fore-end of the shotgun up to its original position, listening carefully for the sound of a new cartridge seating in the chamber.

I strained to see where the buck had fallen on the path. The slope struggled to focus in my vision while I tried to see through fluorescent blue stripes left by the trees lit by the blast. I caught sight of the buck as it staggered back to its feet on wobbly legs. I fired again, and again as it bound a few yards down the path. I pumped the shotgun quickly this time like a piston. Each time the woods would light red, the trees leaving yellow and blue negatives in my eyes, the ringing sound around me so complete I existed in reverberation. The third time I fired the buck fell forward on its chest while at a dead run, sliding a few feet face down in the slush before stopping. I stood with my mouth open.

Holy shit, I actually killed it, I thought.

My hands shook badly as I tried to fumble ammunition from its pouch into the shotgun’s feed. I kept dropping the cartridges. They fell to the ground to join the spent ones in the mud, little red spots in the dark. I managed to reload the shotgun and was slinging the gun to climb down the ladder when I heard a strange sound, a quick crashing through the undergrowth. The buck was moving through the woods like some kind of creature I had never seen, using its back legs to propel the entire body over the ground on its stomach. I stared in complete disbelief for a second, then raised my shotgun to track its course down the slope to the draw.

KA-BLAM, cha-chunk, KA-BLAM, cha-chunk was the sound of my barrage as I fired and pumped the shotgun.

The deer worked its way down the slope like something out of a nightmare, jerking into the underbrush, head twisted to the side as its antlers caught the undergrowth. Only its back legs moving it, sliding on its stomach. When it reached the bottom of the slope, crossed the draw and started up the slope of the finger I was on I panicked. I don’t know if I thought the creature was coming for retribution or if I doubted the lethality of my weapon, but I started firing wildly, frantically jamming new cartridges in the gun like my life depended on it. I lit the woods up like strobe light, firing again, and again, not even sure if the bead lay over the fuzzy form of the buck—just firing.

The buck propelled itself up to the top of the finger thirty yards downhill from me, got tangled in a thicket, and lay still. I stood in the stand for fifteen minutes waiting to see if it would reanimate until finally I mustered the courage to climb down. I carefully slung the shotgun over my shoulder and descended the metal ladder, grasping the rungs with hands that trembled, until I felt the slush under my feet. I pulled a headlamp out of one of my pockets and put it on, its small white light showing the ground in front of me. As I walked around my stand I heard a noise come from the thicket, a strange ethereal sound that started as a high pitched cry and ended as a gentle moan.

“Oh my God,” I said.

Training my weapon on the thicket I slowly walked toward it. I tapped the safety off and kept my finger on the trigger; afraid the animal would rise and charge, I clung to the shotgun like a life preserver. The weapon made a rattling sound as my hands shook. I squinted through the fog of my breath. I didn’t know what I would find in the brambles, what kind of thing had moved across the ground in such a grotesque manner. When I got to the thicket I cast my headlamp’s light on the buck. One of its antlers had snagged on something during its descent of the slope and snapped off. The front legs sagged off its body and lay on the ground; I’d shot through its front shoulders, the slug obliterating bone and severing sinews. The buck’s back left leg was now a bloody stump six inches above where a hoof should have been. Several other entry and exit wounds oozed onto the deer’s shiny coat.

The buck looked up at me.

I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The deer was supposed to get shot and then die quietly somewhere, either on the trail or off in the woods a little ways. The bloody, barely alive buck missing an antler in front of me bore no resemblance to anything my imagination had conjured. I vaguely remembered my father telling me if I downed a deer and needed to finish it off not to shoot it in the head. A deer with no head was messy and hard to hang by the neck in the barn.

I leveled my gun at the buck’s neck, right in the middle. I could see the deer’s eyes register the gun, and then look back at me. I pulled the trigger. The deer’s body convulsed in a whipping motion as an ounce of lead slammed through its neck. I pumped the shotgun, sending a red cartridge spinning off into the brush. I broke a twig in half and pressed the sharp end to the deer’s eye to see if it had died. I thought this act important, to make sure the buck had passed beyond misery. If the deer didn’t blink then it was dead. But the deer blinked when I pressed the sharp end of the twig into its eye. I jumped back and stood stalk still. The deer lay on the soft carpet of grass, mud, and slush in the thicket. A puddle next to its shoulder was slowly turning black like an oil spill.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

KA-BLAM, cha-chunk, KA-BLAM, cha-chunk filled the woods as I shot the buck twice more in the neck. Blood sprayed up onto my clothes.

I sat near the thicket on a downed oak and collected my thoughts. I’d come to the stand with twenty-five slugs and now only had six left. I’d shot the deer to pieces. The buck only had one antler now and it hadn’t crossed my mind to count the tines. I gutted the dear, felt the warmth of its innards in my hands, cut its heart out and held it like something precious. Eventually I walked back to my grandfather’s house in a trance and used a four wheeler to retrieve the animal.

My father laughed and called me a bad shot when he saw the condition of the deer.

“We thought all that shooting was three guys who’d been walking together and kicked up a buck,” he said. “What were those last few shots, at the end, all close together?”

“It wouldn’t die,” I said. “I had to finish it.”

My father fell silent.

“At least you got one,” my grandfather said.

I didn’t say anything.

I think of the first time I killed a deer a few times a year, whenever hunting is in season. Someone will ask me if I hunt, and I’ll say no. I’ll say I haven’t been hunting since I got back from Iraq and that usually ends the conversation. But I think about it for days afterward. I think about the deer lying there, the little bit of life left in its eyes when it looked up at me. I don’t have it in me anymore, what it takes. I worry if anything looked up at me like that again I’d throw my gun down and start walking.

I’d never come back.

Jason ArmentJason Arment is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he served as a machine gunner in the USMC. Jason is now pursuing his MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Vol. 2 and War, Literature & the Arts.

Nuclear Fallout

While the one divides into two: the heart and its shadow,
The world and its threat, the crow back of the sparrow.

-“Of Ancient Origins and War” Brigit Pegeen Kelly

 

“Doesn’t look like much,” Mom said, as we pulled into the parking lot of the Titan Missile Museum.

The main building was low to the ground. A few small buildings, which looked like garages or tool sheds, and large equipment were scattered throughout the fenced property.

If I hadn’t known where we were, I would have thought it looked like a work site with a few trucks and what seemed to be oil tanks, not a nuclear missile site. Looking over the denuded ground and its desert setting, I could almost sense the danger, the power, of the place. But nothing visible attested to it.

As my husband pulled into the parking space, Dad opened his door prematurely, and Marshal braked quickly. “Whoa, sorry,” Dad mumbled. After the car stopped, he rolled his body out the door, wincing as his feet hit the pavement.

We all got out, stretching ourselves as if we had been driving far more than fifteen minutes from Mom and Dad’s condo to the museum.

Only a little earlier, we’d been back at Mom and Dad’s condo, debating what to do with the last day of our visit.

“We’ve already been to Tubac a hundred times,” I said. I hated sounding like the surly teen of decades before, but the last thing I wanted to do was walk into the shops with Mexican crafts made for Americans and watch Marshal buy a wind chime while Dad fumed in the corner. Dad saw a purchase like that as impractical, a waste of money. He preferred to buy run-down real estate and several-times-a-week golf and to peel a Franklin from his money clip to pay for our dinner. Dad kept the smaller bills nestled inside a hundred dollar bill which faced outward in the clip. When I was younger the big denomination was just for show, but as I got older he began to spend it.

“The cathedral?” Mom’s voice sounded bright, like artificial lights. The four of us sat in their condo living room. I could hear a ballgame on the TV my adult son Marc watched from the couch in the tiny den. Breakfast dishes were done, and we couldn’t leave for home until at least 4PM. Not much to do in Green Valley, Arizona. I felt suffocated in their winter home, with the mismatched remnants of their travels and the fruits of Dad’s puttering.

Dad had stamped every surface with his imprint. His gourd masks and roughly crafted wreaths lined the walls. A little table next to the armchair sloped to one side as the metal sculpture he had made for the base of the tile table top was higher on one side than the other two.

“We did that before. Remember?”

Dad’s face tipped downward in a pout. “I still think you need to see the observatory.”

“Marshal just can’t handle the altitude.” My father’s face told me he resented that I couldn’t go because of my husband’s auto-immune troubles.

“What about the Titan Missile Museum then?” Dad’s voice hit a defensive note. He explained it was nearby, in Sahuarita.

“Sounds good.”

I had shepherded Dad into the passenger seat up front in our SUV, across the console from Marshal. Marc sat between his grandmother and me in the rear seat. Slouching back, he hid his face under the brim of his Yankees cap. I glanced at Mom, worried that every day she had to ride in their car with Dad driving. The summer before, distracted, he’d driven right into the closed garage door of their Michigan house.

I figured Mom had prepared for more togetherness with a finger of Scotch or what she called nerve pills. At some point she’d changed from the sensitive child-woman of my childhood to a brittle stoic.

Marc whispered to me, “Why didn’t you tell them no? This sucks.”

Mom either didn’t hear Marc or she ignored him. Looking trim in her sweater and matching vest, she stared straight ahead with a neutral expression. Once she cleared her throat and pursed her lips. Her short gray hair was immaculately cut, as usual. With the car windows closed, I could just make out her light, flowery fragrance.

Glancing at Dad, I wondered if he was still irritated about the observatory. Or how I had made sure he rode shotgun. “I was driving way before you were born! Thanks for treating me like an old man.” People were always telling me that my parents were the cutest old couple, and sometimes they looked that way to me, too. This was not one of those times.

So that I could catch him just in case he were to fall, I stood by Dad as he slowly climbed out of the vehicle, then walked with him up the walkway, matching his very slow and determined steps. “My hip still gets me a bit,” he said. I nodded that I knew.

We milled around the low-ceilinged lobby until we were directed to a small theatre to watch a short film. Afterward, the tour guide insisted that anyone over 5’6 wear a hard hat. Both Dad and I had been measured as 5’6 when we were younger. But he’d grown smaller, shrunken with age. He insisted on wearing a hard hat.

Of the group of twenty adults, Marc, at twenty-five, was the youngest. The guide led us down 55 stairs which meandered around a central hub. Finally we arrived at a small window. Motioning for us to peer inside, the guide pointed out that we had been winding around the missile, tensed in its silo.

The Titan Missile Museum, as Mom had said, didn’t look like much when we drove up, but the sense that its energy hides just under the surface had begun to take root from my initial impression.

Our guide took us down into the underground launch control chamber, where we positioned ourselves in a rough circle to listen to his speech.

I stood across from Dad—the empty chair in front of the controls in the center between us—and when I looked over at him concentrating on the guide, I saw how taut his body was, as if he were a little kid trying hard to keep himself under control.

Is Dad working himself up at not being the center of attention…or is it something else?

The guide droned on. “The launch control center is a reinforced concrete structure 37 feet in diameter. It contains three levels and is shaped like a dome.” The word dome resonated. It sounded religious. I wanted to watch the guide, look at the controls, but my gaze kept moving back to Dad, as he stood stiffly there at the edge of the group.

“These three floors within the launch center are suspended from the ceiling. This is to minimize blast shock, permit a static floor load of 100 psi. The launch control and communications equipment were housed in the center. So was a mess and sleeping quarters for the four person crew.”

The guide pointed out we were now at an angle to see an actual Titan II missile in the launch duct.

Dad still looks pissed off.

Was he mad at me?

Or Marshal, his son-in-law? That hostility traveled as if through an electrical conduit.

Or Marc, who looked gloomy, bored by the ancient history?

Maybe my mother had irritated him and he was fueling his anger like the driver of a car stuck in mud gunning the motor?

Is he mad at me?

People were always telling me that my parents were the cutest old couple, and sometimes they looked that way to me, too. This was not one of those times.

I never knew when something would set him off, but times with Dad weren’t always bad. When I was a kid, I preferred spending time with Dad and his engagement with the task at hand over spending time behind the darkened draperies of my mother’s silence. When I was little, Dad’s workshop, with its noises and warmth, was the center of our home.

All my memories of my father working in the workshop have collapsed into one. From the kitchen, I heard the teeth-jarring screech of the chainsaw in the basement. I almost choked on the last rushed bite of mashed potatoes, so I could run downstairs to watch.

At the bottom of the wooden steps to our basement, the workshop bustled with activity. Vibrations from the fluorescent light which hung suspended on chains felt like a beehive’s humming.

Almost every night he worked bent over the workbench, its thick wooden surface scarred by slick hammer blows and nail holes. It reminded me of the cobbler’s bench from “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” where the elves finish the shoes while the shoemaker sleeps.

As I approached the workshop doorway, I heard the creak of a nail my father salvaged with the claw of his hammer. I walked past a pile of rotting lumber on the floor of my playroom just as Dad tossed another board out of the workshop. It flew a scant inch over my head. “Watch it, Hon,” he warned.

I ducked out of reflex. “Whatcha doing?”

“Ah, this old crate will make some good firewood. Just saving some of these perfectly good nails.”

“Whatcha need firewood for? We don’t have a fireplace.” I reached out and touched the wood in Dad’s hands and drew back. “OUCH!” I examined my finger; a large wood fragment stuck out from my skin like a miniature sword. I held it up to Dad’s face. “Look!”

Dad plucked it out, dumping it in the trash under the bench. “Lots of splinters. It’ll come in handy some day.” Dad yanked the last nail and hurled the board out the door. He turned and looked at me. “How about I look at that truck of yours?” He picked up one of many toys stacked at the end of the workbench and examined it.

While he worked, Dad played a paint-spattered radio to keep him company. He turned down the volume so he could hear me.

“Whatcha doing?”

“I’m fastening the lug nuts on your truck.”

“What’s lug nuts?”

“Bolts to put wheels onto trucks.” My father scowled at the truck as if to see better.

“What’s bolts?”

“Fasteners.”

“What’s that?” I pointed to the tool in Dad’s hand.

“It’s a wrench.” He paused. “If it was a real truck, I’d be using a lug wrench, but for a toy, I can just use this.”

“Why?”

Dad was concentrating hard on fixing my truck so, when he didn’t answer, I didn’t ask three whole questions that came to mind. I watched his hands over the surface of the bench, which he had constructed with a board thick as butcher block—pitted and pocked and flecked with paint. He’d found it in an old mill which was collapsing into the ground just outside of town. From this headquarters underneath our kitchen he planned and executed his dreams for his house, using whatever materials he could scavenge or finagle.

He handed me my own small wooden workbench, the sort with the wooden pegs to be pounded all the way down and then pounded back again when the “workbench” is flipped upside-down.

“Get to work,” he said. I pounded the pegs hard.

The wooden studs and plywood of the subfloor above were exposed, and the floor I sat on was cold concrete, but I didn’t mind. Every square inch of wall and ceiling space was accounted for by some cherished tool or belonging. My favorite treasure in the workshop hung from the ceiling—a pair of snowshoes. His army green sleeping bag was stuffed onto a shelf right below.

“Tell me again about the sleeping bag and snow shoes,” I said, peering up at my father.

Dad lay down the tool he held. He picked me up at the waist, setting me down on the workbench. “You remember that old story?” I nodded. “I was issued those snowshoes and sleeping bag during the Korean War. I was in Alaska and Korea, and it was fiercely cold all the time. I had to sleep in that very sleeping bag on the ground, in the snow, that’s how cold it was! You know how cold that is?”

I knew what came next, but it was my job to ask, “How cold, Daddy?”

“It was so cold that my nose froze into a Popsicle one night.”

“What flavor, Daddy? Orange, Daddy? Or cherry?”

“Must have been red like cherry, Hon. In the morning, when they blew the horn and woke us up, I had to put on my snowshoes and walk a long way in the snow. Do you remember how I walked in those snow shoes?” I shook my head, and he tried to pantomime how he walked on snow with the big woven pads, but I could not understand because winter seemed far off on that summer night.

*     *     *

When I was six, Dad moved all his tools out of his workshop and up to the garage.

I first noticed as he made his umpteenth trip up the stairs with his arms loaded.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Moving everything from my workshop to the garage.”

“Why?”

“Hon, you’re getting in the way,” he said. “Watch out!”

“But why are you moving the workshop?” I felt as if the fire was going out in the hearth. Although we didn’t actually have a fireplace, the workshop felt like one to me.

Somehow he had gotten that thick and heavy workbench out into the garage himself. He’d set it up on its sturdy legs without me even seeing what was happening. Now he screwed a pegboard to the wall above. “Mmm,” he said, two screws sticking out of his mouth.

“Daddy, why?” I wiggled around from side to side behind him.

Dad roared at me to get out of his way. Not sure if he was angry or just busy, I ran back into the house and pulled out my fairy tale book, pretending I was far away from the ruined workshop.

I was still reading the book when Mom called me to supper. While my parents discussed how Dad was arranging the workshop in the garage, I kept quiet.

After helping Mom clear the table, I went back into the garage, hoping to see the workshop had been magically transported out there. Dad was concentrating very hard on hanging up his treasures. “Daddy?” I said very quietly.

He didn’t seem to hear me. “Daddy?” I raised my voice a little. Still no answer. “Daddy!” I shouted.

“Hell’s bells. What do you want?”

“Do I have to move my playroom?” My playroom was downstairs, just outside Dad’s workshop. Most of my dolls, my doll high chair, and a toy box full of blocks and baby toys were stored there. So was Grandma’s neckpiece, which fit me as a stolewhite rabbit fur with its one spot of black meant to hint at ermine. Dad didn’t answer me, so I left.

When I snuck back to the garage later to watch without talking, I saw that he had put his snowshoes and fighting helmets and army green sleeping bags up in the rafters of the garage. A few days later, Dad set up a little space heater, but it was dangerous, and I was no longer allowed to play in the garage.

One night after dark, the workshop room now emptied, Dad brought home a load of cement blocks in the back of his truck and dumped them behind the house. He carried each brick down the basement stairs by himself.

Dad was grumpy and busy, so I knew enough to stay out of his way.

My mother came down with a basket of laundry. Her Keds made a squeak on the wooden steps. “Mommy, what’s Daddy doing?” I said.

“Can you keep a secret?” She searched my face, her blue eyes mirroring mine.

“I’m good at secrets.”

“Yes, you are,” Mom said. “Daddy is building a nuclear fallout shelter.” As Mom walked to the laundry room, I followed behind. She set down the basket and began to sort into piles. “Do you want me to try to wash that skirt?” She nodded toward the Hopalong Cassidy skirt I wore over my pants. “I might have to hand wash it because of the fringe.” The vest had disappeared at some point in the previous three years, and the skirt was too short to wear without the pants.

I pulled out the plastic handled pistol from my gun belt and tried to twirl it like I’d seen on TV. It slipped from my hand and fell to the concrete floor.

I shook my head vigorously and changed the subject back. I had to be on my toes with my mother because she excelled at subject changing. “Why isn’t somebody helping him? It’s too heavy,” I said.

“Because it’s a secret,” Mom said. “You can’t tell anybody about it.” She ran a slender hand through her short brown perm and then smoothed it down.

“A secret!! What’s a nucular fallen shelter?”

“A bomb shelter.” She pulled her lips into a straight line.

“Jiminy cricket!” I felt like throwing myself to the floor in disbelief, but I was a watchful kid.

The rest of the week Dad worked downstairs, the Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole from his radio trying to smooth the edges of the sounds of slamming concrete. He stacked the blocks alternately by row, in a quadrant-shaped domino pattern, creating a shelter two blocks deep. The bricks were stacked without mortar like my wooden blocks, the roof plywood topped by a double thickness of bricks.

My mother sat in front of a Leonard Bernstein concert on TV on the last evening, one of our rickety aluminum tray tables in front of her, her light blue scuff slippers poking out in front. The table wobbled under the pressure of her pen on the list evolving under her hands. “We’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” she said without looking up.

Next day I went down to check out Dad’s work. Mom came downstairs with two full grocery bags and saw me looking at a brochure.

“Those are the plans for the shelter,” Mom said. “Daddy followed their specifications, and now I’m going to stock the shelter with the items they suggest.”

The brochure said U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration. These words were difficult, and I didn’t understand them. I studied Mom’s spiky handwriting on the list:

2 foldable army canvas cots

2 army style double sleeping bags

4 blankets and sheets

1 8″x 32″x 72″ shelf unit for canned goods

meat, tuna, fruit, beans, bread, crackers and candy

2 sixteen gallon GI water cans plus 6 or 8 two gallon water containers

2 galvanized garbage cans for waste

Coleman two burner stove

2 Coleman gas lights with two gallon gas supply

reading materials

box games, generic Raggedy Ann type doll, puzzles

Porta Pottie, toilet paper

camera

tools, crowbar, hammer, ax, pick, ice pick, and hand tools

portable radio

medicines

2 flashlights

4-6 extra 2x4s for emergency bracing

one change of clothes each

several changes of underwear each

sweaters and coats

toiletries

1 22 cal single-shot rifle with ammo

one baseball bat

double compartment wood orange crates and apple boxes (for storage)

The next weekend, after Dad finished building the bomb shelter, I played hide-and-seek with some neighbor kids. I got the idea of hiding in the shelter since nobody could find me there. Alone, in the dark, the walls of the small room loomed right over me in a teepee effect, as if the walls were coming down at me, closer and closer.

I sat on a cot, in the shadows; it was cold and damp, like the root cellar at my mother’s parents’ house, and I shivered.

The bomb came straight at Kalamazoo, as clearly in my mind as if it were on television. Dad would scoop me up in his arms, and he and Mom would run for the shelter. Now they close the door behind them. My friends and neighbors are left behind. We hear the bomb hit and explode. It reverberates, and the block walls shake. Across town, my mother’s family—Grandmom and Grandpa and Aunt Alice—have been blown up into teeny pieces. We sit on the two cots, Mom and me on one and Dad on the other. We look at each other, then put together all the jigsaw puzzles Mom has stacked inside the maroon-painted apple crates. They were my parents’ first furniture when they were married, and now they are with us for the end of the world.

We stare at our laps until Mom decides we’ll eat the baked beans and mandarin oranges. I don’t want the Spam, but Dad insists I swallow. I choke as it goes down my throat. Mom and Dad and I are still looking at each other, and the food is almost gone. Dad yells at Mom. “Jesus Christ! Stop your complaining. What do you want me to do about it?” Mom cries.

I didn’t like where the fantasy was heading. I realized I couldn’t live forever in this tiny cement tent with just my parents.

The baseball bat and the rifle propped up in the corner of the bunker gave me another scenario. I imagined Dad closing the door behind us and before the bomb exploded, the neighbors discovered our bomb shelter. They pounded on the door, trying to break it down. Dad gave Mom the rifle and showed her how to shoot it. He held the baseball bat as if he was ready to beat the first person to get through the door.

My hands and legs trembled. As my chest tightened, I wondered if I’d stop breathing.

Eventually, I slinked out of the shelter, up the stairs, and into sweater weather, the air crisp, but still leaf-scented. I breathed deeply.

I still wanted to go back inside the bomb shelter. It called to me like a scream in the distance. But I readily admitted to myself that I wasn’t going in there alone again.

When I could stand the fear no longer, I awoke in my bed, crying and shaking.

That night I had my first nightmare. What happened after I fell asleep was a sudden hurtling downward into a black and unknown space. I sensed walls, boundaries of some kind, not too far from my touch, but fell unimpeded through this openness. With no sense of a bottom to this and no end to my falling, I felt no control over my fate. The terror rose from my stomach and ballooned to my arms which had parachuted perpendicular from my body. When I could stand the fear no longer, I awoke in my bed, crying and shaking.

Not long after the bomb shelter was finished, the weather changed; the temperature dropped ten degrees. Wearing fall jackets, Mark from next door and I played in his sandbox with my yellow cement mixer and his orange dump truck. Mark usually reminded me of Humpty Dumpty, but as he directed all his intensity on ramming his truck into mine, he looked like a tough guy on TV, his expression hard and focused, his buzzed blond head giving the impression of a Marine sergeant.

“Want to see something neat?” I said.

“What?”

“Can’t tell you. But I can show you.”

“Okay. This better be good.”

I led him into my basement.

He looked around as if he was marching into Disneyland, with his mouth open and his head rotating.

“Ka-boom!” Mark made loud noises like bombs exploding. “This is the best thing anybody in this whole neighborhood has! You’re so lucky!”

Mark noticed the rifle and grabbed it. “Your Dad can get the Commies with this gun!” He examined it and pointed it at me. “Pow, pow, pow!” Mark made noises like a semi-automatic. “This is so neat!” he said.

Goose bumps pimpled my arms. “Mark, better put it down.” Dad would have a cow if he found out. I wasn’t allowed to touch his gun. I knew a gun could kill people.

“It’s pretty nifty!” Mark set the gun down and shivered. “It’s cold in here! Come on, let’s get our bikes and go up to Gull Road.” He’d already lost interest in our bomb shelter.

That night Mom told Dad I had brought Mark into the bomb shelter.

“Did you forget it’s a secret?” she said.

“I didn’t know it was a secret from Mark,” I said. Uh oh! I’ve done something wrong! I felt shame, but I wasn’t sure why.

“That’s a load of bullshit!” Dad said, getting a red face. “I’ll teach you to open your mouth when you shouldn’t!”

Dad spanked me right there in the living room. As he struck me, he said, “You will NEVER bring friends to the shelter again! Do you hear me?!”

As soon as he let me up on my feet, I rushed to my room and shut the door. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. I recited to myself, the bomb shelter is just for the three of us. The bomb shelter is just for the three of us. There is no room for friends, neighbors, or Grandmom and Grandpa. It’s just for the three of us.

That night I read the story of “Bluebeard” in my fairy tale book about a husband who forbids his wife from opening one room in the house. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the room when he is away. She discovers his dead ex-wives hanging from hooks in the blood-spattered room.

The story gave me a nightmare fraught with more intensity than those which preceded it. I cried out, which woke up my mother. She took the fairy tale book from me.

I didn’t say anything when my book turned up missing. I looked in the garbage when Mom was in the back yard hanging some sheets on the clothesline. My book lay in there, underneath some coffee grounds and orange peels.

All these years later, standing among a group of mostly strangers, I felt a deeply rooted longing for that book. The Titan guide was still talking. “The heart of the Titan II operations was the Combat Crew, which was responsible for day to day operations of the missile complex. They also had to respond to the launch order that, thankfully, never came. Each crew consisted of two officers and two enlisted.” Like Mom and Dad and me and Ted. “The crews had to be informed about conditions which affected alert status.” When baby Ted came home that day from the adoption agency, we had been living over the bomb shelter for a year.

Chains tightened around my stomach. Propellant met pressurization in my head.

“Many Americans constructed bomb shelters as a form of reassurance. They mainly had symbolic value.” The guide rambled on and on.

As a child I’d stayed clear of the bunker in the basement and as an adult I’d begun to forget, but now I remembered how I began to imagine it as a meat locker, a freezer, an abandoned igloo on empty frozen tundra. How I had felt the shelter’s merciless icy presence chilling our house.

As the guide finally wrapped up his monologue, we drifted out to the yard. As if he could barely stand, Marc leaned against the chain link fence, pulling his cap down further on his face, while the rest of us shuffled through the gravel to peer at the roof of the missile silo, which barely rose above ground level, as if the entire housing for the missile were a whale with its back just visible above the water line.

Under the sun, Dad’s staccato walk and fidgeting were both more obvious and less intense, as if part of his compressed energy blew away with the wind.

In the car, Mom said, “The Hoovers, remember them? Bob and Sylvia? They were in our golf league. Well, their youngest granddaughter is studying engineering at Northwestern.” I couldn’t remember who the Hoovers were because there were so many and I had never listened very well when Mom gave me her friend updates. “Wasn’t it engineering? Was it Northwestern or Illinois?” My father, staring ahead, seemed transfixed by the road ahead. “Do you remember?”

Dad uncoiled himself and turned to look at her. “Engineering. I don’t know what university. Something that is supposed to sound good.”

By the time we got back to the condo, Dad’s mood shifted toward center. “How about I grill that salmon now?” he said.

Marc made a beeline for the tiny den. Marshal turned on the TV in the living room as Mom and I started rustling in the kitchen and Dad fired up the grill. I heard the sound of a 24 hour news channel. When I brought Marshal a glass of Coke on ice, he spoke so only I could hear. “I’m waiting to see if something happened outside of Green Valley. I sure hope so.”

As Mom pulled together the ingredients for the rest of dinner, I watched to make sure she didn’t confuse the teaspoon and the tablespoon measurements as she had the night before. I purposely didn’t notice that she snuck sips of Scotch from a glass nestled behind the blender. She didn’t gulp as she was a master of moderation.

While Mom stirred her sauce on the stove, I paced between the food preparation counter and the patio where Dad watched over the salmon, his body straight and still except for the rhythmic flexion of his knees.

“Smells good,” I said, filling a gap.

Dad smiled at me. “It’s my specialty.”

Luanne CastleLuanne Castle taught at California State University, San Bernardino before moving to Arizona, where she now lives with a herd of javelina. Her writing has been published in 13th Moon, Airplane Reading, The Antigonish Review, Redheaded Stepchild, Visions, The Black Boot, The MacGuffin, and others. Her writing can also be found at http://www.luannecastle.com

Me and Jerry

“Do you like Jerry Lewis?” I ask the stranger next to me in a movie theater. We’ve been making small talk, waiting for the movie to begin, about films and directors, young and old. The conversation has just turned to comedians, and I thought, there’s my cue.

She tilts her blonde head. “He’s not my favorite.”

I’ve heard worse. The last baby boomer I asked answered, “No. And he’s a son of a bitch.”

“But I went to high school with his kids,” she continues. “They were into music. And I knew his wife. She was a very nice woman; and she was very pretty, even though she let her hair go grey.”

She knew Jerry’s family? My heart beats fast. I want to tell her that I saw his oldest son, Gary, sing “Sonny Boy” with his dad on Jerry’s TV show and “This Diamond Ring” with his band, Gary and the Playboys a few years later; that Jerry’s wife Patty, a former singer, managed Gary’s band; that Patty’s hair went grey because Jerry wouldn’t allow her to dye it; that Jerry divorced Patty in 1980 and married SanDee Pitnick, a Las Vegas dancer, three years later; that the only way I could know more about Jerry Lewis is if I broke into his house.

But I’m afraid if I tell her all that, she’ll shrink in discomfort to the other side of her seat. There’s no more time to talk anyway. The lights dim, the theater goes dark, and we face forward to watch the coming attractions, my mind still racing with thoughts of Jerry.

  *     *     *

It’s a Sunday night during the Golden Age of Television. We’re watching The Colgate Comedy Hour. Its hosts rotate every six weeks; but for me, Ed Wynn, Abbot and Costello, Donald O’Connor, Eddie Cantor and even Jimmy Durante—whose “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are…” gets me every time—were just warm up acts for Dean Martin, the smooth crooner, and his sidekick Jerry Lewis, the skinny, hyperactive klutz with the loud nasal voice and the big mouth and the long legs whose nonstop crazy shticklach (as Jerry called it) light up the cramped den where I sit with my family in front of our small black and white TV.

Dean is supposedly the more handsome of the two, but I can’t take my eyes off Jerry. Now he’s catching Dean off guard, kissing him full on the lips. Then he’s jumping into the arms of the bandleader, curled up like an impish toddler who needs protection from his angry, older brother. Then he’s arching his back, spreading his arms, throwing his head back and lengthening his legs like a ballerina ready to be hoisted high up in the air. (Does that sound gay? He wasn’t, even though he sometimes dressed up like Carmen Miranda with a turban of fruit on his head and pantomimed her singing, and even though, by his own admission, he was plain crazy about Dean Martin.)

He isn’t just funny. He’s cute in his nebbishy way, and he’s sweet. And when he isn’t pulling sad or confused faces, or pantomiming or falling down, he sings and dances with musicality, style, and ease. I sing and dance along with him in the doorway even though it annoys my father and brothers.

His ad libs thrill me—they give me a glimpse into the man behind the clown. When a gushing water pipe soaks Dean’s watch, Jerry stifles a laugh, puts his face an inch from Dean’s, drops his high whine an octave and says, “You forgot to take your watch off, huh?” Or when he opens a suitcase and the clothes that are supposed to explode all over the stage lay quietly folded, he approaches the audience to explain how well the gag worked in dress rehearsal and to rebuke whoever was responsible for the malfunctioning spring: “Where will you be working tomorrow?”

At the end of the show, Jerry stands in front of the curtain in his black tux, his bow tie loose, and wipes the sweat from his face with his white handkerchief. “Ladies and gentleman,” he says, “Dean and I want to thank you very, very much.” Then he plugs their latest movie. The pathetic nerd is nowhere to be seen. Here’s a man in total command of his life.

I’m nine years old, and I’m in love.

A year after The Colgate Comedy Hour goes off the air, Martin and Lewis split up. Jerry begins making his own movies. For the next nine years, throughout junior high and high school, whenever one of Jerry’s movies are playing, I beg any and all of my girlfriends who are willing to sit beside me in a dark movie theater on a Saturday afternoon while I silently swoon. They don’t conceal their boredom and disdain. They can’t understand what I see in him. I can hardly understand it myself—I don’t think he’s all that funny anymore, but I’m sure there’s a sensitive, brooding guy in there somewhere who reminds me of a boy I also have a mad crush on, who is also lanky, moody, and impulsive, and whom I also worship from afar, as if he too were a celebrity.

I asked my cousin recently if she remembered my crush on Jerry Lewis. “Of course,” she said, “but if you ask me, you conflated him with Lenny.”

“That’s true,” I said. “But I fell in love with Jerry first.”

 

Dateless on a Saturday night in my senior year of high school, I watch Jerry’s new show. After an hour or so of his usual antics—sticking a cigarette up his nose, running around the stage so that the cameraman can’t follow him, then doubling back and kissing him on top of his bald head—Jerry gets serious, and sings “Come Rain or Come Shine” from his album, Jerry Just Sings. His voice isn’t great, but his timing is; and he sings with passion and a shameless sentimentality reminiscent of Al Jolson.

Dean is supposedly the more handsome of the two, but I can’t take my eyes off Jerry.

This is what I’ve been waiting for. I own the album. I’ve looked long and hard at Jerry’s melancholy face on the cover, his mouth open in song. I know every song, every word, every big band chord. I’ve stood in front of our foyer mirror not far from the hifi in our living room and mouthed the lyrics, as if by doing so, I can feel his heartbreak in “How Long Has This Been Going On?” or his exuberance in “I’m Sitting on top of the World.” My favorite isBy Myself,” (“I’ll go my way by myself. I’m by myself, alone.”) since that is how I feel now that Lenny, who can also sing, and who became my high school steady for a couple of years, has gone off to college where he’s falling in love with one pretty co-ed after the next. Jerry sounds lonely too when he sings, even though he’s married, has five sons and one more on the way.

 

The ratings are so bad for Jerry’s show that despite their five-year contract, NBC cancels it after 13 weeks. I can’t understand why so few people see how brilliant and lovable he is. (I don’t yet know that the French already think he’s a genius.) I don’t agonize about this for very long, though. I go to college the next fall where my tastes and worldview evolve as Jerry’s popularity declines. He becomes old-fashioned, even to me. I don’t think much about him for years except for an occasional glimpse at him while he hosts his schmaltzy Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethons, his dark hair slicked back with too much Brylcreem. But then I read an interview in Esquire Magazine in which herefers to starlets as “fucklets” and praises John F. Kennedy, who he claims had been his good friend, as one of the “great cunt men of all time.” Women’s liberation is in full bloom. Shocked and dismayed that this man whom I so adored is a Neanderthal, I’m done.

 *      *     *

My husband walks into the kitchen. “I found something on Gold Star you’re going to want to do.”

I look up from unloading the dishwasher. A transplanted New Yorker, he’s always hungry for theater deals. Now what?”

“Jerry Lewis is speaking in Beverly Hills tonight. For free.”

Miles has never found Jerry funny, but he knows I was obsessed with him when I was young.

“Oh, God. I don’t know. It’s been such a long time, I’m not sure I care anymore.”

He shrugs. “Up to you.”

He leaves the kitchen, and I rethink: Jerry is 86. This is probably my only chance ever to see him in person.

“Okay,” I call into the next room. “Let’s go.”

 

We join the crawl from the beach to Beverly Hills, arrive late, step gingerly by the people in the last row who, along with the rest of the audience, are standing, clapping and yelling as Jerry makes his entrance. I can barely see his grey head above his short neck and stooped body. He takes a few awkward steps and then collapses deeply into an arm chair opposite his interviewer.

The event is in honor of Jerry’s technical accomplishments as a director. To make it easier to act in and direct his own movies, for instance, Jerry met with Sony in Japan 25 times before they invented the “video assist” for him, used by movie directors today. I don’t care that much about the technical side of movie making, but I am impressed by Jerry’s drive, inventiveness and smarts. And I love the clips of him high up in a crane or zooming around Paramount in his golf cart, looking youthful and vibrant in his red crew neck sweater, white sox, and loafers. And I love the scenes from his old movies, in which he invariably plays the schmendrick who gets the simplest tasks wrong, making life impossible for everyone around him.

And yet, when no one’s watching in Who’s Minding the Store?, he sits at a typewriter and, accompanied by music, transforms the keys and return-carriage into a percussive instrument, his face so alive with focus, surprise and private joy, his timing so perfect, his neck so long and lifted, he is elegance itself.

Or when The Errand Boy finds himself alone in a large office, sitting at the head of an oval conference table, he lights up a cigar and, in time to a Count Basie number, imagines he is a “Chairman of the Board,” pointing to the imaginary businessmen under his charge sitting around the table. As the music builds in intensity, so does his imperiousness. At one moment, he turns his chair around, his back to the camera, only to swivel suddenly back around in response to a loud, climactic chord, crossing his eyes and throwing his arms and mouth open wide as though the sound of all those horns was coming in all its wildness straight out of his kishkes.

Miles laughs and elbows me, “He’s funny. We should go back and watch his movies.”

I feel vindicated.

Jerry asks to be excused. Does he have to use the john? He’s an old man after all. No. He wants to see his daughter, who has recently gone off to college, has just landed in L.A. and is backstage. He waddles off the stage and leaves the interviewer at sea: “Gee, I’ve never been left in the middle of an interview before.”

He leaves an audience of over 1000 to go kiss his daughter hello? What kind of princess must she feel like? I can’t imagine my father leaving any conversation in the middle to talk to me. But Jerry does what he wants. Isn’t his lack of restraint one reason why he was so appealing to me, a dutiful daughter?

When he returns, he takes questions from the audience.

A few hands go up.

“That’s all??” he yells. “Come on!!!”

One woman tells him that she did a small scene with him in a movie a long time ago; that it was so wonderful to work with him, it was her most memorable experience as an actress.

“Lady, sit down. You’re annoying everyone.”

Everyone laughs. I wince.

A young boy raises his hand. Jerry nods. The boy stands. “I’m a great admirer of your work.”

People laugh again, tickled by the boy’s precocious phrasing.

Jerry asks him his age.

“Ten.”

“Young man, would you like to live to see eleven?”

The audience roars. I don’t. Caustic comebacks may be part of his shtick; but in dismissing the gushing actress and the reverent boy, he’s dismissing me.

At the end of the evening, the audience gives him another standing ovation.

“Thank you very much,” Jerry says. “You’ve made this old Jew very happy.”

Even though Jerry poked fun at his fans, I’m hooked again, like I’ve seen Lenny at a high school reunion; and despite his receding hairline, the old fantasy that we were made for each other pulls on me. Like a lover who can’t get enough of her beloved, or a mother who finds her newborn endlessly adorable in his most mundane gestures—a yawn, a grimace from gas, a toothless smile—I watch endless videos of Jerry on YouTube.

In one of my favorites, Jerry enters the stage in a long, formal coat, strides pompously towards a five member glee club, pinches one girl’s cheek, lifts another girl’s chin, punches one guy’s arm, shakes another’s shoulders, and then tweaks the last guy’s nose. Then he leads them in “Oh Danny Boy.” While they sing “…from glen to glen..,” Jerry extends his right arm emphatically on the second “glen” to elongate the note, leaning further and further to the side until he falls into the curtain. A moment later, preparing for the big finish, he turns, marches about 10 feet away from the chorus in three big steps, pivots, then trots back, every trot a leap, in time to “oh, oh, oh.” Reaching them on the final “oh,” he spreads him arms wide and high and leans back and away from them with so much passion for the note that there’s nowhere else for him to go but on his ass.

I always loved falls, or as we called them when I was a modern dancer, “going to the floor.” Mostly, I favored controlled, soft descents, except for the time I was performing a solo in New York at the Merce Cunningham Studio. I was jogging backwards in a large circle, increasing my speed as I went, planning to stop deliberately at the height of the acceleration by abruptly changing my direction and stamping my foot. Excited, perhaps, by the dance celebrities or critics who might be in the audience, my speed got the best of me. I lost control, fell backwards onto the floor, slid about ten feet, and lay there, spread eagle, catching my breath for a few seconds before I got up and continued. Miles remembers it as his favorite moment of the dance: “You went with it, and you made it look natural.”

Watching Jerry as the pseudo-dignified glee club director who abandons himself to the music so thoroughly that he falls on his ass isn’t just natural, and it isn’t just funny. It’s satisfying, like seeing a thing pay off, come to its fullest and right end, like watching the inevitable, like watching the truth. That is what thrilled me at nine. Like the boy in Beverly Hills, I knew genius when I saw it.

 

I read every article and book by and about Jerry I can find. He was born in Newark, New Jersey and had a terribly lonely childhood. (I knew it!) His vaudevillian parents were always on the road. He idolized his father, Danny, for his looks and his talent. And since the ladies liked Danny, Jerry’s mother, Rae, his pianist and musical arranger, stayed near her husband to keep an eye on him.

Left with various relatives, Jerry moved around so much that he didn’t do well in school even though he was a smart kid. At the end of the 4th grade, when all the kids in his class moved into the 5th grade classroom, Jerry was told to stay in his seat. The new 4th graders piled in, stood at the blackboard and stared at Jerry. “At nine,” he says in an interview later, “I knew trauma.”

