Elvis Has Left the Building

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

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

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

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

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

“What part is that?” I asked.

He shrugged, said, “The ’50s.”

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

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

“What’s everything?” I asked.

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

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

“Buddy who?” I asked.

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

“Why the drum machine?” I asked.

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

“What’s wrong? Monty’s not work out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” I said. “Nice.”

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

*     *     *

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

“Can I help you in any way?” I asked.

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

I wanted him to stay forever.

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down in the River to Pray

This is what I