After that, his grandma Sarah insisted that they leave him with her in Irvington, a suburb of Newark. In a documentary about his life, Jerry, looking tired to the bone at 70, his bronze facial makeup contrasting with his pale neck, describes Sarah as an “apostle.” (Unusual description of a Jewish grandmother—maybe he learned the term from his wife Patty, a devout Catholic.) “When I needed wisdom, information, and…” Jerry sucks on a candy and furrows his brow, searching for the right word “…articulation, and profundity, I’d go to Grandma.”

I still want to know who he is, as difficult as that is.

There’s a picture of Jerry as a teenager with wavy hair and a winning smile, standing outside his grandmother’s modest clapboard house that is not so different from the houses in my old neighborhood, only a few states away in Massachusetts. What if we had grown up together? Jerry had desperate crushes on any girl who smiled at him then. Would he have had a crush on me? Would he have tolerated endless, tortuous make out sessions in the red velvet arm chair in my living room; or would he have pushed for more? Would I have given into his squirms, sighs, and insistent hands and suffered relentless guilt, or broken up with him and made myself sick with longing?

I imagine us sitting on my front porch steps on a summer night (like Lenny and I used to do), our legs touching, my head resting on his bony shoulder. Jerry holds a cigarette in one hand, my knee in the other. My stomach aches, knowing he can’t stay much longer. My father drives up in his dark blue Dodge, spots us, and shines his bright lights as a warning. Jerry doesn’t freeze (like Lenny did). His mobile face makes one crazy expression after the other, as if the headlights were spotlights. Then he gets up, prances down the porch steps, waits for my father to get out of his car, and throws his arms around him like a long, lost relative.

He’s so brave, so funny, I think. How can my father not like him at least a little bit? But my father frees himself from the arms of this weird, wild kid, walks into the house and slams the door. Jerry hangs his head in defeat, then grabs me and won’t let go. It’s the happiest despair I’ll ever know.

 

Grandma Sarah died when Jerry was fifteen. At sixteen, he punched the principal of his high school for making an anti-Semitic remark. Not long after, he dropped out of high school altogether. All he wanted to do was perform. At his theatrical debut at 5 (as part of his parents act) he accidentally kicked in a foot light, heard the audience’s laughter, and that was it.

Having been a dancer, I understand the intoxication of performing—the heat of the lights, the vague faces in the dark looking at me while I handed them whatever part of myself I cared to dress up and share.

 

I gobble up the stories: about his love at first sight romance with the singer Patty Palermo, nee Ester Calicano, six years his senior (I’m jealous.); his ceaseless adoration of Dean Martin (despite the bitter break up and the 20 years of silence between them); their gargantuan fame with “the money and the women flowing in;” his rampant infidelities (I’m not jealous of that.); his split from Dean 10 years to the day after their debut smash performance at the Copacabana; his solo film career, obsessive work ethic as director, writer, and actor; how the American critics disdained him; how extravagant, compulsively generous, tyrannical, and impossible he was to live and work with; and his life-changing fall in 1965.

It’s not clear how it happened—either during his entrance on the Andy Williams Show when he slipped on some water or doing a cartwheel off a piano in his solo act in Las Vegas. However it occurred, he chipped a piece of his spine in his neck; and no doctor in the world could do a thing. To bear the pain, he took over a dozen Percodan a day for 13 years, slept on his couch for hours at a time and disappeared as a father from his sons. Even before the accident, he was such a workaholic that he wasn’t present in their daily lives except for kissing them on the lips hello and good-bye, and disciplining them, often harshly, if they committed the slightest offense at the table, even though he allowed himself to mash chocolate brownies all over his teeth and stick carrots in his ears and nose during dinner.

It’s one thing to learn about Jerry’s lonely childhood; it’s another to discover how that neglect affected him, how insecure and easily enraged he could be; how prone he was to excessive behavior, including extravagant spending—his 400 suits, how he never wore a pair of socks more than once, the 20 pieces of luggage he took whenever he traveled; how his addiction to Percodan made him, as Jerry confesses, “as mean as a snake;” how he took his torment out on those closest to him—his “long-suffering” wife, Patty, and his sons; how the agony of his spinal injury, the narrowing horizons of his career and his “sputtering” marriage drove him one night into his private bathroom in his Bel Air mansion (built originally by Louis B. Mayer) where he took out a pistol and put it in his mouth until he heard his sons playing in another part of the house and put it away.

As sad and sick as the stories sometimes make me, my attachment to Jerry remains. Why am I so loyal? In a New Yorker Profile, Jerry says that his fans were heartbroken when he and Dean split up because they had become like family to them. And I think, yes, maybe that’s it: you are like family to me—Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch, whose ancestors were Russian Jews, whose grandfather was a Rabbi, whose inflections, sighs, and sarcasm remind me of my Uncle Charlie, who delivered his dark humor in such a deadpan that it was impossible to distinguish the affection buried in the insult.

“Hello Ganiff,” Uncle Charlie would greet my 9 year old brother Billy. And to me he’d say, “Hello Meeskite.”

When I asked my mother what the words meant, she said, “Uncle Charlie’s just kidding.”

I insisted that she tell me what he was saying until she gave in: Ganiff means crook, and meeskite, homely one.

Maybe that’s another reason why I didn’t laugh when Jerry asked the 10 year old boy if he would like to see 11. Maybe I remember my Uncle Charlie, whose jokes were too mean to be funny.

 

At least I am not Jerry’s craziest fan. In an interview with Peter Bogdonavich, Jerry tells the story of a woman who approached him on the street and told him that she loved him so much that she was writing her dissertation about him. She got up close, put her hands around his neck and said, “I love you so much. I love you so much. I love you so much.” Realizing that she was choking him, and that he had to stop her, Jerry socked her in the jaw, broke it, and wound up paying her $475,000 in damages.

But perhaps his most insane fan is fictional: Masha (Sandra Bernhardt) in Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy, is so sexually obsessed with the talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry) that she helps Rupert Pupkin (Robert Deniro) kidnap him. Alone with him at last, she straps him to one of her French Provincial chairs with adhesive tape from his neck to his shoes. In a sheer black lounging outfit, she sits across from him at a table set with a lavish dinner, tells him how much she loves him and sings Come Rain or Come Shine. (I know that song!) Then she disrobes to her underwear, sits her skinny body on his lap and leans in to kiss him.

Before her lips reach his, Jerry, his eyes both dead and enraged, tells her to take all the tape off. She does. He then picks up the gun which she had aimed at him earlier, fires a couple of phony bullets, walks slowly towards her, slaps her hard across the face and runs out of her apartment into the streets of Manhattan where he keeps running (and he was around 58 when he made this movie) for the rest of the scene. Masha runs after him, still in her white bra and panties and spiked heels, screaming, “Jerry, wait! Jerry! Come back here!”

 

I would never choke Jerry, kidnap him, or strap him to a chair. But having been attuned so early to his vulnerability, I do count myself among the women, who, as Shawn Levy put it, would like to “burp him.” And I agree with Carol Burnett when she says, “When Jerry wasn’t being funny, he was sexy.” Shall I tell you what in his face or physique or tone of voice moves and captivates me? Shall I mention his green eyes, his nice nose, sensual mouth, and his long, limber body?

The lanky adolescent is not the only Jerry I love. By the time he’s in his forties, no longer as lean or as agile, his comedic shticks less compelling, I still like to watch him sing and dance, and I still want to know who he is, as difficult as that is. In interviews, Jerry can be introspective, polished, pompous, vulnerable, defensive, sweet, generous, philosophical, religious, nasty, as business-minded as the provincial Jewish merchants in my home town, or as sophisticated as a cinema auteur. He’s unfathomable. All I can do is guess when he’s being honest, and when he’s telling a version of the story he wants the world to believe.

When he explains why he won’t allow other men to dance with his wife, for instance, that he assumes they would behave like he would (“get cute and hold her very close”), I recall what Patty wrote about Jerry’s terrible jealousy, how he berated her (“brought me to my knees”) with false accusations of her infidelity. When he talks about how much he adores his sons, I remember reading about how neglected they felt and how jealous they were of the love he showed his muscular dystrophy kids, whom he called “Jerry’s kids.” When he claims that he respects Pauline Kael because she’s such a knowledgeable film critic, that he can’t “rap her” even though “the old broad” has no use for him or his movies, I wonder why he’s wearing that phony looking ascot and doubt that he’s ever that sanguine about any critic, having just admitted that he’s emotional about everything (“Patty says I can get upset about a bad sunset.”).

But when he talks about his open set policy, how much he enjoyed “showing off” to an audience when he was directing his movies; and when, many years later, his face bloated from steroids, his voice unnaturally high, he says how fast and hard he and his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, a dancer with great “pins,” fell for each other; (I’m jealous again) that he hasn’t laid an eye on another woman since, over 36 years ago, I believe him.

And I believe him when, in his 80’s, wearing yet another red shirt—red must be his favorite color—his voice gravelly, his eyes as sharp as my grandmother’s were at his age, he extols Carol Burnett for her artistry and heart. “Be careful,” he thinks, watching her fall, knowing what his falls cost him. “She was a clown,” he says softly near the end of the interview, like she was his soul sister. “Anyone who is a clown comes from a very, very unique place.”

 

I still yearn to understand Jerry’s unique place, what particular permutation of sorrow, rage, hurt, love, passion, and genius gave him his “funny bones,” as he puts it, and made it possible for him to sing, dance, act, direct, write and produce, and to draw me and millions of others to him.

Sometimes I think there are two kinds of people in the world—those who love Jerry Lewis, and those who don’t. Although Miles now appreciates his “flashes of brilliance,” most of my family and friends, old and new, don’t. Just yesterday, finishing up a lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, I mentioned that I needed to get back home to finish something I was writing.

“What are you writing about?” she asked, her eyes wide with interest.

“Jerry Lewis.”

“Jerry Lewis?” Her face, tone and inflection all cried, “Who? What? Are you kidding? Why in the world would you write about him?”

“Yes. Jerry Lewis.” Neither of us had time for a longer answer. Either you get him, or you don’t, I thought. And even if I wanted to persuade her that he was worthy of my fascination, where would I begin?

Lisbeth DavidowLisbeth Davidow’s work has appeared in print and online in Alligator Juniper, All that Glitters, Helix Literary Magazine, Mandala Journal, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Pilgrimage, Prime Mincer, Revolution House, Sliver of Stone, and Spittoon.

Lunch Ticket’s reading period for Issue #5 overlapped with The Southeast Review’s annual Narrative Nonfiction Contest. At the same time that “Me and Jerry” was accepted for publication at Lunch Ticket, it was also selected as a finalist by the nonfiction judges at The Southeast Review. Both publications extend their congratulations to Lisbeth!

 

I Once Knit My Own

It wasn’t until sixth grade that I started lying about my mittens. Bright blue and pink, I told my friends that they had been a Christmas gift from my mom.

“Nice mittens, man,” they’d say.

“I know right,” I’d say laughing, and tuck them into my pocket.

The truth was that I’d knit them myself; painstakingly. I’d put days into them; pretended I’d forgotten about soccer practice, and skipped dinners, for them. I’d spent an hour in the store, deliberating over electric-blue versus forget-me-not.

Once, I’d have shown them off. Knitting was pretty normal at the school I’d just left, Ashwoodwhich was named after a tree. Ashwood Waldorf had a different educational philosophy from most public schools, I think. Needlework was a required skill there, along with the ability to draw Celtic-knot borders, and play the pentatonic flute. As a result, kids usually ended up equally proficient in arithmetic and apple pie.

I ended up leaving, but I did take my love for needlework with me, to Lincolnville Central School. There, my new classmates informed me that embroidery was an unbefitting pursuit for a twelve-year-old boy. But I liked working with thread. Something about the creativity blended with precision appealed to me. It made me smile. Then again, I enjoyed having friends. I decided to forego one in favor of the other.

Cue Weezer album.

Growing up with a dance teacher for a mother, I had a fair amount of exposure to girls popping and locking, pirouetting, and kick-ball-changing. There had been a few boys in her classes, but only a few. Those few didn’t much make sense to me; dancing was for girls, not boys. Shaking my head, I’d smirk and continue on with my cross-stitch. However, some of my mother’s rhythm must have rubbed off on me, because I looked forward to my first dance at LCS with that mix of trepidation and exhilaration that accompanies all activities of which people feel obliged to not care about, but are secretly talented. I felt at a loss then when I spent the entire dance standing by the edge of the bleachers. I watched my new friends and enemies, lepers and heartthrobs, writhe ass to groin in a large, amorphous blob.

“We’re just grinding, dude,” assured my friend Devan, dripping sweat as I accompanied him to the water fountain. “No need to freak.”

I opened my mouth to assure him that I was far, far from freaking, but something resembling a bird twitter escaped.

Wide eyes and awkward gropingthese are the dim photographs of middle school dances that hang framed in the halls of my memory. Each is identified by a bronze plaque, with inscriptions such as, “what am I even doing,” and “should have untucked my shirt,” to accompany them. I came from Ashwood. There, the term ‘orgasm’ is dealt with in a similar manner to how China addresses YouTube. I felt the sudden pressure to straddle sexuality almost overwhelming. Boys were expected to move through girlfriends like Pringles. Girls who gave blowjobs were awarded social dominance. And here I sat, knitting.

Our eighth grade graduation trip included a visit to the Québécois Quaker Museum, to see the butter churns and old dresses, I guess. That same night the school took us on a cruise around the harbor, where Dylan Schurper was immortalized for grinding with a drunk twenty-two year old. When Sarah offered me a lap dance next to the shrimp cocktail, I feigned confidence by quoting a James Blunt song.

I was torn between worlds: one was fuzzy; the walls were made of knit-and-purl, but the ceiling was a printout of my mother. The other was immediate, and wielded my dawning adolescence with a shovel. It was sleepovers, truth-or-dare, and celebrity ranking; it had behind it the weight of a country in which admitting virginity after sixteen is social suicide. I didn’t know what to do. My mother, whose favorite movie is The Sound of Music, advised me to “follow my gut.” In my life I’ve gone to the hospital twice for intestinal issues.

In 1965, Temple Grandin developed a machine to give herself hugs. She discovered that children who are often embraced gain a greater capacity for empathy and handling stress. These ‘squeeze boxes’ were adopted by the beef industry as a way to comfort cattle before slaughter, and thereby keep meat tender.

My little cousin Jay and his best friend Brian have been friends since second grade. They’ve now reached a stage in which hugging is socially acceptable, as long as they first don a social condom by assuring the world, “no homo.”

Girls frequently comfort each other by holding hands. This has often driven me to lean against a wall and smoke a cigarette.

The other day I asked my mother if she knew what had happened to those mittens that I knitted myself that one time.

“You tossed them in middle school.”

It is winter now. Sometimes my hands get cold, and I tell myself to man up.

Kyle Laurita-Bonometti_optKyle Laurita-Bonometti grew up on the coast of Maine. He is currently a student at Colby College, studying writing. This is his first publication. Read his other work at kayelbeeme.tumblr.com

Beyond the Pale

I’ve worn different races as if they were shades of pantyhose. Many times, they felt just as constricting. They were not always adopted willingly, but sometimes forced on me. I am mixed; my father is white and my mother is an immigrant from El Salvador. But like all children, I started out raceless, like a page in a coloring book not yet crayoned in. As kids, we marauded through the parks and playgrounds of my mid-western town without ever thinking about the different hues of our skin. For all I knew we looked like the gang of Muppets I saw on TV. Nor did we ever think about whose family had money or which kids wore the nicest clothes. All of our thrift-store clothing was tattered from raucous games that carried us up and down slides and flying from the swings. We could have never guessed that our neighborhood was considered lower middle class because we all felt rich when we traded ten-cent packs of Now and Later and snap-its.

Now, for the first time since childhood, I find myself once again without a race to claim. I wish I could say I have returned to that place of childish freedom where race had no meaning, but I’ve traveled so far from that, I have come full circle. After three years of living abroad, I wish I could say that upon returning to the United States I now feel like I am among my people, or that I belong. But the truth is I feel even more alone.

 *     *     *

 Shortly after I returned to the U.S., I moved to New Orleans. I arrived at Louis Armstrong Airport late at night with only a suitcase and a reservation in a dorm at a hostel. I would be starting a writing program the next day and in the next few weeks I would search for a place to live.

The hostel was located in the Lower Garden District, which I discovered was a curious mix of southern-style mansions, corner stores attracting men with paper bags to their lips, and posh restaurants, which college students crowded into at night. I was confused by the dynamic until a few days later, when I studied a map from Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans. I learned about the historical settlement pattern of whites that formed a tea pot shape within the u-shaped dip of the Mississippi River. This “white tea pot” was akin to Seurat’s pointillism. Tiny dots, each representing five people, amalgamated into a blue tea pot amidst a sea of yellow. The blue dots were the whites, and the yellow were blacks. The overall population of Orleans Parish is 61% black, but the tea pot is a majority white.

I was introduced to my race that first day in third grade when a sneering little boy said, You look dirty.

Whites built their houses and shops within this area because it is the highest ground in a flood-prone city. Its body, or kettle, is a large vicinity encompassing the neighborhoods along the Mississippi River called the Garden District, Uptown, and Carrollton. The spout runs several blocks east through the famed and touristy French Quarter and Marigny. All of the districts that make up the teapot are known for chic studios and resplendent manors, oak trees that sprawl over and shade the sidewalks, and restaurants that serve lavish plates of seafood and steak.

After looking at the map and reading about the history of discrimination in the area, I knew I didn’t belong here.

 *     *     *

 When I was seven years old my family relocated to a small rural village. On its surrounding country roads one would find only an occasional stoplight, but at least a few trucks adorned with confederate flags. In southwest Ohio, where many migrants had crossed the bridge north from Kentucky, many seemed oblivious, or at least resistant, to the fact that Ohio was a Union state. In our small town there was a historically strong KKK presence.

On my first day of school in my new town, I was dressed in a silver skirt connected to a satiny cream shirt that had a collar, shiny buttons, and a small reddish-brown stain near my stomach. As I waited in the principal’s office to be shown to my new classroom, I yanked at my tights and fingered the spot, like I sometimes did in church. I wondered whether my older sister had spilled ketchup or salsa, or tried to imagine a stranger who had worn it before her. When the principal escorted me to my new classroom, I entered slowly behind her, stepping into the doorway as I peered across the rows of desks. I saw immediately from the blue-eyed stares of the other students that I looked all wrong.

I was introduced to my race that first day in third grade when a sneering little boy said, You look dirty.

As the years went by, books whose stories paralleled mine provided comfort to me: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Coming of Age in Mississippi; and I know why the Caged Bird Sings. I knew what it might be like to be black because I was black in the minds of my Aryan-featured classmates, who often called me ‘nigger’ as well as ‘spic’ as they pushed me into lockers and threatened to lynch me.

At the hostel in New Orleans, I witnessed a fight in the common room one evening. I was furiously clicking through craigslist ads for housing, hidden behind the screen of my laptop in the back of the room. About twenty feet of sea-foam green carpet separated me and two men who were watching TV. One was white, and he wore a black leather vest, chains, and facial piercings. The other man was black, and he sported a t-shirt and the early onset of a full-size gut. At the turn of the hour they began arguing over which program to watch next. Their voices rose all the way up to the high ceilings. The black guy got up from the couch and started to walk away. As he crossed the room, the white one yelled after him, “You’re just a fuckin’ nigger.” I cringed and filled with heat. I imagined I knew what would happen next because I’d been there myself, throwing a beer or a fist into someone’s face. So, I was more than waiting, I was hoping for it. But to my surprise, nothing happened. The words hung in the air unchallenged and the man left. I was flushed and trembling with anger as I packed up my computer and belongings.

The hostel’s position in the teapot was tenuous. It was located on the last street of the lower border of the spout, and if one walked south the Victorian houses became vacant warehouses. On the outside, its hulking brick facade was decorated with white metal latticework and precise landscaping, which matched the character of the surrounding mansions. On the inside, however, the floral upholstery was as faded as the faces of the other guests, most of whom were actually down-on-luck locals or new transplants, and their sagging smiles called for another drink. Black plastic bags and duct tape, which protected the mattresses from bed bugs, rustled me awake at night. My food disappeared from the refrigerator and a weary maid carting an industrial hamper complained that prostitutes gave her too much work. But no one would guess these things about the hostel just by looking at it.

A couple of days later I moved out of the hostel and into a weekly room rental in Mid-City where I continued my search for housing.

I asked anyone I could about the neighborhoods, and the answers often varied according to race. Black residents suggested the 7th Ward or Gentilly, while whites advised I live in the teapot or other predominately white areas, such as Lakeview. One white woman also warned me not to take buses because they weren’t safe. I wondered how she thought I might get around without a car.

People have always made presumptions about my race. In the area where I grew up, other kids would ask me, What are you?

Human, I began to reply.

Then, when I left to attend college in Columbus, I faced an altogether different kind of reaction: surprise.

I just thought you were white.

Interestingly, I don’t recall an African-American or other minority ever saying this to me. They are more likely to ask me my race or later tell me, I knew you were something. Perhaps this is because they know how high the stakes are when it comes to race, whereas obliviousness is yet another form of privilege.

For a large part of my life I was told I was not white—was not allowed to be. I was degraded and humiliated in the name of my otherness, and I would not let whites take this identity away from me as easily as they had branded me with it. I viewed this as just another attack on my self-determination. I almost preferred the more overt tactics of my high school classmates. At least we both knew where we stood in relation to each other.

Too often whites have assumed they are in like company when they have made racist jokes or comments in my presence. One stranger even paid my boyfriend’s and my bill at a Japanese steakhouse after discovering he had offended me. This stranger certainly must have known that payment could not rectify his words, but he could not have known that the deeper injury had been caused by my boyfriend’s silent assent to his bigotry. The betrayals by loved ones—friends whose true feelings came out after a couple beers or family members at Thanksgiving letting a word slip within my earshot—hurt most.

White liberals advised me that the New Marigny was “up and coming.” Later, I learned this neighborhood was just north of the Marigny, on the southern border of the 7th ward, which was predominately poor and black. The area was undergoing gentrification, a loaded word here in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Given my history, it is probably no wonder that I have trouble trusting the intentions of gentrification. Although I would like to believe it rests on ideals of diversity and integration, the reality of displacement inspires bitter thoughts of modern-day colonization.

I avoided this area, with its not so clear-cut lines.

I considered the Tremé as an option, which was about a thirty minute walk south from where I was staying in Mid-City. Of course, I’d heard about the TV series by the same name, but what interested me most was that it was historically a racially mixed neighborhood, an identifier that resonated with me.

As I zigzagged my way down the streets, one house blasted me with its sound and color: bright blue and purple paints and speakers playing brass band music. I stood at the sidewalk, at the helm of a well-manicured lawn where statues of animals and religious figures emerged from the green grass. I read a message posted on the house: a eulogy to the owner’s dead son who was murdered at its steps.

The house was still in Mid-City, but it set a somber tone for the rest of my walk. I breathed the air a little more deeply as I continued on.

I walked through the heart of Tremé, not the edges that met with the French Quarter, which were also being gentrified. As I walked, male teenagers shouted to me from a car tremoring with bass, and a drunken man with a Saints shirt saluted me with his beer in celebration of the day’s game. But for the most part, the neighborhood was almost eerily quiet, with no one but me walking along the edge of the street where there should have been sidewalks. The houses were humble, with dilapidated and vacant buildings scattered between them. Scrawny trees reached no farther than the rooftops. I saw no grocery stores, but several liquor stores. As I returned to Mid-City on a more main thoroughfare, I occasionally encountered small groups of young African-American males leaning against railings and resting on porch steps. They ignored me. But I was still struck by the same feeling as when I lived in Africa and groups of children would yell at me “La Blanche!”

 *     *     *

 

Never had I felt such shame to be part of a collective whose actions I could not control.

I became white when I moved to Cameroon. In looking at what it means to be white, privilege is one of the primary indicators. Certainly, I recognized this in Cameroon, where I lived for over two years serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. As a result of my skin color I achieved a special VIP status. I could commandeer the front seats of the bus, finagle my way out of cover charges into clubs, and strut through special events of the elite class, where I certainly had never belonged before. Of course, such a celebrity status was not without pitfalls. I was continuously barraged with a variety of requests for not just money, but sometimes the shoes worn on my feet or the purse carried on my shoulder. Vendors attempted to charge me three to four times the actual price of goods—something my fellow volunteer and I called a ‘white man tax’ or sometimes formed into a verb: he tried to ‘white man’ me. If I even attempted to explain to my friends that I was not really white, my tale was met with hearty laughter.

Crazy white girl.

In their eyes I was rich.

I became defensive.

I would scream at taxi drivers who were trying to overcharge me. I blamed the country’s poverty on the people’s political apathy. I ignored how America’s wealth was bought with their poverty. I walked around with a guilt that was intangible but ready to defend itself.

This proved me to be white, as did my struggle to understand my own whiteness.

One night, a group of my fellow ex-pat Americans met in our regional capital, Maroua. We spilled across three outside tables of one of the many bars that lined Rue de Mayo, amidst the crowds of young Cameroonian men standing in social circles along the street or seated nearby. Without street lamps, the night was dark and the thrum of motorcycle taxis, dust, and rhythmic beats filled the desert air. We drank.

Towards the end of the night, a faction of our larger group had become incoherent, stumbling, and sloppy drunk. One guy vomited on the side of the building. A few of the young women went inside the bar to dance provocatively with men. One of them was dressed in a low-cut shirt so that as she began kissing her dance partner, her breast was revealed in its entirety.

Never had I felt such hyper awareness of how others’ acts were also mine. Never had I felt such shame to be part of a collective whose actions I could not control.

In the Tremé I stood face to face with poverty, and just as I had been forced to in Cameroon, I confronted my own privilege. I thought about my friends in Cameroon who would have been grateful for these houses whose walls didn’t collapse with rain and whose faucets gave water. I was ashamed to admit that two years in Africa had not strengthened my tolerance of poverty; it had weakened it.

 *     *     *

 One day, while I was viewing an apartment in Mid-City, I noticed a school called Esperanza, meaning ‘Hope’ in Spanish. My heart welled.

For several years, I was Hispanic. In college and the years after, I delved into my mother’s culture. I became President of a Latino co-ed fraternity, and worked in the immigrants’ rights movement after attending law school. This was my time to be fully Latina—to rebirth myself as the strongest version of what whites rejected, pushing myself farther away from them on the racial continuum.

In many ways, this place felt natural. I had grown up to the soundtrack of Jose Vicente’s anguished rancheras and gritas. I had patted masa flour with my hands until the dough almost formed a circle, even though my tortillas were always too thick. And my mother’s accented English and quirky parenting tactics resonated so strongly with George Lopez’s stand-up comedy, my lungs ached from laughter.

Before Katrina, the Hispanic community in New Orleans was small, leaving little impression on the city. Post hurricane, large numbers of Latino laborers migrated into New Orleans to help with its rebuilding efforts. Many have stayed, and estimates show the Hispanic population may more than double in the next five to ten years. Mid-City has seen the largest increase within Orleans Parish, although the suburbs have seen even higher numbers. Still, because it is a rather new immigrant community it has the typical characteristics of such: hidden and closely-knitted.

Each time I speak Spanish or dance salsa, I feel like I am revealed as a fraud. I speak fluently but with an American accent and the grammar of a six year old. My hips go rigid when I try to swing them to the beats of Celia Cruz, even though I can shimmy and pop to Petey Pablo.

However, there is so much more that separates me and a Latino laborer.

I know that being Hispanic is not something I can fully ever own.

 *     *     *

 Recently, I traveled through Africa, South East Asia, and Central America. For the latter regions, I was once again raceless. I was simply a foreigner, an American. I was reminded of a statement I’d read written by Albert Murray: “For all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”

During my travels, I met three Americans while crossing the border from Zimbabwe to Zambia. We spent Christmas together, sharing a buffet of Greek salad, lasagna, and pumpkin ravioli at a restaurant in Livingston. Before meeting them, I hadn’t seen another American in weeks. The familiarity of their speech and attitudes warmed me; it felt like a homecoming. One woman was bi-racial and the other two travelers where white, but I embraced them all equally as family.

After traveling for nearly a year, the Atlanta airport was my re-entry point into the United States. Here, I saw for the first time how skewed my perception of race had become. I had arrived from Guatemala, where I’d spent the last two months writing essays and refreshing my Spanish. I waited at the luggage carousel and watched as my companions from my plane grabbed cellophane-wrapped suitcases that were nearly the same size as them. But the machine did not feed my bag out. After a while, I scanned the crowd to see who was left from my flight.

Now, most of the bystanders were wearing plaid shorts, sunglasses used as head gear, and brand-name neon tennis shoes. Apparently, another flight had arrived. None of these white people were on my plane, I thought to myself.

That’s when I recognized that the people I was referring to as ‘white’ included African-Americans and excluded only a few of the Latin Americans who were left. I was confused by my own thought process until I realized my racial categorizations were no longer based on race, but perceived wealth.

My baggage never came, and I passed through U.S. customs with nothing to claim.

In some ways, there is freedom in this kind of existence. I can move in and out of races, and I do. Noel Ignatiev coined the term race traitor to describe someone who seeks “to abolish the white race, which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin.” Sometimes, in discussions about social issues, I do not reveal my race because I have learned my opinion carries more weight if I am perceived as white. In accordance with Ignatiev’s ideology, I am not trying “to pass;” I’m practicing racial espionage. Ignatiev believes that abolishing the white race requires “the defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a predictor of behavior.” He rests these claims on the principle that “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”

My loyalties are unbending.

I discovered a compassion in Africa that knows no enemies. There, I learned what it felt like to carry the burden of oppression in a different way. For the first time, I had to take responsibility for the charges I had previously dispatched to others.

I learned that we all have to take responsibility for each other.

The most racially diverse tract in Orleans Parish is a three-block group area within Mid-City. When I stood in front of Esperanza School, I did not know I was standing just a few blocks south from this tract. I watched as a Hispanic woman guided her daughter across the street by the hand. I walked on, and shortly after, an older African-American gentleman asked me for a dollar. I shook my head because I didn’t have cash, but we spoke for some time about where he might stay the night. He was a veteran from North Carolina. As I continued, I passed a smiling white couple who moved over for me on the sidewalk.

In each of them, I saw a part of myself.

A few days later I put down a deposit on an apartment in Mid-City.

I still can’t say I feel I belong here, but I think it is the closest I can come to the feeling of belonging. I doubt I will ever truly belong anywhere. Even though I have found a place to live, my search for a place in New Orleans and America continues.

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Florentina StaigersFlorentina Staigers is a first year student in the creative nonfiction MFA program at University of New Orleans. She is also a social justice attorney with a background in sociology. She is currently advocating for policies that address racial disparities in health and education.

The Blue Blanket

I keep the brown blur in my peripheral vision and trudge up hill, stinking of sweat and Deep Woods Off. A few yards off the trail, the canine dervish whirls her speckled body, thick neck thrashing in the air. She springs high on muscular legs and drops, scraping her face in the dirt, raging to escape the muzzle strapped on her snout. My submissive dog, Trink, a Springer Spaniel, plods alongside me, a safe distance I think, from Sandra’s dog. My tank top and shorts are sopped, sticky after a six-mile hike in the steam bath that is South Carolina July. I upend my water bottle and guzzle, throat wide open. Yowling lacerates the silence and I pivot, see Trink pinned down by clenched jaws. “Sandra! Get your dog off!”

Petite Sandra plants her legs wide and straddles the snarling animal and grabs its collar, tugging with both hands, her shoulders heaving backward. I sprint to my car, fling the door open and Trink scrambles to me, belly dragging the ground. I boost her onto the car floor and she flattens, an instant fur pancake. I see the blue blanket crumpled under her. Blood is spreading, saturating it.

When Mother died, I donated her belongings to St. Luke’s Resale Store.

I kept the blue blanket.

 

Her frail body quivered under the goose down comforter at Laurel Woods Assisted Living. I slid the thermostat lever all the way up, leaned over and stroked her icy cheek with tenderness I wished I felt. She laid diagonally, a heap of old woman, trembling in the twin bed against the wall. I patted her shoulder and bent fingers darted from under the bedclothes, yanking them up over her head.

“Are you getting warmer, Mom? The heat’s up as far as…”

“NO…get the blue blanket, under the bed…what I pay you’d think I’d have heat.”

My throat constricted and I tipped my head back. This eighty-nine year old woman, this tenuous bundle of flesh and blood was still hostile, even as she unraveled.

Kneeling on the floor, I crouched low on my elbows, shoved one arm under the bed and smashed my knuckles into Mother’s mahogany jewelry box. She’d hidden it again, convinced that villains lurked in the halls, plotting to steal her Joan Rivers Signature Collection pendant and earrings—limited edition items, not available in stores. When we moved her into the new room, she’d ordered me to take her jewelry and Hummel figurines home and lock them in the safe she imagined I had.

I peered under the lace bed skirt and ran my free hand over the booty stashed under Mother’s bed. A crumpled J. L. Hudson’s shopping bag contained L’ Eggs Knee Highs and eight or ten threadbare, Maidenform girdles. I marveled that the paper sack must be thirty years old, the Detroit landmark department store having been demolished decades ago. A crinkled Rite-Aid bag bulged with sugarless candy, five bottles of aspirin-free pain reliever and a 24-ounce bottle of congealed Pepto Bismol. I laid my ear on the floor, craned my neck sideways and spotted it—the finely woven, pastel blue blanket.

 

Mother had been alone for thirteen years, since the Saturday morning in 1994 when her doting husband had a heart attack and crashed his Mercury Sable into a massive oak tree. We lingered at Dad’s bedside in Cardiac ICU for a week. Heroic surgeons installed a heart pump that failed and then determined he wasn’t a candidate for more surgery at age eighty-one. Managing his pain became increasingly difficult and on the sixth day the stoic cardiac team surrounded me. “We’ve done all we can, Mrs. Tucker.”

An hour later, flanked by a hospital administrator and a cardiac nursing supervisor, I signed the pile of documents ordering the removal of Dad’s life support. Pen quivering in hand, I thought of his last coherent words, spoken two days before, “Take care of your mother, Les. For me.”

And I did.

I’d excelled like a fiend for decades to gain Mother’s approval but always went wrong.

For fifty-three years Dad had protected and provided for Mother in the manner gentlemen of his generation did. She’d written checks only at the beauty parlor and grocery store, had never pumped gas or had her car serviced. She knew nothing about insurance or the investments that would keep her in comfort for the remainder of her life. After Dad died, I paid her bills, balanced her checkbook, and handled the disposition of his estate. I chauffeured her everywhere on Michigan’s congested freeways and supervised her home repairs and yard work.

After three months, the geriatric therapist I consulted was adamant. “You’re not doing your mother or yourself any favors by taking over,” he said. “Why not teach her to manage by herself?” According to the expert, Mom was a healthy and intelligent seventy-six-year-old and capable of handling her own finances.

I called before visiting with her checkbook, insurance documents, bank statements, bills, and Revocable Living Trust in hand. We’d review financial matters together, I said, I’d help with the new responsibilities. We’d ease into it.

“Wouldn’t it be better for Don to help me? Men are better suited…”

I bit my lip. At forty-six, I’d managed my own finances with precision and accuracy since age eighteen, throughout two marriages. And she knew it. I set up a file for monthly bills, marked her calendar, gave her new checks I’d ordered. Her demeanor was icy and although she learned fast and managed well for the next decade, her anger at me simmered.

Once, before leaving on vacation, I stopped by Mother’s house with contact information for Don and me. She stood on the threshold, blocking the front doorway. “How nice. You have time for a vacation when you’re too busy to handle my finances.”

I’d excelled like a fiend for decades to gain Mother’s approval but always went wrong. I was a wild child, and high grades and musical accomplishments never made up for my squirming when she’d read fairy tales or demonstrated how to whipstitch a hem. I preferred handsprings on the lawn and riding my bike like a banshee over sewing dirndl skirts and changing bobbins with her. The rowdy, geeky girl who chopped her own crooked bangs never pleased the plant-leaf-dusting-lady. I grew reckless, sunk into the sensuous 60’s and became a teenage mother. I twisted the lid of our relationship down tight and smothered any hopes she had of my becoming a lady.

 

I was ten on that Saturday afternoon in August 1958. My younger brother was staying with a friend and I was headed to Sally’s, two doors down, for an overnight. I’d packed my suitcase, actually Mother’s Singer Sewing machine case, and scurried downstairs, jumpy as a monkey. The tall wooden windows were flung wide open and a brisk breeze swirled through our brick colonial. Raw silk drapes billowed like parachutes against the baseboards and the canopy of elms outside rustled like taffeta. My parents would have thought they had the house to themselves.

Sally and I sprinted up to her attic and were quickly engrossed in our favorite game, Murder Mystery Dress Up. We draped her mother’s 1920s evening gowns on our scrawny bodies, concocted intricate plots, and acted them out with glamorous costume changes. As The Motor-Cycle-Riding-Flapper-Murderer, I needed a gun and told Sally I’d run home and grab my brother’s cap pistols.

Kicking off my sequined pumps, I bolted down two flights and flew home. The official Lone Ranger cap pistols were in my brother’s room, in their holster, and I grabbed them, buckling the belt around me, imagining Sally and I shooting it out in our sparkly dresses.  And then I heard it—Dad’s baritone snoring reverberating through the upstairs.

The hallway was windy and the door to my parent’s bedroom was propped open with an encyclopedia volume. I peeked in. Why would Dad be sleeping in the afternoon?

They were both sleeping! Cuddled up, her back rounded, his bare arms encircling her naked shoulders, their bodies were nestled together under a light blue blanket. His hair, usually slicked back with Brylcreem, was tousled on his forehead and fluttered in a puff of breeze. Mother’s face was smooth and the two straight lines that carved a number eleven between her eyebrows had disappeared. The blue blanket cocooned around them and I spotted a torn foil wrapper on Dad’s nightstand. Mother stirred and he adjusted the position of his arm, pulling the blanket up over her bare shoulder.

Stealthy as the murderer I would portray in Sally’s attic, I backed up on the balls of my feet, crept down the stairs and slipped out of the house.

 

Nowadays, after hikes in the woods, the blue blanket protects the backseat of my car from mud and dog drool, and the washer and dryer don’t seem to damage it. The blanket is over fifty years old, faded but not frayed, and the zigzag stitching around its edges is intact. On the day Trink was attacked, the blanket had slipped off the backseat onto the car floor. She sprawled across it as her neck and face spurted blood.

 *     *     *

The phone jarred me from a fitful sleep at 5:00 am. Dazed and clumsy, I pawed it up to one ear. “Mrs. Tucker, this is the night nurse at Laurel Woods. Go to St. Luke’s. We’re sending your mother over there. She’s having trouble breathing and she’s hit the nurse’s aide again.”

In St. Luke’s Emergency Lobby, the triage nurse motioned me toward the ER. Mother was collapsed on her side when I opened the curtain on the darkened space. The blue blanket was tossed on top of the hospital bedding and she grasped a clump of it near her throat. I moved her clenched fist away from her face.

“Mom, it’s me.”

No response.

“Mom, I’m here now. They’ve given you a shot to help you relax.” I patted her shoulder and she shrugged away, fierce. “It’s not helping. Nurse didn’t know what she was doing, gave me the wrong shot. If you’d been here…”

“I got here as fast as…”

“Not fast enough. I don’t trust these people and…”

“You’ve got a hospital ID bracelet and your Laurel Woods ID is around your neck, they check both before anybody gives you anything. They’re familiar with your case, Mom. This is a small hospital.”

“Is Curt here? Is your brother here yet?”

“Remember? His back is injured. He’s in Michigan. We talk and he’s thinking of you. When you feel better I’ll call him on my cell phone and you can…”

“You and that damn cell phone. Why would I talk on that thing?”

“To talk to Curt, I…”

“You’re not allowed to use them in here, there are signs up. Still can’t follow the rules can you. Is Don coming? Why isn’t he here?”

“He’s back at the house. His parents stopped on their way to Florida. Remember? They only a have a couple days, arrived this afternoon. Joe’s been sick since his heart surgerythis is the only time Don has with him.”

“Of all times for them to barge in, make you drive here in the dark, alone on these mountain roads…”

“No problem, I’m…”

“You don’t know a problem when it bites you in the face. Why are they staying? Don’t they know I’m in the hospital?

“They had no idea, their trip’s been planned…”

“Stop badgering me…”

A nurse poked her head through the curtain and motioned me into the hall.

“Dr. Allene would like to speak to you, Mrs. Tucker.”

I stepped back inside the curtain, leaned over the gurney and pulled the blue blanket high up over Mother’s shoulders so she could feel the fabric on her chin.

The dog that attacked mine is a Belgian Malinois, a breed known for its “jaws of steel.” It is trained for specialized police and military work, is the official dog of the Kenya Police Unit and is used to patrol men’s prisons in Kenya and Tanzania. I shudder to imagine what that means.

Sandra adopted her Malinois, Kaley, from a shelter in Michigan, years ago, and was horrified by the dog’s vicious behavior on the day of our hike. There had been other incidents, never as serious, and Kaley wore the muzzle for hiking. The day of the attack, we women were breathless, drenched after hiking in the stifling heat and Sandra worried that Kaley needed her tongue free to pant and cool off. She removed the muzzle and in a flash, Kaley sunk her teeth into Trink’s neck, clenched her jaws, and shook a forty-pound Spaniel like a rag doll.

 

I stepped into the hospital hallway and Dr. Allene, the palliative care specialist, told me what I already knew. Multi-system organ failure. Mother was dying and all we could do was make her comfortable, a turn of phrase that hit me like an ax in the forehead. Making Mother comfortable was a task for titans. For several years, she’d astonished everyone with the anger and aggression she mustered as her body declined.

Mother was transferred from the ER to a private room and a morphine drip was hung. Valium capsules were opened, the powder moistened and the nurses and I took turns rubbing the paste into her gums. Dr. Allene assured me that although Mother moaned and pulled on her bedding, she felt no physical pain. The doctor had seen this syndrome before, was certain that in a few hours Mother would relax, sink into a morphine coma, and spend her last hours in peace.

Four days later, the night nurse urged me to give up my vigil. “Go home. Get some sleep,” she said. In thirty years of nursing she’d never seen such fervor, such fury in someone so heavily sedated.

When the morphine finally took hold, Mother was non-responsive, propped on her back, drawing long, rasping breaths. I kissed her forehead. She didn’t flinch. I tucked the blue blanket up around her shoulders.

Windows wide open; I drove home through the clear black night, brisk December wind blasting, arriving around 4:00 AM. I collapsed, dropped deep into velvet sleep and at 4:30 the phone buzzed. Mother had died minutes after I left, had never opened her eyes or uttered a word.

 

At home with Trink on the day of the attack, I squat on the driveway, coax her into my arms and examine her. Although her face is swollen to twice its size, the gash on her face has clotted and the puncture wounds behind her ear are not oozing. I’ll put Neosporin on them later. Sitting on the back door stairs, I rinse her with the hose, lather on baby shampoo, and rinse her again. She loves it. I blot her off with an old beach towel and she stands and shakes and shakes. Inside, she drops like a bag of cement mix on the living room rug and snores for hours.

I grab the blue blanket from the floor of the car. Globs of mud and blood cover it. I spray pre-wash on the bloodstains, toss it in the washer and crank it up.

 

What kind of a life was that? To be the one who waited?

I am overwhelmed when I recall the magnitude of my parents’ love affair. Mother and I never understood each other, but I loved her anyway and believe she loved me too. I’ve been a restless adventurer most of my life, one who learned patience in late middle age. It’s difficult to imagine how Mother endured, made a career of waiting to be with my father. She waited for him to travel the world, to graduate from law school, to fight a world war. And when the war ended, she watched other women’s reunions as American soldiers came home in droves. She waited almost two more years as her husband visited Nazi death camps, gathered evidence, and then prosecuted war criminals.

What kind of a life was that? To be the one who waited? While he was landing at Normandy, she landed a secretarial job at General Motors. For four years, she lived with his parents, a squatter in his vacant bedroom in their lower flat. As he marched toward Munich, her eyes twitched, scanning newsreels in dark theaters. He led the battalion that liberated Dachau while she sipped Pepto-Bismol, quelling her nausea as Western Union rang doorbells in their neighborhood. She whirled around the Arthur Murray Dance Studio during “For Women Only” lessons, dreaming of the day she would glide across the floor with him.  She hoarded money, emotion, and physical desire, all treasure to bestow when he returned.

How much room in her heart could she have had for a daughter born less than a year after he finally came home to her? A daughter he showered with his precious time and attention. Mother won her gold medal and had to share it with me eleven months later.

 

Eighteen years passed and by the time her daughter’s daughter was born, Mother had room in her heart. She cherished my baby girl, the polite, lap-sitting grand-daughter who loved learning to sew and was mesmerized by fairy tales. Grandma and granddaughter baked cupcakes, tossed bread chunks to the ducks at Quarton Lake. I shoved through college, partying with defensive fury, not yet understanding the anger that could have obliterated me. The bond my mother and daughter shared skipped over me, but I was the conduit. My blood connected them, and eventually, I loved each of them more for the way they loved each other.

The War Crimes Trials ended and the elation of reunion and post-World War II American dreaming consumed my parents. They raised and educated my brother and me, keeping their promises to each other for fifty-three years of marriage. Our family sat together in Dad’s hospital room for more than an hour after he died, until a nurse patted Mother’s arm. “How much longer would you like to to stay?” Still holding his hand, Mother whispered, “Not enough time…my soldier boy.”

 

I’ve passed sixty now, have divorced and remarried, and will not live long enough to love a husband for fifty years. I’ve escorted my parents through their last ravaged days, have faced down the medical posses and demanded that their final wishes be honored.

Thirteen years after Dad died, I boarded a Northwest commuter jet and flew to Detroit with Mother’s ashes in my lap. It was unseasonably chilly, even for Michigan, on that May day, and the sun blazed in the wind, flapping my coat open as I laid her next to him, just the way they wanted.

In the clarity of my mind’s eye, Mother and Dad are young and strong. Their unlined faces glow, just the way they did on a breezy summer afternoon over fifty years ago, when they lay together beneath a blue cotton blanket.

I unload the car at home today, after a hike with the dogs to Jones Gap where we’ve climbed the falls and splashed in the Middle Saluda. I hoist my damp backpack and mud-clumped boots from the car and pull the blue blanket from the back seat. Hunks of dog biscuit drop from the folds as I grasp two corners and unfurl it in the wind like a flag. I shake and shake it. Sun shines through thread in some spots and the flannel is buttery smooth on my grimy hands. I flop it over one arm and head toward the house, flexing and relaxing my bare feet on warm concrete.

Inside, I spray the blanket with stain remover, crank up the washer and toss it in, knowing it will come out clean.

Leslie TuckerLeslie Tucker, a Detroit escapee, lives on a Carolina mountainside and refuses to divulge its exact location. She is an avid hiker and zip liner, a diligent yogi, and enjoys anything that requires a helmet. She holds ancient degrees in business and music and an ACBL Life Master in sanctioned bridge. Her work has appeared in two Press 53 Anthologies, The Tarnished Anthology, So to Speak Journal, The Baltimore Review, Shenandoah Magazine and Prime Number Magazine.

Three Hots and a Cot

“You can’t wear that,” the guard says. “It shows too much skin.”

“Wah? I’m not showing no skin,” the girl says. She raises her arms in protest and flashes her midriff.

The guard points at her bare skin with the electronic wand. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he says. “We told you last time, too. You have a jacket?”

“Over here,” the guard at the desk calls, pointing to the jacket jumbled at the end of the table on the other side of the metal detector.

The first guard picks up the jacket and holds it out the girl. “You have to wear this.”

“No way! It’s too hot!”

He doesn’t budge. “Wear it or go home. Your choice.”

She snatches the jacket out of his hand and, grumbling, puts it on.

“Don’t even think of taking it off, either,” he says to her. “This is your last warning.
Next time, dress right or don’t bother coming. I’m getting tired of telling you.”

She stomps off in a huff and flops into one of the sofas in the waiting area.

I’m next. I’m not showing any skin. I wouldn’t dare break the rules, or argue, or stomp off.

“Step up, ma’am,” the guard says, and points with the wand to a spot in front of the metal detector. His tone is entirely different to me, but signing in, emptying my pockets, having my coat examined, walking through a metal detector, stepping out of my shoes, being wanded—all of this makes me feel like a criminal. I’m not a criminal; I’m just the mother of one. Which, to a lot of people, is pretty much the same thing.

I step up and place my feet in the black shoeprints painted onto the floor. In my peripheral vision, I see the desk guard check the pockets of my jacket then fold it and place in on the table. His face looks beyond bored.

“You’re good. You can have a seat,” the guard says after wanding me. “We’ll get going in a few minutes.”

I pick up my jacket, zip my keys in the pocket, and hang it up. I have a seat in the small waiting area. Hot air blasts over the bright orange vinyl sofas. For a minute or two, it feels good. I sat waiting for thirty minutes in the unheated benched area between outdoors and the first set of doors to the prison. Every time someone came in, a frigid blast whipped through the space and all the women, simultaneously, shivered. Now, the hot air blasts hard, and I’m almost sweating. I don’t envy the girl in the jacket.

We’re all women. It’s a men’s prison, but it’s also the middle of a workday. Not that lots of men show up on the one weekend day prisoners are allowed scheduled visits. I haven’t been at this long, but I’ve already learned: If you go to prison, there’s a good chance your sole visitors will be your mother or your grandmother. Maybe your sister. Maybe your wife. Maybe your girlfriend. Maybe your brother. Maybe a male friend. In that descending order of likelihood.

I sat waiting for thirty minutes in the unheated benched area between outdoors and the first set of doors to the prison.

Somewhere in the mix are lawyers and cops, but they don’t count. They’re not visitor-visitors. I also don’t count kids. They don’t get to choose whether or not they get to see their relatives who are imprisoned.

We wait longer than a few minutes. I wish I had a book, but we’re not allowed to bring one in. I think of the work piling up at home. It’s a twenty-minute drive here, a thirty-minute wait, an hour visit, thirty more minutes before I get home. The whole thing should take roughly three hours, but the truth is, the day will be a wash. It’s too emotionally devastating to be creative after going to visit a loved one in prison. I’m losing income every second I sit here. I will lose a whole workday.

And more. I think of people complaining about prisoners who get free cable TV and exercise rooms and Internet and a law library. Three hots and a cot is the expression. None of those things applies to this place.

If I was allowed to bring my checkbook in—which I’m not—and used the sitting time to balance my checkbook, this is what would factor in:

$20 a week for the money order so he can buy extra food, vitamins, pay for a health checkup, get stamps, a pencil and an envelope, buy a warm sweatshirt. Prison prices are exorbitant. He confessed last week he spent a dollar on a small candy bar. He sounded apologetic.

$50 a month for books, ordered through Amazon only, five books of less than 1,000 pages, paperback only, so it can’t be used as a weapon. Nothing lewd or inappropriate. The prison has no library. Having a book to lend out is a good thing, I gather.

$25 increments to a telephone service so he can make collect call to us. Each nine-minute call costs about $5. If we’re not home and the answering machine picks up, there’s still a charge. When we leave home, we have had to disable the machine and voice mail.

I hear some states are starting to charge families for visit. $15 per person for the privilege of seeing your loved one for an hour behind a Plexiglas partition. That hasn’t happened here, yet. Give ‘em a chance.

I don’t expect any sympathy—maybe because I know there won’t be any—but it feels like someone is putting the screws to us. I try not to think of the college fund we used for lawyers and bail, for counseling and rehabs, for—

Stop. I make myself stop. It’s not about the money; that’s not important anymore. People who have never been here don’t know my son, a growing teenager, goes to sleep hungry every night. People who have never been here probably think he deserves that. And maybe he does. But he’s still my son. Going to bed hungry.

It’s all material, my writer friends say. You can write about it someday.

They’ve never been here, either, I think when I hear this advice. As if I’d ever write about the shame that has fallen on our family. Why would I do that? For whom?

Despite these things, I don’t dare complain, not out loud, and certainly not here. It’s as intimidating as hell, and we’re still in the waiting area.

“You all right, baby?”

The lady next to me is probably younger than I am, but she looks worn out. Poor. Her jeans are worn, her dark red sweater dull from washings. Her face is full of sympathy, and for a minute I get choked up, which is not allowed. Don’t cry. Don’t show emotion. That’s the worst thing you can do.

“Thank you, I’m okay,” I say. Lie.

She puts her hand on my arm anyway, and pats it. “You stay with me, you’ll be all right,” she says. “You here to see your boy?”

I wonder if she’s seen me before. Who knows? I tell her yes, and her face lights up.

“Me too! I couldn’t come last week, I had to go see my mama up in New Jersey. She had surgery. I had to take the bus to get here, but I couldn’t go two weeks without seeing my boy.”

I don’t understand how she can be so excited, how she can smile. We’re in a prison. It is terrifying. Every time I visit, my son and I can barely look one another in the eye through the Plexiglas that is scarred, worn and dirty, and God knows I don’t want to think about how often, if ever, the phone I hold is cleaned. The first thing I do, every time, after every visit, is get in my car and douse my hands with Purell. I feel like drinking half a bottle of it, too.

“Is your mother all right?” I ask, because I don’t want to ask about her son. I don’t want her to think there is something wrong with me because I dread being here, instead of being excited.

Before she answers, the guard unlocks the first gated door and says it’s time to get going. There are about a dozen of us. We stand and get in line. We know the drill.

The lady stands beside me. “You’ll be all right, you stay with me,” she says again. She hooks her arm through mine. We walk together into the elevator. It’s crowded. The lady leans toward me, speaking low. “At least you know where he is. When my boy was home, I never knew where he was. At least you know where he is.”

She means them to be words of comfort, and I am touched beyond anything I can express. I can’t speak. Literally. I am left speechless by her kindness.

That does not stop me from feeling terrified. Yes, I know where he is, all right. He’s in prison. There’s a part of my brain that still can’t wrap itself around that reality. But it is reality, because I am here, too, going up one floor in a stone building where nearly 2,000 adult male criminals are housed. I try not to think of every prison movie I’ve ever seen. Luckily, it’s not a genre I’ve ever liked very much. I can’t imagine, now, ever watching one for entertainment purposes.

We leave the elevator and stand in a small interior room with no windows and another locked gate on the other side. I try not to feel claustrophobic. The lady next to me is jiggling with excitement.

“I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I’m gonna see my boy,” she chants. Even the guard, when he opens the gate and waves us through, smiles a little when she goes by.

He doesn’t look as jittery as he did at first, when he must have been detoxing the hard way. Dope sick, they call it.

I take a seat at one of the cubicles. The room is painted green and is shaped in a semi-circle of three-sided cubicles. On the other side of the Plexiglas the wall is orange. There’s no one there now. After a minute or two, we hear a clanging. A guard walks swiftly by, and then the prisoners start filing by. Each one peeks at the cube—not mine, not mine, mine!

My son sits down. He’s dressed in a white jumpsuit. His hair is very short. He’s very thin, getting pasty now. He’s been here a few months and it’s starting to show. He doesn’t look as jittery as he did at first, when he must have been detoxing the hard way. Dope sick, they call it.

He picks up the phone. The last thing in the world I want to do is hold this sticky, grungy black telephone receiver close to my mouth, but I do it anyway.

“How are you?” he asks.

We talk for an hour. It’s hard to come up with things to say. He doesn’t ask this time if we are going to pay his bail. We’ve already said no a million times. He asks if we got him a money order. I say yes. He says he’ll pay us back someday. We both know this will never happen.

We don’t talk about anything of substance, because anyone can hear, or maybe our conversations are recorded. It’s just like letters; I write once a week and though I write for a living, after I put together a two page letter to him, I feel like I need a blood transfusion.

He asks about relatives. I say everyone is fine, which is true, but if it was not true, I’d say fine anyway. Why say that Grandma went to the hospital with the flu, or his brother caught the cold whipping around his dorm at college? My son would have to be deathly ill, I think, to be sprung to go to a hospital, and college…we don’t talk about college anymore.

He tells me he’s learned to cook some concoction with Ramen noodles. I’m not sure I want to know where or how he does this, but I let him talk. He gets animated talking about food. I look at his wrists, so thin, while he does a stirring motion. Having money in the prison store account is cachet, I know. I’m glad I didn’t scold him about the candy bar.

But I also don’t say that I have started shopping at a grocery store out of town, so I don’t have to run into people we know who saw his mug shot in the newspaper. Or that the day it appeared, I returned home from shopping and found the newspaper, folded with the police blotter blurb about his arrest, circled in black marker and stuck in our front door. As if we’d want an extra copy for our family scrapbook, so one of our longtime neighbors put it where we couldn’t miss it. Or maybe it was some friend of his who thought it was funny. Or perhaps that cop he stupidly kept calling “Baldy.” Or who knows, it could have been a victim aiming his anger at my son at me.

Three hots and a cot, that anonymous person would probably tell me, maybe ticked off that his or her tax dollars pay for my wayward son’s needs.

I pay taxes, too, I could say. I could add that I was a homeroom mom and stayed at home during his pre-school years; that his father and I were married and gainfully employed; that we did PTA, Boy Scouts, Sunday School, and soccer camp; that we never missed a school open house. That we vote, volunteer, and respect the laws of our nation. I myself have never even received a speeding ticket. Somewhere in a bookcase is an accolade from the Board of Education for my hours of service and good deeds. Good Citizenship Award the certificate reads. It is signed, dated, and framed. On paper, we should have been the perfect family. But here I am—here we are—anyway.

Three hots and a cot, that anonymous person would probably tell me, maybe ticked off that his or her tax dollars pay for my wayward son’s needs.

Not all things are as they appear on paper, and not everyone is as kind, or forgiving, or understanding, as the lady who took my arm in the waiting room.

The visiting hour feels like it lasts for days. He’s told me, more than once, that the thing prisoners crave more than anything is a visit. It’s the only thing that breaks up the long days of sitting locked in the cell with two or three cellies, even though there are only two beds and the cell was built for two. Going to sleep early because there’s not enough to eat. Being locked in all day if the staff is short-handed. Having nothing nothing nothing to do.

I don’t tell him that I almost have to take a Valium just to make the phone call to schedule the visit, that the first time I went, the minute I got home I threw up. That this hour is like torture to me. That I want out of there so badly, my skin is nearly crawling with it.

So many things I don’t tell him. So many things I don’t tell anyone.

I hear the other lady laughing. I lean back and sneak a peek at her. She’s hugging the phone to her face, holding her hand to the glass. She’s laughing, happy to see her boy, comforted by knowing where he is, even if here is here.

I envy her. But she’s not me.

Finally, the hour ends. My son asks if I will be back next week. “Me, or Dad,” I say. I must sound unsure because he looks disappointed, so I add, “Me. I’ll come, I promise,” reassuringly.

He leaves. The other women and I go back the same way we came in: gate, room, elevator, gate, waiting area.

I get my coat. The lady is next to me. Her excitement is gone, and she is quiet as she pulls a heavy black cardigan, nubby with age, off its hanger and slings it around her shoulders. I touch her arm.

“I hope your mother gets better soon,” I say.

“Aw, thank you, baby,” she says. “Maybe I’ll see you next week?”

I say maybe. We walk, side by side, past the guards who don’t say goodbye, into the very cold but sunny day. She goes to the bus stop and huddles into her coat, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm.

I head to my car. I want to run as fast as my feet will carry me and never come back. Instead I walk into the wind that bites the tops of my ears and makes my face go numb. It feels good, though. It feels clean.

I didn’t bring gloves. I slide onto my seat and turn on the ignition, and let the heater run until I can flex my fingers again. I open the glove box and pull out my purse and cell phone. In the back is a journal I tossed there long ago, for reasons I can’t remember. I pull it out now and move my seat back as far as it will go.

I set it on the seat beside me and glance out the window, and I wipe my hands with a disposable, antibacterial tissue. The building is gray, with thin slats of windows cut into it, and razor wire looped over the edges.

It’s all material.

I shut off the engine and open the journal. I dig into my purse for a pen, rushing before the cold seeps back in. I don’t want to write about the cost, real and mental, or the fear, or who broke what rules and why. I want to put down on paper not what we should be, but who we really are as a family. I want to write about other mothers like me.

For other mothers like me.

I write about the kindness of a stranger. About the touch on my arm. About the question, “You all right, baby?” About my promise to be here next week.

RamonaLong-landscapeRamona DeFelice Long was awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts as an Established Artist in Creative Nonfiction in 2013. This piece is from a collection of essays about writing, work, women, and… some other things.

Kaleidoscope Mind

I am not your stereotype. People often have a preconceived notion of what Attention Deficit Disorder looks like. They imagine little children running around like wild animals, having temper tantrums, not paying attention, lacking the desire to learn. When I explain that the scene they imagine isn’t anything like my life, they don’t believe me. Possibly they imagine me running around my house when I get out of work like a madwoman—arms flailing, jumping from sofa cushion to sofa cushion. (I don’t have the energy.) They assume my house is in shambles—dirty dishes in the bathtub, car keys in the freezer, dog food on the nightstand. (It can get disorganized, but nothing like that.)

ADD manifests in people differently, although the term suggests a problem with attention, mine is with memory. I can’t remember what I am thinking. I can’t recall what I should be doing, or what my priorities are. I could tell you what I was wearing on Columbus Day in seventh grade when Jason Almeida asked me to be his girlfriend—light blue, ripped jeans and a periwinkle baby-tee with a pink heart sewn on the chest—but I can’t figure out what training I attended yesterday at work, or, mid-conversation, I may have to stop and ask the person I’m speaking with what point I was trying to make.

I can’t remember whether I fed my dog, so I feed her again. I can’t remember whether I returned a friend’s call, so I call again. I can’t remember whatever it is I am trying to remember. This means that bills are never paid, tasks are not completed at work, and people feel neglected. I forget friends’ birthdays; I forget to put gasoline in my car. The alarm doesn’t go off because I didn’t set it, and I wake up late for work. Once I am already on my way, I realize the tank is empty, and I need to turn off the highway and stop at a gas station so that I don’t end up on the side of the road, with the lever resting on empty. My life is a constant struggle of trying to remember things that I do not even realize I forgot.

My life is a constant struggle of trying to remember things that I do not even realize I forgot.

I know I have the ability to find my thoughts. I just can’t figure out how. The thoughts are lost, and I always feel like I’m bordering on panic. It’s similar to losing a piece of jewelry while swimming in the ocean. You had the ring on your finger, yet when you emerge from the waves, your hand is bare. You didn’t even feel the metal slip away while you let your hands crash into the waves and move your body along the water. Like my thoughts, the ring can’t be found. You know where they both are—the ring sinking somewhere in the ocean, my thoughts trapped somewhere in my brain.

Sometimes I see the glint of a thought in the murk, so I push deeper, concentrate harder. This is what it feels like most of the time. Forgetting something, pausing to remember what it is I’m trying to recall, the sudden feeling that I might be headed in the right direction, but unsure of the exact location. Forging through, I spend much of my day in limbo. There are moments of clarity, times of unknowing, but between the two, I sort of float in the indeterminate state of uncertainty. A constant reminder that I am misplaced.

When my thoughts are not lost, they are unpredictable, and I’m unable to grab at them. When I was depressed a few years ago, this was much worse. It was like an amusement park ride, the merry-go-round, where thoughts circle around and around and around. I try to keep my eye on just one horse, but it rides away, blends into the others. Almost being able to reap the reward, but never being prepared enough to get the prize.

I am supposed to remember to take my medication. After two years of missing doses, I’ve finally started to remember to take the pills every morning. Before, I only took them every two days, or once in the morning and the next day in the evening. Never with enough regularity to make the medication work.

I complain about not being able to think and having jumbled thoughts, but I have the opportunity to do something to make myself better, and I don’t do it. I won’t feel better if I don’t take the medication, but if the medication wears off, I just don’t remember that I need more.

Most people might envision a simple solution: Remember to take the medication. They might suggest I find some way to set up a reminder system that will force me to take my medication. That, in fact, is correct. I need to set up a foolproof system that forces me to take my medication. I have tried putting my pills on my sink so that I take them when I brush my teeth in the morning. I forget, or I knock them down the drain by accident. I have tried taping them to my calendar. I forget to look, or it takes me a minute to figure out what day it is, and by the time I’ve sorted that out, I can’t remember why I am staring at the calendar. I send myself automatic emails at work: “TAKE YOUR DAMN MEDS, ERIN!!!!!!!!!” That worked for the first week. Then I forgot to keep sending the emails.

I used to be opposed to taking medication, especially because Attention Deficit Disorder is medicated with controlled substances. I grew up believing I could handle all of my problems without any outside help. To be unable to handle thinking makes me feel like a failure. Failing and forgetting do not make for a successful brain.

Even now, when I can feel the effects of the medication, I’m still ashamed. Prescriptions for controlled substances can only be dispensed in thirty-day sets, so every month, I need to contact my doctor and ask for a refill. Then, I need to pick up the prescription from her office, which is twenty minutes away, and travel the twenty minutes back to my hometown pharmacy. I need to wait in line, have all the documents ready before it’s my turn. I need to present a form of photo identification. The pharmacy clerk takes my ID, looks at me, looks at my prescription, and looks back at the ID before writing my birthday and license number on the prescription.

There is always a second glance. Once, while handing over my ID, the pharmacy clerk told me that his daughter takes the same medication. He asked me whether I have a boy or girl, and then he realized the name on my ID is the same name on the prescription.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have assumed. You just look so professional and, well…,” he says, stammering, “you just don’t look like you’d need this.” I’m not quite sure how to take his comment. Do professional people not need medication? And if they don’t, does that make me less of a professional? And if, because I rely on a medication to help me stay focused, and I’m viewed as less than professional, who am I? I wish I’d asked him.

I tend to fill my prescriptions on Saturday nights, after I leave my second job, where I work as a psychiatric case manager for adults with mood and personality disorders. I’m exhausted because by this point, I’ve been working every day without a single day off in weeks. I’ve driven the forty-five-minute trip home; it’s almost midnight. I need to be back at work by 8:00 am, which means I need to leave the house by 7:00. I want to get in and out of the pharmacy as quickly as possible. At this point, I’m lucky if I’ll sleep five and a half hours. More than likely, I’ll only have four or five.

I usually see the same pharmacist every month. He’s an older man, and he’s always busy when I show up, but he stops what he is doing as soon as he sees me and always fills my order in less than ten minutes. He’s nice, always makes me smile, and remembers my name.

My mother tells me he used to be friendly with my father. The next time I see Bruce—whether that’s his real name or not, I can’t be sure, but that’s what I’ve taken to calling him—I wonder what he thinks when he fills my orders. As a pharmacist, you know all of the medication prescribed to every member of a family, but you don’t have access to any of their medical records. You don’t know whether Wellbutrin is prescribed as a method to help someone quit smoking or to alleviate their depression. You don’t know why a person needs the medication you are preparing for them. You can only speculate. Now that I know Bruce knows my father, I wonder about him. I wonder if he’s only been nice to me because he is familiar with my family or because I’ve actually developed a rapport with him. I wonder if he knows my name because I stop and talk to him whenever I’m in the store or because he sees Corriveau on the prescription and remembers who my father is. I wonder if he ever looked at my prescription history and thought, Wow, what the hell went wrong with her?

I want to ask him how he remembers this, but I don’t.

Either way, Bruce does his job well. Recently, my doctor changed my medication from the capsule to the pill form. Before he even looked at the computer, Bruce asked me if there was a change. “I thought you got the suspended release not the long-acting,” he says before I walk over to the seating area. I want to ask him how he remembers this, but I don’t. I just smile and tell him that yes, a change was made, and thank him for being so cognizant.

 *     *     *

I don’t realize how much I appreciate Bruce until he isn’t there one late Saturday night. Traffic is heavy, so I don’t arrive at CVS until about 11:55 pm. I don’t look as presentable as usual. I haven’t put on any makeup that day. I am more tired and worn out than usual. One of my clients was suicidal today, and I spent the entire night talking to him about what was bothering him, making him sign a safety contract, taking away all the possible tools he could use to hurt himself out of his apartment. These included: all knives, forks, letter openers, any rope or twine, his belts including the one on his robe, can openers (in case he opened a can of tuna and used the serrated top to cut himself), razors, plastic bags, duct tape, car keys, medications, light bulbs, bottles of house cleaner. It would have been much easier to just lock him out of his apartment than to take almost everything out of it. Fortunately, nothing happened. From the way he was talking, I suspect his suicidal claims were just a behavioral outburst, his way of searching for attention. But I’m not a mind reader, and I didn’t know what he was thinking. If he tells me he is feeling suicidal, I am not going to question him; I’ll trust those words. By the time I arrive at the pharmacy, I am tired, physically and emotionally. I want to sleep. I don’t want to have to go back to work in the morning.

There is no one in the pharmacy section of CVS besides the pharmacist and me. He looks flustered, we make eye contact, and I decide to just wait patiently at the drop-off station. Two minutes go pass.

“I’m busy,” he shouts, with his back turned to me. I don’t quite know how to respond, as I never expected him to say this. Should I just turn around and leave? Stand there silent or begin an argument? A moment later he turns and says, “Oh, you’re still there?”

He grunts and, with much exaggeration, stops what he is doing, and drags his feet over to the drop-off window. “Yes?” he asks, looking at me. I already have the prescription and my identification in front of me. I push them closer to him.

“I just need one prescription filled,” I say to him. He pushes my ID back to me.

“What are you giving this to me for?” he asks, and I start to second guess myself. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you don’t need to provide an ID when you drop off a prescription for a controlled substance, just when you pick it up. I put it back in my wallet. “Ritalin!” he exclaims, “I’m not filling this now, sweetheart.”

“Excuse me,” I ask him. “Why can’t you fill my order?”

“Oh, so now you’re getting sassy with me, aren’t you? Waited until the middle of the night to fill these controlled meds, and now you just want me to stop everything I’m doing because it suits your needs.” He waves his hands in the air as he says this, and I have a hard time not laughing because he reminds me of one of my clients who circles his hands in front of himself when he’s nervous.

I know there are a lot of rules about filling controlled substances, but I’ve been here before at this time of night. That can’t be why he doesn’t want to fill my meds.

Yes, I think, I do expect you to stop whatever you are doing behind the counter and fill my medication. For all the years I’ve taken anything, be it birth control or antibiotics, I’ve always had the order completed while I wait. It’s like going to a restaurant and having a waitress confront you about your interest in food. He is a pharmacist. It’s not like I showed up at his house at 1:00 am, a drug-sick little puppy looking for my next fix.

I don’t have the patience to argue with this man or even converse with him any longer.

“Is Bruce working tonight?” I ask, hoping he’s just taking a break, that I can wander the store until he returns and helps me.

“Listen, sweetheart. I’m here to help you, and like I said, I don’t have time to be filling your drugs right now.” He emphasizes the word drugs. “You can come and pick it up tomorrow, maybe.”

I’m furious with his ignorance, yet too tired and frustrated to even come up with a response. I stand there and stare. He shifts his feet. Fidgets with my prescription paper, and looks away from me, then back at me, away again, and finally says, “What do you want from me?”

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and when I open them, his brows are furrowed, slanted toward his eyes in irritation. I think for a minute about how my grandmother used to tell me that my face would permanently be stuck like that when I pouted as a child. I imagine this man’s face being stuck like that, and how he’d interact with people in happy situations like weddings and births if he always looked like he was so miserable. Then I started thinking about the women who have so much Botox that their faces retain a look of excitement for days afterward. Their skin is so taught that they always look youthful and excited. Even now, my ADD distracts me.

“Here is what you are going to do,” I start. “You are going to look up my insurance information in the computer. Next, you will put in this current prescription. As soon as it is approved, you are going to go behind that counter over there, and count out thirty pills. When you’re done, you will put them in a little bottle, place my identifying label on the bottle, and then I will meet you over there by that counter with those registers, and I will pay you my $30 copayment. Understand?”

He looks at me, blinks his eyes once—twice maybe—and then backs away, goes to the computer, and begins entering the information necessary to fill my prescription.

I’m proud, I realize as I sit in the waiting area. I never stick up for myself. Always too shy to create conflict, I let others have their way and shove my needs further back until they are unrecognizable.

“Don’t expect me to get this quickly,” the pharmacist says, interrupting my thoughts.

I close my eyes again, take another deep breath. I’m zoning out, not paying attention at this point, because with ADD, you either make the choice to obsess about the little details you have available to you—the irritating, rude man, the way his voice sounds when he says the words drug and Ritalin—or you fall into a vapid void of thoughtlessness. I’m in the void now; it’s safer there. If I were to obsess any more, I’d be more miserable.

Some time goes by, and I notice the pharmacist laughing, talking to the man who is leaning against the counter where I stood moments ago. “Those Yankees are going to do it this year, I’m telling you. I’d put a thousand dollars on the Yankees winning the series.”

Now, it is one thing for a person to have no customer-service skills. I can handle that, even if it drives me crazy. It’s another thing to stand there joking and gossiping with a stranger while blatantly making me wait. And to do so while celebrating the New York Yankees? That is crossing the line. I refuse to sit, being purposely forgotten, while an ignorant, rude man roots for my Red Sox’s arch nemesis. I will not stand by and watch this happen.

I rise from my seat and walk with serious intention over to the cash registers. There is a clock behind the register that wasn’t in my view when I was sitting down. 12:39 am. It has almost been an entire hour since I stepped foot in this building. All I need are thirty pills. Thirty pills. That’s almost two whole minutes that could be dedicated toward putting each single pill into a container. Two damned minutes for each pill, and he has not even stepped away from his counter to begin counting.

“Excuse me,” I say, interrupting their conversation. I begin my rant. “I have been here for almost an hour waiting for you to do the job you are paid to do. You have berated me and broken HIPAA regulations by shouting out my medication. If I do not have my pills in my hand in five minutes, there will be consequences.”

I want to smash this man’s head against the counter a few times. I want to watch it bounce like a basketball against the floor, but I just stand there.

“Listen, sugar,” he begins. Sugar? Honey? Sweetheart? Not only is he violating medical record laws, he’s bordering on sexual harassment.

He continues, “If you don’t stop your violence, I’m going to call security.” I actually turn around and look behind me. Violence? Was someone behind me threatening this man? I might be direct with my words, but I’m a five-one petite, blonde girl dressed in work clothes. I’m exhausted, and my body language reflects my fatigue. I don’t look threatening.

Mr. Pharmacy Jerk continues, looking at me, “I can see why you need these drugs, sweetheart. You’ve got no patience. You can’t wait five minutes for me to talk to another man while you sit in your little chair. You’ll never make it in the real world.”

I miss Bruce.

Sometimes I wonder if I can stop the medication. I don’t like knowing I will be reliant on a substance my whole life simply to function. Even though I take the meds, there are still life skills I need to practice.

Sometimes I wonder if I can stop the medication.

I rewrite lists. Over and over again. There are many reasons I do this. I do it because if I don’t keep looking at the list, I will forget what it is I need to accomplish. I do it because once I start crossing items off of the list, it starts to look messy, and I don’t like to look at a messy list. My life needs to look clean and organized in order for me to feel clean and organized. So when the overwhelming list starts to look disordered, it blocks me. I feel like I can’t control it, and instead of pushing ahead full stream, I retreat. Because that is what I do when my brain feels overwhelmed—I make the conscious decision to retreat even farther.

So I make my lists and then I remake them. And then I make them again. I do this because list making has been consistent in my life. It might fail me here and there when my brain retreats, but in terms of consistency, I’ve always been able to rely on my lists. They’ve been with me since before I even considered ADD as a possible diagnosis. They’ve been with me for as long as I remember. College, definitely. High school, yes. I spent more time writing notes to my girlfriends and boyfriends than actually list making, but it was the same type of distraction. I listened with my brain in class as much as I could without feeling overwhelmed and then utilize the rest of my brain to creatively distract. If I stay attentive and distracted at the same time, I succeed. I take in the information that’s being given to me, and I release the information that’s bugging me.

Each of my notebooks has much more in it than class notes. My blank pages are covered with shopping lists and reminders and drawings of tattoos I might want in the future and directions to the closest gas station. I need to take the time to write the random thoughts floating in my head. I do this to make more room for the lessons.

I’m known for being a great note-taker, which is partially true. Even though only about six-tenths of my focus in class is on the lesson, I’d never succeed if I didn’t try to write everything down. It can be a bit of double processing, but as my boss says when she wants me to increase my documentation, “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.” This is especially important when it comes to my lists.

Tasks that seem ridiculously simple for some people to remember will not get done unless I create a to-do list. If “take out the trash” isn’t written down, the full bags will sit in the bathroom and the kitchen. The same goes for laundry. If I don’t write down that I need to wash and dry my clothes, I am not going to do it until I am completely out of every last outfit. This could be why I own so much clothing. I will be in the bathroom and notice the full trash bag every time I sit down on the toilet. And, yes, I will realize I’m running out of underwear, but, no, I will not be motivated to act unless it’s an item I can cross off a sheet of paper.

Welcome to the world of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

It is a disease of piles. Everything in my life is a problem with accumulation. Physical piles, including laundry on my floor, bills on my desk, photos on the coffee table, empty packets of Sour Patch Kids and plastic bottles on the floor of my SUV. There are piles everywhere I turn. One trick that does not work for me is writing notes on Post-Its or scraps of paper—another accumulated stack. The notes disappear. Not all, but some. Some notes that were supposed to go together become separated, and while one note says, “Call the insurance company and get rental coverage added to your policy,” makes sense, I can’t call if I lose the other sticky that has the number written on it.

You might think I could just look up the phone number on the internet or call 411 for information, but I can’t, because I don’t remember the name of my car-insurance carrier, the same place that has insured me for the past decade. I try the internet, even though I have no clue what I’m looking for. I type in “insurance company, Fall River, MA” and see a list of possible agencies. Almeida Insurance sounds familiar, until I look at the address and realize the only reason the name sounds right is because it is down the street from my house, and I pass it on my way to work—not because I am their customer. I think to look at the addresses on the Google list in order to find my agency. I know it is off of Eastern Avenue because it’s also close to my house, and I used to order Italian grinders from the diner across the street. I scan through the list, but there are no insurance companies listed on Eastern Avenue.

This does not make sense. I can picture the building. It’s on Eastern Avenue. Wait, it’s on the corner of Eastern Ave. What is the name of the other street? I scan the list of address again. Many of the streets sound familiar. I’ve lived in this city almost my entire life; all the streets are familiar, I just don’t know which one is correct. I spend more than an hour looking at the list, clicking through all the websites, trying to sleuth my way to an answer. I call 411, ask the operator if she knows what insurance company is on the corner of Eastern Avenue in Fall River, Massachusetts. After I hang up the phone, without any more clues, I can’t remember why I need to call the insurance company. I go to a meeting, but I’m distracted the whole time, thinking about my insurance company. The next day, I’m looking at my computer screen trying to figure out what number is on the Post-It I taped to the screen yesterday. It’s my insurance company: Lapointe Insurance.

Now, if I could only remember why I wanted to call them.

erin corriveauErin A. Corriveau is an emotional archeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. She is the co-founder and editor of Spry Literary Journal. Her blog, Reinventing Erin, is her outlet for ruminating on the minutiae of everyday life. Keep in touch with her @ReinventingErin

End of the Line

“A woman like that is not a woman, quite I have been her kind.”
Anne Sexton

For my first appointment at the fertility specialist’s office I wear all grey except for my boots; these are shiny, cherry red. The four-inch heel makes me look tall and lean, as does the loose grey wrap I’m wearing. The other women here are all with men—their husbands, I assume—but I’m alone, and the only one, it appears, who knows how to pull herself together. It is only when I see the other women in their sensible shoes and faded Disney sweatshirts, their bulging purses and doughy, vulnerable faces that I think about what I’m wearing. Then I see what I’ve done, how I’ve dressed all steely and hard as if it can protect me.

 *     *     *

To get to the specialist’s waiting area, I’ve had to pass through a women’s clinic.  Its waiting room is raucous with young mothers in tight jeans, their newborns wailing in pink and blue. A two-year-old in a silver parka flails on the floor, while her mother, grim-faced, flips through a dog-eared magazine. There are no fathers here. Behind their desks, the receptionists don’t smile. I wonder if they have children, if the crying and noise gets to them.

The next room is the ultrasound and imaging waiting room. Women in various states of pregnancy sit in the pink chairs, their bellies propped before them. Pregnant women have always looked smug to me, satisfied, but this is perhaps unfair. Some of the women look past due; they have dark circles under their eyes. They are probably up every hour to pee at night. One woman paces, her hand cupping her belly.

At the end of this room, there are glass doors I must pass through, and then I am in the waiting room of the fertility clinic. A reverse trip from baby to pregnancy to what?  To hope, perhaps. To the glimmer of an eye? No, nothing glimmers. There are no sparks.  Here, tucked away from the bustle and business of life, sit the infertile ones, the sad, the lonely.

It is quiet and dimly-lit in the waiting room. Plexiglass partitions prevent the overhearing of arriving patients’ names or needs. A sign indicates privacy is a priority.  The other patients don’t look up as I take a seat near a low table where pamphlets from special fertility pharmacies are fanned out. There are no children here. There are no children.

But wait, I want to cry out, I have a child, a healthy beautiful seven-year-old daughter, the child I always imagined I’d have—affectionate, verbal, funny and creative.  The quiet in the waiting room, in fact, calls to mind the atmosphere I strived for while she napped as an infant. So what am I doing here, wearing kick-ass boots, in this western New York fertility clinic?

 *     *     *

If you tell people you are trying to get pregnant, you open yourself up to a vein of advice both ancient and technological. Try sex in the morning when sperm counts are higher, someone says. Or take up belly dancing, eat the nut of the Ginkgo Biloba or swallow Robitussin at ovulation, stand on your head after sex, wear jade or malachite, bloodstone to ward off miscarriage. What I need is acupuncture, a full moon or to give away all my baby stuff—that always does it. “Clomid,” an acquaintance says. “Two of my friends took it, and now both are expecting twins!”

 *     *     *

My name is called, and I’m led back to a nurse’s station, weighed, my blood pressure measured, before being directed to a room with an examining table, some chairs and a desk. I wait for Dr. Lewis, lucky to have this appointment. When I first called the clinic in September, the receptionist told me there weren’t any appointments.

“Ever?” I asked.

The receptionist laughed. “No, just not until the new year,” she said, “and we don’t have January on our computers yet.”

I don’t mention that I’m not getting any younger, that three months—a trimester!—is an incredibly long time to wait when one has already waited so long. The receptionist tells me to call back in a couple of weeks, and when I do, an appointment has opened up.

 *     *     *

“Nice boots,” Dr. Lewis says, as she enters the room.

I like her immediately. She smiles as we shake hands, and then sits to examine my chart. What story will she make from all those pages and reports? The facts are these: One healthy pregnancy. A miscarriage five years later. Another a year later. As a short story writer, I want an ending to this story. I think this is why I’m here—I want an ending. I’ve been suspended in this plot for several years now, and I crave the gentle slide into denouement. I even believe, at this point, that any ending is better than this limbo, this suspension, this—dare I say it?—aborted action.

I think this is why I’m here—I want an ending.

I imagine I’m sheepish when I answer Dr. Lewis’s question about the five years in between Maude’s birth and my first miscarriage—the waning years of my fertility, it will turn out.

“I thought I was done,” I say, and then clarifying, “I thought one child was enough.” This never sounds right to me—I sound cold or stupid or greedy, or all three.  “Then,” I push on because she is waiting, “we found ourselves pregnant.”

“Ah,” she says, “I see.”

How genuine is my desire to have another child, someone might ask, if I didn’t even intend to have one? Dr. Lewis doesn’t ask me this. Her manner suggests she’s heard it all before. She is in the business of giving women what they want regardless of their previous hemming and hawing. Because here’s the thing, I hadn’t planned another child, but neither had I entirely ruled it out. I watched how friends had a second child or a third, saw how tired they were, how chaotic their lives. I loved my daughter so much, loved how she would join me and my husband in bed in the morning—my little family all under the same covers, all breathing in the same sleep-filled air. What more could I ask for?

Dr. Lewis explains how we will proceed—tests, blood work, the interpreting of the results, likely a prescription for Clomid or an injectable alternative. “At what point,” I blurt, “would you tell someone to give it up?”

She smiles at me kindly. Perhaps I sound desperate, hysterical, but I believe I’m asking in the abstract. Does anyone ever say “enough’s enough already”? And it seems like a logical question to me, too, rather like asking about departure and arrival times were one taking a trip.

“That would depend on the results of the tests,” she says, “but if in a year, you still haven’t conceived, I’d think it would be time to reconsider.”

I nod. How can I explain myself, my lingering ambivalence and skepticism? Perhaps it’s all defense. Here I am, after all, for all intents and purposes already aboard.  Voting with my feet, as they say. She tells me to make a follow-up appointment and then sends in a nurse.

The nurse leads me to another room with a conference table and asks me to wait while she gets the materials. On the wall across from me, there is a large faux Impressionist print of a round table draped with a pale blue cloth. A bowl of lemons sits on the table, and a cobalt blue pitcher. Behind the table a window is open to the sea. A chair is pushed back welcomingly. It’s pretty enough, but eerie too—I can’t help but notice the absence of people. Imagine the same scene rendered by Mary Cassatt or Degas, a rosy-cheeked infant and calm Madonna nestled in that chair.

“I’ve got homework for you,” the nurse says, entering the room with a big binder.  The cover has a close-up of a baby’s face. The spine says Fertility and Reproductive Science Center Patient Manual.  Homework?

Seeing my look of distress, she takes the photo of the baby out of the plastic front of the binder, turns it around so it is blank. “There,” she says. “Better?”

“I’m okay with babies,” I say. “I have a child.”

“It’s hard for some of them,” she says, “so I just flip it around.”

She’s efficient and fast-talking, so I’m glad I’ve got a pen to take notes. There are certain days of my cycle for certain tests. On the pages that describe these tests, she’s attached post-its labeled in loopy, girlish handwriting. There is a test for my husband to take and this is complicated too, because he must make an appointment with the lab and then bring in his specimen. She gives me a specimen cup—a small plastic cup with a lid.

I’m tired suddenly, overwhelmed, and I wish she’d just say, “Your husband has to jerk off and fill this up with his sperm.” Why not call a spade a spade? I get that in this place of fraught conception babies are off-limits, but is sex too, and the sticky realities of the body? And who is served by this sterile language? In its hollowness and half-truthfulness, it reminds me of the clichés that surround new motherhood. Bundle of joy, for instance, a phrase that made me want to argue. I loved my infant daughter, found her presence miraculous. Still, joy is only part of the story.

When I leave, my big binder in my arms, the waiting room is inhabited by more quiet couples. I pass through the other waiting rooms and into the hospital lobby, and then out into the cold October late afternoon.

 *     *     *

Serophene is the brand name for the drug called clomiphene citrate or Clomid.  Clomid is the first stop for many of the infertile. I know so many people who have taken Clomid, you’d think it was candy at Halloween. It works by stimulating the ovaries to produce an egg—or in the case of all the Clomid multiples—eggs. It is said to make you bitchy and emotional—a kind of hormone-induced craziness. It has other unpleasant side effects too:  my sister-in-law knows a woman who took Clomid for several years in the late eighties, before it was understood that extended use could cause ovarian tumors. She has twin daughters—15 years old—and she is dying of ovarian cancer.

 *     *     *

My second trip to the fertility clinic is five days before Christmas, almost a year since my last miscarriage. I take my husband this time, because I am learning the rules of this place and because I expect bad news. I’ve spoken with the nurse twice regarding my tests, but I can’t get any details out of her, nor will the doctor speak with me on the phone. “She likes to speak with patients in person,” the nurse repeats, as if I’m slow as well as infertile. Again, there has been a long wait between the phone calls and an available appointment. I know this clinic serves much of western New York, but still. Why are there so many women who want babies and can’t have them? A pamphlet I leaf through says six million Americans confront infertility.

When we are all seated in the examining room, Dr. Lewis tells me that the blood work shows that I have diminished ovarian reserves. The phrase calls to mind something military, a regiment after a losing battle. What it means, though, is that my eggs are damaged because they are old. Later I will think about my eggs as my awkward adolescent self, hopeful and waiting, as kickball teams were chosen. “Pick me!  Pick me!”

Poor little eggs, I find myself thinking, poor old gals.

“Your best bet for pregnancy is with a donor egg,” Dr. Lewis says.

Together, my husband and I say no, and then look at each other in surprise. We haven’t discussed how far we are willing to go, but we are in agreement that this is too far. End of the line! Let us off! In response to my husband’s questions, Dr. Lewis talks numbers for a while—chances of pregnancy if we don’t try treatment: 5%, chance of pregnancy with Clomid: 6-7%. I’m not really listening anymore. I have the ending to my story.

“Your best bet for pregnancy is with a donor egg,” Dr. Lewis says.

“I’m happy to answer questions for you as they come up,” Dr. Lewis says.

“I’m done,” I say, as we leave the office.

“Okay,” my husband says. He puts his arm around me as we pass through the hospital lobby festooned with decorations. Christmas carols play softly. Outside it has started to snow.

 *     *     *

Earlier this week, in Skidmore, Missouri, a town near the one where I grew up, a young pregnant woman is found dead in her kitchen. She’s been strangled, her belly cut open and the eight-month fetus kidnapped. A witness at the murder scene said it looked like her stomach had exploded. It will turn out that the murderer, Lisa Montgomery, had been feigning a pregnancy. She will claim to have given birth while shopping.  She names the baby Abigail, which means “gives joy.”  Montgomery dresses her in pink and shows her off at a restaurant, the Whistle Stop Café, in her Kansas town, before being tracked down by police and the FBI.

The nation is momentarily obsessed and outraged. Montgomery is called a female Hannibal Lector, a womb-raider and worse. A Christian blogger wishes her a long, torturous stay in hell. As horrific as this crime is, it isn’t a first. The women—and it is always women—who perform this crime are desperate for a baby and to fulfill a childbearing fantasy. They also hope the baby will cement a relationship between themselves and their partner, who usually knows nothing of their plans.

Winter in that part of the Midwest doesn’t mean the clean whiteness of fresh snow, as it does here in New York. Winter in places like Skidmore means dried brown yards, bare trees against a stark, colorless sky. The light is bright, but not warm or golden. More like the intense lighting used for mug shots, the sharp light reveals all the blemishes and bruises of these sad towns—listing porches, chipping paint, buckling sidewalks, boarded up storefront windows on Main Street, grit and dirt and grime. Lisa Montgomery worked two or three shitty jobs and pretended she was pregnant. She also raised rat terriers, which is how she met her victim. She couldn’t afford the fertility treatments available to women like myself, nor would she have access to a foreign adoption, which would require travel and money. A domestic adoption costs plenty, too, and couples wait up to five years for a child.

None of this, of course, excuses Montgomery’s brutality and violence. Her motives are harder to comprehend when one learns she already has four children—though nearly grown—from a previous marriage. Still I can’t help feeling that Lisa Montgomery didn’t act alone. I lay some blame on a culture that persists on viewing motherhood as a woman’s greatest calling, on Baby Gap and Babies R Us and on all the mail-order catalogues specializing in quaint nursery furnishings: Pottery Barn Kids, The Land of Nod, Company Kids. And on People magazine and their covers with celebrity moms, proclaiming the joys of motherhood. “Of all the roles I’ve had,” says one star, “motherhood is the most rewarding.”

At the crime scene in Skidmore, the local sheriff said, “Someone was wanting a baby awful bad.” What amazes me about Lisa Montgomery’s story is that she knew how to perform a C-section without harming the infant. By this point in my journey, the desire and desperation—that huge wanting—doesn’t surprise me at all.

 *     *     *

I spend the next month telling friends and family that I won’t be having any more children. At the same time, I start having fantasies about boarding a plane to China or Guatemala or Korea and adopting a baby girl. In theory, it seems easy and perfect—no morning sickness, no refraining from coffee or wine, no need to buy maternity clothes, a kind of reproductive outsourcing. I think about the ads I’ve seen in the campus paper, couples looking for knocked-up college girls who might give them their baby for adoption. All medical expenses paid, a loving home, the ads promise. I think about finding one of those students and making the same promises, and more, anything–I will promise them the moon. And yet, when I set out to research adoption, I don’t get very far.  I’m travel-weary, unready for this endeavor with its attendant uncertainty and waiting and expense. In Barnes and Noble, and then later at the public library, I can only stand before the bookshelves noting the many hopeful titles and bright spines.

At first I resist the impulse to pack up all the baby equipment from my basement.  There are plenty of other things I might do—work on my novel or my collection of stories, plan my classes for the upcoming semester. But nothing is as compelling as clearing out that stuff, making way for the future. I give away boxes and bags of baby clothes, puzzles, games, books, tucking away only a few of our favorites.

*     *     *

Despite the good doctor’s statistics, I will get pregnant two more times. Each time, I feel a certain smugness and surprise. And each time, the pregnancy ends in miscarriage. The calendar is littered now with a jumble of birthdays gone wrong, due dates I failed to meet. And there will be no answers from the doctors, no explanations.  There is no ending to this story it turns out, just as there is no baby at the end of my pregnancies, something I—foolish girl!–should have understood. Instead of a baby, this is what I have in the end: a list of unused names (Clara, Ruby, Gabriel), a pair of buttery fleece booties with the tags still on. And this: an ache that hits not when I hold other women’s babies, breathe in their milky new smell, but instead when a recipe fails, keys are lost, a carefully planned trip gets cancelled.

photo(8)Rachel Hall’s short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies including The Gettysburg Review, New Letters, Water~Stone and It’s A Girl!: Women Writers on Raising Daughters (Seal Press). In addition, she has received awards and honors from publications such as Lilith and Glimmer Train, and from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts and Ragdale. She lives in Rochester, NY with her family and teaches at the State University of New York at Geneseo.

The Call

Tonight I lie here, mostly awake, sometimes half-asleep, praying the phone doesn’t ring.

It’s the early ’90s. In my second year of college, I’m volunteering with the local women’s shelter. Tonight I’m covering the sexual assault help line. I usually cover domestic violence and have received a few calls on that line, but never on this one. I’ve been trained extensively and supposedly know what to do, but I never sleep on these nights. I just wait.

I don’t kid myself. I know that just because the phone doesn’t ring, it doesn’t mean there isn’t someone in trouble—it just means they aren’t calling for help, at least not on the phone. I lie here awake, staring at my digital clock, which now reads 12:15 a.m., two hours since I crawled into bed. The burning smell of kerosene still stings my nostrils from the space heater I shut off before feigning sleep.

I wonder how many girls or women are out there who at this moment should call, need to call, but can’t because they’re ashamed or feel unworthy of help. Then I doubt and demean myself with each thought: How can I help them? What can I say or do that will make a difference? I know the words I’m supposed to say by heart, I know the forms to fill out, the procedures to follow. How can I help them when I couldn’t help myself?

So I lie here and tremble, trying to convince myself it’s only the cold. But that’s not it. Yes, it is winter in Iowa and my piss-poorly insulated bedroom is directly above our garage. But it’s the fear and doubt contracting every muscle that’s making me shake, not the cold.

3:34 a.m. The phone rings, and it wakes me from the place where my mind has crept, that day almost ten years ago when I was sixteen, the place it goes on these nights, on many nights, even when I’m not on call. I answer on the first ring because I know it’s not a wrong number, even though I hope it is. I know the longer I lie here, the more time I have to remember my own call.

*     *     *

At the doctor’s office, the one where my mom worked and I would work a few years later while in college, I sat in the worn, orange polyester chair opposite the doctor’s composite-wood desk. The desk and I were surrounded by paneled walls and bookcases filled with medical textbooks and various anatomy models. I stared at the family photo on his desk: his slightly obese, mousy brown-haired housewife and his two dark-haired kids, all of them smiling. The boy looked exactly like his dark-haired, bespectacled father who sat across from me. All four looked so happy.

“Please call them—they can help you,” he said as he slid a piece of paper across his desk. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “They’re trained for just this kind of thing. You don’t have to press charges, but you need to have evidence in case you decide to take action against him at some point.”

Evidence? The good doctor obviously didn’t get it. There aren’t any bruises, at least none that can be seen. He didn’t have to drag me to his room; I went willingly. There may be fingerprints, but they’re in all the places I let him touch me. My clothes aren’t torn; they came off mostly by my own hand. There is no evidence.

I stared at the piece of paper, not touching it. The corner was oil-stained, probably from the sandwich he had eaten at lunch; there was the sharp odor of onions coming from a garbage can I couldn’t see.

I didn’t want to call. I didn’t want to have to explain, again, what happened. I just wanted to go home and pretend everything was okay. Something I told myself I could do until I had to see him at school the next day.

The doctor reached across the desk, slid the paper back to his side and dialed the number (the one I would know by heart some day). He told the person who answered that there was a girl in trouble who needed their help.

Trouble. That’s exactly what it was. I had done something bad and now I would be punished.

“They’ll have someone waiting for you at the hospital. Good luck,” he said, as he guided me out his office door and down the hall toward the waiting room.

My mom, with her curly, dyed-red hair and big round glasses, was perched on the edge of her chair behind the glass pane of the reception office. I had called her from my friend’s house where I’d gone after leaving the boy’s house. She had told me to come to the office right away.

“Do you want me to go with you? I will. They can handle all this by themselves,” she said with a sweep of her arm over various insurance forms and patient charts.

“No. I’ll just go by myself.”

I stood there, not quite able to make my feet move. She pounced on the pause.

I stood there, not quite able to make my feet move.

“No, you won’t,” she said. “I’m coming with you,” the tone of her voice insisted an argument would not be had. She was never a large woman, only about 5’4’’ and 120 pounds, but she looked massive to me at that moment, ready to take charge even though she was plunging into an unfamiliar world. She used to work at the hospital we were going to, so the location was familiar. But I was her only daughter and the only person she’d known in this “situation.”

As we got ready to go to the hospital, I watched her striding toward me from behind her glass-enclosed office, her big purse and white sweater secured over her arm like a shield and sword, I felt safe for the first time that afternoon.

She would tell me, years later in an email when I ask her about that day, “I wish I had been better with you, and I will always regret that.” But on that day when I was sixteen I didn’t know how much better she could possibly be.

*     *     *

“They have someone waiting down at Mercy,” the woman on the other end of the sexual assault line says to me. “I don’t know if she’ll talk to you or not. Call me when you get back.”

I put on the clothes I laid out especially for this (jeans and a sweater), as if they were a fancy dress and corsage for senior prom, and creep out my door, trying not to wake my brother in the next room. I tiptoe into my parents’ room and gently nudge my mom into a semi-state of consciousness.

“I got a call,” I say.

“Be careful,” she mutters, “and wake me when you get home.”

I put on my coat and gloves, and head out the front door, locking it behind me. The cold January night, or maybe rising panic, pulls the breath from my lungs. I get into my car and turn the key in the ignition, praying it won’t start. It does, so I sit there waiting for the car to warm up. (“Never drive a car with a cold engine,” my dad’s frequent admonishment resounds in my ears.) But the car is just fine—I’m the one stalling.

As I wait for the frost to melt from the windshield, I think about where I’m going and the girl waiting for me at the hospital.

I pull out of the driveway and inch up the street, convinced it’s because I’m a cautious driver. But what I want to do is race over every icy patch on the road and never make it to the hospital.

What am I going to say to her? I mean I know what I’m supposed to say to her, what I’ve been trained to say: “It will be all right. It wasn’t your fault. You aren’t to blame.” That doesn’t mean anything, and I know it.

I know she feels like shit already. I know she thinks it will never be all right. I know she thinks it was completely her fault and that she’s the only one to blame. What can I possibly say to her that will help? What can I tell her to make her believe that what matters most is that she survived, at least initially?

What did the woman say to me?

*     *     *

The rape crisis counselor was waiting for us when we arrived at the hospital. As she walked toward us, I could see she was a little younger than my mom and had short brownish hair, not unlike the color and style of my own. She wore jeans and a short-sleeved, yellow polo with the collar turned up.

When she reached us, she grasped my hands and looked into my eyes. We stood there for a moment, staring at each other.

“Are you okay?” she asked me in a near-whisper.

She didn’t ask the question like you’d ask a person you hadn’t seen in a while and could care less if you ever saw again (“Hi! How are you?”). She asked as if this obligatory question was more for my mom’s benefit than mine, like she already knew the answer but had to start somewhere.

Instead of saying “Yeah, I’m fine,” the standard reply, instead of telling her what I thought she wanted to hear because we were strangers and what do you say to someone when this has happened, I said “No” and started to cry.

I glanced up at her and saw that her brows were furrowed and her eyes squeezed shut. She stayed like that for a second or two, like she was preparing herself, and then she opened her eyes. She was crying too and pulled me into her arms, wrapping them around my bony teenage frame while my mine hung limp at my sides. And then, almost imperceptibly, she started rocking from side to side. Her gesture didn’t just comfort me—it gave me a sense that this embrace, this coming together of two strangers, was as much for her as it was for me.

A nurse approached us, a blur of white through my watery eyes. “It’s time. Come with me,” she said as she directed us into an exam room. She followed us in and shut the door.

“Have a seat on the table.”

She grabbed a clipboard and pen from the desk near the door. And then she began to ask the questions:

What happened?

Do you know him?

Did you have these clothes on?

Did he hit you or physically abuse you in any way?

Was there full penetration?

Was he wearing a condom?

Did he ejaculate?

Are you using any kind of birth control?

Did you urinate immediately after?

Did you wash, shower, bathe or douche?

 And with each answer I gave, she checked off the appropriate box on her form, never looking at me, apparently not even curious or concerned if I was the one giving the answers. I wanted to punch her in the face.

“Now you need to completely undress, put this gown on and lie down on the table. We’ll do the exam as soon as the doctor gets here.” I did as I was told.

A few minutes later there was a soft knock at the door and the doctor walked in. He glanced in my direction and gave a slight smile, the corners of his mouth flicking up. He reached into a drawer and grabbed paper bags, labels and a sealed package of sliver instruments.

“OK, miss, please lie back on the table and put your feet in the stirrups,” he said. “We’ll be done soon.”

And then he raped me all over again.

*     *     *

At the hospital, I walk through the emergency-room doors. There is a nurse sitting at the triage desk; she appears to be the only one here tonight. I can’t see her face—her head is drooping and all I can see is the top of her white, double-pointed cap reminding me of the ears of an albino cat. I clear my throat and she slowly lifts her head, her lazy eyelids look like raised roller shades.

“Hi. I’m from the women’s shelter. I’m here to see the girl who was brought in a little while ago.”

“They just started the exam. It shouldn’t be much longer, and then you can go in and talk to her,” she says as she lowers her head to stare at the paperwork on the desk.

“Does she have anyone in there with her now, a friend or a relative?”

“No. She came in alone—she’s by herself.”

“Can you please let her know I’m here and ask her if she’d like me to be with her?”

She slowly raises her head again and glares at me. I want to punch this nurse, too. I open my mouth to repeat what I said, just in case she didn’t hear me. Then she pushes away from the desk, the wheels of her chair squeaking as they roll across the pristine white floor. She stands and plods off in the direction of the exam room.

As I wait for her to come back, two police officers walk down the hall toward me. I stare at the ground as they pass. They pause a few feet from me and I hear a bit of their conversation.

“She came in here ’bout half an hour ago saying someone raped her. I think it was her boyfriend or some guy she’s dating. She didn’t seem too upset, though. She wasn’t crying or anything.”

“Yeah, kinda makes you wonder. You know, you push a guy too far, get him all worked up, and you’re just asking for trouble. God, I hope we’re not here all night.”

“Yeah, me too.”

*     *     *

“Lady, I understand you’re with the sexual assault place and all that, but we really need to question her alone. We tend to get more truthful answers when there aren’t a bunch of people standing around listening to the alleged victim’s responses,” the officer said to the woman.

“Officer, you get the answers you want from these ‘alleged victims’ because there is no one in the room with them. You either question her while I’m here or you don’t question her at all,” the counselor retorted, her arms bound tight across her chest.

After what just happened at the hands of the doctor, I couldn’t imagine anything worse was possible. While I laid there with my legs spread open, he pulled out strands of my pubic hair and used a huge plastic syringe to collect the boy’s cum. He bagged and marked my clothes as evidence and drew blood to test for STDs and pregnancy.

But worse was possible.

But worse was possible.

While I sat there wearing nothing but a crinkled paper hospital gown and a starched sheet tossed across my battered bottom half, these officers made me regurgitate every detail of the afternoon. They asked me the same questions the nurse had, only they weren’t as sympathetic. Instead of the nurse’s indifference, they flung the questions at me with an accusatory tone and a fixed idea of who did what. They didn’t see me as someone’s daughter or girlfriend, but as a girl who led a guy on, a girl who asked for trouble.

“I’m sorry young lady, but you’re going to have to try and stop crying. I’m having a hard time understanding you,” one of the cops said a few minutes into questioning. I’m going to have to stop crying. When? When is that supposed to happen? After I can’t see his familiar face looming over me anymore, his eyes and mind shut tight to what he was doing to me? After I can longer hear him telling me how sorry he was, but he couldn’t stand me talking about his best friend anymore? After I can no longer see his smug smile as he asked me through the open window of my car if he can call me later, while I frantically try to get the key in the ignition? Just when am I supposed to stop crying?

*     *     *

I’m sitting in the lobby of the emergency room watching some stupid late-night talk show when the nurse comes out of the exam room and walks over to me.

“She doesn’t want anyone in there with her, now or later,” she says, her hands fixed defiantly on her wide, white hips. “She doesn’t want to talk to you or anyone else. She just wants to be left alone.”

I look at her face, void of any care or sympathy, the product of years of seeing broken, bloody bodies represented only by a name on a chart or a tag on a toe. An angry blush rises to my face as I ball my fists.

“Please give her this information…it has the crisis line number in it,” I say, as I shove a pamphlet toward her. “Tell her if she needs to talk, anytime, to give me a call.”

She swipes the pamphlet from my hands, turns and stomps away. I walk out the door and drive home. Once there, I slip into my parents’ room.

“I’m back,” I whisper to my mom.

“Mmm, good, honey. Everything go OK?” she asks, her voice syrupy with sleep, my dad snuffling beside her.

“Yeah, just fine. ’Night.”

“’Night, honey. See you in the morning.”

Back in my room, I call the crisis line coordinator and tell her about my unsuccessful trip. I change into my sweats and collapse on the bed, wrenching the blankets up around my neck.

Random, angry thoughts careen through my head holding back the ones I know are waiting to take their place, like eager understudies: It still smells like goddamn kerosene in here—it’s probably in the curtains and sheets. Why do I have to be stuck in the room above the freezing garage? Why can’t I change the stupid purple-flowered wallpaper? I’m not twelve years old anymore. I’m a grown woman in college, and I’m still living with my parents. I can’t wait to get the hell out of here. Only two more semesters, and I’m gone.

And then I start to cry. I cry because I couldn’t do anything for the girl tonight and because she wouldn’t let me. I cry for the woman at the hospital who held me together and helped me walk forward into the world of “after.” I cry for all the other women who can’t find the courage to dial the phone, tell a friend, or forgive themselves. And then I close my eyes and wait for another call.

*     *     *

People say girls and women (and boys and men) are “survivors” of rape. But years after the “incident” happened, I had convinced myself it wasn’t that bad because I knew the person who did it to me—it wasn’t a stranger who jumped out of the bushes on a dark night. It wasn’t that bad because he didn’t really hurt me; I didn’t have any visible injuries. It wasn’t that bad because I wasn’t a virgin at the time. What was there to “survive”? People survived a lot worse.

But then I remembered what it was like to see him at school after it happened. Every day.

I remembered what it was like to hear from other girls that he’d done the same thing to them and to hear from my best friend that he’d tried the same thing with her—when we were in 6th grade, years before what he did to me.

I remembered feeling like I was the bad, dirty one and having that confirmed every day in school when people would whisper “slut” as I walked by.

I remembered having to see him at our five-year class reunion, trying to avoid him later at the ten and fifteen-years and the conscious choice I made never to attend another reunion.

I remembered what happened with my first husband. One time when we were wrestling around on the floor of my bedroom, he pinned my arms above my head. I started screaming and crying, telling him to stop, to get off me. I curled up in a ball and sobbed. I stayed that way for more than an hour. He walked out because he didn’t know what to do.

And after all that remembering, “survival” didn’t seem like such a strong word any more.

There was another day in my senior year of high school, when I was riding the bus to a choir performance. The boy was sitting directly behind me with his hand resting on the back of my seat. When the bus went over a bump, his hand would “accidentally” brush up against my shoulder. I had just heard from another person what he had done to them. I turned around in my seat, looked directly at him and said, “I know what you did. I know how many people you did it to. If I ever hear that you’ve done it to anyone else, I’ll go to the police.” His normally pale face went even paler, almost translucent. That was quickly replaced by a tomato color that started from his nose and seeped out to the edges of his hairline and under his jaw. He swallowed. His Adam’s apple bobbed.

And when I thought about that day and how victorious I felt even though I knew then that I would probably never go to the police, I knew I had survived something.

*     *     *

Years later in my early forties, I was sorting through books on the shelves in my home library and I thought about him again. Normally when he came to my mind it was in flashes—his fleecy blond hair and blank blue eyes; the way he sauntered down the halls at school; how the window above his bed funneled a broad blade of sunlight down the length of his half-naked body, smothering mine. And all I’d feel was rage, at what he did and what I didn’t do. But this time, something different came to my mind.

His dad.

Physically, they were complete opposites: The boy was about 6’2’’ and 200 pounds, all muscle, more like a man than a high school kid. His dad was barely 5’9’’ and had a dense, mangy beard and the gut of a woman about to give birth. But what I remembered most was how he treated his son.

His son played many sports and played them well. But no matter how well the son did, he could never please his dad. I remembered his dad would regularly stand on the sidelines and bellow at him, calling him horrible things I couldn’t imagine hearing in my own home. One time the boy drifted off the football field after the night’s defeat with his head hanging almost as low as the helmet in his hand. His dad barreled toward him and struck him hard on the top of his head. The boy cowered.

He didn’t look so powerful then.

Through this memory, I saw him as I never had. Remembering him in this new way way, I accepted one, plain fact: He was as much a victim as he’d made me into, on that afternoon years ago. And as victims often do, he fixated on the smaller, silent ones, snatching power however he could—just never in his own home.

Until the day I was there.

Kelly RobertsKelly Roberts received a BA in English from the University of Iowa. After years of writing creative nonfiction, she’s decided to give fiction a go. Kelly lives in Waukee, Iowa with her adoring husband Chris, clever daughter Amelia and rescued wire fox terrier Maisy. By day she works in Human Resources, which provides her with more writing material than she could ever hope for. Cooking, reading and popping bubble wrap—one bubble, one row at a time—are her passions. This is her first published piece, and she is grateful.

The Viewing

My car speeds north along the nearly deserted two-lane stretch of Highway 101 towards Waldport. My muscles are stiff from my hike up Cape Perpetua, and I’m anxious to get back to the house where I am staying for a hot shower. The sky is grey with pending rain and the ocean crashes against the rocks, occasionally spraying the road.

As I round a curve, a flower cart is suddenly flung high into the air only two hundred yards or so before me, spilling flowers onto the road. How bizarre, I think, there’s nothing like flower carts around here. This small Oregon town caters more to loggers than to tourists. Then I see a white car sideways across my lane. A motorcycle splayed on its side. That was no flower cart in the air at all; it was the motorcycle.

I slam on my brakes and swerve to the side of the road up against the cliff. I grab my raincoat and run to the accident, my open car door ding-ding-dinging behind me.

The motorcycle is green. A sidecar is attached. A man in black leather is sprawled out in front of the white Ford. All this I see in a blur as I race to the middle of the deserted highway. I shove my arms into my raincoat as I search up and down the road for an approaching vehicle. For the first time in my life I wish I had a cellphone. The ocean sprays high across the road; the rain mists my face. I hop from one foot to the other, turning my head to the north, the south.

It’s the one thing I remember from my first aid training. Never assume someone will call 911. Make eye contact, point at them.

Finally, a pickup lumbers into view from around the curve. I stand smack in the middle of the lane and wave my arms, my raincoat flapping crazily. The pickup screeches to a halt just a few feet from me.

Do you have a cellphone? I shout at the driver, a big man, a logger maybe. I run to his window.

He nods quickly.

Call 911! I yell, pointing my finger at him.  It’s the one thing I remember from my first aid training. Never assume someone will call 911. Make eye contact, point at them.

Call 911! I yell. I’m up on the truck’s step, gripping his car door, just inches from his face.

He looks like he’s afraid of me. But I see his cellphone in his big hand. His grimy fingers press the buttons.

* * *

Usually when I head over to the coast for my annual personal retreat in Waldport, I leave at first light the Sunday morning at the start of my stay. That way I can get a beach walk in before 11, when my week officially begins. I’d been coming here for years: spending a week in late October by myself in a small blue house right on the ocean.

This time though, I went to Abe’s viewing first.

I would have read of his death in the newspaper along with everyone else, had the wife of one of his friends not called me at work.

“Abe died last night,” she had said. “I told Hank that no one would think to call you, and I didn’t want you to see it in the paper before you knew.”

I thanked her kindly; I knew it had taken a lot for her to call. Most of the wives had been wary of me, as though my love for Abe were somehow a threat to their own marriages. Rumors that we were having an affair had circulated for the ten years we had been together. Now, fifteen years after Abe and I had finally given up on it, apparently people still wondered about us.

His wife, Ellie, never uttered a single hint to either him or me that she knew. Maybe she was grateful for our discretion and thought if she didn’t acknowledge our relationship, she wouldn’t have to do anything about it. She was distant towards me, but never unkind.

Abe was not the sort to have an affair. Neither was I. We met not long after I left my violent husband in Colorado and moved to Oregon. I had no trust left for men. Abe was safe, easy to talk to. When I saw him with his wife, they were obviously happy; they had that laid-back, teasing way of being together. He was the kind of dad who worried over his daughter’s middle-school problems.

Anything I can say now about his sweetness, or the way he championed me in each one of my causes even when he disagreed with me, will only sound like I’m trying to justify my behavior.

Yet we let our friendship cross the line and then did nothing to try and bring it back to the right side again. Anything I can say now about his sweetness, or the way he championed me in each one of my causes even when he disagreed with me, will only sound like I’m trying to justify my behavior. I’ll not give myself that.

I’m not proud that we had an affair.  And I would never again do that to another woman. Or to myself. Because you never come first when you’re in a relationship with a married man. Face it, a daughter’s volleyball game will always trump your birthday.

In fact, I guess you could say the years Abe and I were together were really nothing more than ten years’ worth of one-night stands. Because if one of you can’t commit, it comes down to the same thing. When I said that to Abe during an argument once, he cried.  I never said it again.

*     *     *

I run back to the man splayed on the asphalt. The man and the woman from the white Ford stand next to the car. The woman is crying, the man has his arms around her. The ding-ding-dinging from my car door pierces the pounding of the ocean.

I drop to my knees. The man’s body is encased in black leather as though the skin of a dead animal could have protected him from a white Ford. His head is not even two feet from the car’s left front tire.

I unfasten his helmet and then remember that I’m probably not supposed to move his neck, so I don’t take it off. Instead, I lift his goggles to his helmet. His eyes are almond shaped. Ice blue.

I try to remember how far we are from a hospital. Newport is at least twenty minutes away, even at ambulance speed. I can’t remember if Newport has a hospital or not.

The woman’s crying sounds far off even though she is standing right there. The asphalt digs into my knees. I take off the man’s gloves. Rough, square hands with wide short fingers. Broken blunt nails. I rub his hands. Once, when I was a child growing up in Miami, my mother took us to the Sea Aquarium. There was a manatee in a pool and I got to pet it. I think of that leathery crackled skin now as I rub the man’s hands. My car ding-ding-dings.

The man makes a moaning sound.

Shhh, you’re going to be fine, I tell him. His eyes are ice blue. Shhh, everything’s going to be just fine.

The ocean pounds against the rocks, spraying the road. The rain mists all around us.

The man moves his head. I can tell he wants his helmet off. I shake my head no, and knead his manatee-skin hands. It’s going to be okay, I say. You’re going to be okay.

The woman from the white Ford is crying. The man from the white Ford says I didn’t see him I didn’t see him.

He squints his ice blue eyes at me as though he is trying to remember where he knows me from.

I hear other cars stopping. A man, maybe even the man who called 911, yells. Help me with the bike! The fuel is running all over the place!

The woman from the white Ford is crying. The man from the white Ford says I didn’t see him I didn’t see him.

I rub the man’s square manatee-skin hands and stare into his ice blue eyes. He wants his helmet off. Shhh, I say, shhh. Everything’s going to be all right. The man’s face is damp with ocean spray and rain mist.

From far away I can hear the ambulance screaming. The man darts his ice blue eyes back and forth, back and forth. Shhhh, I say, shhhh. I rub his hands.

*     *     *

I used to wonder if I would love Abe as much if he were available. Back then I was still afraid I would turn back into my old self if a man tried to manage my life. I didn’t trust that my new confidence would stick. That if I got battered again I wouldn’t be too scared to leave and start my life all over.

Abe didn’t know about the violence, though he could have guessed. One night early on in our relationship, when we were playfully wrestling with our lovemaking, he held me down by my wrists. He weighed over a hundred pounds more than me, and I squirmed, trying to get out from beneath him. We had been laughing, but I became afraid. A dark voice from somewhere deep inside me growled, “Get. Off.” In my sudden fury, I could have sunk my teeth into his cheek and ripped his face off.

Abe rolled off immediately. “I’m so sorry,” he kept saying. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” I should have told him then, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to put my past life behind me, pretend it hadn’t happened. He never brought it up, not even after I started working at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence.

We stopped seeing each other so many times I lost count. When it was Abe who ended it, it was because of a poem he had read about a man and a woman who had an affair. When he died, she could only watch the funeral from behind a tree, while his wife received all of the town’s sympathy. He didn’t want me to be that woman. When I was the one who broke up with Abe, it was because it was too late. I already was that woman.

It was me who finally ended our affair for good. I couldn’t sneak around anymore; I no longer cared whether anyone knew or not. Even then, I didn’t expect him to leave Ellie; I would have lost respect for him if he had. But I wanted to be the woman who came first. I wanted to be the woman he planned on sailing around the world with after his retirement.

 *     *     *

A woman kneels next to me. She leans into me. Our shoulders touch. I can tell she’s a strong woman, capable.

Her voice is husky. I’m a registered nurse, she says quietly at my ear. I almost don’t hear her over the crashing of the ocean.

I’m not, I tell her, not taking my eyes away from the man’s.

She removes the man’s helmet. Ah, I think, so I could have taken it off after all. The man’s hair is grey and matted.

I can take over now, she says. She takes the man’s rough manatee-skin hands from me.

I knee myself out of her way, still looking in the man’s ice blue eyes. It’s going to be all right, I tell him. Everything is going to be okay.

My legs tremble as I stand. My car has stopped ding-ding-dinging; it must have finally run down, like an alarm clock. Or killed the battery. I wobble past the man with the ice blue eyes, to the other side of the white Ford.

Then I see her. Laying face down, arms and legs bent in impossible angles, face into the asphalt. As though some pissed-off god had snatched her out of that sidecar and slammed her down on the asphalt in a fury.

Even I can see she is dead.

 *     *     *

I ran into Ellie at the grocery store a month or two before Abe died. I hadn’t seen her for years. She looked so happy to see me and I was surprised that I was glad to see her too. We chatted in the produce aisle, occasionally stepping aside while an irritated shopper reached around us for an onion. As she told me about the grandkids and what Abe was up to, I realized that there was a real affection between us. Maybe, because we had loved and been loved by the same man, in some curious way we were bonded. Abe had loved us differently, neither of us ever a real threat to the other. Or maybe it was simply a matter of enough time having gone by that we could appreciate each other as individuals rather than as extensions of Abe.

During the fifteen years we were no longer having an affair, Abe and I talked often on the phone. Sometimes in the middle of the day, he’d call me at work. “Do you remember the time …” he’d start to say and I’d finish his sentence and we’d both start laughing. We’d always seemed to know what the other was thinking.

Occasionally he’d drive over to the town where I worked and take me out to a nice place for lunch. We’d talk about our days with the easiness of two people who had known each other at both their worst and their best, or lapse into comforting silences. On the way back from the restaurant, Abe would drop his hand, as big as a baseball mitt, palm open, onto the console between us. I’d place my hand in the middle and he’d fold his fingers around mine. We’d drive back to my work like that, my hand in his.

At Abe’s viewing, I waited in the lobby as the man in a black suit instructed me to do. The family was still with Abe; momentarily they would be leaving and then other mourners could go in. But Abe’s daughter saw me through the glass door and waved. She turned to her mother and Ellie came out to embrace me.  She cried and we rocked each other back and forth.

 *     *     *

Two paramedics leap out of the ambulance as it coasts to a stop. One turns the woman lying face down on the asphalt over and takes off her helmet. Her grey hair spills over the wet black asphalt. The other paramedic slits her black leather casing open, exposing her plump white middle-aged chest and belly. He snips her brassiere at the center and her breasts, large and round, spring free.

The woman’s nipples stand hard and erect.

The paramedics attach the pads for a defibrillator and shout things like Clear! at each other. But I know she’s dead. Even the registered nurse had walked right past her, instead coming to the man with the ice blue eyes.

My home, just over the coastal range in the Willamette Valley, suddenly seems far away and exotic.

The woman’s body jerks with each shock. I think of the frog I dissected all those years ago in high school. If you poked your scalpel in just the right place on the frog’s spine, you could make the legs move.

The woman’s skin is white against the black leather flayed open at her sides, the wet black asphalt. Her body looks like it has been carved in marble. Only her nipples strain for life.

The sheriff’s deputy is here now, scribbling in his notebook. He asks for my name and address. My home, just over the coastal range in the Willamette Valley, suddenly seems far away and exotic.

The nurse is kneeling by the man with the ice blue eyes. The driver of the white Ford and the woman who is crying talk to the deputy. A group of men stand around the motorcycle doing whatever it is that men do to motorcycles.

The motorcycle looks like a bike you would expect to see in a movie about World War II. A Russian-made bike I hear one of the men say. It has Arizona license plates and is covered with little travel stickers: Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Rushmore, Oregon Sea Lion Caves.

Someone has made a pile of the belongings of the man with the ice blue eyes and the woman. Things that I mistook for flowers when I first saw the white Ford flip the motorcycle into the air: a little notebook with a rubber band around it, maps, several small canvas bags.

I bet it was the woman who packed everything in those little bags, I think, as I walk towards my car. I do the same thing when I travel; everything has its own canvas bag: my hiking clothes, my books, my art supplies. They had probably planned this trip around the country in their green Russian-made motorcycle for years. I imagine him smiling down at her cocooned in the sidecar with all her canvas bags, his ice blue eyes crinkling at the corners behind his goggles.

Someone has closed my car door. That’s why the ding-ding-dinging stopped. The inside of the door and driver’s seat are wet from where the rain misted in. I take my raincoat off and reach in to drape it over the passenger seat. Then I get inside and shut the door. I sit in the sudden silence a minute with my eyes closed.  Then I slip back onto Highway 101.

 *     *     *

The viewing room was empty when I entered. Lights dimmed, soft non-committal elevator music playing. Abe would have much preferred strings of sparkly blinking lights, and some jazzy piano music, Scott Joplin maybe. I peered into his coffin. He wore the same little boy smile he always got when he saw a puppy. I placed my palm on top of his folded hands. Other than the cold hardness, they felt the same. Coarse and kind. “Peasant hands,” he called them. “Artist hands,” I’d always reply.

My chest tightened and my throat went hot. I had been so relieved when our breakup dance was finally over that I never once thought about how much I missed him.

*     *     *

It’s raining for real now, not just misting, as I back into the driveway of my little rented house. I sit there watching the greyness of it. Then I bend down and wriggle my jean leg up over my right knee. Little bloody pits from kneeling on the asphalt dot my leg. I push my jean leg back down and press my head into the steering wheel. I think of the hot shower I had been looking forward to after my hike. But I’d have to walk up the steps, unlock the door, take off my boots, get undressed, step into the shower.

After a minute, I get out of the car and walk towards the roar of the ocean. I have forgotten to put my raincoat back on and the rain soaks through my turtleneck, my jeans. My skin shivers alive with it. I stand as close to the edge of the ocean as I can, the waves shlushing just short of my feet.

You can barely see where the horizon lies—the ocean and the sky are so nearly the same shade of grey.  After a while I can’t tell if I am wet from rain, ocean spray, or tears.

Mary ZelinkaMary Zelinka lives in the Willamette Valley in Oregon and has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for over 22 years. Her work has previously appeared in Pilgrimage, The Sun, Open Spaces, and CALYX, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

CancerLand

Fact: My hands are too short to reach mom’s cancer.

How Cancer Changed Me: My logic is the safest thing I have. I write lists about logic. I make everything neat and ordered. There is a careful, measured safety in lists. I can see how far they stretch. Nothing sneaks up on me. I love a good list.

I tell him that I can’t know what he’s too much of a coward to tell me.

What the Doctors Said: The doctors tell me that my mother’s cancer cannot be erased by how big or small my hands are. They don’t tell me that my hands can make a difference. They tell us to have hope. They tell us she’ll die. When I ask what we should do now, a doctor tells me to take her on a cruise, medical code for we really have nothing left for you. He calls me after she dies and screams at me. He tells me that I should have known what he was saying. I curse at him. I tell him that I can’t know what he’s too much of a coward to tell me. It’s all over his demeanor: It’s not my job to tell you or to fix what breaks. His parents are alive. He’ll hang up and get lunch. I sit still for hours and finally there is nothing to do.

What It Is (From Back Then): It is 2005, I am 27, and my father has just died. In the twisted, are-you-seriously-fucking-kidding-me-God way of dark stories heard around the office, my only remaining parent—my mother—has cancer. A year before, it was in her lungs. She went through chemo (she was a cheerful patient, the kind that everyone wants to be, and I suppose that’s why she was the kind that wears hats for holidays and brings in cake for everybody). Then my 75-year-old dad fell down the stairs and spent four days yelling at me and pissing himself. Then he went into the hospital and died. It is two months later and her headaches have turned out to be stage four. I don’t know it then, but my mother’s clock is already ticking. It runs out in 2007.

What I Wished: I wished I could hear this dark story around the office and then shake my head. It would be so nice to walk over to someone else, listen tenderly to her shit story, and then leave after an hour, feeling grateful that the life lived around that story is someone else’s.

Books I Read: I read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I read The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Women. I read books that should tell me what a roadmap looks like and how to recognize it. Mary Lennox and Sara Crewe survive without parents. In Little Women, Beth dies. American literature never quite recovers from the blow of losing the sweetest March sister.

Fact: My mother is not a story or Beth March. All the reading I do does not matter, and does not save.

What My Mother Was: 5’6”. Brown/brown. Vaccine scar on upper arm. Pink painted toenails. The place between her eyebrows sometimes raw when she tweezed too much. Happy. Secretly scared of her entire life, even before the cancer, a fact that I pretend I don’t know. Never went out after dark. Vivacious laugh. Caught between her parents (my alcoholic grandpa and my lovely, hurt, spoiled grandmother) when they violently and brutally divorced because he was fucking grandma’s best friend at a time when most of America couldn’t spell divorce. Scorpio with a Taurus moon. All my friends want to come over and read tarot cards with her.

What My Mother Does Before Cancer: Goes shopping when she has enough money. Tells my dad to fuck himself when he yells at her. Wants me to be more girly, and secretly wants me to think tall, Jewish boys are my soul mates, instead of tall, boyish girls. Reads Walden. Reads The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Calls Lady the beagle her soul mate because Lady has large brown eyes and is a Pisces and mom is a Scorpio. Avoids calls from her sister, who seems to always be angry with my mother for not protecting her or my uncle when they were children, but from what, I don’t know. Tells me stories when I am a child about getting very small, and climbing on the back of a leaf, and flying to China, and to Heaven, and inside tree trunks.

What My Mother Does After Cancer: Paints random words all over the backyard: love, laugh, brave, sex, hide (on the underside of a chair), seek (on the fence next to the chair), daughter, mother, father, dog, happy, live. Loses long, curly hair and cries. Then, shaves off what is left. Talks about suing the doctor who misdiagnosed her and never said it was cancer until cells became cells and the thing started to eat her from within. Slowly dies but pretends she isn’t. Slowly dies but tries not to.

Who Saves Me (During and After): Friends, the kind that show up in books, show up here. My home—the one that I throw at the sun as hard as I can—is filled to bursting. Friends make quilts, curry, cookies, cd mixes. They hug me, some kiss me, and I sleep with one of them the night after the funeral, because I can’t tell where my grief ends and another body starts, but somewhere in the middle is something I can’t quite call joy.

I threw the whole house, it seems, toward the light. I have bought things that belong to me.

What It Is (Now): My childhood house is mine and I fight with it daily. It has taken years of grief therapy and slow growth. I threw the whole house, it seems, toward the light. I have bought things that belong to me. I have trashed old pictures, smelly couches. I wrestle with the house as though I am trying to kill what happened to the family that lived here. It is easier to write it like that, instead of “my family that lived here” because two out of three—my mother and father—wound up dying, and I, the one that was left, grew, because there was nothing else to kill me at hand. I, too, have been flung at the light, and forced to grow.

What We Cannot Do: With cancer, my mother and I cannot get very, very small. We cannot shrink to leaf-traveling-size. There is no flying away on this one, and nothing big enough to carry us away. We are here, and rooted, and trying. Now, I am here. She is not. I am rooted and trying.

Marissa CohenThe late poet laureate of Florida called Marissa Cohen’s (www.marissacohen.com) work “powerful.” Her writing has appeared in countless publications, including The Cancer Poetry Project 2 (as featured in The New York Times), Gather Kindling, and Wilde Magazine. She’s twice been interviewed on CBS Radio and also works in higher education and publishing.

The Beetle and the Wind

On the morning of June 26, 2000, I awake with a weird pain in my right side. I stretch, take a deep breath, and assess the situation. No other symptoms. “I must have slept funny,” I think, as I take my dog Lancelot out to pee.

It’s a Friday. A glorious Vermont summer day. My girlfriend Jess and I have been dating for about 6 months, and this is the first time we’ve arranged to have a few days off of work together.

My truck is loaded with our trash. The plan is that I will drop the garbage off at the dump before meeting Jess and her kids, Sam and Tessa, and heading to Lake Shaftsbury for the day.

I don my sunglasses, roll down the windows, and blast Bob Marley. If this had been a recycling trip, Jess would’ve joined me. I would have sorted the paper, plastics, and metal. And, though we both love the thrill of shattering glass in the huge metal bins, I would’ve let Jess do that part.

I used to have rules about who I wouldn’t date: Don’t date anyone who’s married. Don’t date a coworker. Don’t date anyone who’s more than seven years older than you. Don’t date anyone with an addiction problem. And don’t date anyone who’s in the closet.

Jess pursued me and, because dating her would involve breaking every single one of my rules, I resisted for several months. Until the day she cornered me behind the register at work—in the area where employees gift wrap items for customers. I’d kneeled down to pick up a piece of ribbon. She slipped into the closet-sized room, put her foot on the stool beside me, and pretended to be adjusting the strap of her high heeled Mary Jane. She was wearing a short black skirt and knee-high stockings.

“You need some help in here?” she asked.

“No, I think I’m fine,” I said, but the desire to softly slide my hand up the back of her calf as I stood was irresistible.

Rules are made to be broken, right? And if you’re gonna break one rule, why not break all of them at once?

Rules are made to be broken, right? And if you’re gonna break one rule, why not break all of them at once?

Jess had worked at the bookstore for over ten years. She was the manager of, and book buyer for, the children’s department. Later, she would confess that she knew she wanted me from the moment we met. She could even provide a detailed description of what I’d been wearing on my first day of work.

When I arrive at Jess’s house after the dump, she says I look pale. I confess to having a weird pain in my side but insist I’m okay.

On the way to the lake, we stop to get some cash. I feel woozy as I cross the street to the ATM. When I reach the entry to the bank, I have to kneel over and put my head between my legs for a moment to keep from passing out. I wonder if maybe I’m lightheaded because I didn’t eat any breakfast.

Jess and I find a spot on the lake’s beach, and Sam and Tessa charge off into the water. In addition to a book, Jess has also brought a journal. Periodically, she pauses from her reading, writes secret notes in the journal, and slides it over to me. Though she’s left her husband, she isn’t ready to be open about our relationship.

Later that afternoon, I almost pass out again. Finally, I confess that I really don’t feel well. A guy whose kids attend the same school as Sam and Tessa is at the lake, and Jess asks if he’ll keep an eye on them while she runs me home. When she drops me off, she promises to call and check on me in a couple of hours.

As soon as I’m alone, I start to panic. Lancelot looks at me with extreme distress. Something is really wrong. I get an intense stabbing pain in my right side when I take a deep breath.

Jess calls, and I tell her I’m worse and I don’t know what to do. When she arrives at my apartment, she says, “Melba, you look like the gray E.T.” Because this was one of my favorite childhood films, I know exactly what color she means—and how dire this situation might be. The way she looks at me also makes me think that she and I share the same kind of love, the same kind of symbiotic relationship that Elliott and E.T. did. It’s like Jess and I can feel each other’s feelings, and this feels like the truest thing I’ve ever known.

On the way to Mary McClellan Hospital in Cambridge, New York, I try to act like I’m fine because the kids are with us and I don’t want to scare them. But by the time we arrive, twenty minutes later, I can hardly breathe.

Jess drops me off at the emergency room door. I stagger up to the nurse’s station and am immediately whisked into an exam room.

A nurse takes my temperature, pulse, and blood pressure. She listens to my lungs and whispers something to another nurse.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

“We need to get some x-rays,” she says.

She offers a wheelchair, and I insist on walking.

I try three times before she tells me to stop. She brings in a wheelchair and takes me into a very serious looking room in the emergency room.

The x-ray technician takes a couple shots of me standing with my hands at my side. Then she asks me to put my hands over my head. When I do this, everything goes black and my legs buckle. As my arms fall, there’s light again, and I manage to catch myself against the wall. I try three times before she tells me to stop. She brings in a wheelchair and takes me into a very serious looking room in the emergency room.

They hook me up to all sorts of wires and give me oxygen. The thing that clips onto my finger and measures my oxygen level reads 78. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

“What is going on?” I ask for what feels like the millionth time.

“Your lung has collapsed. We’ve called a thoracic surgeon. He’ll be here as soon as he can.”

The word “surgeon” sends me into total panic.

Jess insists on calling my mother, but the only way I’ll tell her the phone number is if she promises to tell my mother not to come. “My family is not comprised of the kind of people you want to be around in a vulnerable state,” I say.

The surgeon describes my collapsed lung as a spontaneous pneumothorax and shows me a diagram. “This is the lining of the lung. And this is the chest wall. The area in-between is called pleural space. The pleural space has negative pressure. Some people are born with a congenital defect called blebs. Blebs are like blisters on your lung. And if they pop, then air gets into the pleural space, and it causes the lung to collapse. We most often see this in tall, thin people in their twenties. And it often happens while they sleep.”

“Blebs?” I think, “Seriously?”

In an attempt to figure out why this has happened, I confess that I used to smoke and ask if that could have caused this. “Well, smoking is bad for everybody,” he says, “You shouldn’t smoke. But, no, there’s nothing you could have done to cause this. And there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. In fact, once a person has a spontaneous pneumothorax, there’s a 50% chance it’ll happen again. After two collapses, the likelihood increases to 75%. So, if you have another pneumothorax in the future, I’d recommend surgery to staple the lung. But that is serious surgery that can sometimes be avoided.”

For now, he explains that he needs to insert a chest tube, which he will attach to a vacuum to suck out any air and fluid and restore negative pressure in the pleural space, in order to help my lung re-expand. I will have to be hooked up like this for several days to enable my lung to heal. He will do the chest tube here, but I’ll have to be transferred to a larger hospital in Albany for the recovery period.

I ask if I can be knocked out for this procedure. “No,” he says. “Your blood pressure is too low. We can’t put you under general anesthesia.”

I feel really cold. I hear a nurse yell, “I think she’s going into shock!” And I think, “Well, this whole thing is rather shocking.”

It’s a tiny hospital, and I’m the main attraction. The entire ER staff is watching as the surgeon injects me with local anesthetic a couple of inches below my right collarbone. He says, “Let me know if you feel anything, okay?” I turn my head away and look as hard as I can in the opposite direction—staring at a blank spot on the wall. He explains every little thing he’s doing. “I’m going to make a small incision and then…”

“Dude,” I say, “can’t you tell I’m trying my best not to be aware of what you’re doing?” A giggle ripples through the onlookers.

The procedure doesn’t really hurt. It’s just gross to think about having a plastic tube hooked to a vacuum inserted into my chest. But as soon as it’s in, I feel immensely better. I can breathe again.

The surgeon examines the froth that is being extracted from my chest. “Hmm,” he says, “I expected the fluid, but you’ve got blood, too. When there’s blood, we call this a spontaneous hemo-pneumothorax. ‘Hemo’ means blood. This is more common when there’s been trauma. Are you sure you’ve only had symptoms for one day?”

“Yeah,” I say, “I’m pretty sure.”

Actually, maybe this is when I go into shock.

I wake up and don’t know where I am. A woman’s voice says, “It’s okay. You’re in an ambulance. Your lung collapsed, and you went into shock. We’re taking you to a hospital in Albany.”

I’m jostled about on a gurney. The fluorescent lights are too bright. I close my eyes.

My hospital room is at the end of the hall. It’s long and narrow, and there are several empty beds to my left. My bed is closest to the door and the bathroom. Plate glass windows run the length of the room, offering a nice view of the city.

There’s an intercom over my bed. When I ring the call bell, a nurse’s voice asks what I need, and I explain that I need help to get to the restroom. My chest tube remains connected to a vacuum, which is attached to the foot of my bed. No one comes. An hour later, I ring again. Same thing. Three hours later, someone finally appears.

The next day a new doctor says that he would’ve put the chest tube in my side instead of near my collarbone. He says we’ll give it a couple of days, but that he’ll probably want to do it over again.

I have to pee frequently, because they still have me on IV fluids even though I’m eating and drinking normally. After repeating the infuriating intercom scenario numerous times, I watch how the nurse unhooks and re-hooks the chest tube and decide I can do this.

“Oh, I’m only going to read you the sexy parts because you seem a little defeated, and I need you to stay fierce.”

“Move over,” Jess says, as she slips into bed beside me that evening. She pulls Michelle Tea’s Valencia out of her purse and begins reading to me. A few pages in, she starts skimming and skipping ahead.

“What’re you doing?” I ask.

“Oh, I’m only going to read you the sexy parts because you seem a little defeated, and I need you to stay fierce.” As she says this, she slides her hand up my thigh.

And it hurts horribly when I laugh.

That night there’s a lightning storm. We turn out the lights and watch the city strobe elaborately before us.

“I’m sorry my stupid lung ruined our weekend,” I say.

“Shhh…” she says, “This is amazing.”

I do just fine managing my chest tube…until day three when I get tangled in the bathroom…and as I stand up from the toilet, the tube goes flying out of my body and blood splatters…and I yell, “Oh, holy fuck!” And Jess goes running…

The doctor returns and says he’d been planning to do another chest tube anyway. “I’ll do local anesthesia, but this is going to hurt. You need a bigger tube, and you are small, so there’s not much room. We’ll have to spread your ribs.”

They bring a gurney into my room and tell Jess to wait outside.

How many nurses does it take to hold down a 95-pound, 23-year-old woman who is screaming and kicking wildly while being stabbed between the ribs? Six.

When I’m discharged a few days later, a nurse tells me not to lift anything or drive for a couple of weeks so that my lung has time to fully heal.

During this “healing” time my mind begins processing, trying to figure out what this near-death experience means. Instead of feeling lucky to be alive, I begin to wonder if maybe I should have died.

I started smoking when I was sixteen. I once read an article that said each cigarette I smoked would subtract about 11 minutes from my lifespan. Instead of being a deterrent, I relished this bit of trivia. I’d exhale and think, “Awesome, 11 minutes less of this bullshit.

I think maybe, by smoking all those cigarettes with such a death-wish attitude, I’d brought this on myself. Yet, somehow I’d dodged fate. I also find it especially ironic that death would come for me in the first moment I’d ever felt truly happy. I was wildly in love. And this is the price I would pay for breaking all my rules.

Kurt Vonnegut espoused smoking as the only legal, classy way to commit suicide. I first encountered his novels when I was in high school, and I loved Vonnegut so much that I adopted him as my imaginary grandfather.

See, my own family—riddled with mental illness, substance abuse, and religious fundamentalism—left much to be desired in the realm of role models. So, in my teens, the concept of an imaginary surrogate family evolved.

Here are things I told myself: When I’m in need of comfort, all I ever need to do is allow Grandmother Maya Angelou’s deep molasses voice of God to hum through me. When I’m in doubt, Mother June Jordan will hand me her torch of outspoken resistance and hope. When I’m overcome by cynicism, Aunt Dorothy Allison will blow me to bits, then put me back together again—better and different and filled with revolutionary zeal. When I’m stuck in a rut, I should commune with Uncle Tom Robbins, who is sure to zing me with a zany metaphor. When absurdity has me reeling, I can turn to my twin brother, Augusten Burroughs, who will remind me that he, too, often experiences things that are most hilarious and most heartbreaking as one in the same. And, when the darkness looms, all I ever need to do is borrow sizzlingly sinister Sister Sylvia Plath’s lyrical stun gun.

But my collapsed lung has triggered a crisis of faith. I begin to wonder if having non-reciprocal relationships with imaginary people is enough.

There are unsettling complications as my lung heals: sharp, random, shooting pains. My doctor explains that there’s scar tissue in the area where the second chest tube was inserted, connecting the lining of my lung to the chest wall. Part of the healing process involves this tissue tearing, so that the lining of my lung can once again slide against the chest wall.

But since there’s a 50% chance that my lung may collapse again, and this healing pain is virtually indistinguishable from the original collapsing pain, I don’t know how to interpret these signals.

Years earlier, I’d suffered a bad case of pink eye. Long after I’d recovered from this ailment, when I’d begin to fatigue, I’d first feel it in my eyes. Even though the rest of my body would feel fine, my vision would weaken, and it would become impossible to keep my eyes open. It was a strange new litmus for exhaustion that I had no choice but to recognize.

A similar thing happens with my lungs. But instead of being triggered by fatigue, shortness of breath results when I become anxious. Seemingly out of nowhere, I feel like I can’t breathe. I become aware of stressors that hadn’t even been on my radar before. Some reactions make sense: It’s stressful to go to work when Jess and I are fighting. Other reactions seem irrational: I can no longer breathe in the grocery store.

Everyone knows that they might one day get struck by lightning or hit by a train. It’s one thing to understand this intellectually.

Everyone knows that they might one day get struck by lightning or hit by a train. It’s one thing to understand this intellectually. It’s another thing entirely to experience such a reality in one’s body. My anxiety rapidly becomes irrational and debilitating, but it’s grounded in a very real and legitimate fear. There’s a 50% chance that my lung could collapse at any moment—and there is nothing I can do to prevent this.

My therapist tells me I should learn to meditate. She writes a mantra on a slip of paper for me, but I think it’s stupid. So, she suggests I create my own.

I ask myself what words feel expansive and think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Flare.” The final section of this lengthy poem is particularly inspiring:

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.
Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

Live with the beetle, and the wind.

I try to memorize this but find I can never get the sections in the right order. Plus, it’s way too long to be a mantra. I think hard about what this poem means to me and decide that it’s all about reconciling the opposing forces of the beetle, which in my mind is a diligent dung beetle, and the wind, which is totally unpredictable.

Neither of these forces is bad or good. The dung beetle’s responsibilities on any given day could become a surprising pleasure—like taking trash to the dump for the woman you love. The wind could knock a limb in your path, or it could suddenly be at your back—making the rolling of the dung ball feel effortless. A collapsed lung. A stunning lightning storm.

It’s not about control. It’s not even about balance. The challenge is acceptance.

I begin listening to a relaxation cd given to me by my yoga instructor, who tells me to focus on my breathing. “You don’t understand,” I argue. “If I focus on, or even think about lungs and breathing—my own or anyone else’s—my chest tightens and I can’t breathe.” She tells me it takes practice, and I decide to fake it by replacing any thoughts of breathing with my mantra: “the beetle and the wind.”

Breath in: the beetle.

Breathe out: the wind.

With these words, Mary Oliver earns a place opposite Maya Angelou as an esteemed matriarch in my family tree. Over the years I find myself returning to these words again and again. They become a practice, a foothold. Though my lungs would remain intact, there would be times when my life would collapse as spontaneously as my lung had.

During a particularly bad week in 2006, my Jeep would break down. Lancelot would die. And I would find out that Jess, who I’d thought was my soul mate, had flown cross-country to cheat on me.

Grief will be my sister. I will know the stump of sorrow. I will scatter flowers over the graves and walk away.

But learning to rise like the green leaves will take quite a long time.

It has now been thirteen years since my lung collapsed. A ferocious looking reddish brown horned beetle, preserved in clear acrylic, sits on my desk. An emerald beetle dangles from my keychain. A scarab carved from onyx, which was a gift from Jess, still holds a prominent place in my meditation area.

They are constant reminders of a single aspiration:

to live with the beetle and the wind.

Melba MajorMelba Major holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she currently teaches writing. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review and the Southern Women’s Review.

 

 

Submission

You’ve been writing for only six years and you’re almost sixty. You’ve outlived your mother by five years; you’re feeling the press of time. It’s like the last stages of labor, you know you’ve got to push and birth something. Anything.

So what if one of your writing teachers says of your stories, “Two or three sentences, that’s all, and it’ll be perfect,” and the other teacher says, “But why does this story matter to me?” Maybe the editors won’t notice.

One day you make this notebook, see? It’s white with a printed piece of paper in the plastic holder that says, “What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to submit anything?” and now there’s this sense of urgency and responsibility about it.

You make a little chart that looks like this:

Date               Story          Publication Yes/No

That takes a good two hours that you could be using to write stories that are making your brain feel like a plastic bottle of fermented orange juice. Like the story of the day that your dad beat your brother in the back yard or the time your aunt got raped by her fifteen-year-old cousin and his friend. She was eight and his dog stood guard at the door to the shed. She was a little big for her age she told you, and you thought what in the fuck does that have to do with anything?

You’re amazed that they all want something slightly different and they all want you to read their magazine, of course, so you know the kind of thing they like to publish.

But after you finish the chart, you take out the list of possible publications that your writing teacher gave you and begin looking them up on the internet, printing out their submission guidelines. You’re amazed that they all want something slightly different and they all want you to read their magazine, of course, so you know the kind of thing they like to publish. This takes all of one day and part of the next and half a pack of paper. When you have it all three-hole-punched and put in the notebook, you go through and highlight the important parts so you don’t get confused or mess anything up. (One magazine even says to put only one space, not two, between sentences. Do they count every line to see that you’ve followed their rule? And why on earth do they care?)

You think you would be doing your writing group a favor if you printed them out a copy of this valuable information on submitting so you stop by the office supply place on the way to work and buy a couple of packs of cheap paper. The copier jams at least ten times because of the paper. There’s a lot of cussing and you’re glad your boss is on vacation.

On Wednesday, your day off, you set a goal of submitting three stories. The one about September 11 that you’ve been working on since, well, September 12. The story about the prisoner that turns everyone’s stomach when they hear it. The story that you couldn’t publish until your dad died, and this year he died a terrible death that you’re still mourning; Sundays are almost unbearable.

You choose the magazine that’s published right in your backyard. The one that you sent a color picture of a sunset to the first time you ever submitted anything. You probably didn’t notice that every picture in the magazine is black and white, blurry and abstract, or of old people or children glancing askance at things just out of range of the camera. Hopefully they’ve forgotten your faux pas—the editor tells you on their web page that he gets nearly a thousand submissions a month and it may take a while for them to get to yours. It’s the longest shot you can think of, but it’s important to aim high, right? And if they reject you, you’re in the company of 990 or so writers that month.

You write the letter, using every tip your writing teacher gave you:

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Include the title of your work.
  3. Tell them of all your previously published work. Make something up if necessary.
  4. Tell them in ten words or less everything they need to know about you.
  5. Spell-check, spell-check, spell-check. The letter, the manuscript, the envelopes.
  6. Get the editor’s name and the address right.

Every morning when you read the magazine in the bathroom—it’s not a bathroom kind of magazine, mind you, but that’s just when you read magazines—you picture him at his desk on his farm in the country; it’s early in the morning.

This magazine you’ve chosen. The Sun. It’s edited by a guy that comes across as hard to please. He writes inspiringly, disparagingly, nostalgically every month in his “Notebook” at the back of the magazine. Every morning when you read the magazine in the bathroom—it’s not a bathroom kind of magazine, mind you, but that’s just when you read magazines—you picture him at his desk on his farm in the country; it’s early in the morning. He hasn’t exercised yet because he’s putting it off until later. Maybe he won’t exercise at all today. Or tomorrow. He’s wondering what to write and just starts in with his pencil, his pen, his fingers on the keyboard. He somehow knows that his ramblings are good and reader-worthy. A guy with that kind of confidence? You want his approval.

Everything is finally ready to mail: the letter to the editor with its simple information, the manuscript that you’re sick of reading but needs two sentences, the envelope to the magazine and the one to send back to you. You’ve put it all on the postage scale and weighed it, checking it once, checking it twice, more earnest than Santa Claus the week before Christmas. You hope you’re not going to be disappointed like you were that Christmas you were seven when you wanted roller skates and got a doll family.

You go to the drive-up mailbox at the post office. Wait behind eleven or so cars until you get to the front of the line. Hold the envelope in your hands, reluctant to let go; the person in the car behind you honks at you to move on. He probably has a tax return to file; it’s April 15. You certainly didn’t want to wait in a long line of taxpayers but it’s your dad’s birthday, lucky day, and you need all the luck you can get right now.

The whole way back to the office something is niggling at your mind; you don’t have that wonderful feeling that you usually have when you’ve accomplished something big. You decide it’s beginner’s jitters and that after you’ve submitted a few times you won’t worry so much, you’ll just throw the package together and wait patiently for the response.

On your desk is the copy you made of the letter and the manuscript. You look at it, worried, knotty. You close your eyes and groan.

The editor of The Sun is unlike every other editor of every other magazine in the world, you’ve heard. He actually wants to see the letters that come with the submissions. Let’s name him: Sy Safransky. A funny name you always think and how could anyone forget that name in a million years? You’ve read it so many times in the bathroom, read the anecdotes about his wife and his daughter and just recently about the birth of his granddaughter, and that he gets up at the crack of dawn and how he feels about getting old. You’ve imagined him as a chubby Santa kind of man, white hair and white beard, but harder than Santa Claus to please. You saw a picture of him once, his thin face a shock. This editor, Sy Safransky. Sy Safransky.

You’ve addressed the letter, “Dear Mr. Syfransky.”

Still you wait at your mailbox each day with the hope that he has a sense of humor, that your story is so good he’ll overlook this little mistake, that the story fits the theme of the month in such an artful way that he has to have it, that those two sentences were just an unrealistic expectation from your writing teacher.

And when the envelope comes, your handwriting on the front, fat with your rejected manuscript, you open it up and see the same form letter that accompanied your reddish picture of sailboats in the sunset, the same letter that says it’s just not right for them, they can’t say why. “Dear Writer,” it starts, cold and impersonal. And at the end, “The Editors.”

You have to have thick skin, your writer friends tell you. You try not to take it personally though you’re in love with your flawed stories. You get down your notebook and write “No” on the right side of your chart by the name of the story doomed by a salutation. You sit at your computer, open your documents, and peruse the titles for another to send Mr. Sy Safransky.

Mamie Potter photoMamie Potter’s stories have been published in several print and online journals including Prime Number and Law and Disorder (anthology due fall, 2013).  Her most recent project brought together twenty-one writers who gave new stories to found photographs and was exhibited in The 1880 Gallery in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Rebecca, First Semester Freshman Year

There’s a girl in a broad-striped shirt with her hands in the back pockets of her Daisy Dukes, legs crossed, one tan knee over the other. She’s standing in front of a fence in front of an apartment complex whose name you do not yet know. Her right knee, creaseless, is the one you can see. The fence is chain-linked, the apartments brick, the sky dark and glossed with stars. Somebody somewhere inside’s got speaker troubles, but this doesn’t stop them from turning up Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” as loud as it can go. Her knee shines beneath the streetlights on either side of the fence, makes you think of lunar mornings not so long ago: a pale disk aglow in the purple-blue wash of spreading dawn just outside your parents’ house.

She simply stands there and your heart hurts. She simply is. And you no longer know where you were born.

Your brain has probably stolen this image from an episode of Seinfeld, which, in turn, stole it from the movie JFK, which, in turn, stole it from the collective memory, however warped, of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

In your memory of this moment, you are partially obscured from her line of sight by a crop of bushes. Your brain has probably stolen this image from an episode of Seinfeld, which, in turn, stole it from the movie JFK, which, in turn, stole it from the collective memory, however warped, of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. If anyone’s being assassinated here, it’s you, by her. Because she flips her hair and your spine goes wishy-washy. Because she uncrosses one knee from the other and your bones turn to powder.

Her friends join her. A few guys walk up. They are upperclassmen—as it worked in high school, so too in college. Experience is everything. The guys are saying things and the girls are smiling and laughing, and you wonder how something that has so much power over you can also be yours to control. These girls—this girl—whose “like” has reduced you to idiotic blubber in the past, is now blubber herself. She and her friends will go with these guys even though they know the guys are after only one thing. They’ll go with these guys and drink whatever they’re given, and some of them—all of them, maybe only one—will do whatever the guys require in order to be reimbursed for the first-class treatment. Maybe some serious making out, perhaps something potentially more dangerous.

Then the guys turn, and the girls turn, and she turns, and you’re looking at the back of them, at the back of her, at the back of her Daisy Dukes and the back of her legs, and those legs are moving. They’re moving away from you, taking her with them, through the opening in the fence, toward the apartment complex whose name you do not yet know, toward “Yellow Ledbetter” and the brighter side of the moon. And before you are even aware of having moved, you’re moving like the oceans: pulled. You open your mouth; you yawp; you’re a bloody drunk barbarian screaming into the void of existence; you’re Whitman; this is your Leaves of Grass; you’re writing it on your first night of college—in college, you’re in college, goddamnit; you’re proving it now; you’re writing it with teeth and bones and blood; this is your masterpiece, your moment; you’re making it; you; you; you; you yell her name:

“Rebecca!”

“Are you fucking insane?” your buddy asks, grabbing you by the arm, yanking the drunk version of you back from where you were heading, bringing you back to earth.

“Rebecca!” you cry again.

You call out her name one last time, third time’s a charm, and give it the ol’ college try, and this time not only does she look back but her friends and the guys who are leading them away look too.

She glances over her shoulder, sees you, you’re sure of it, but she can’t seem to connect you with the person who has twice called out her name. Or she does make the connection but doesn’t care—there is always that. You call out her name one last time, third time’s a charm, and give it the ol’ college try, and this time not only does she look back but her friends and the guys who are leading them away look too. These guys are obviously football players or bodybuilders, something that requires one to be big and hard and tough. They can take you out in a heartbeat; they can erase you, more so than you already are, from the collegiate landscape of which you are so trying to be a part. The guys look from you to the girls to each other then back at you. It’s clear they’re not sure what to do. They’ve got pussy on the brain, but they wouldn’t mind pulverizing you, especially if said show of masculine bravado could help put said pussy somewhere closer to their dicks.

“They’ll fucking kill you,” your buddy says. He’s gone from pulling you by the arms to pushing you against your chest. Holding up an open hand in their direction, he’s giving them the universal sign that he doesn’t want any trouble, that if they leave it to him, there won’t be any trouble.

It is enough. The football players turn away and Rebecca’s friends turn away and Rebecca turns away, and for a long time you’ll have yourself convinced that she hesitated before she turned away, that she held you for a moment in her gaze and tried to see you for what she was too, what you really were together at this moment, no different, just a couple of kids packed up and shoved off by their parents and forced into this brave new world, that she looked at you and tried to remember you, tried to make a memory of the boy who wouldn’t stop calling her name on her first night of college, first semester freshmen year.

Flanked by her friends and following the guys, she walks away.

You stand there with your buddy and watch her withdraw. Your buddy is still holding on to you but he’s no longer holding you back; he has a hand on your shoulder and one on your hip. He is holding you up.

Strangely, you’ll never be sure if you ever actually see her again after this night. You’ll see girls you think are Rebecca, follow girls who look like her, talk about girls you’ve seen or followed as if she was Rebecca, but always you’ll doubt that this was so. Her features, down to the kneecap, so prominent this night in your mind, fade as the days go by. The idea of her, however, does not weaken. In fact, as one month follows the next, one year another, it seems to grow stronger; the more she becomes lost to you, the more you wish it wasn’t so, the more this night with Rebecca in the moonlight—perhaps the only night or day of your life with her—means.

Grasping at straws leaves you holding on to substance.

And just like that, she’s yours. Forever, she’s yours.

Cliffton Price photoCliffton Price’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, Waccamaw, Rio Grande Review, Ray’s Road Review, MARY, Love Poems and Other Messages for Bruce Springsteen, Inside Higher Ed, and r.kv.r.y.  His short story, “Only the Good Die Young,” published in Artichoke Haircut, was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Conversations I Can’t Talk About

In the spring of 2007, my father and I are discussing something important when the guy in the car behind us at the green light raps his horn. In the passenger seat, my father, a polite man of eighty years does not flinch, just glances in the rearview mirror and says, ‟Hold your horses, buddy. Life is short.” I want to say something to my father, but when I look again, he is gone.

Of course he is. He had been dead by then for about six months.

I did not have any telephone conversations with my father in the fall of 2006, between the time I last visited him in the hospital, 2,700 miles from my home, and the time he died there seven weeks later. I told myself it would be better not to call. Since I could not visit in person, I did not want to confuse him on the telephone with my voice. If my voice meant nothing to him, he might get upset—or more likely, I would. Or he might ask me to come. I did not want to have to remind him that I was, in fact, back at my own home in New Jersey and not still in Las Vegas, taking care of my mother in the house they had shared there for twenty-five years.

Take care of your mother, he had said. And the house, and the garden and the pool. It had been a shock to hear my father, for the first time in my life, ask a girl to do these things. He was half out of his head by then, I knew. I also knew I liked the sound of it, his asking, his asking me. He gestured with his good, unstroked right arm, pointing to his arthritic knees and atrophied hip, and said, ‟I can’t do any damned thing anymore. I’m a sad sack. You’ll have to take care of everything now.” I lied and said I would, that I would stay with Mommy, that I would make sure everything was all right. But I didn’t. I flew home a few days later.

The truth is, I did not call him because it was easier for me not to. It was easier if I remembered our last conversation at the hospital, the one where he reminded me to always tip generously and to lock my doors, as the last conversation, though it wasn’t.

The conversations, it turns out, go on.

*     *     *

During the winter directly following my father’s death, I work at my desk in my well-equipped home office while my sons are at school, the way I have for 17 years. Only now, nearly every day, I wear one of my father’s sweaters: a cable-stitched cotton V-neck in blue or gray, an itchy-scratchy wool crewneck in brown or black, or the one that is my favorite—a zip-front tan cashmere cardigan so warm it sometimes makes me groggy. Wearing his clothes is maudlin, I know, but it makes me happy, in a sad way. These days I’ll take happy any way.

My father was a slim man and a sharp dresser and I don’t recall him ever wearing baggy sweaters, but these fit me and I am a large woman: I am fat. Maybe he did not in fact wear them much, or at all, now that I think about it. Maybe they were gifts and too big to begin with. His armoire was always stacked with new-looking clothes. He had his favorites from years and decades past, and he tended to wear them over and over. These sweaters are not attractive on me, and when I walk past the hall mirror on the way to the bathroom, I startle myself.

And yet, before I start work each morning that winter, I reach for one of these sweaters. I remember a time when he was wearing one of them, the blue V-neck with the white stripe, when he was visiting us here, about two years before he died, and I was telling him that I had decided to change some things, to change my life.

‟I’m going back to school, Dad.” I was 44.

‟Good for you,” he’d said. ‟Hey, that’s going to cost a pretty penny.”

‟Not so bad,” I lied, and waited to see if he’d offer one of his low-interest loans, but by then the Alzheimer’s had taken a tenuous hold and he demanded, ‟Why? I think you went to college already. And you don’t need a new car. You drove that blue car back then. Remember?”

I remember.

*     *     *

In the mornings before I open my laptop with one hand, I find my other arm hugging my father’s sweater to my torso.

My father was not a hugger. He was not a satisfying hugger. He hugged me and my brother and my sister and my mother, but always with just one arm. We all gave up trying to puzzle out why. Sometimes I figured it was because he often had a lit cigarette in the other hand. Once, when she was in college and prone to spouting psychobabble, my sister speculated it was a passive-aggressive gesture—that he didn’t want to be lashed to us, that he was too smart and worldly and needed a wider life. My mother, who quit school in the eighth grade, just shrugged and said, ‟He’s hugged that way since we were both sixteen.”

My father’s half-hearted hugging did not stop him from being my protector, though the truth is, I rarely found myself in need of his protection. I was a wiseass, know-it-all child, a fourteen-going-on-twenty sort of teenager who, for a few years, treated her father badly, mocking and alienating him with her petulant attitude and snotty rejoinders.

I find myself apologizing to him for this in a conversation we have in those first few months after his death, when he appeared next to my desk while I was shredding another draft of a too-predictable story.

‟Forget it kiddo,” he said quietly, cuffing my shoulder. I could almost feel it through the soft thickness of his sweater.

*     *     *

For the first six months after he died, I have trouble thinking in the past tense. No, that isn’t it exactly. I have trouble thinking about the entire year that has just passed—illness, resignation, all of it. It’s during this time that I notice my arm getting tingly, or falling asleep whenever I am writing in longhand. One day I make a mental note to ask my father if that is how his arthritis started; I curse. I circle an item in The New Yorker about a new book I think my father might like. I even scribble in the margin, ‟Birthday for D—” and before even lifting my pen, I feel idiotic. On the Internet I see a report of a merger of two multi-national corporations and wonder if my father, the uber biznews consumer, has heard about it yet. Then a wash of stupidity and anger sluices over me. He’s dead, you silly girl.

When he was alive, my father and I butted our stubborn heads, yelled across holiday dinner tables, and looked at one another as if the other were not only wrong but also stupid.

When he was alive, my father and I butted our stubborn heads, yelled across holiday dinner tables, and looked at one another as if the other were not only wrong but also stupid. If you ask me today what sorts of important issues we saw differently, I could not think of one thing. I know that this is sentimental of me, and maybe smacks of revisionist history. I know that I am protecting myself as well as the dead we should always speak well of. I can’t help it. He’s here, and here, and something about his being gone keeps him present all of that winter.

*     *     *

My two sons called their grandfather PopPop, and for the six weeks each year when my parents stayed at our house, my boys followed him like ducklings. I have pictures of them, at ages two and six, crawling on top of my father like lapdogs, just after he’d awoken on the sleeper couch in our family room; and at six and ten, sprawled on the bed alongside him; and at eight and twelve, sitting on the floor at night beside the bed’s grey metal framework. Those pictures tell me I did not just imagine it: my sons loved their PopPop. This is important to me, that my father meant something to the generation of men in our family who will come of age at a time when no grandfathers are likely to be around.

As soon as I get back to New Jersey after my father’s wake, I think about my father-in-law, who lives nearby and is eighty-seven. He has a Pacemaker that acts up. He has high blood pressure, an enlarged prostate and congestive heart failure. He and my mother-in-law, who is eighty-nine, live two miles away and they both still work, still drive, and together they put in twenty-seven tomato plants that June. My husband and his father are best friends. My husband does not understand how precious and unusual this is, or maybe he does, but he does not understand what awaits, does not want to think about it, and he never wants to talk about it. That’s fine except I remind him (don’t I have to?) that he and his father have things they should discuss: jointly owned property, a business partnership, how the old man feels about life support. My husband waves me off. He thinks there will be time to talk about all of that. Let’s not and say we did.

For months after my own father’s death, I ashamedly nurse a seething, petty anger and when my husband says anything about my father—like how my father could never understand the rules of any board game (which he couldn’t)—I think, Shut up. My father is dead and yours is alive. This is a terrible thing to want to say to the husband you still love after twenty-one years of marriage, even if you know you will never say it out loud, though I do say, ‟You have no idea what it’s like to lose a parent.”

*     *     *

My father’s 84-year-old brother Nunzio gets married for the second time less than two months after my father dies. Some people used to mistake Nunzio for my father, whose name was Anthony, but everyone called him Tony. I couldn’t see it then. Tony was tall, elegant; he had 1940s movie-star looks and a 1920s gentility. He was polite, well-spoken, well-read. Nunzio was shifty, shorter. And he swore. Yet as they aged, my father’s humped back made him appear shorter, and they both had heads of grey hair. Widowed at eighty, Nunzio called his brother every week, sometimes every day. My father sent him money, folds of cash in plain white envelopes. When the invitation comes for the wedding, I see it at as a healing opportunity. Weddings and funerals and all that.

But sitting in the church, I cannot look up to the altar, and I can hardly look away. It seems as if my father is standing there, marrying a stooped woman with red hair. Later, at the reception, I have a hard time hugging my uncle with both arms. I have always liked this uncle, but I look away when he clutches my freezing hands and tries to tell me how much he misses my father and how he wishes his brother could be there. A nasty loop starts in my head: So if you loved him so much, why didn’t you fly out there to see him, one last time? All that money he gave you, and you couldn’t buy a damned airline ticket? I dismiss my uncle’s health issues, his claim that his doctor had warned him not to fly. I dismiss him. Why are you still here?

I came to the wedding because I thought Nunzio was the closest I could get to my father. For a time, I said that I would give anything to have my father back. Then I stopped saying it, because really, would I? It’s a ridiculous notion, a stupid expression. We wouldn’t give anything; we would only give something.

The next time I see my father, one night at about 2 a.m. as a hot flash pulls me awake and I go to the bathroom to fling off my sweaty nightgown, he doesn’t want to talk about Nunzio, or weddings, or anything much.

‟Feeling okay, Dad?” I ask.

‟Very funny, kiddo,” he laughs.

*     *     *

My father was part of the last generation for whom it was possible to be a self-made man. With a tenth-grade education, he started businesses and employed dozens. He earned a million dollars, sent three kids to private colleges. He read his entire life, and he passed on to me this great love of words and books when I was so young I can’t even remember.

I knew he wrote too because occasionally he’d show us one of his short stories. In my teenage intellectual superiority, I dismissed them all as so much pap: the underdog naturally prevailed, justice and order was always restored, the dejected doubter always in the end engaged joyfully with life.

None of his writing was ever published; his life dream, forever deferred, was to be a doctor, not a writer. But he was a son of Italian immigrants who needed his wage-earning hustle, not his cerebral muscle, to help feed seven siblings.

None of his writing was ever published; his life dream, forever deferred, was to be a doctor, not a writer. But he was a son of Italian immigrants who needed his wage-earning hustle, not his cerebral muscle, to help feed seven siblings. And so he ran a gritty junkyard with his father in the 1940s and 1950s. He built polyester factories in the 1960s and opened a recycling center in the 1970s. He retired early in 1981 at age fifty-five, to read three newspapers a day on the patio inside the cement walls of his Las Vegas backyard, to lose badly at craps and then quit gambling.

I thought he had stopped writing years before, but after he died, I found dozens of stories in his slanted printing. Some were on the stationery of hotels in cities he traveled to on business. These and more of his writings were in a brittle-paged scrapbook on the highest shelf of the closet in his den in the sprawling custom-designed house he and my mother had built on sand and a polyester fortune.

There were awful, lovesick poems dating back to meeting my mother in 1942; nimble, light verse about each of us kids; and sing-song Valentine’s Day dribble. But there, too, were artful prose poems about fatherhood and time, and a few sophisticated short stories about searchers and sinners with equivocal endings. Two imaginative lyrical essays made me shudder and say ‟shit” through my tears, as every cruel thing I had ever said to him came back to me, along with every encouraging, exaggerated piece of praise he had ever heaped upon even my worst high school newspaper drivel.

‟Dad, how come you never showed me any of this?” I asked him once in a post-mortem meeting on my living room couch. ‟I never knew you were a real writer,” I said and immediately regretted the tone, my indecorous literary guise. He simply smiled.

Eight months after he dies, when one of my essays is published in the New York Times, my father sits on my patio, newspaper folded back just so, a glass of lemonade at hand. But when I try to talk to him about it, he waves me away. “I’m reading.”

*     *     *

For that entire winter, my dead father and I have long, fatty conversations, devoid of the angling and defensiveness that once drove my mother crazy when he was alive. There isn’t time for all that. I never know when these unplanned, haphazard meetups will end. I know, it reads like a Lifetime TV movie script—grief-stricken daughter talks to her dead father. But that is all right, that is allowed, even for smart, supposedly sophisticated daughters who agreed philosophically that cremation was sensible, but then sobbed like a sick sow when her father’s eyeglasses were accidentally incinerated along with the body.

I want to know why, in his big house with a large den of his own, why did he keep his easel, pastels, and paper—everything he asked for as retirement gifts—in the closet?

“Why didn’t you go back to art, Daddy?”

He doesn’t answer, just wrinkles his lined forehead and holds up his arthritic hands. My stupidity astounds me. I ask about the gifts still in boxes, lined up in rows along two deep closet shelves, given to him by me, by my sister and brother, over decades of birthdays, Christmases and Father’s Days.

“Dad, why didn’t you ever take them out of boxes and use them? Didn’t you like any of it?” I ask.

‟Oh, I appreciated all of it honey. But there was so much stuff.”

‟But you must have used some of them once in a while because I used to check, every summer when I came to visit. And the last five years or so, there was less, and things were moved around,” I say.

‟Oh, I was giving things away. The Mexican gardeners, they have nothing.”

*     *     *

Sometimes I can’t think of any questions. But he has questions for me, questions he might have asked in life, and which I would have heard then as criticism, as judgment.

‟What are you going to do about your lack of retirement savings?” my father wants to know. I tell my husband that my father asked me this in a dream, and suddenly it is something the two of us can talk about without my screaming that he’s a lousy provider or his yelling that I’m too controlling. I tell my husband I saw my father in a dream because who knows, maybe it was a dream—and anyway, if I said that my father and I were talking on Tuesday afternoon while I was waiting for the kids in the carpool line, well, that might sound absurd and then we’d have to talk about how I’m coping instead of about the retirement account.

When my father was alive, most of our conversations were limited to phone pleasantries, truncated by, ‟I’ll get your mother.” This made sense, didn’t it? Weren’t my mother and I more alike? Now I see it clearly: it was my father I took after. I was the child who must have reminded him most of himself. The one who, during his lifetime, acted as if we couldn’t possibly have anything in common.

*     *     *

My friend Dee, who believes death is not an end, tells me that my father’s visits make sense. ‟You have unfinished business. Pay attention,” she says.

So I pay attention, but sometimes I can’t tease out what unfinished business we could be completing when we sit silently on the patio together watching my sons shoot baskets in the driveway. Or when we gesture at the TV and huff about ‟damned politicians” while watching CNN. But I pay attention. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe, I decide one day, the point, the message from my father who refuses to reside in any part of my consciousness that holds dead people, if there is any message at all, is this: pay attention. Period.

And I do. When my sons come in from school, I hug them tighter, and I notice how much darker the hairs lining my older son’s upper lip have gotten, and I register that I can rest my head on the top of my younger son’s head and that when he hugs me, tight, both of his arms clasp neatly behind my back.

*     *     *

For all his engagement with the world, my father wore an enigmatic separateness. My father enjoyed his colleagues—but rarely invited them home. He took care of his aging parents—but made it clear they would never live with us. He loved my mother, my sister, my brother, and me—but kept us at one arm’s length.

Deeply compassionate but always a little detached and world-weary, my father supported with pure, pragmatic gestures. He said, ‟I’ll take care of it,” and wrote checks and rented apartments for struggling relatives, underwrote school fundraisers and mayoral campaigns, cosigned loans and dispatched hired hands, called in favors for jobs or theater tickets.

‟I gave my word,” my father explained once when I questioned him, twenty-five years ago, why he was paying my cousin’s college tuition. Yes, I wanted to say, but you gave that word ten years ago, when his mother couldn’t pay her phone bill, and now they live on the beach. But since my own tuition at Syracuse University was paid in advance every semester, and the account holding my horse’s monthly board and horse show fees was always full, I couldn’t think of a reasonable way to argue. He said he had once promised that he would put his nephew through college and now he was doing it. Period. This boy was a favorite cousin of mine when we were kids, but when my father died, he did not take the morning off from the medical center he directs to come to the wake or the funeral, or to the repast lunch, and he did not call or even send a card.

My father and I discuss this one dreary winter day. ‟He didn’t come, can you imagine?” Of course, I must script his answer, but not out of nothing.

‟He’s busy,” my father says.

‟But after all you did for him!”

‟Forget it, kiddo. There’s no time for that.”

*     *     *

I am not naïve. I know that once dead, a parent’s memory gets to slough off the legitimate, grating flaws that once accompanied its corporeal form. My father was a frustratingly rigid man who did not think it impolite once to ask a new boyfriend of mine how much he earned and to tell him it wasn’t enough. He thought he knew everything and when he didn’t, he made up something that sounded plausible and let everyone believe it was true. If what you were saying did not interest him, he would click on the TV or walk out of the room. His college-dropout son could do no wrong, and his two high-achieving daughters, for all their accomplishments, were still just girls.

Once, years ago, when he called me in New Jersey to be sure my husband could pick him and my mother up at the airport when the red-eye landed, I said I would be there instead. My father rattled off alternatives—a car service, taxi, Uncle Nunzio. Finally, I yelled into the phone, ‟Dad, believe it or not, I can pick you up at the airport even though I don’t have a penis.”

He must have blushed, deeply. I knew his chivalric nerve would sustain damage, which is why I aimed for it. I was in my thirties, old enough to know better, young enough to still want to land that arrow deep enough to be noticed, not so deep to draw blood.

*     *     *

Over time, our conversations grow more one-sided, for the most part, unless I am dreaming. But that seems okay, right even. Neither of us is exactly who we were when he died, or even who we were in the hospital a few months before that, talking at cross-purposes about loans and tipping and who could or should take care of what. We are not even anymore, today, who we were the last time we talked, or maybe I should say the last time I imagined we talked. I have to remember this, that this father I talk to who is dead is also someone other than the one who would not let me drive his car when I visited. He is someone other than the person who once insisted that antibiotics could cure a virus, even after I showed him the truth on WebMD.

I know that, for reasons I don’t completely understand yet and maybe never will, I’ve constructed this father to fill in for the one I could not talk to before. Was it Emily Dickenson who said, ‟Absence is presence compressed?”

I know that this is not even the same father who, decades ago, handed me lit sparklers on the Fourth of July and stayed close by with a pitcher of water, or the one whose trusted hands held me in the hashing ocean of Miami Beach when I was scared that a riptide or a jelly fish, or my brother, would hurt me.

This father lives not in the real world, and likely never did, but in my imagination, dwelling in the interstitial byways between memory and hope, standing beneath the connecting gambrels of grief and gratitude. This father is gone, never was, and he is sitting right next to me.

Lisa RomeoLisa Romeo teaches at Rutgers University and The Writers Circle. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; literary journals and collections. She holds an MFA from the Stonecoast Program. Lisa lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons, and she blogs at http://LisaRomeo.blogspot.com.

 

Transgressions

Sticky Skirts

Fearful of showing more skin than was appropriate for my grandmother’s funeral, I pulled my black lined skirt downward for the hundredth time. The problem was, no matter how hard I pulled I couldn’t help but feel like the skirt was still riding up. I blamed my obsessive thought patterns on the humidity. I pulled at the skirt again. Couldn’t we sit down already? Christ, it was hot.

When the heat index reached 120 before the 2 p.m. service, the ushers went in search of four oscillating fans. Two were stashed at the front corners, between pews and walls. The other two fans lined each side of the casket, oscillating between Grandma and us. I watched with envy as the plants surrounding the coffin shifted in the breeze.

One Christmas morning, a pea-green, skintight skirt awaited me under Grandma’s sparsely-decorated artificial tree. The tree, occupying a small corner of her living room, was decorated with red garland and sparkled with gold, silver and red bulbs. Unfolding the skirt, I stood up and placed the pea-green fabric against my twelve-year-old hips, wondering when I would be able to fill out those contours.

“She is not wearing that in public,” I heard my Dad say. He was sitting at the dining room table, surrounded by my uncles. Crushed, I quickly folded the skirt back up. Really? Could he be any more embarrassing? I sat back down on the living room floor with the rest of my aunts and cousins amidst the discarded wrapping paper and bits of ribbon.

“It’s just a skirt, Wayne,” said Grandma, coming to my rescue from her recliner beside me. “She’ll look great.” She placed her thin, weathered right hand on my shoulder, giving me a gentle squeeze.

 

Living to Sit

“At the end of life,” the pastor said, “one must consider the sins we have committed, the wrongs we have done others, and the forgiveness necessary to reach that safe haven of heaven.”

What? Why the focus on sins? Is this what happens when a pastor’s too busy to write a sermon? In ninety-three years, Grandma had done her share of sinning, I’m sure, but for the past seventy-seven years or so, she’d also done her share of sitting right here, in this congregation. I would hardly consider that sinful.

Was it because Grandma sat towards the rear of the church, seven rows from the back, always on the left-hand side? It wasn’t exactly a front row seat, a tuned-into-God, feel the pastor spit from the pulpit kind of position. Maybe God only saved front row sinners. Inside the Missouri Synod, maybe those at the back of the church miss God’s divine purpose. Or was it just our particular pastor’s God who hated, discriminated, and judged us differently?

Grandma sat beneath the balcony where my family always sat. She’d look up through her large skin-toned glasses to see if we’d made it. Once she spotted us, she’d return her attention to the pulpit for a few minutes, then, when Mom and Dad weren’t looking, she’d glance back up to smile or wink at me. Then she’d pull her tan cardigan closer to her body and tune back into the pastor’s message.

“Only the privileged are allowed access to heaven,” I heard the pastor say. What about the rest of us, I wondered, as I doodled across the communion acceptance slip, blocking out the oath to God that condemned us to eternal damnation, if we consumed the body and blood of Christ without faith. Would I go to hell for using it as a blank sheet of paper?

After the church service I would wait for her in the narthex. Those who sat closer to God exited first. When it was Grandma’s turn to leave, she would pause in front of the pastor, repeating the required pleasantries like, “great sermon,” before moving on to encase me in a hug.

 

Plucking Swearing Chickens

“Swearing,” says pastor, “is a sin.”

No shit. Oops, now I had sworn in the house of God. This sermon was a sin, I thought defiantly. Grandma never swore. Swearing in her presence might land one with a meal of Ivory soap instead of the usual chicken dinner.  We ate a lot of chicken, probably because grandma raised her own.

“You gotta stop those chickens from running,” Grandma yelled from her position across the yard, supervising the steaming hot dunk tanks and cutting boards shaded by oaks. “We don’t want bruised meat.”

Two of my uncles and my dad rotated positions between the chopping block and the coop, retrieving chickens. Six of the oldest cousins lined the plucking station, a contraption that looked like a makeshift clothesline, shoved over by the barn. Three of my aunts and my mother circled the dunk tanks and cutting boards. My job was to pluck the feathers from the course, prickly skin. The rusty iron smell of blood loomed like a heavy fog with a quarter-mile visibility. Wet feathers clung to the skin of my legs, between my shorts and socks. Bringing my shoe up, I slid the sole across my leg, but none of the feathers fell to the ground. I hate chicken feathers. When wet, they smell like musty cardboard brought up from a damp basement.

Swiping the sweat from my brow, I tried not to think of the chicken separated from her children and friends at the coop. Or of the thwaping sound of the ax as it penetrated the tiny necks, lodging itself in wood. The head lay motionless while the body jumped up to run. My uncle, swooping down to catch the bird, missed yet again.

“Catch that damn chicken,” Grandma bellowed.

 

Coveting Skittles

“Coveting thy neighbor,” says pastor, “is the second unforgiveable sin we partake of in life.”

Grandpa died of heart complications long before I was born, leaving Grandma to finish raising six children, half of which were still in school. Grandma was fifty-eight when she took over the fieldwork, the pigs and the chickens.

Shifting in my seat, I wondered what Grandma might have coveted. Grandpa died of heart complications long before I was born, leaving Grandma to finish raising six children, half of which were still in school. Grandma was fifty-eight when she took over the fieldwork, the pigs and the chickens. I suppose she could have coveted a different outcome, except she seemed content to be alone. Maybe her lack of a second marriage, or her inability to turn over the reins of her farm to another man, made her a sinner. Instead, she’d held her farm in safekeeping for her sons, assisting them in the fields from 1976 until her retirement in 1992. Maybe independence was a sin. Maybe the pastor was insane. As for the seventeen grandchildren, we coveted her stash of Skittles hidden within the belly of her crystal rooster stored upon her buffet.

Grandma was notorious for saying, “There will be no spoiling dinner, so only take two or three Skittles from the rooster.”

I often wondered, why only two or three pieces? Why not a handful? Does it really matter? But it did matter. She obsessed over it. Grandma could hear the rooster’s back being lifted off its base from anywhere in the house.

Plenty of times my cousins and I waited for her to head up the stairs to go to the bathroom before we’d break into action. Tiptoeing across the shag green carpet, we’d head straight for the crystal rooster, our puzzles or books abandoned, tempted by the promise of unsupervised rainbow-colored candies. Gently, we’d lift the lid. We knew the slightest tap of glass on glass would land us a punishment like dusting or vacuum cleaning. From somewhere above, we’d hear, “Put those Skittles back!”

 

Problematic Glass Birds

The final unforgivable sin awarded to my grandmother at her funeral service was that of holding a “need to harbor ill feelings towards another.” As I stared down the pastor, I harbored a few of my own. Sweat ran down the sides of his face. He enunciated every word of this sin, twice, believing this would somehow change us.

When Brett’s department store in Mankato went out of business, I was in grade school. Grandma and I sifted through rows and rows of tables set up with clothes, knickknacks and shoes. A small red bird, about three inches high, with a white underbelly, long red legs, red neck, and a peacock tail, caught my eye. She encouraged me to pick it up. The cool softness of the glass bird caressed my hand. Mom never allowed me to touch glass items, but Grandma didn’t seem to mind. She grabbed a different glass bird. Hers was short and stubby, with a blue head, green body, and red tail; it looked like a small robin, standing maybe an inch and half tall.

“Let’s take these,” she said. We walked to the counter. The lady behind the register wrapped the birds in paper, placing them in a bag while Grandma paid for them.

In the car, I immediately unwrapped my little glass bird. Grandma suggested we should swap birds. I did so reluctantly. That chubby blue-green bird was not the one I wanted. He was so ugly.

“Why?” I asked, struggling not to pout.

“So we can remember each other,” she said, putting my bird back in her bag.

When we got to her house, Grandma placed my bird on a small wall shelf in her living room, where it remained right up to the day she entered the nursing home. Returning home to Morton at the end of the week, I made a place for the stubby bird on my dresser, inside my glow-in-the-dark nativity set. Mary and Joseph stood only an inch taller, keeping watch over their ends of the manger, Jesus, and the bird. At least he wasn’t alone. Jesus loves everyone, even ugly little birds.

 

Blueberry Pie Obituaries

When the pastor finally got down to the intimate details of Grandma’s life, he read them from her obituary. She wrote her own obituary during the late 1990s after a combine accident claimed her right arm, forcing her into retirement in ‘92. My revision on the day of her death, in July of 2011, consisted of trying to decipher the crimped writing of a newly left-handed woman: a long-standing member of our Lutheran church, employed during World War II as an accountant clerk for Montgomery Ward, a marriage to Grandpa, late to motherhood, six children, the Ladies Aid, the PTA, widow, hog farmer, crop farmer, long-standing Blue Earth County 4-H open class judge, a grandmother, and, finally, nursing home resident. While she was active in all of these positions, none of them truly defined her.

Cursed with temporary insanity during my sixteenth year of life, I asked Grandma for a blueberry pie, forgetting she’d lost her arm in a combine accident two years before.

“Are you insane?” my mother asked earlier that morning, when I had excitedly rattled off my expectations for a home-cooked birthday pie. “She can’t make her blueberry pies anymore. How the hell is she going to roll out the dough?”

Disappointed and ashamed by my lapse of memory, but unwilling to believe Grandma couldn’t do it, I waited outside the door for her to arrive. I could almost see the blueberries swelling out of the crisscrossed crust, golden brown with white sugar sprinkled across the top. Grandma’s silver pie tin would still be warm from the oven. More than anything, I wanted Grandma to prove to Mom she could still do it.

An hour later, I ran down the sidewalk to greet her. Opening the passenger door to her ‘88 Buick Regal, I smelled the sweet blueberries before I saw the silver pie tin. Kissing her on the check, I grabbed the pie tin and ran for the kitchen, yelling, “Mom, I got a blueberry pie.”

 

Final Goodbyes

When the front doors of the church swung wide, a dense, hot fog of humidity assaulted us, pressing us to wait until the pallbearers navigated the steps.

As I stood for the final song, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” my hands automatically began to pull on my skirt. The start of the final verse was our signal to follow Grandma out of the sanctuary. When the front doors of the church swung wide, a dense, hot fog of humidity assaulted us, pressing us to wait until the pallbearers navigated the steps. As the casket was loaded into the hearse, I heard someone say, “That was a great sermon.” I didn’t look for who made the comment, even though I wanted to. I wanted to scream, “Bullshit. Her life wasn’t a sin.”

Six months after her funeral, on a crisp autumn Sunday morning, I went to my grandmother’s house for the last time. The aunts and uncles were assembled. It was their last day to go through Grandma’s things. Her bird collection was all that remained. I asked for the red, long-necked bird; it was the only thing of hers that I wanted.

When I entered her house, my nine-year-old son, pointing to the floor, commented, “That’s some green carpeting, Mom.”

While my children spread out to inspect the house, I noticed that all the tables were covered with birds. Almost all were robin-looking red birds, a few blue glass birds, and a green bird, but the majority of her birds were red. I mentioned this to my mother, but she was all business.

“Pick out your bird,” she said. “None of us can remember what it looks like.”

I scanned the dining room table and the two card tables extending out into the living room. For one paralyzing second, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it. As I walked around the backside of the dining room table, I noticed the long pink neck of a glass bird with a white underbelly. Was that really it? As my fingers clasped the long-legged bird, its cool texture caressed my hand, telling me that this was indeed the bird, and yet, it wasn’t red, it was pink.

“This has got to be it,” I said, “But this bird is pink. Mine was red.”

“It’s been over twenty some odd years since you last saw the bird,” she said. “It faded.”

 

Liberational Roses

After the funeral service, my two boys and I rode with my sister in her air-conditioned car to the cemetery. We got out of the car and headed for the steep embankment, which descended down to Grandma and Grandpa’s stone. Once by the gravestone, we noticed the image of a walleye engraved into the red-gray granite. We were told Grandpa loved to fish up at the Lake of the Woods. It didn’t appear as if there were any personal markers on the stone to signify my grandmother’s passions, only her name. There was a small cross in the upper right hand corner. Was that her emblem?

The last time Grandma and I talked, we were in the hospital emergency room, shortly after her heart attack. For having Alzheimer’s, she was fairly lucid, aware of who we were, my uncle, mother and I, as we sat in the small room around her bed. At first I said nothing, unsure if I were just a passing memory to her. Multiple bones in her chest were crushed. Violation of the “do not resuscitate” orders had resulted in severe internal bleeding. Her second death would be harder. My mom and her brother talked to Grandma like she would recover, but we knew she wouldn’t. Did she know?

My mother jumped on me: “Talk to her like you used to.” What kind of comment was that?

“I’m in college now,” I said. Fourteen years ago, Grandma and I had disagreed over my decision not to go to college. “Forget about those barns,” she’d said. “You need an education.” She couldn’t understand why I’d work for the factory hog farms. “They crush small farmers.”

“I know,” Grandma quietly said. “I’m glad.” Seconds later, we were strangers to her again.

Once the final words at the interment were said, my aunts allowed the grandchildren to each grab a flower from the casket spray. I stayed back, while my eleven-year-old son, escaping my attention, wove through the crowd of cousins, heading for the casket’s flowers. He plucked one of the few red roses among the pink and white carnations. When he returned he said, “Here, Mom,” handing me the rose. “It’s from Great-Grandma.”

Microsoft Word - Sampson Bio and Photo.docxHeidi Sampson received her BA from Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she majored in creative writing and gender & women’s studies. She is a freelance writer for The Free Press, a reporter for the Albert Lea Tribune, and owner/editor-in-chief of the feminist online literary journal, Silent Revelations Press.

The Memoirist

I like to think I have it all figured out.

Take the rifle.

As long as I can remember, the gun was there, resting next to the exercise bike in our house in New York. My father probably assumed he’d hid it well, draping it under several terry cloth robes. But I knew.

Perhaps my older sister pointed it out to me, gently lifting up the robes with one hand while twirling her dirty blonde hair into knots with the other.  “That’s a gun,” she may have said.

Or maybe my mother told me.

“That’s a gun. Don’t touch it.”

I actually held a rifle once, at sleepaway camp. I remember laying my body on the grass and pulling cold, shiny bullets out of a cardboard box. I remember carefully placing those bullets in what our instructor called the chamber, then snapping it closed. I remember the slight jerk of my arm when I fired and the powerful feeling when my bullet actually hit the target. What a strange thing, come to think of it; little girls shooting guns.  If I had grown up in Israel, it may have seemed completely normal.  But my father, mother and eldest sister left there for America in 1960, eight years before my birth, and life took a different course.

I’ve often wondered where my father’s gun came from and, with no clear answer, as an adult, I create one.

He never told me about killing anyone, of course, as he was a quiet man. A man of secrets.  But I was a daughter of hypotheses (a regular Nancy Drew, my father once said) and I had carried this one in my head so long it now blurred into near-fact.

It came from Israel.

It was the gun he’d carried as a teenager fighting in the war of 1948. The gun he’d killed people with. He never told me about killing anyone, of course, as he was a quiet man. A man of secrets.  But I was a daughter of hypotheses (a regular Nancy Drew, my father once said) and I had carried this one in my head so long it now blurred into near-fact.

 

I saw my father about a month ago, in what’s now become our annual weekend reunion. We met at the hotel in New York where we meet every year. He and Terri, his second wife, flew up from North Carolina; I drove down from Boston with my husband and two boys.

When we arrived, I found my dad sitting on a couch in the hotel lobby. He wore the usual – a leisure shirt with plenty of pockets. Khaki slacks. Clip-on sunglasses. For the first time however, he no longer looked well preserved, but his actual age: 82. His eyebrows were the most unkempt I’d ever seen them, like two plump, hairy centipedes nestling across his lower forehead. His face was drawn in around the mouth, as though the recent loss of his original teeth had caused the flesh in his cheeks to slump in mourning.

“Hi Dad,” I said, leaning over to give him a hug. He returned the gesture with his style of hug – no real embrace, just a light tap on the back and a quick retreat.

“You look good,” I said.

He nodded and almost smiled.

Later that afternoon, my father and I sat snugly on a small outdoor wicker couch by the pool. He lit his pipe.

I told him how I had driven by our old house and how almost nothing had changed. The odd collection of signs my father had created announcing “196” (our address) for his psychiatric patients still bordered the driveway. Even Buddy’s run remained, including the dilapidated doghouse, all of it looking like an ancient doggie graveyard.

“Really?” he said. He was looking ahead and not at me. He was always uncomfortable looking at me.

“Yeah,” I said. “And there was a man outside. Right near the dog run. Must have been the father. He was gardening or something.”

My dad sucked on his pipe, then laughed. “I wonder if he found the bullets yet.”

He was referring to the bullets he’d buried in the front yard right before the move—shortly after Terri had sold my father’s rifle in a garage sale.

“Did you really bury them there?” I asked. When he originally told me this, I was horrified. As though they were live grenades. I suppose buried bullets could do little harm, but I wasn’t sure.

“Yeah,” he said. “The guy was such a pain in the ass when we were selling him the house. One problem, one complaint after another. First he wanted the house, then he didn’t. So I left him the bullets as a little present.”

An uncomfortable silence followed. Then I nonchalantly asked him: “So where did you get that rifle anyway?”

Here it comes, I thought. All those horrible stories of death and destruction and the people he’d killed, tumbling out like items from a closet finally opened after six long decades.

 “It came from one of my patients,” he said. “A woman whose husband had threatened her with it.”

Damn.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” he said. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” I said. I changed the subject.  “Is it even legal to sell a gun in a yard sale?”

He shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”

We sat in silence for a moment. I tried a technique I’d learned years ago in a counseling psychology class in graduate school.

Keep quiet and eventually they will talk. The truth, the really meaty stuff, will come out.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” my father said, then walked away.

I waved at the cloud of pipe smoke hovering in front of my face until I could see clearly again.

Such is the sorrow of the memoirist, I suppose. Discovering not everything is loaded.

Amy Yelin’s essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Literary Mama, The Drum and the anthologies Mamas and Papas and Tarnished: True Tales of Innocence Lost. “Torn” (originally in The Baltimore Review), received a notable essay recognition in the Best American Essays 2007. She holds an MFA from Lesley University.

Green Vase

Up at five. I rise before she does. I begin cleaning by six. It takes seven hours. It never ceases to humiliate: cleaning another woman’s home.

Take a break to wake Mrs. Pattershall, serve her tea, and provide a hand to help her out of bed. After dressing, she gets under my feet. I think of her as in my way, as out of place, as imposing. It is her apartment. I just clean it. But I am the one taking care of it. She is in the way. In her own home. How humiliating.

She’s poking around, looking for the green vase with the gold filigree. “It’s the only thing I have left of my mother.”

Trying to be helpful, I say, “I know I’ve seen it recently, but can’t place where or when.”

She says, “Now, who could have taken my green vase? If you were to come across it, you will give it back, won’t you?”

I would emphasize the word “Catholic.” I think that she hates us even more than she does the Jews.

I aim my eyes and my energy, with the focus of an intercontinental ballistic missile, on polishing her credenza. I want to say that I would never steal from her, and not just because of my Catholic morality. I would emphasize the word “Catholic.” I think that she hates us even more than she does the Jews. Although I’ll never forget this particular Pattershall-ism: “I can distinguish between New York Jews and California Jews by their facial features alone.” I’ve never heard Mrs. Pattershall utter a word against blacks. Her prejudices, like her, are antique. They calcified long before the Civil Rights Movement; even before the Holocaust, in the early days of the twentieth century, when she was a young schoolteacher, in white gloves, and scary Jews and Catholics from Eastern Europe clogged urban ports. I would never steal from her, I would say, not just because of my Catholic morality, thank you very much, but because of my good taste. It’s raining outside, heavily. I reconsider. I do not say anything. Eventually I will say the thing that will make her kick me out, but it will not be this thing, not on this day of heavy rain. I view my reflection in the fiercely polished surface of Mrs. Pattershall’s credenza.

She finds a different green vase, the one with the white enamel. She insists, “This is the only thing I have left of my mother.” She retires to the living room to watch her big-screen color TV. I don’t want to steal her vase. I want to steal time in front of that TV, which I never get to watch. I go out every day, see the sky, the world, people. I envy a shut-in’s big-screen color TV. Feh.

While cleaning, not seeking for the long-lost, gold-tricked, green vase, I toss the white enameled one about roughly. If – accidentally – I were to drop it, she’d have to throw me out, now, wouldn’t she? “It slipped,” I think. “I couldn’t help it!” I mentally practice pleading, as I mentally pack my bags. “How could you do this to me?” I accuse, as I mentally slam her door for the very last time. The vase does not drop. I am, for another term, a live-in domestic.

I fix her lunch, though that is not part of my contract, as are the morning tea and evening dinner, which nail my every day to her. Take a thorough shower. Hike to campus through a driving rain that renders my shower redundant.

Suddenly there is a new sound in Stephen’s Lounge, or something entirely new – any sound at all! – other than the subdued turning of pages, politely creaking furniture as bodies reposition strategically, muffled coughs or, rarest of all, escaped, apologetic, farts.

In Stephen’s Lounge, I dive into Preface to Plato, a tremendously exciting book. Today read two hundred pages of it; learn oral cultures are fundamentally different from literate ones. Suddenly there is a new sound in Stephen’s Lounge, or something entirely new – any sound at all! – other than the subdued turning of pages, politely creaking furniture as bodies reposition strategically, muffled coughs or, rarest of all, escaped, apologetic, farts. This sound is unpracticed, more dolphin-like than human – has this man ever spoken? “Is there a Nancy Hobart in the room?” asks the Stephen’s Lounge caretaker, a tall and rugged Daniel Boone of academia.

I look up and see a dripping delivery boy in a yellow slicker holding high a dozen red roses, reminding us that it is Valentine’s Day. A blushing and giggling Nancy Hobart, freshly wrenched from her version of Preface to Plato, rises from her study, reaches out over a couch, over the heads of three studying students, and takes her the roses, which drip, subtly, on the students. Daniel Boone hands her an emptied-out milk carton to serve as vase for her bouquet. We all laugh. After an initial pause, one person begins to clap. We all applaud.

I am surprised at how quickly, after I have clapped a few claps, my head drops back to my book; at how quickly I have changed from a working class Jersey girl who would have, with her buddies, milked this moment for a good thirty-five minutes of boisterous camaraderie, to a Berkeley scholar for whom silence and isolation are paramount, for whom they are gems wrenched from the pinching claws of life as Mrs. Pattershall’s live-in domestic.

I wonder if Glamorous Biker is here. I saw his bike downstairs. Even his bike is sexier than I, and pricier. I fell in love with him the day I came upon him as he rode his bike to the foot of the stone stairs leading up to Stephen’s Lounge. He stopped, dismounted, took the heavy bike in his right hand, held it away from his body, and sprinted with it, up the flight of stairs.

Have I been imagining it all? This is a silent study lounge. I’ve been in the same room with Daniel Boone for the last ninety days and all I know about him is that he looks like his name ought to be Daniel Boone, and that he keeps the coffee percolating, and the Pepperidge Farm cookies splayed on a tray, for a small fee, which we drop into a coffee can, a fee whose accuracy he calibrates by the thud our coins make as they collide with the mound of mixed coins at the bottom of the can.

They say that you can tell when you are being stared at. For at least the past month, in silent Stephen’s Lounge, deep in my books, I’ve been feeling that Glamorous Biker has been staring at me.

They say that you can tell when you are being stared at. For at least the past month, in silent Stephen’s Lounge, deep in my books, I’ve been feeling that Glamorous Biker has been staring at me. One day last week, I lifted my head from my book and gazed directly at him. He struck a pose of affront, as if I had started it, so I stopped noticing him. At all. After three days of my refusal to notice him, he dropped a piece of paper into my lap. There was a phone number on that piece of paper. Alone on that piece of paper. No name. No proposed plan.

I didn’t want to phone from Mrs. Pattershall’s. Last night I walked to Oakland, to Rick’s.

For whom would I ask? Glamorous Biker? Offering my name wouldn’t help; Glamorous Biker doesn’t know my name any more than I know his. But I’d recognize his voice – I’ve never heard his voice.

“Hi, this is Danusha from Stephen’s Lounge,” I ventured.

“Oh, yeah, right. He said you’d call. I’m Nate, the housemate.”

Nate’s knowledge was either a very good sign, or a very bad one. Nate took a message.

“Well, how did it go?” Rick asked gently.

I told him.

“Omigod. He lives with Nate?” Rick exclaimed.

“Nate?” I asked.

“All the girls I meet…all the girls I’ve rented houses with…all the girls in Slavic…they’ve all been with Nate in Political Science.”

I felt so crushed. Whenever Glamorous Biker enters Stephen’s Lounge, I, I alone, recognize him, and – and just, just, appreciate his light and loveliness and, and … okay, so we haven’t spoken, but I can just tell…

If Glamorous Biker and I ever do go out for a beer, I’ll have to ask, “Why do you flirt with me? And, come to think of it, not just with me, but also with that German student with the flea-bitten ankles and the chocolate addiction? She’s never met a Pepperidge Farm cookie she didn’t like. How does she stay so slim?”

Nancy Hobart has folded her roses unobtrusively into the studious gloom of Stephen’s Lounge; she is once again, an anonymous scholar in reading glasses, fighting, like the rest of us, to rein in her focus, her enthusiasm, and her farts. Daniel Boone is deep in his book, keeping the most disinterested of eyes and ears on the cookie change clunking into the coffee can. My fingers tighten around Preface to Plato. Glamorous Biker has just entered the room.

He doesn’t look my way; doesn’t greet me with a silent nod or a mouthed “Hi.” Displays no awareness that I’m here. But he must know I’m here. He must be able to tell I’m looking at him. Everyone here, whether they are looking at their books or not, knows I’m looking at him. It’s a spontaneously combusted wildfire of silent awareness. He swings past, slices right through my eyes’ importunate appeal, stretches his blond and lean and limber body on a couch, places The New York Times over his eyes, and, perhaps, sleeps.

What’s the right metaphor – I devote little time to trying to figure out how to describe other women’s breasts. Her breasts are better than mine.

Then why did he give me his number, then? Was it just bait? Did I fall for a trap? Do I exist to make the German chick jealous? I’ve told you she has flea-bitten ankles; did I tell you that she has breasts like grapes, melons, bowling balls? What’s the right metaphor – I devote little time to trying to figure out how to describe other women’s breasts. Her breasts are better than mine.

I walk back – I do not say “home” never “home” but “back” – in a streaming rain and prepare a perfect soufflé for Mrs. Patershall’s dinner; she delays coming to the table; it partially deflates. I do not care. I dine on a care package of Rick’s hummus; hummus does not deflate.

After I have the dishes all cleaned up, and the floor swept and washed – I do not do that on my knees, no matter how hard Mrs. Patershall insists – I return to my room, to quiet and solitude and Preface to Plato. I hear some small commotion: the doorbell ringing; Mrs. Pattershall finally answering it; some chirping, some arranging of something. And then: CRASH! Followed by tears.

I just know. I walk into the kitchen and across water and sea-foam green, gold-flecked shards. Mrs. Pattershall found the long-sought vase. Trying to fill it with water for the red roses her dutiful daughter has sent her, late, on this day (Mr. Pattershall died more than half her life ago), she dropped it. She is now seated on a chair, crying. I begin rubbing her back. I say nothing. I’ve come to conclude that she can’t accept others’ words; hers must be contrary and superior. I want to avoid frustration. So, I say nothing, while rubbing her back.

“That was the only thing I have left of my mother.”

I nod.

“She died when I was four.” That buzz-saw Yankee accent. “Four” comes out as “foah.” “As she was dying, she said to Aunt Lucy, ‘Take care of my husband and the farmhands. Don’t worry about her, though. She can take care of herself.’ I was only four! I’ve kept that vase for almost one hundred years. I’m so stupid. All I do is drop things.”

I squat, pick up the splinters of green glass, which nest readily in the palm of my hand, as if to make ready for a family of glass bluebirds. “I drop things too,” I say.

“Not as many as I!” she announces.

“It was a mistake,” I say calmly, “everyone makes mistakes. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I think I risk saying this because I’ve never heard her speak of her mother, or anyone, for that matter, with any warmth. She spoke of the vase – as a connection to her mother – with warmth, and now it is broken, and it was she who broke it. “Do you want me to keep the pieces?”

“No! Take them from my sight!”

I descend to my knees. My fingers venture gingerly under the cupboards.

“I feel so guilty,” she says, softly, “for suspecting people of taking things. But people have taken things.”

I remembered. Mommy had been promised, before she left, that in America the streets were paved with gold; she was informed, upon arrival at Ellis Island, that she had been invited to America in order to clean those streets. I remember one day that Mommy had gone to a new job, and her new boss had placed large wads of dollar bills on top of a dresser and in the refrigerator. Mommy could see what was going on. These greenbacks were the bait of a trap. He was testing her. She walked out, never to return. She didn’t linger long enough, even, to get paid for the work she had done there. That was her victory. That bastard. I don’t know his name, but he lives on in this family story.

“We had more than the others,” Mrs. Pattershall announces.

“The others.” She knew I was an “other” because I was poor; that’s why Professor Dundes sent me to her, so I could pay tuition and have a roof over my head at the same time. She rejoiced when she discovered that I am Catholic. “Catholics have too many children! That’s why you have to live with me.” How did she know who “the others” were in her New England village, where everyone was a WASP whose family had been in North America for the previous three hundred years? Incidents like this: “My mother left me a truly beautiful hat. A true chapeau. I wore it in front of the other children, who envied me because I was smart, and envied my father, because he was intelligent, and rich. They made fun of my hat and called it ‘an old piss pot.’ ‘I wouldn’t put that old piss pot on my head!'”

She waves her arms around the apartment, around the things that make a four-room, two-bath apartment a seven-hour job to clean. “Why don’t I just throw out this old junk?” she asks.

Foolishly, I take the bait. “Why don’t you donate it?”

“Are you serious?” she looks down at me. “Why just that little cracked toy there, do you realize how much it’s worth? Take a guess. You’d be wrong. I’ve had it appraised. Five hundred dollars! It’s been passed down in my family for one hundred and fifty years. Be careful when you dust it. Probably you’re not used to handling things like that.”

My not stealing must be such a disappointment to Mrs. Pattershall. She lacks the aesthetic sense to appreciate her things. My stealing them would solidify for her their real value: to arouse others’ envy.

I rise and place the glass splinters into a bag. I knot the bag. I’ll take it downstairs immediately after saying goodnight to her. She need not be tormented by having the remains in the apartment. I put the bag down on the countertop. I rinse my hands of quills. With clean hands, I stroke Mrs. P’s narrow shoulders under her velveteen robe.

Mommy couldn’t afford a babysitter for us when we were sick home from school. After third grade, we fended for ourselves. Before that, before she felt safe leaving us home alone, she would take us with her while she worked. If I hadn’t already known that cleaning houses is dirty, the way the rich treated my mother was enough to let me know.

I was five years old, and too sick to attend kindergarten. Mommy transported me to a neighborhood confected of clouds. I gazed at tiny glass swans afloat on a mirror pool in the forgotten corner of one rich woman’s vast home. I knew that these swans belonged with me, not with the shits in that house. It was a question of justice.

The phone call came that night. I was in bed. Mommy looked at me. “They want to know if you stole their swans.” There was no anger in her.

How could I spirit away large waterfowl in my little kid coat? That was really the first confused image that staggered into my mind. I learned to disassociate from my crimes early. And it was already night. In little-kid time, what had had happened that morning was eons ago.

I breathed out an exaggerated, “Noooo!”

Nothing more was ever said. The swans, the elegant glass miracles, were inviolable in the most remote place I knew, a place never entered by others: my sock drawer. It had never occurred to me to question how socks entered that drawer. One day I realized that the swans were no longer there. At that moment I felt much older than I had felt before it; I felt much older on that day of awareness, followed by awareness, followed by awareness. In that domino cascade of awarenesses, including, “Oh, so that’s where socks come from,” was this one: That I had stolen, not liberated, the swans. That they were not my long-lost family, and that my placing them in my pocket was not an act of reunion. That they were objects, and that they were best classified, not as something loved and appreciated, but as something owned. Their ownership was decided by something I did not have: money. I realized that I was ashamed. In another awareness, I realized that I was ashamed for a different reason.

After dredging up this story, a fresh awareness suddenly arises. That was probably the classiest way that my mother had ever behaved toward me. I can no longer continue to say that my mother never showed me any tenderness. And I realize why she was so kind to me on this occasion, rather than, say after I’d gotten a good report card. I feel a fresh compassion for Mommy. Thank you, Mrs. Pattershall.

Sometimes I worry about myself. I fear that I’ve lost who I am; I fear that when I have a dog to pet again, a boy to kiss, and my own place, will I, the me I’ve lost, return? I tell myself, “Trzmaj sie. Hold on.” But then I realize that in this place, I am meeting new aspects of my most prized self that I never would have encountered, had I not come here.

I put Mrs. Pattershall to bed. My hand is on the light as she volunteers something that surprises me. “You know, dear, Professor Dundes has high hopes for you. He says you have it. Of all the students he has this year, he says that you have it. Never forget that, dear.”

I blush. I smile. I put out the light. “Good night, Mrs. Pattershall.” I still have some time to read Preface to Plato before I go to sleep.

Danusha Goska is a New Jersey teacher and writer. Her work has appeared in anthologies including The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Her new book, Save Send Delete, tells the true story of a debate about God and a love affair she shared with a celebrity atheist.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Woman

I.
Twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, I saw them. Oiled, buttered up, ready for consumption. And though black writers hate to describe skin color in terms of food, it’s true: their bodies were all the shades of brown you’d see on a Thanksgiving dinner table.

That’s not the important thing.

This is. Heads tucked down, asses pushed out, they’d mastered the Kim Kardashian pose, though they hadn’t quite figured out how to achieve her money or status.

It’s interesting how the kiosk owner had set it up. These black women dominated the magazine rack. The rows of glossy brown bodies tumbling out of bikinis seemed to have been placed almost strategically in front of The New Yorker. New York Magazine. The New York Times. Psychology Today. An old issue or two of Wired.

And I always wondered, who at the 116th Street station was buying these magazines?

I was taking a seminar at Columbia, and was the only black person in it. That could have been an anomaly, but I don’t think so. The first time I ran into a brother who was also in my graduate program, we almost hugged each other.

So who was buying these magazines? And why had the kiosk owner put them there, smack in the middle of the station?

Was it to give people something brown to look at as they came and went? Or was it for his own enjoyment? Did he, a forty-something Indian man, get tired of the similarity of the people walking by? Was positioning a video vixen’s defiantly arched backside in front of the Times his version of an STFU to the world?

I never had adequate time to ponder these questions. The train would come, leaving fifty minutes to get to Long Island City, Queens, where I taught.

In any case, it didn’t matter. The moment I exchanged the 1 train for the 7 train, I relaxed.  Rather than look away, people looked me in the eye, or at least, in the vague direction of my voice. I felt like an invisible object suddenly gaining form. It’s funny how the more you move away from certain sections of Manhattan, the more you notice the darker and more varied faces, and the intricate-almost-magical way a potpourri of accents blossoms.

 

II.
My very first sex dream was about a puppet.  That may sound odd, but it’s probably because you don’t hear much about girls and their wet dreams. But I woke up, wet and scared and excited. I could feel my vagina vibrating, and though at thirteen I didn’t know what an orgasm was, I knew I’d had one; I knew I had experienced something. To this day, I can’t figure out what it was about this image that did it for me. If I had to guess, maybe it was the way the puppet moved its genderless, boxy form. The little brown puppet pushed itself up and down, out and in, in all kinds of crazy, jerky ways.  The oddest part of the dream?  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tell who held the puppet’s strings.

 

My students were never afraid to express their opinions, and for a while, I attributed their fearlessness to the fact that I was another black woman, just a few years older than most of them, and therefore not intimidating. But over time, I wondered if I was wrong, if what I had thought was self-confidence was, perhaps, something else.

III.
Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham brought us the most useful term ever: “the politics of respectability.”  In Righteous Discontent, Higginbotham describes how black women in the post-Reconstruction era adapted a politics of respectability in order to combat the “widespread assumptions of the black woman’s innate promiscuity.”

The politics of respectability was, in many ways, a visual fight. Black leaders cautioned black women to keep immaculate homes, dress modestly, and appear clean and neat at all times.

And yet, the politics of respectability always had a vocal undertone.

Most people are familiar with the photograph of a bespectacled Rosa Parks sitting calmly on a bus, but in At The Dark End of the Street, author Danielle McGuire describes how Parks seldom sat; she traveled across the country, investigating cases of violence, including sexual violence. Long before the boycott, Parks was noted for her campaign of justice for Recy Taylor, a black woman who was raped by six white men. Parks, McGuire explains, was tireless in making sure her voice was heard. She “wrote letters, signed petitions, sent postcards” in support of Taylor.

It’s impossible to hear battle cries in a silent image. Still, the Rosa Parks photograph, which has seeped into our consciousness, is not entirely without noise.

 

IV.
When I Google “black women and rape,” the first website that pops up is www.womenagainstrape.net. The second is from a man claiming that black women were never raped during slavery. Black female slaves, he writes, willingly had sex with the slave master because that was “moving up in the world big time.” The fact that black women were property and thus could not legally give their consent either does not enter the man’s consciousness or is something he does not wish to discuss.

 

V.
Before I taught at a community college, I taught at a historically black women’s college. My students were never afraid to express their opinions, and for a while, I attributed their fearlessness to the fact that I was another black woman, just a few years older than most of them, and therefore not intimidating. But over time, I wondered if I was wrong, if what I had thought was self-confidence was, perhaps, something else.

One year, I brought pictures of women – black, white and Latina, dressed similarly, in bathing suits and biking shorts – to a couple of my composition classes.  I held a stopwatch and asked students to write their immediate reaction to each picture.  We’d been reading personal essays from both ordinary women and prominent feminist scholars. Because the pictures were from women’s and men’s magazines, I expected to have a conversation on the male gaze. But that’s not what happened.

“She looks alright,’” one student said, and pointed to a white swimsuit model. “But we can’t wear things like that. It looks different on us.”

“Black women can’t wear bathing suits?” I wondered.

“We can’t have all our meat hanging out,” the student answered. “It looks disgusting.”

Other students nodded, though their bodies were similar to the ones they were critiquing.

I went home, tired. How do you get to a place in life where you are disgusted by the images that resemble you most?

 

VI.
Black women: Steve Harvey says you can’t get a man.

 

VII.
Black women: The New York Times says you can’t get a man.

 

VIII.
Black women: Fox News says you can’t get a man. And yet, ironically enough, you’re still a whore.

 

IX.
I spent my teen years wrapped in a cocoon of ugliness. Other than my butt, my body was on the slim side, and in the South, in the 1990s, you didn’t want to be shaped this way. You wanted to look like one of the models from Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison video; you wanted a round butt and thick thighs, attached to a tiny waist.

But my shape (or lack thereof) and other aspects of my ugliness – frizzy hair, acne, braces – de-sexualized and freed me. I played with dolls longer than I should have. I read novels and became immersed in my own little world. I had a long, extended childhood, which ended abruptly when I spent a summer in California.

The aesthetic was different there. For the first time, because of my body, people overlooked the braces, the frizzy hair.

That summer, I dated a guy a few years older than me. He grabbed me in public, no matter where we were. When I protested, he said, “Look at how you’re dressed. You wouldn’t wear shorts if you didn’t want attention.”

This escalated. A few weeks later, I was in bed clawing my way from him.

“Don’t act like you don’t want it,” he told me. “Look at how you’re built. Like a ho.”

The meanness of the comment made me want to scream. In fact, I did scream, so loudly he jumped away from me.

Who can blame him?

That evening, the force of my voice scared me too.

 

X.
In the Columbia seminar, I was aware of my body from the moment I walked into the classroom. If a reading alluded to a concept outside of black American culture, it was assumed I was unfamiliar with it, but if it mentioned race, the class assumed I was an expert – and then I faced eleven sets of eyes staring at me.

I tried to ignore my body, but over the course of the semester, I grew more aware of it, and less confident, less sure of my abilities. The assumptions about what I had or hadn’t read, what I did or did not know, didn’t just make me want to escape my body, they made me want to crush it up and fold it.

 

XI.
For months after the attempted rape, I couldn’t use tampons. When I was in bed with cramps, my mother would come from the drugstore with a box of Playtex and I’d beg her to go back and get pads.

When I decided to have sex, I found that I couldn’t. My body tightened and prevented anyone from getting close. To others, I seemed normal, outgoing, even flirtatious. But intimacy scared me. I didn’t seriously date.

My body had, without my being fully conscious of it, adopted a politics of respectability. If the world had looked at my body and rejected it, decided it was dirty and tainted, then I – my body – would reject those assumptions, rebel against them.

But the problem with adapting a politics of respectability is that by doing so, you decide that someone else’s version of you is powerful or factual enough to resist.

Still, there has to be a way of resisting that doesn’t destroy you, a way of making yourself visible in a world that doesn’t see you. Or maybe we can never really be seen, though there are moments when we can be heard.

The man who would later become my husband is a patient person. Because we lived in different cities, we’d been distant friends for years. One night he came into town, and I decided to sleep with him (I made this decision only because, if the sex were bad – or, more likely, impossible – then I’d never have to face him again).

That night, my apartment was so quiet you could hear our breathing, the sound of Atlanta’s traffic, even footsteps from someone outside plodding around the building. But the one thing you didn’t hear was the sound of human voices. I was too nervous to speak.

“Talk to me,” he said after a few minutes. “I don’t care what you say, but say something.”

I didn’t speak, but I did finally relax, knowing I was in a place where I could be heard.

 

XII.
The spring after my first semester at Columbia, I was tired of the isolation, so I registered for a literature class in the African-American Studies Department.

The young, black woman who taught the class was an academic rarity: a brilliant intellectual who was also a good listener.

I loved the class. In my excitement, I talked way too much. One student in the class was as quiet as I was talkative. Like me, he was an older student, but unlike me, he was white – and I assumed Jewish because he wore a yarmulke. He was one of three white students in the class of nine; the other students were multi-racial, Asian, or black. Though he didn’t speak, he looked like he was listening, absorbing everything. I wondered if his silence was because he thought an opinionated student like me would jump all over him simply because he was white. Perhaps my professor wondered the same thing because she nodded in his direction, offered him smiles of encouragement.

We discussed Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was my third time reading the novel, but the first time I felt I had actually understood it. It seemed more applicable to my life – and where I was at that moment in time – than anything I had ever read.

“The protagonist isn’t an Uncle Tom,” I said. “He’s subversive. Even when he doesn’t realize it, he’s taking his grandfather’s advice and undermining a society that constantly sees him through this veil.”

“But that’s true for everyone. Everyone is seen through a veil,” my quiet classmate said, and everyone looked at him in surprise. “People see this beanie on my head and think they know everything about me. They don’t. They know nothing about me, or what I’m thinking.”

It was the most he had said the entire semester.

 

XIII.
In the weeks since the class ended, I have been thinking of Jack, my shy classmate, of what I would say if I were to see him now, and whether I would even recognize him.

I know now that he’s right. No one is ever really seen. We can only be understood by the traces our images leave behind. We are all mysterious blackbirds.

And yet, even knowing this to be true, even as I write these words, I long for sound.  I remain less interested in the way a blackbird appears in a green light than the sound it makes when it takes off and flies.

Rochelle Spencer has an MFA from New York University, and her work has appeared in African American Review, Calyx, Poets and Writers, Cake Train, The New York Times and other places. A recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, she’ll complete a doctorate in 2013.

Tales of Corruption

MY FIRST TIME.

Wouldn’t it be great if I remembered the first bribe I ever gave? I’d love to shine a light on its romantic aspect, the shameful complicity between the briber and the bribed, the shy smiles exchanged. Maybe I’d write something like, It was a first kiss: loss of innocence paired with the excitement of getting away with something. Unfortunately, I don’t remember my first time even vaguely. It came and went as naturally as the first time I used deodorant or drank a beer.

EXTRA, EXTRA.

In “The Sun, the Moon and Walmart,” Homero Aridjis writes, “A child in Mexico soon learns that corruption is a way of life, and that to get ahead in school, work and politics, El que no transa no avanza—loosely, You’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t cheat.”

Published as an op-ed in The New York Times (April 30, 2012), “The Sun, the Moon and Walmart” immediately struck me as a rare specimen not because of the severe indictment with which it begins, but because we Mexicans—who love trashing Mexico while in Mexico—rarely speak a word of criticism about our Mexiquito lindo to foreigners, let alone gringos. Aridjis goes on to tell tales of once being asked for a bribe by a teacher and years later being offered one by a government official.

WHEN IN ROME.

a scandal had popped up in the news recently about Walmart having paid more than $20 million in bribes in Mexico to get permits for their stores, so corruption in Mexico was—momentarily, because Americans were involved—news.

Corruption in Mexico is as surprising as kidnappings or the national soccer team losing in the last minute. Why would the Times publish a piece on the obvious? Well, a scandal had popped up in the news recently about Walmart having paid more than $20 million in bribes in Mexico to get permits for their stores, so corruption in Mexico was—momentarily, because Americans were involved—news. People were talking about it. Aridjis’s argument was that Mexicans can’t be outraged at Walmart for taking advantage of our corrupt system. “According to a recent study,” writes Aridjis, “companies shell out approximately 10 percent of their earnings to corrupt officials. In the last 30 years, the Mexican economy has lost more than $870 billion to corruption, crime and tax evasion.”

INTRO TO BRIBES.

If a Mexican tells you they’ve never bribed someone, they’re lying. Bribing, in Mexico, is part of The System. Dealing with the Mexican government means dealing with poorly paid bureaucrats with no accountability who will do anything for an extra peso. A lot of the times the bureaucrat you’re dealing with has to move a certain amount of money up to his boss in order to keep his job. Guess where that money’s coming from. I remember once reading somewhere that police officers, who earned a little over a couple of hundred dollars a month, had to “rent” their guns and bulletproof vests from their superiors. I remember an architect complaining to me a few years ago that since the Left had taken over Mexico City the bribes had more than doubled for people in the construction business. I could go on and on. And I will.

IT MIGHT’VE BEEN A STUFFED FROG.

I do remember the most expensive bribe I’ve given. I was still a teenager, driving to my girlfriend’s house one night with some sort of a tacky gift in the trunk of the car. Let’s say it was a stuffed something or other. I ran a red light and immediately heard the siren. “Pull over,” said the bullhorn.

I was a weak and frightful—frankly, childish—teenager. Cops scared the shit out of me.

I plucked my driver’s license from my wallet as the officer’s belly stared at the side of my head. A knot formed in my stomach: the face of Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martínez was smiling at me like the reflection from a tiny, distorted mirror. A few weeks earlier, thinking it would be something amusing to show people, I’d cut out a little headshot of the Dominican All-Star from Sports Illustrated and taped it over my own picture on the upper left hand corner of the license. I liked to look at it every now and again: Pedro’s face with my name next to it. (Unfortunately, I’m sad to report, I seemed to be the only person who found the switcheroo amusing.)

I was a weak and frightful—frankly, childish—teenager. Cops scared the shit out of me.

“Wait a second, please,” I said to the officer. Then I proceeded to carefully unpeel Pedro’s face from mine. I handed him the license. After looking at it for a second, the cop said:

“Watcha got in that hand?”

“What? This?” I responded, holding up the little headshot as innocently as possible.

The cop took the picture from my hand and carefully covered my own headshot with it. He shook his head.

In order to get as much money from you as possible, I learned with experience, Mexican
cops try to convince you that you’re in way more trouble than you actually are. For example, say you run a red light and the fine for running a red light is $10. The policeman will tell you that the fine is $50 and that you have to pay it personally in an office on the other side of town and that, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but with this new rule they came up with to stop people from running red lights, you’ll probably get your license suspended, so why don’t you just give him $35? This officer told me that I’d defiled my official government identification and that it was, of course, a big deal. Millions or billions (possibly trillions) of pesos of fines were headed my way.

“But officer,” I said, “it was only a joke.”

“Please step out of the car.”

I did.

“Open the trunk,” he said.

I did.

He stared at a colorful little paper bag with a gift-wrapped something or other sticking out.

“What’s that?”

“I’m going to my girlfriend’s house,” I said in a shaky voice. “It’s a gift for her.”

The second officer appeared. “What’s that?”

“Says it’s a gift for his girlfriend.”

Then Officer #1 showed Officer #2 how I’d sullied my sacrosanct driver’s license and Officer #2 shook his head. He knew the drill. Said something like, “Oh boy. Tsk, tsk. This is bad.”

They asked me for money. I told them I didn’t have much cash.

“So you want to go to the Public Ministry?” said Officer #2.1 “Find out what the judge has to say about your little joke?” (I’ve been threatened with seeing “the judge” dozens of times, but I’ve never actually come across him.)

“No, officer, please. It’s just that I only have two hundred pesos.”2

“Well,” said Officer #1, “I noticed you had a couple of cards in your wallet.”

Long story short, Officer #1 gets in the passenger seat of my car and we follow Officer #2 to an ATM. Officer #1 goes into the ATM with me. I withdraw 2,500 pesos. I hand him the money. Then I ask him for directions to my girlfriend’s house.

WALMEX: A BRIEF TIMELINE.3

The practice of an employer paying its employees with vouchers only accepted by the employer hits a special nerve with Mexicans, since it used to be common during the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz.

Walmart paired up with Mexican magnate Jerónimo Arango in the early 90s. In 1997, Walmart bought 51% of Arango’s Cifra and renamed it Walmart de México. Controversy then erupted when, in 2004, Walmart built a 71,900-square-foot store next to the archeological site of Teotihuacan (north of Mexico City), on what was thought to be protected land.4 The alleged bribes doled out by Walmart to Mexican officials—of which we know, thanks to a 2012 Times article—happened in 2005. Then, in 2008, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Walmart could not continue to pay part of its employees’ salaries in vouchers that could only be redeemed in Walmart stores. (The practice of an employer paying its employees with vouchers only accepted by the employer hits a special nerve with Mexicans, since it used to be common during the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz.) According to Enrique Bonilla, the leader of something called the National Front Against Walmart, Walmart México pays 1.60 pesos in taxes for every 100 pesos of sales. In the first trimester of 2012, Walmart México reported utilities of 4,710,000,000 pesos (roughly 339,590,000 dollars). Currently, Walmart operates more than 2,000 stores and restaurants in Mexico.

MORDELÓN.

The slang term for a bribe in Mexico City is “mordida,” literally meaning “bite.” As in:

“I got stopped by the police for speeding.”

“Did they give you a ticket?”5

“Nah, I gave him a bite.”

That’s how Mexico City traffic cops earned the nickname “mordelones,” “biters.”

“I got pulled over by a biter.”

EN LA VERDAD HAY VICTORIA.

Of course Pedro Martínez was a phenomenal baseball superstar. The Dominican Republic (pop. ~9.5 million) basically exists to provide Major League Baseball with great players. Twenty-eight of the MLB’s 30 teams have “academies” in the DR. The DR supplies more players to the majors (103 in 2012) than any other country outside the U.S.6 (It reminds me of that city Henry Ford tried to build in the Amazon to provide him with an unlimited supply of rubber for his cars.) Every Dominican kid wants to go to the majors. Can you blame them? The DR’s per capita GDP in 2011 was $9,286;7 In his 16 seasons in the MLB, Pedro Martínez earned on average over $9 million a year. The reward for catching the eye of a big league team is being, literally, a thousand times richer than your average compatriot.

When the stakes are so high and there’s so much money involved, there’s going to be corruption. A common practice for Dominican aspiring MLBers is to lie about their age. There was, for example, Roberto Hernández Heredia, a pitcher who played for the Cleveland Indians as Fausto Carmona. When the Indians signed Roberto/Fausto they thought he was 17 when he was actually 20. He was caught and arrested. Now he travels up and down the DR talking to kids about his “mistakes” and at the end of the talks he hands them t-shirts that read In Truth, There is Triumph.

WHY I HAVE TO LIE.

Cheating worked for Dominican infielder Miguel Tejada. He played 15 seasons in the majors and earned over $95 million in salaries.8 In 2008, while Tejada played for Houston, an ESPN reporter pulled an ambush interview on him:9

ESPN: How old are you?

MT: Thirty-two.

ESPN: Born in?

MT: Dominican Republic.

ESPN: In which year?

MT: Seventy-six.

ESPN: You sure?

MT: Why I have to lie?

ESPN: We acquired the…birth certificate that your father filed when you were a boy and…I want you to explain this to me, OK?

MT: [Holding the document. Confused.] What is that?

ESPN: This is a birth certificate. Your birth certificate, right?

MT: Who give you that?

Tejada, whose last name was originally Tejeda, walked out of the interview. The documents revealed that he was not born in 1976 as he claimed, but in 1974.

AUTHORITY MEANS DIFFERENT THINGS FOR DIFFERENT PEOPLE.

I once read somewhere that authoritarian regimes breed rule breakers. While citizens of countries with democratic governments know that rules are there for a reason, people who’ve suffered dictatorial governments think that rules are absurd tricks designed to fuck them over.

I once read somewhere that authoritarian regimes breed rule breakers. While citizens of countries with democratic governments know that rules are there for a reason, people who’ve suffered dictatorial governments think that rules are absurd tricks designed to fuck them over. (Think of your craziest high school friends. Weren’t they the ones with the most authoritarian parents?) Mexico hasn’t had a dictatorship proper in a long time, but we Mexicans did live for 80+ years under the unopposed rule—disguised as a democratic system—of the cleverly named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), something that Mario Vargas Llosa called “the perfect dictatorship.”10 Rules for us mean hurdles, potholes.

I JUST DRANK A FIFTH OF VODKA—DARE ME TO DRIVE?

I regret almost everything I did in my youth. For example, there was that hip-hop phase I went through, in which I wore expensive white t-shirts, baggy white sweats, white “sneaks,” a silver wristwatch, and listened to Eminem. There were plenty of times when I could’ve been nicer to my sister who’s always been, by all measures, a saint. One of the things I regret the most is how often I drove drunk during my late teens/early twenties. It’s a true miracle I never hurt myself or others. It still gives me the chills to think about it.

For example, one time I was driving drunk at two or three in the morning when I suddenly realized I was completely, desperately lost.11 Then, suddenly, from the heavens appeared one of those ugly green signs with white lettering that abound in the confusing metropolis: TURN RIGHT AND YOU WILL BE LESS LOST. The right turn was only a few feet in front of me and I was in the middle lane. I turned the steering wheel and almost crashed into the car to my right—which happened to be a police car. Siren. Bullhorn.

Cut to: me parked in a dark alley in front of the police car. I get out of the car. One of the cops joins me.

“You almost crashed into us.”

“Sorry, officer.”

“You’re drunk.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Of course you are. You can barely walk. We’re taking you to the Public Ministry.”

With the courage that comes from a night of drinking, I took my wallet out and laid a fifty-peso bill on the hood of my car. The officer took the money and left.

APOLOGY EXPECTED.

In 2009, Tejada admitted to lying to congressional investigators about steroid use in the majors and to having taken steroids himself. He held a teary-eyed press conference regarding the issue:

I’m sorry to my family, to the Congress, to the Houston Astros, to the Orioles, to the Major Leagues, and [struggling to hold back the tears] to all the fans in baseball. And I really apologize because I don’t want to be in this situation. And I apologize to the whole United States because this country gave me the opportunity to be who I am and the last thing I want to do is let this country down.12 I hope they forgive me.

MY 10,000 HOURS.

As with anything, experience in being extorted makes one better at handling extortions.

This next tale takes place when I was in my mid-twenties and had already had a considerable number of run-ins with the cops. I ran a red light. It was a red light that made no sense. An absurd red light. A red light that would serve as the inciting incident of a hypothetical preachy Ionesco one-act titled Job and the Red Light that served as a parable on dictatorial regimes. Anyway, this stoplight was in the middle of a slow, narrow street, no exits, no incoming traffic, just a narrow, slow street. Someone must’ve put the stoplight there by accident. Or maybe someone needed to fill a stoplight quota. It could’ve been someone’s way to steal a little money. In the surreal labyrinth that is Mexico City there are stoplights where there should be none, stop signs that mean nothing, speed bumps at traffic lights, cul-de-sacs that lead into the freeway, freeways that take you to dead ends.

So I ran the red light. Guess who was waiting on the other side. Yes, a cop was stationed there, his back on the side of his car, waiting for someone to run the red light that made no sense. He stepped in front of my car and directed me to pull over. This was how the man made his living. He probably bribed one of his superiors to get that sweet spot.

Officer, looking at my license: “I’m going to have to take this with me. You can pick it up in [whatever number of] days over at [government office that is one hour from my house].”13

“What? No. I have to work, officer. I can’t just take a day off and go to [government office that is one hour from my house]. I wouldn’t even know how to get there. Besides, how am I going to drive there without my license?” I was now a jaded young man.

“What do you want me to do? It’s my job to protect the people in this city. What if you pass a red light and you get into an accident? You might not like being stopped, but we do it to protect you.”

“I know, officer. I apologize.”

Interactions with Mexican cops are also taken from Ionesco’s playbook: both parties say exactly the opposite of what they mean and the truth is taboo. Then someone brings up the bribe. But the word bribe, of course, is never mentioned. (I guess that would make it a David Mamet play.) The police officer can say something like, “Dame algo pa’l refresco,” loosely translated as, “Give me something so I can buy myself a soda.” Or the driver will offer to help the officer out if only the officer could find it in his heart to help the driver out. Sometimes the officer volunteers, if given the money, to “pay the fine” so the driver doesn’t have to go all the way to [government office in Who Knows Where].

I don’t remember who did the offering in this particular situation, but I do remember I had no cash on me. And I was driving to a coffee shop on my day off from my dead-end job so I could spend the day writing. That I remember.

“Look,” I said to the officer, showing him the sad inside of my wallet.

“What do you want me to do? I have no option but to take your license.”

“Listen, there’s an ATM over there. I’ll just go over and get some money.”

He looked at me, trying to size me up. Was I trustworthy? He didn’t really have much of an option. “OK,” he said. “I trust you.”

“The ATM’s right there! How could I even—”

“It’ll be on your conscience if you don’t follow through.” The Morals of Bribery, by That Police Officer Who Stands Next to the Useless Traffic Light.

I drove on, seeing the officer shrink in my rearview mirror.

BRIBE OR DIE.

A good friend of mine was driving home late one night, drunk out of his mind, when he destroyed his car against a truck. Nothing happened to the truck or the truck driver, who calmly went on his way, but my friend was left sitting on the curb, face bleeding, a chunk of one of his ears dangling from his head, straddling the line between consciousness and unconsciousness.

A young couple stopped to help him. They were also on their way back from a night out but they were sober. A police car arrived. Then an ambulance. The first thing the police did was steal my friend’s iPod. They would’ve also taken his phone and wallet, but the couple who’d stopped to help him, knowing what was coming, had hid them in their car. “Where’s his wallet?” one of the policemen kept asking. “Where’s this man’s wallet?”

The good Samaritans were talking to the paramedics about which hospital to take my friend to when the other policeman intervened. “This man’s not going anywhere,” he said. At least not until someone gave the cops some money.

So there they were, paramedics, Samaritans and police all arguing under the pre-dawn darkness while my friend sat on the curb with a stupid smile on his face. Then another good Samaritan stopped. This one was a doctor. He told the police that if my friend wasn’t taken to a hospital soon there would be dire consequences to his health. The police didn’t give a fuck about dire consequences to anyone’s health, but at some point they got tired of arguing and just left.

YOU LIVED THE DREAM, MIGUEL.

As I’m writing this I read that Miguel Tejada just asked for his release from the Baltimore Orioles. Tejada—who as a kid allegedly idolized Orioles great (and Mr. Hard Work & Honesty) Cal Ripken, Jr.14— had already played for Baltimore in 2004-07, and again in 2010. According to the CBS Sports blog, “Tejada had been working his way back to the majors at [Orioles AAA farm team] Norfolk, where, in 36 games, he had been slugging a meager .296 and…showing diminished range at third base. As such, it’s hard to imagine that Tejada is going to find many takers out there.”

COKED-UP COP & SLEEPY COP.

The stakes with the Mexican police get higher late at night because cocaine enters the picture. I’m not about to sit here (in bed) and pretend that all Mexican police on the graveyard shift are coked up, but every once in a while you do run into one.

EXAMPLE #1: A young lady and I go to a party. The young lady leaves her car at a supermarket parking lot from where we take my car. The party’s kind of shitty. Also, either she didn’t like how I acted at the party, or vice versa (or both). I park in the supermarket parking lot and turn off the engine. Before she leaves we decide to argue a little. Am I an asshole? Is she being unreasonable? Suddenly, a police car parks next to us. Coked-Up Cop opens my door and sticks his coked-up head in the car.

“Don’t try to cover yourself!” says Coked-Up Cop to the young lady, who was, of course, fully clothed. “I saw you!”

“Saw what?” I say, panicking.

We get out of the car. Coked-Up Cop is maniacally screaming at me about Public Ministries and judges while his partner, Sleepy Cop, looks at me with a hey-I-have-to-work-with-this-guy face.

EXAMPLE #2: I’m driving late one night when suddenly I hear the staticky words of a bullhorn. I look at my rearview mirror and see a police jeep tailing me. I pull over. As I see Coked-Up Cop and Sleepy Cop walk to my car I open the window just a crack.

The first words out of Coked-Up Cop are, “You drunk?”

I’m driving a shiny, small sedan, so he probably stopped me thinking I was a sixteen-year-old driving drunk in his new car. (Which is, to be fair, an earlier version of me.)

“No,” I say.

Coked-Up Cop: “Your license.”

I hand him my license.

The date of birth on my license and my somewhat calm demeanor let Coked-Up Cop know that I’m not the target he was hoping for. But he still gives it another shot: “You fucked up? Coming from a bar?”

Sleepy Cop yawns.

“No sir, just driving home.”

Coked-Up Cop leaves to harass someone else. I feel a cold emptiness in my stomach.

DENOUEMENT.

I almost finished this piece without tying the loose ends of the Walmart bribery case. You’re probably wondering what happened with all that. If you are wondering that you know nothing of how the Mexican justice system works. It doesn’t. It’s no coincidence that there’s no word in Spanish for “justice.”15

President Felipe Calderón said he was outraged by the Walmart corruption case. Please, this coming from the guy who—maybe—stole the 2006 elections and then proceeded to start a nationwide drug war. Any Mexican knows that nothing will happen to Walmart México. The U.S. Department of Justice is holding its own investigation. Time will tell if that is also a sham.

WHEN IN ROME, II.
I’ve been pulled over a couple of times since I moved to the U.S. I’ve had a couple of little accidents too. Look, I’m not a good driver. (My psychiatrist says it’s one of the many symptoms of my ADHD.)

The first time I got pulled over in the U.S., it was because I’d forgotten to turn on my headlights. As the officer walked to my car I opened the door. Force of habit.

“Get back in the car!” said the officer.

I did.


1: Public Ministries are hell on Earth. They’re basically concrete, windowless boxes filled with judges, lawyers, scriveners, typewriters, files, cells, doctors, policemen, criminals, etc. back
2: Listen, the peso’s relative value to the dollar is something that’s always changing. These days, for example, one dollar can be worth anywhere from 12 to 15 pesos. Back then, let’s say, one dollar=10 pesos. back
3: Information for this brief timeline was gathered from Marta Lamas’s “Wal-Mart: lo barato sale caro” in Proceso, Roberto González Amador’s “Se privilegia a Wal-Mart desde el poder público, acusa ONG” in La Jornada, James C. McKinley Jr.’s “No, the Conquistadors Are Not Back. It’s Just Wal-Mart” in The New York Times, and Silvia Otero’s “Anula Corte sistema de ´tienda de raya´ de Wal-Mart” in El Universal. And Wikipedia. back
4: The store they built was not actually a Walmart, but a Bodega Aurrerá, which is a subsidiary of Walmart. back
5: No denizen of Mexico City would ever ask that. Police there don’t “give tickets.” back
6: baseball-almanac.com. back
7: International Monetary Fund. back
8: baseball-reference.com back
9: I’ve slightly edited the transcript for space. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube scored with blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again?” back
10: Mexico has just elected the PRI back into power only 12 years after their ousting. back
11: Mexico City is a monster. It feels like I spent half my time there completely lost. back
12: But Miguel, please, how can you think you let this country down? You did everything in your power to succeed. Nothing more American than that. back
13: This happened in the Estado de México, Mexico State, which horseshoes Mexico City and has no Public Ministries. back
14: Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gherig’s record for most consecutive games played: 2,632. He has a slightly different background than Tejada. His dad, Carl Ripken, Sr., spent most of his professional life with the Baltimore Orioles organization. At one point Ripken, Jr., was coached by his father while playing alongside his brother, Billy. back
15: Of course there’s a word in Spanish for “justice.” How dare you. back

Pablo Piñero Stillmann has received fellowships from the Foundation for Mexican Literature and Indiana University. His work appears or is forthcoming in Brevity, Cream City Review, Juked, The Normal School, The Rumpus and Tierra Adentro. He is a fan of the Swedish electro-pop singer-songwriter Lykke Li.

Freight

Just about the time that you really want to talk, you can’t say a word. The train talks for you; machinery rumbling beneath you, wheels turning faster than sound, faster than vision. You look down and it’s a blur: green, brown, green.

That night we curled up in the grain car, trying to compact our body heat, trying to bring it in closer. Lee and Christy crawled inside their sleeping bags. I don’t know how they did it, there was hardly any room to move. You could barely take two steps. I didn’t want to untie my bag, I’d barely gotten it to fasten just right to the backpack, and I didn’t want to do it all over again. So I shivered and pulled my coat tighter, pulled my hat over my ears tighter, shrank into a little ball, smaller. Time went by, marked only by the noise, the dark, the clunk, the clang, the sweeping sound of the wheels on the track.

I watched Lee rub sticks and rocks together.

“This is the only thing I learned in Boy Scouts,” he said, winking.

We spent the previous night in the field by the tracks. Dylan and Christy exchanged stories about people they used to know in high school. I watched Lee rub sticks and rocks together.

“This is the only thing I learned in Boy Scouts,” he said, winking. I watched him, crouching, rubbing, his fingernails caked with dirt. Dylan tossed Lee a lighter.

“Just use this.”

Lee sighed, then laughed. He built a fire. He rolled a cigarette. We looked up, and it was dark. Sudden, like a light switch. Fall had arrived. There was no denying the shortage of light, the chill.

I curled up close to Lee that night. We spread one sleeping bag on the dirt ground, and the other on top of us as a blanket. We slept in our clothes, with our coats on. Lee left the tiny fire burning in the middle of the four of us, one little flame. I worried we should put it out. He said it would be fine. He’d done this whole thing before. I aligned my body with his and tried to shelter the little heat between us. He breathed in deeply, slowly as I inched closer. I breathed out as he turned over, his face close to mine in the dark. The white air curled up between our noses.

“Are you still cold?” he asked.

“No,” I lied. He had arranged and rearranged the sleeping bag, trying to find the warmest, least lumpy configuration. He had offered his jacket to me. I had refused it.

“I can give you my jacket,” he offered again.

“No,” I said. “Really. I’m okay.”

When morning came, Lee explained the way things would work.

“You have to be ready to go,” he told us, “when it comes. You have to be ready to just run like hell or we’ll miss it.”

We sat on the dying wild grass, our backpacks and sleeping bags strapped tight to our frames. Lee ran ahead in the field, looking far into the distance. He perched up on his tiptoes, as if that would help him spot the train sooner.

Christy turned her head toward me, smiling, looking sleepy. Her dark brown hair had recently been bleached blonde. It was frizzy in the back, and bits of grass and dirt clung to the short waves. She scratched her brown roots, plucking out the plants and making the frizz worse. We watched Lee. He turned to us and shrugged, put one hand on his hip and leaned his weight onto his right leg. Dylan took off his black square frames and rubbed the lenses on his flannel shirt. He squinted in the light.

Lee walked back.

“I guess we should just hang out for a while,” he said. Lee, Dylan and Christy rolled cigarette after cigarette, and lit them, the tobacco sizzling and disappearing steadily in the sun.

Restlessly, I rose, and dropped my bag on the ground. Dust and grass flew up, cloudy. I noticed a cornfield to the left and walked toward it. I looked back at my companions, and there was Lee, a few steps behind me.

“Mind if I walk with you?” I didn’t mind. I had expected him to follow. We arrived in the field. The corn was overripe, the stalks turning brown in the post-harvest sun. The ears were hard, the yellow was deepening. I plucked one off a six-foot stalk and held it in my hand, like a sword.

“En guard!”  I growled, playfully, pointing the ear toward him.

“Ah-ha!” He grabbed another ear from a stalk nearby, challenging mine. I chased him with the corn, our ears hit each other, thwack, thwack, a smell of dirt and fertilizer and sun and insects rose up in the field around us. Thwack. My ear broke in half. Then his did. We laughed, nervously, and I pulled another ear off a stalk. We walked back to Dylan and Christy.

“Someone forgot about their corn, I guess,” I said, softly.

His beard was like a continent with several small islands trailing to his ears. The left ear was smaller than the right. Because of being born premature, he told me.

“Yeah,” Lee muttered, as he picked a long piece of stalk from his patchy beard. His beard was like a continent with several small islands trailing to his ears. The left ear was smaller than the right. Because of being born premature, he told me. The left looked as if the top and the lobe had been squeezed together, and had somehow stuck.

Lee’s smile was uneven, a kind of half-smile. One side of his face was immobile. The lip didn’t curl up at all. I never asked him why. He smiled up at me with his divided face, one half grinning and lively, the other half with folded ear and stopped-short smile.

Christy looked up from her cigarette. “Where’d you guys go?”

“Over there,” I said, vaguely.  I unzipped my pack and placed the dried ear of corn inside. Christy watched, and asked, “Are we sure a train will even stop here?”

“I’m sure it will stop,” Lee said, looking off again. “I just don’t know when.”

Dylan turned to Lee and said something under his breath. They talked and I rolled my black pants up over my sweating ankles. I looked up, and Dylan was leaving.

“Hey, where’s he goin’?” Christy asked.

“He said he just realized he had a lot of work to do at home,” Lee said. “Rent is due on Monday.”

“Maybe he didn’t want to wait anymore,” Christy said. “Bye, Dylan!” She shrieked into the blue sky, and Dylan turned and waved.

“So Dylan just decided he couldn’t come on the trip with us? After all that?” I asked. It seemed like a waste, after sleeping through the freezing night by the tiny fire, after waiting in the sun.

“He’s never done it before.” Lee raised his eyebrows, sighed. “I don’t know, maybe he’s freaked out.”

We’ve never done it before,” Christy reminded him.

Soon after Dylan left, there was a distant whistle and Lee took off running. Christy and I rose to our feet, flustered, not sure at first what was happening. And then we saw it, the great clunking beast approaching. We ran alongside the train, trying to grasp hold of anything to boost ourselves up. Lee was first. He hoisted his five-foot-three-inch body up and swung his legs behind the railing. Christy and I reached, running, grabbing, and then we were standing, watching the landscape swooshing by in green and brown and blue.

Later I learned we were on a grain car, and we happened to have found one that was especially “roomy.” It was about six feet long and four feet wide. If this was roomy, I couldn’t help but wonder what that non-roomy variety was like.

“A Cadillac! We got ourselves a goddamn Cadillac! Woo-hoo!” Lee shrieked and grabbed the railing, shaking it with joy. Later I learned we were on a grain car, and we happened to have found one that was especially “roomy.” It was about six feet long and four feet wide. If this was roomy, I couldn’t help but wonder what that non-roomy variety was like.

For a while, it seemed to me like flying. Water towers proclaiming the names of tiny Iowa towns spun by in the fields, fences chopped the land up into squares, cows grazed and looked vacantly at the train as we flew by. In the daylight, the sky was big and blue and like a giant dome sheltering us and making us feel invincible, super human. The sound was so loud it became a kind of silence.

Then as the sun started to sink, our Cadillac grain car slowed down. When it stopped, the actual silence felt strange and large and my ears buzzed. Lee whispered frankly that we should lie flat, in case the yard police were around. I realized, crouching there in the grain car, that I had to pee. I told Lee and he just said, “Hurry.”

I crawled down the side of the car with the help of Christy’s and Lee’s small hands. I peed under the car, nervous and wide-eyed, then scrambled back up inside, finally letting the breath out again when I thought I couldn’t be seen anymore.

The sky darkened, and the car stopped again and again, and every time it did, I felt fear creeping up on me. I imagined being caught on this train, somewhere between Iowa and Illinois. I imagined the rail police informing my parents, our college, that we had illegally hopped a freight train. There was a gradual slowing and then a sudden sensation of metal breaking on metal, a grinding halt.

The hours passed, but no one knew what time it was. And then it got cold, very, very cold. As I curled into my tiny fetal ball, I thought about how crazy this whole thing was. How a year or two ago, I would have thought this was completely insane. And really, it was.

Earlier, Lee had shown us the official hobo card that stated he’d attended the hobo king crowning over the summer. He also carried a secret manual that was circulated among all the kids who like to travel for free – a manual that said which trains stopped where and when. Rumor had it a manual like that had been around since the Depression. Lee was always writing poems about riding freights. He talked about waking up with the sunrise on his twenty-first birthday in a boxcar. His poems always used the word “barreling.” Barreling down the tracks at 2 am, flask of whiskey in my hand…

Lee had shown us the official hobo card that stated he’d attended the hobo king crowning over the summer.

He was smart and a little sad, with a collection of books in his dorm room that included The Outlaw Book of American Poetry. He liked Utah Phillips and Woody Guthrie. He could cook one thing: salty hash browns made from potatoes that had been diced into tiny cubes. He sometimes liked to wear a skirt on hot, humid Iowa days. He climbed trees. He developed a reputation for this on campus. I caught him looking at me while I worked on homework, and he caught me looking at him when he was reading. He had a smell that reminded me of my friends back home – the musk of unwashed clothes, the lingering staleness of cigarette smoke. Coffee or whiskey or both were always on his breath. He spoke of loneliness. His body language said he never expected to find anyone to love him. I wanted to prove him wrong, wanted to be the heroine in the story that saves the lonely boy and makes him her own, loyal, forever.

I didn’t know that Christy had begged Lee to take us on one of his train trips until she came by my room and announced the plan for fall break: we were hopping a freight train to Chicago. I probably never would have suggested the trip myself, although I was as curious as she was. Christy was more free-spirited than me, less worried about offending people. She played sad songs on her guitar and wore polyester thrift store pants. She illustrated her journal all through the daily assemblies required by the music department and made raunchy jokes about the boys in the music fraternity.

Four nights earlier, Lee and I had sat on the beaten-up couch in the house we shared with twenty other students. His head was in my lap, the TV was on, the movie was over and the screen had gone blue. The early morning light in the house was blue-ish and dark, and it made everything seem isolated and loud. Every breath, every word seemed magnified in that eerie blue spotlight.

He had closed his eyes, shifted his small body on the couch. I had my hand in his thinning, curling hair. His mouth was tiny, two fish lips. My mouth met his mouth, fumbling and graceless, with the downward motion of my head to his head. My spine curled to meet him on my lap. His shocked mouth woke up his eyes. He sat up to meet my face.

On the train, I fell asleep and dreamed that it was just Lee and me there. But in my dream, the train was small, like a toy, and we rode on top of the car, completely exposed. There was nothing covering us, nothing protecting us from anyone who happened to look up.

When we all woke up from our frigid nap on the cold, steel floor of the grain car, there were no more fields, no more open spaces. Instead there was steel and gravel and light all around us. We pried ourselves from the floor and hopped out the side of the car. We yielded to Lee’s hushing. We heard the gravel crumble beneath our boots and stick in the crevices of the treads. We walked towards the brightest lights we could find, asking each other where we were, how far we were from the center of the city.

“I’m tired,” Christy sighed.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“We could just sleep in a bush,” Lee added. But none of us wanted to sleep in a bush. We saw the bright heavenly glow of a Days Inn, and sauntered into the lobby at 1:25 am.

The next morning we ate at a diner and walked by a man holding a sign on the street corner that said, “Nuke them and there will be no war!” It was the first of October, 2001, and in every gas station, restaurant and gift shop there were bumper stickers featuring angry looking eagles and American flags.

We rode an El train to the loop. I looked down to the ground, felt tiny in this strange multi-layered metropolis: levels of trains, buildings with windows, pigeons and the ground below, the homeless men with yellow teeth, the heels of the women clicking, the rattling of change, the rattling of words, gum-splattered pavement. It seemed the city just went up and up and up. It was a jungle, and the El stations made strange canopies.

We passed doughnut shop after doughnut shop until it became a strange visual litany. Dunkin Donuts everywhere. The insane repetition. The rumble of the El overhead. My own smallness kept coming back to me.

Four days later we were on our way back to Iowa, first by Metra train, then in the car of Christy’s friend. He’d come to Chicago for fall break, too, but his method of getting there hadn’t been quite as adventurous as ours. I looked over my reading assignment for the next day’s class. It seemed so silly, so out of place. On the Metra, Christy leaned over and wrote in my notebook, Are you guys together now? And I wrote, I don’t know. But I did know. I had made him mine. The morning after the kiss in the blue TV light, Lee had said he woke up crying because he was so happy. Now he looked at me with devotion and moony-eyed disbelief.

Two months later, Lee and I went to a party. Dylan was there. He was laughing, drinking, rolling cigarettes, saying that Beck’s Midnight Vultures was the party album of the year. Six months after that, I was asleep on the top bunk in my dorm room, and Lee slipped in, letting the hallway light stream onto my face. He was crying, drunk, and when he breathed on me, I cringed at the mingle of tobacco, armpit sweat and cheap college beer.

“What? What is it?” I mumbled, half asleep.

“Dylan’s dead.”

I jolted awake. “What happened?”

“He told me he was just going to do it one more time.”

Lee leaned his head against the frame of the bunk and I touched the tiny curls that grew around his ears. He was so small and vulnerable, unraveling before me in a puddle of tears and alcohol. I ached to comfort him, and ached to send him away.

Lee and I went to Dylan’s funeral together. The chapel in the cemetery was filled with kids our age, none of whom I recognized. Christy wasn’t there.

She’d dropped out of school in March and we didn’t really know where she had been. Throughout the winter she had written songs on her guitar and sobbed in her room by herself. She had dyed her hair multiple colors in the same week. She found boyfriends and then lost them and then found them again. She decided she needed to get out more and then a few days later decided she needed to stay in. She decided what she really needed was to smoke more pot, and I wouldn’t see her for a week. She’d suddenly resurface, saying she needed to stop smoking pot forever. She’d show up drunk to class after giving some artist guy a hand job, then swear off drinking altogether.

Lee and I walked to the front of the chapel and peered into the casket. I’d never been to an open casket funeral before. Dylan wore the same black, square glasses, but his face was Ken-doll orange, his cheeks and lips a cloying pink. I thought back to Christy and Dylan smoking their cigarettes, laughing quietly to themselves. I wondered if she knew he was gone.

The morning was quiet and blue, with swans on the chapel pond. Dylan’s girlfriend kissed the casket before it was lowered into the still-thawing April ground.

“Fucking heroin,” Lee said, under his breath, as we walked back to my car.

Lee graduated from college and went back to his trains for the summer. He sent me postcards and letters with xoxoxo all over them. He called me and left half-drunk messages on the machine. I saw him once over the summer. He had gone home to New Mexico to borrow his parents’ car. Then he drove up to Denver to see me. I baked him a pie for his birthday, and he hugged me with his small arms, wearing a cowboy shirt with pearlescent snaps. We sat on the couch one afternoon, absently watching TV. I felt something curdling inside me as he told stories about the hobos he was meeting that summer. He used words like folks, Howdy, good ‘ol boy.”

Two days later he said goodbye. As I watched him drive away, I wanted to release everything he represented in my life: loneliness, uncertainty, insecurity and clinging to the past. I thought of the dying cornfield we’d found nearly a year before and how pieces of stalk had clung to his beard. I thought of the poetry he wrote about front porches and freight trains and lost love. I remembered camping overnight and running like hell. I remembered tracks thundering beneath a gray grain car, with three sleeping kids inside, and the fourth, wandering somewhere towards a blue morning and an open casket.

Tara Walker received her BA in English from Coe College, and her MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She currently teaches writing for both CU Denver and the Community College of Aurora. Her work has most recently appeared in The Columbia Poetry Review, After Hours, Requited, and elimae.

Wince: George and Trayvon

Manchester Scene, Eleanor Bennett

Manchester Scene, Eleanor Bennett

I want to see Trayvon Martin alive and well. I want to see Trayvon Martin do an interview on The Today Show and reveal this whole thing is a reality-TV-show hoax. I want to see Trayvon Martin cutting class and making B’s and C’s and getting the lecture about applying himself and the lecture about setting goals and the one about potential and the other one about priorities. I want to see Trayvon Martin blow off his parents because old people don’t know anything. I want to see Trayvon Martin make cradle-robbing jokes about the girl he asks to the Krop Senior High School prom, maybe a girl like my daughter, just four months older than Trayvon but old enough to make jokes. I want to see Trayvon Martin show up at my door in a rented tux and a pencil mustache that just barely made it with the help of his mom’s mascara brush. I want to see Trayvon Martin light up when he sees his dolled-up date—maybe not my daughter but maybe—appear in her dress. I want to see Trayvon Martin put a corsage on her arm, and watch her put a boutonnière in his lapel, knowing they only do the flower ceremony for the photos and they’ll ditch the greenery as soon as they walk out the door. I want to see Trayvon Martin bringing my daughter home in the wee hours and want to see my own face in the mirror, resisting the urge to knock his lights out, but she’s fine and he’s fine and I’ve been up all night pacing the floors, afraid their car has landed in a ditch but afraid to call the cops because cops mistake black children for paper targets. I want to see Trayvon Martin recognize that I’m proud of him. I want to see Trayvon Martin fall a little in love with his prom date and her fall a little in love with him, except 18-year-olds don’t fall a little in love, they fall hard and fast and gloriously and there will never be anyone like you and I’ll never love anyone else and where were you and whose number is that and how could you and the whole relationship over in six hot weeks. I want to see Trayvon Martin rematched with his prom date at the Class of 2013 reunion for before-and-after pictures and a second dance more awkward than the first. Except I can’t see what I want to see. I’ll have to settle for what’s left.

I want to see Trayvon Martin completely ignore the 2012 elections since he can’t vote until 2013. I want to see Trayvon Martin register for Selective Service. I want to see Trayvon Martin buy his first car. I want to see Trayvon Martin take the SAT and the ACT and fill out college applications. I want to see Trayvon Martin on the roster for my literature section. I want to see Trayvon Martin take off his headphones and stop texting in class. I want to see Trayvon Martin in my office so I can ask What grade do you want in my class and hear him say I’ll settle for a C but I want a B+ or an A so I can say Let’s figure out what you need to do because you have potential, you have so much potential but you’ve probably heard that before. I want to see Trayvon Martin get turned on by Zora Neale Hurston, by Ralph Ellison, by Kurt Vonnegut, by Emerson, Hughes, Eliot, O’Connor, Faulkner, by a Sonia Sanchez reading required because these kids may never have another chance to see Sonia Sanchez. I want to see Trayvon Martin paint his face in school colors. I want to see Trayvon Martin working out at the gym because he’s still so skinny. I want to see Trayvon Martin pledge a fraternity and dance in a step show. I want to see Trayvon Martin get pissed off in class and speak his mind. I want to see Trayvon Martin major in engineering or music or psychology or whatever he wants, have a career, make money, buy a house, survive a health scare, switch jobs, retire, un-retire, but still have a soft spot for Sonia Sanchez. Except I can’t see what I want to see. I’ll have to settle for what’s left.

I want to see Trayvon Martin at his 65th birthday dinner tell the story about the Skittles for the millionth time. I want to see Trayvon Martin and his wife, probably not my daughter but who knows, who knows you know but there’s potential there, I saw it on Prom Night. I want to see Mrs. Martin smile wistfully at Mr. Martin and see their kids roll their eyes. I want to see Trayvon Martin describe how a nutcase chased him when he was 17, how the dude shot at him but the bag of Skittles deflected the bullet harmlessly and before then he was kinda headed down the wrong path, hanging out with guys that never amounted to much, but he got a second chance at life and had to make the most of it so he ran all the way to his girlfriend’s house and apologized and declared he would ask her to marry him after they both graduated from college. I want to see Trayvon Martin’s grandkids videotape the story and post it online, because granddad Martin is the shiznit, for the video to go viral, for pundits to start arguing about the physics of Skittles and claim this is all just a socialist hoax to take away our guns. I want to see Trayvon Martin buy stock in Mars, Inc. after they change the Skittles slogan from “Taste the Rainbow” to “Makes You Bulletproof.” I want to see Trayvon Martin get his 15 minutes of fame as the old man marketing a line of hoodies with his face on the front and stylized Skittles on the back. Except I can’t see what I want to see. I’ll have to settle for what’s left.

Not George Zimmerman’s arrest. Not George Zimmerman’s trial. Not Black Panther posers collecting a bounty, not wannabe Nazis patrolling the streets, not grainy footage of a jailhouse beatdown. Not a made-for-TV reenactment of a 140-pound boy approaching a man my size and shoving his head into the pavement, although that would be some cool ninja-ass shit. Not the pundits, protests, petitions, press conferences or presidential candidates. Not Spike Lee making an ass of himself on Twitter. Not congressmen getting kicked off the House floor. Not the resignation of the Sanford police chief and an investigation into witness tampering. Not an elegant essay comparing Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till on The Huffington Post and reposted on TheGrio. I want to see Trayvon Martin reflected in George Zimmerman. I want to see a sharp shard of that boy inescapably lodged in the eyes of his killer. I want to see George Zimmerman wince every time he blinks. I want to see the lens of George Zimmerman’s soul permanently skewed towards what could have been. I want to see that sharp shard close up. I want to see Trayvon’s last moment, when his short life flashed before George’s eyes and revealed everything Trayvon ever meant to see and do and love. If I can find that small reflection of humanity in George Zimmerman, if anything of Trayvon landed in George, I will settle for what’s left. Because I’ll have to.

Andy Johnson (Tuscaloosa, AL) is a father, brother, and son. He’s also been a concert stage manager, a comedy show director, a sex reporter, and a foreign aid worker in Liberia. Andy is a former nonfiction editor at Black Warrior Review and a former assistant editor at Fairy Tale Review. His work has appeared in Whoopsy! Magazine, Dangerbunny, and on his blog Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse. He will graduate with an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Alabama sooner rather than later.

Sucker

—1—

Twenty minutes after I picked up my mother at the El Plumerillo airport in Mendoza, Argentina, we heard a popping sound near the back of our rental car. When the Chevy Corsica began to drag, I slowed down. A man of about thirty, with curly black hair, a pale face, and wide, excited eyes jogged next to the passenger door, saying, in Spanish, “You have a flat tire!”

I pulled to the side of the road, one of Mendoza’s major thoroughfares. The man said he would help me fix the flat tire, the right rear. After I opened the trunk, we removed my mother’s bags—she had brought presents for my two daughters and my wife and a new computer for me—and put them in the back seat so we had access to the spare tire. I had changed tires in my life, but I was driving a rental car (a Budget sticker was plastered on the back windshield) and I wasn’t sure if the South American-made Corsica or its tire-changing equipment had any peculiarities. So I accepted the man’s help, expecting to pay him for his trouble. On every corner within sight, lavavidrios (squeegee pests) waited to make a few centavos. I figured he was one of them and had seen an opportunity to reap a greater windfall.

But I wasn’t convinced money was his sole aim, so I kept an eye on him as the two of us removed the lug nuts from the wheel and jacked up the Corsica. My mother, meanwhile, sat in the shade of a nearby elm tree. When the lug nuts were off and the car was raised, the man, his eyes still dancing—I thought he might be mentally ill or on drugs—said he needed another tool for the job. “I’ll grab it from my house,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” Before he left, he patted me on the back.

I removed the flat tire and put on the spare. I put on the lug nuts. I lowered the jack. I began to tighten the lug nuts. Where was our Good Samaritan? What tool did he think we needed? Although traffic streamed by and horns honked, the noise faded as the blood in my temples throbbed. Something was wrong, and I knew what it was even before I opened the rear door to discover my mother’s bags, as well as my backpack, which contained my and my daughters’ passports, gone. But even as my mother and I sat in the local police department and recited what we had lost to an indifferent officer, we didn’t understand how the man could have taken our stuff. Hadn’t we been watching him the entire time?

Later the same evening, however, we came up with a plausible theory: The man must have had accomplices in a car who at some point during the tire change had driven up next to our Corsica. I recalled the man ushering me away from the car’s back door before I could lock it. His accomplices had simply opened the back door, removed the bags and knapsack, and driven down the street, where our Good Samaritan met them for his getaway.

But how did they know we had anything in the trunk? Because they had followed us from the airport, of course. Perhaps they had targeted us from the moment my mother, gray-haired and in her sixties, had exited customs.

And who had popped our tire? They had, of course, with a knife or other sharp instrument as we waited in traffic. Their plan had worked masterfully. My mother and I had played the roles of gullible tourists exactly as they had wanted.

For days afterward, I replayed our encounter with the Good Samaritan, wondering why I hadn’t been savvier, more suspicious. Why hadn’t I read the intention on his face? Why hadn’t I seen nervousness, rather than mental illness or drug use, in his jittery expression?

My mother and I weren’t the Good Samaritan’s only marks. In subsequent weeks, the Mendoza newspapers reported on half a dozen incidents in which the tire of a vehicle rented at the airport was popped and, as the tire was being changed, computers, cameras, iPods, cell phones, passports, and money were stolen. I found guilty comfort in this. I wasn’t alone in my gullibility.

My wife, our two young daughters, and I had moved to Argentina in January of 2009, when my semester-long sabbatical from my university teaching job began. During our four-month stay, the country was experiencing a crisis of inseguridad, and the newspapers were filled with stories of violent robberies, rapes, and murders. In comparison, the Good Samaritan’s crimes appeared gentlemanly. One newspaper, Los Andes, wrote, with what bordered on admiration, “He commits his robberies in full daylight, without pointing a gun or even speaking a single malicious word!”

Eventually, the rental companies caught on to the Good Samaritan’s scam and began warning their customers. When a German couple had their tire popped near the airport, they drove on the damaged wheel until they were out of danger. After this, I read of no more Good Samaritan crimes.

What, I wondered, did he and his accomplices do next? Did they immediately concoct another scam? Did they turn to violent robberies? Or did they give up their lives of crime and find jobs?

I suspect it wasn’t the latter. Argentina’s unemployment rate, which had soared past 20 percent as recently as 2003, was in the mid-teens at the beginning of 2009. And even though the province of Mendoza, Argentina’s wine region, was the wealthiest in the country, one-third of Mendocinos were receiving some form of public assistance. Jobs for uneducated Argentines paid poorly. On the vineyard outside of the city where we were living, workers received two pesos (about 60 cents) to fill a plastic box with thirty pounds of grapes. If they worked quickly, they could fill four boxes in an hour. The country’s minimum wage had recently risen to 1,240 pesos ($350) a month, but two million Argentines (in a country of forty million) were employed in jobs exempt from minimum wage laws. It was no wonder crime seemed an attractive alternative.

The land my family and I were staying on belonged to my wife’s cousins, who lived in England and owned a chain of Argentine steakhouses in Europe. In addition to the small vineyard with a guesthouse, the property included a swimming pool and a pine tree with a resident white-faced owl. The four of us indulged in long, lazy dinners at the table under the guesthouse portico.

The property’s caretakers, a Peruvian couple named Pasqual and Maria, lived in a smaller house in front of ours. Pasqual did everything from trimming the hedges on the property’s perimeter to cleaning the swimming pool to handling the six bull mastiffs who patrolled the grounds at night. Every year, he made his own wine with grapes leftover after the harvest. Maria made jellies from damaged peaches she collected from a neighbor’s orchard. As with the Good Samaritan thief, Pasqual and Maria confronted their tough economic circumstances with creativity. Unlike the Good Samaritan, they did so legally.

In the United States, the economy was also struggling, its bleakness symbolized by bankrupt auto companies and white-collar hucksters. At the same time my mother and I met our Good Samaritan, stories about investor Bernard Madoff, who had run a $65 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest in history, pervaded the Internet. To most of his marks, Madoff was far from a stranger on the side of a road. Indeed, to them he was “Uncle Bernie.” Madoff even stole millions from his best friend, someone he had known for thirty years.

Madoff came across as the ultimate Good Samaritan, someone to whom one could entrust one’s fortune and whose investment acumen ensured it would grow in both good times and bad. If greed motivated some of Madoff’s clients to sign over their entire life savings to him, so, too, did security. With guaranteed double-digit returns, Madoff’s investors could anticipate escalating levels of economic comfort. Madoff’s marks included some of the most successful people and institutions in the world such as Elie Wiesel, Steven Spielberg, and New York University. They also included men and women of more modest means—a physical therapist, a corrections officer, a real-estate broker—who had given Madoff every penny they had.

Suckers all. As I had proven to be.

 

—2—

A confession: I was once a con man. Or a con boy, since I was fourteen at the time. It was the summer of 1982, and my best friend, Eddie, and I owned and operated a carnival game called Jacob’s Ladder on the pier in Ocean City, Maryland. We’d seen the game at a Renaissance Festival the previous fall, and, with a loan from our parents, we bought a three-ladder model.

The object of the game was to climb two dozen rungs up a rotating rope ladder and ring a bell at the top. Winners received an enormous stuffed animal. But climbing the ladder was impossible without practice. It was simply too difficult to keep one’s balance. Time after time, climbers spun off the ladder and fell onto the inflated air mattress below.

Eddie and I had practiced climbing our ladder all spring, and once we set it up on the pier, we made the task look simple. We used our youth as part of our con. We would approach men who had their arms wrapped around their wives’ or girlfriends’ shoulders and say, “Don’t you want to win her a prize? Look—I’ll show you how easy it is. If I can do it, so can you.” And we would dash up the ladder like monkeys.

The men would hand over a dollar, step onto the ladder, and spin onto the mattress without having ascended a single rung. We would encourage them to try again. We would even give them a little instruction. They would hand over another dollar. And another.

If Eddie and I saw that a customer was becoming even modestly proficient at climbing the ladder—usually after he or she had spent twenty dollars or more—we would go behind the ladder’s net screen at the back and tighten the steel cords connecting the ladder to the base below the air mattress. A tighter ladder was even more difficult to climb. Sometimes Eddie and I tightened a ladder so much even we couldn’t make it to the top.

Another way we thwarted would-be prizewinners: As a customer ascended, one of us would hop on a free ladder, climb it quickly, then leap off, jarring the mattress and therefore the entire structure. At this point, the customer would usually lose his or her balance and tumble off. But they never complained. No doubt our youth shielded us from their suspicion.

In our eyes, the cost of our stuffed-animal prizes—twenty-two dollars wholesale—justified anything we did to keep them. During the entire summer, we surrendered only three stuffed animals. While we never popped anyone’s tires or stole property, we did deflate hundreds of egos and leave people’s wallets lighter. Eddie and I delighted in our craftiness and trickery. We called ourselves “carnies” and were happy to fulfill the stereotype. We were the heirs of P.T. Barnum.

The true carnies we worked with were mostly men in their twenties and thirties who hadn’t graduated from high school and spent eight months of the year on the road. When the summer was over, they would work in the pier owner’s traveling company, which ran the Maryland State Fair as well as smaller fairs across the Midwest and South. The men were amused by us; they were also impressed that we had the gumption—and the resources—to own our own concession.

On one occasion, Don, one of the men who ran the Super Himalaya, a high-speed backwards carousel, asked Eddie if he could borrow $50. Don was tall and blond, with a golden mustache and a ready smile. He had a girlfriend with long brown hair who wore tight-fitting jeans and looked, to my teenage eyes, like a movie star. At the time, I envied Don’s life. But now I wonder how he must have felt asking a fifteen-year-old for money. If Eddie was his best option for a loan, Don obviously moved in a far from affluent crowd. He did repay the loan, although much later than promised.

On the pier in Ocean City, Eddie and I grossed as much as $600 in a single day. Even after we gave forty percent of our earnings to the pier owner, we had a small fortune. I was thirty-four years old before I made as much money per hour in any other job I held.

Eddie and I imagined running our Jacob’s Ladder every summer until we graduated from college—hell, maybe every summer of our lives. But the following summer, the pier owner told us he had bought his own rope ladder. He would be happy, he said, if we would run it for him. He offered us fifteen percent of the gross—a pay cut, we quickly calculated, of seventy-five percent.

Eddie and I turned down his offer; we could have made the same amount of money bussing tables.

We’d been out-carnied by the boss. Our careers as conmen were over.

 

—3—

At the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, where my family and I applied for new passports, we were told about other scams perpetuated on Americans in the country. The most memorable: An American tourist walked into a bookstore, where a man in a pinstriped suit asked if he could check the tourist’s bag. The tourist handed it over. When the tourist finished shopping and returned for the bag, he discovered the bookstore had no bag check. Money, camera, iPod, passport—gone.

Throughout history, tourists have been easy targets for scams and worse. The experience my mother and I had in Argentina had a violent precursor in the United States. In April of 1993, a German tourist was robbed and murdered after leaving the Miami Airport when her rental car was bumped from behind and she stepped outside to inspect the damage. Five months later, another German tourist was killed in Miami in similar fashion. These weren’t isolated events. The previous year, 3000 “bump-and-rob” incidents occurred throughout the United States.

My mother and I had been fortunate our Good-Samaritan thief had relied on deception rather than guns. We were lucky in another respect: My mother’s insurance company covered all of our losses. She even received an extra thousand dollars from her credit-card company because she had bought the new computer on her card, which covered items lost or stolen within thirty days of purchase.

“I think I made out like…well…like a bandit,” she said.

 

—4—

Pasqual and Maria, the couple from Peru who looked after the property where we were staying, didn’t make enough money to own a car or pay for cable TV. For transportation, they relied on public buses. For health care, they depended on Argentina’s public hospitals. When the doctors in the public hospitals went on strike and Maria had terrible stomach pains, she couldn’t afford a private hospital. She had to wait until the strike was over. The strike lasted weeks.

When Maria was feeling better, we employed her to clean the guesthouse where we were living, paying her ten pesos an hour, as an Argentine friend had recommended.

The first time she cleaned the house, it took four hours.

The second time, it took five.

The third time, it took six and a half.

“Is the house growing?” my wife asked me, joking.

The vineyard manager had told us that Maria was “slow” and “simple.” But her ever-more-leisurely house-cleaning pace proved she’d mastered the art of working by the hour.

If Maria had reached a new record-high time with her next cleaning, I was prepared to suggest to her a flat fee. But six and a half hours proved the standard.

My daughters became close to Maria, joining her in harvesting peaches from the orchard next door and helping her hang laundry on the line behind our houses. One morning, when Maria invited them to her house, they noticed familiar objects on her tables and bureaus—broken crayons, old magazines from the States, a mate gourd with a faint odor of vinegar. All items we had thrown away.

At dinner the same evening, my daughters asked my wife and me why Maria was using things from our trash. I tried to put an environmental spin on it: “Because she likes to recycle.” But even my six-year-old wasn’t satisfied with my answer, so I added, “And because she’s poor.”

Afterwards, whenever we met someone new, my youngest daughter would ask, “Is he poor? Is she poor?”

“Are we poor?”

I had been poor only by association and proximity. My maternal grandfather often talked about how his ancestors had fled a potato famine in Ireland to come to the States. When my father was growing up, he lived with his mother and his grandmother in a one-bedroom house in Cleveland. His father, an alcoholic, had left the house when my father was eight and contributed nothing to my father’s rearing. If my father hadn’t earned a basketball scholarship to college, he never would have gone.

I had also seen poverty up close. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1990s, I visited the Guatemala City dump, where families lived in tents made of plastic bags and competed with wild dogs for food. For days afterwards, my shoes smelled of decay and something worse. Eventually I had to throw them away.

I hadn’t visited any Argentine garbage dumps, but on a trip to Buenos Aires, my family and I drove on a highway overlooking vast neighborhoods of shacks made of cardboard, rusted metal, and crooked sticks. I expected my youngest daughter to ask if the shack’s inhabitants were poor. But the answer was obvious, and she said nothing.

The economic inequality between rich and poor is most striking in countries such as Argentina and Guatemala because poverty in these countries is so dramatic. As heartbreaking as poverty is in the United States, poor families haven’t yet colonized our landfills. But while Argentina and Guatemala made a recent Gini Index list of the twenty countries with the most inequitable distribution of wealth (Namibia was first), the United States did not make the list of the top twenty—or even top thirty—countries with the fairest distribution of wealth. Denmark, Japan, Sweden, Ukraine, Croatia, and South Korea all distributed their wealth more equitably than the United States.

Certainly the American Dream has historically been nothing but a mirage for a certain segment of the U.S. population—African-Americans, for example—but it’s questionable whether it has become any more accessible over the years. From 1998 to 2008, according to the Gini Index, wealth inequality in the U.S. grew more disproportionate. Men and women, native or immigrant, who start with nothing are far more likely to remain with nothing rather than move up even to the next rung of the economic ladder. During the previous decade, only three percent of the country’s bottom twenty percent of income earners moved to the top twenty percent. The majority of the country’s poor have remained exactly where their parents were.

American Dream or American Scheme?

One hundred and forty-odd years after Karl Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital, the economic system his masterwork examined—and his more polemical works decried—is still functioning in most countries around the world, in one form or another. It isn’t, therefore, surprising that in countries such as Argentina, with its long- entrenched Peronist government, Marx’s ideas remain tantalizing alternatives to capitalism. No such Marxist enchantment exists in the U.S., whose economic inequalities would put a smile on the face of any Latin American oligarch. Decades of “Better Dead than Red” Cold War rhetoric have distorted and demonized his ideas, and the collapse of the Soviet Union has made them seem, at best, quaint. Besides, it’s difficult for U.S. workers to heed Marx’s call to unite when their unions have been dissolved and their jobs have vanished.

If Marx’s ideas have enjoyed a renaissance in Latin America, as evinced by recent leftist or left-leaning governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, they have yet to prove panaceas for long-standing economic ills. One of my Argentine friends told me he was stunned by the poverty he saw when he visited Venezuela in 2009 to play in a series of rugby matches. One of the fields he played on was surrounded by hills full of wooden shacks and cardboard houses. It seemed there were slums, he said, all the way to the sky. If this was the best face Venezuela could show the world, he said, imagine what it was hiding. Despite Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s belief that “socialism builds and capitalism destroys,” more than thirty-five percent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line.

Utopias flourish only in rhetoric.

 

—5—

My maternal grandfather—he of the potato famine stories—was the most practical of men. He always knew where he could find the least expensive gallon of gas, and always brought a bag lunch to work—even when he was earning a high five-figure income. After he realized he couldn’t send his three children to college on a high-school football coach’s salary, he became an optometrist. He began setting aside money for my college education the day I was born.

But when my grandfather turned seventy, he dispensed with caution and astute calculation and began gambling like a madman. Perhaps he felt Time’s winged chariot at his back. Perhaps for him the nearness of death became a disinhibitor, the way poverty can push the otherwise law-abiding man or woman into crime. He lost $100,000 by investing with a “friend” who promised him a quick, handsome return and instead spent all my grandfather’s money on wine, women, and a luxury boat. And he began mailing off check after check to whatever sweepstakes offer came in the mail. Eventually, the sweepstakes scammers learned his phone number and called at all hours, promising easy millions and soliciting his credit card number. As dementia claimed him, my grandfather became convinced Ed McMahon was going to show up at his door any minute, bearing a check bigger than a birthday cake. “I don’t hear as well as I used to,” he told me one morning. “Please listen for the doorbell.”

We suckers keep waiting for the doorbell because we want to believe that good things will come our way. We want to believe in our fellow humans and the gifts they promise. We want to believe in the possibility of miracles and in the inviolability of even the most casual of covenants. We want to be rich—the faster the fortune, the better—because, darn it, we deserve it.

This makes us vulnerable and all too human.

Being a sucker is optimism with bad consequences.

Or perhaps it’s merely naïveté—or delusion—with predictable consequences.

 

—6—

The morning after my mother and I had had our bags stolen, I called the car rental agency to ask what I should do about the popped tire. I was told I should have it repaired at any convenient garage—and, per the rental agreement, at my expense. There was a gas station five minutes from our house. Attached to the gas station was a gomería, or tire repair facility, in a large, dark, concrete room. In Spanish, goma means rubber or glue, and the place had the sticky feel and smell of rubber and glue.

There was a single worker in the place, a dark-skinned man with oil, grease, and dirt on his uniform and on his arms and chin. The room was unventilated and unairconditioned. Sweat dampened his forehead and neck. He was working over a machine to pull a truck’s tire from its rim. The work looked dangerous; his fingers, I thought, could easily wind up being crushed between hard rubber and metal. He turned the machine off to come talk to me, and after I explained the problem, he said he would repair my tire next.

I sat on a bench in a corner of the room, alternately glancing at a magazine and watching him work. On a few occasions, boiling, I stepped outside to wait on a breeze. In twenty minutes, he was done with the truck tire. He spent the next twenty minutes on my job—separating tire from rim and patching the damaged tube. I’d indicated the two-and-a-half-inch knife slash in the tire, the debilitating blow struck by the Good Samaritan or one of his accomplices.

As the man finished fixing my tire, using the machine to restore the rim, I prepared myself to be ripped off. By my accented Spanish, if not from my appearance, he could tell I was an extranjero, someone who wasn’t at home in his country. We hadn’t agreed on a price—something I had meant to do—and now I wondered if he would ask for 100 pesos or more. At the same time, I wondered, as my youngest daughter might have, if he was poor or, rather, how poor he was. What his house looked like. What he ate for dinner.

He clicked his machine off and strode toward me with the repaired tire. He held it up to show me his work before leaning it against a wall.

“Okay?” he asked.

The tire looked fine. “Okay,” I said. Then, nervously, I asked, “How much?”

“Cinco,” he said.

“Cincuenta?” I asked. “Fifty?”

He shook his head. “Cinco,” he said.

I pulled a five-peso bill from my wallet and handed it to him. He thanked me and turned back to his machine and his work in the hot, rubber-smelling room.

I rolled my tire back out into the bright morning.

Mark Brazaitis is the author of five books, including The Incurables: Stories, which won the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press this winter. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The Sun, Notre Dame Review, Witness, Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Greensboro Review, and elsewhere.

Anything but Oatmeal

Today I stood in the kitchen and watched my father spoon cold, congealed oatmeal into a plastic bag. It can be very quiet, the moment you choose to forgive someone. The intention doesn’t always announce itself. It creeps in, there’s little calculation. You didn’t think it would be so small, so heartbreaking.

Standing in a room with my father watching him pack gruel for lunch—feeling sorry that this is what it has come to, wondering why he’s never learned to properly feed himself, realizing this is maybe where I get it from—throws certain things into relief. I am a grown woman (sort of—a twentysomething) living in an apartment where my father keeps the last three decades of his life. It’s amazing how strange we still are to each other. How even just this morning I noticed something in him that had gone unrecognized until now; those you should be closest to, so often the furthest away.

I was born in Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and brought back to this apartment on West 123rd Street. I don’t remember it, but my dad had an old rocking chair where he’d sit holding me late at night. He was finishing medical school; my mom told me that most evenings it appeared I put him to sleep rather than the other way around.

I only see snapshots of what this early life was like—the steep hill down to the corner bodega where I’d buy a long plastic tube of pink gumballs, the tall co-op buildings across the street, the fence in front of them—but there are no moving pictures of my baby New York. When I was four, my mother packed up her kids and moved us to North Carolina for the sunshine and good schools and pretty ladies we wouldn’t have to watch my father try to seduce.

But now I am back. Yes, after childhood and college I returned to West 123rd Street where my father used to rock me to sleep. We have one of those odd living situations that often mark true New York families. A large percentage of college graduates return home to live with their parents at some point. Only, I don’t live with him exactly and I hardly consider it a return as “dad” and “home” are words that never meaningfully connected for me.

He doesn’t sleep here. I don’t know where he sleeps—he won’t answer direct questions. A shrug, a shake of the head, silence; these are powerful tools in the arsenal of evasion. What began as a temporary site to crash while I got my footing in the big city became permanent as my dad slowly started spending less time here; it became clear I wouldn’t have to actually live with him in any significant way. I’d be amongst his things, near his work, a phone call away (though wasn’t I always that?). But mostly, the apartment is mine. I write in the front room, I’ve had sex on the couch, I pace up and down the long hallway during insomniac nights: all freedoms conditioned on the fact that I am the primary tenant.

But he’s here in the mornings before heading to work, deeper in Harlem; fixing what passes for breakfast, brewing his coffee in that coffeemaker that I swear he’s never washed, looking like the day should be ending for him, not beginning. Sometimes it seems mere inconvenience to wake and find him here. I would rather not have to make small talk. Hell, I don’t like talking to anyone in the morning, but my dad? We don’t even know how to talk in general. But I can’t complain. Stilted communication in exchange for a rent-stabilized apartment is a good deal.

On a typical weekday I hear the front door unlock a little after seven a.m., his brown Rockports on the uneven wood floor, eleven beeps as he dials area code 919. My mother. Yes, they’re divorced. Yes, there are secrets. Yes, she is the love of his life. I don’t question these things anymore, though other people seem to need theories. My parents separated because of my father’s affairs. When one day it was announced that I had a half-sister, too—one he hadn’t told us about for years—then it was my turn to feel personally betrayed, as well.

Somehow my parents found a form of acceptance, though, and they still speak every day. The morning shuffle, my dad’s voice muffled in the back of the apartment; I can’t usually make out the words, but I know he is steeling himself for another long day. My mother calms him. She has that effect on many.

This morning was different, though; the murmurings unsteady, the air heavy.

“I told you, I told you, I told you what-what-what was going to happen. No listen, no listen, I, I, I…”

I didn’t know my father stuttered when angry, wondered if it was the pure intensity of his emotion or whether the person on the other end was just talking so much, the points of entry back into the conversation so small, that my father couldn’t slip the words in, had to keep repeating them. Or was he not listening? How could one hear when trying to talk over someone like that?

I knew he couldn’t be talking to my mother; she is the one he turns to for comfort and could never elicit such unpleasantness. It had to do with his new office, I figured. The one we’ve all been nervous about, its opening a year past schedule, a hundred grand sunk deep into its abyss. My father is a doctor and most of his patients are poor. He never turns them away for lack of pay; it’s one of the reasons he himself is always in financial straits.

I had to be up earlier than usual. As I tumbled out of bed, I saw the light on in the bathroom and realized this was why I could hear him so clearly: he was next to my room. I walked past, deploying one of our passive-aggressive tactics. The door to the bathroom doesn’t close. We don’t turn our heads to look, but you can’t help the peripheral vision, the glimpse of a compromised form.

He was in a very heated conversation—money can do that —and there seemed no good time to tell him to get off the toilet. He was doing his business. I walked past again, to reinforce my presence. Finally, I said from the hall, “Sorry Dad, but I’m going to have to get in there soon.” He told the person on the line to hold the phone and flushed the toilet, zipped up his pants.

Later, in the kitchen, he said to me, “Sion the Be-on, that’s your nickname.” He seemed aimless in his tasks, almost stymied by the hot water now cooling, the bowl still wet from washing. Though “Sion the Be-on” is most certainly not one of my nicknames, I felt it would be petty to correct him, he so fragile right then. I think my dad gets nostalgic for things that are hardly real, invents shared connections. Pretends like he’s been more a part of my life than he ever has been.

But maybe he has been, and that’s the rub. Maybe my father has spent hours of his life holding me in his thoughts. Spent years, those silent years when I refused to talk to him, playing conversations in his head that we might have had if only I would share my voice.

“Because your middle name is Sabreen. So, the B…you always seem to “be on” to something…” He stopped and shook his head. “You’ll have to forgive me today,” he said, choking on the last word. His eyes grew watery; they were already red. They’re often red. I don’t think he sleeps much, even as where he does sleep remains a mystery. This would account for my memories of him when I was a young child: the man who came to visit us one weekend a month in North Carolina and passed out for egregious amounts of time to catch up on all the missed slumber, snoring so loud that two closed doors did little to suppress the thunderous noise. I resented those snores. And I wondered what kind of man comes to see his family (one of them?) only to spend so long lying flat on a bed.

“I know, Dad,” was all I could say. I’d have to forgive him today, as he said, and I would. I did. I have. He was only asking for that one moment, I think, for this anomalous morning and his inarticulateness, but maybe it was for everything, too.

We stood looking at each other, and I finally walked over, awkwardly wrapped my arms around him, the process almost mechanical. A hug would be appropriate now, I told myself. Try to provide comfort. It would be right to do this. Whereas it was the bustling city that might have scared me when I moved back to New York, it was actually the proposition of having to forge a relationship with my father I found most terrifying.

Back when I did share the same space with my dad, phone calls came late at night, in the middle of it, even, and I would listen as he asked careful questions, suggested explanations and remedies, ordered prescription refills. His patients are devoted to him and he gives his time generously. It’s as if office hours don’t exist; he answers whenever they need him. Witnessing this side of him, I could understand how to some he is a healer.

Only, there are many things left unhealed.

“If you ever get into anything like this, get it all on paper. If things seem too good…Just make sure you know the people you’re involved with.” Dad was standing in the doorway, holding his cup of cold coffee, still filled to the top.

I nodded.

“Of course, you know that, it’s just…”

“I know,” I said. The fatherly advice—this, too, always seemed awkward, out of place. When I was younger, I told him he had no right to tell me anything.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“No, it’s ok.”

“I was always so proud of you,” he said, his voice breaking again. That was new to me, too. He turned around as he was saying this, walked heavily down the hall. I stood staring blankly at the coffeemaker still dripping black liquid intermittently. My bowl of cereal was now completely mush.

*       *         *

So few words I give to him—staccato sentences, short utterances—and still he intuits something to be proud of. Though I would not say I desire it, I also wouldn’t say I deserve it.

“You have such a silent way of viewing the world,” he said, another time, halfway down the hall again, his back turned. “I have no idea what you’re thinking.”

If he only knew all the words that are inside me. But how do I expect him to? With most people, I am empathetic and sensitive: a toucher, a feeler. With my father, these impulses morph to the robotic, the remote—I hear a cold voice offer monosyllables, my arms hang limp around his back, my mien as unappealing as his porridge. I recognize the worst in myself—for this I am not proud.

It frustrates me how much there is underneath it all, and the inexplicable force compelling me to remain so closed. I guess you could call it a defense mechanism, but a defense against what at this point, I’m unsure. I wonder why I must act as though I’m enduring something. The residue of a perceived insult, the detritus of past misunderstanding.

But we’ve come a long way. It’s better. Getting to know my father as an adult illuminates certain things I had never admitted before. I realize I am not the only one affected. I look at him and I see he is affected, too; no one escapes unscathed. At twenty-seven, an adolescent’s self-absorption has receded. I acknowledge his pain, which I never allowed before. I replaced my youthful rage with a certain measure of indifference, a coating of stoicism, at least. It is my parents’ affair, I say, (literally) theirs, and not mine. Perhaps I’ve swung too far towards detachment.

But I’m not detached, really, which is why I care that it continues to be so complex to stand in a room and love my father. But I do. There are certain facts that history cannot change—infidelity, distance—but facts now seem different from emotional truth.

There is mythology in most families. I can tell you of the woman named Day, the color of cocoa butter, her lover Night, dark as the country sky with no stars, and the strong boys they brought into the world during slavery times—Day’s sons.

But in this case, we are not surnames or genealogy or ancestry. In my brief twentysomething life, my father and I, the daughter, have created our own mythology. Like the rocking chair as artifact. The affectionate nicknames we do not use. The sentiments believed known to the other that were not.

In a way, I guess I am following my father’s advice: I’m getting to know the people I’m involved with, putting it down on paper. Investigating just why I haven’t wanted to admit that having a father is an involvement. Attempts at conversation still hard with his monologues and non sequiturs, me with a flowing pen, but tight lips—but I think we are both learning about give and take. Longings and shortcomings; we all have them.

I imagine my dad coming in one Sunday morning so we can go for brunch; we do every once in awhile. One of us might say, “We should fix the light in the hallway—it’s gone out.” Then we’ll walk down the hill to the corner diner; my dad will order the lumberjack’s breakfast, and me, anything but oatmeal.

-New York, 2005

Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris, France. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Utne Reader, The Wall Street Journal, Numero Cinq, and the anthology Strangers in Paris, among other venues. In 2007 she won a Barbara Deming Award for fiction and is currently seeking publication of her first novel. Sion holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She blogs at paris (im)perfect and can also be found at siondayson.com.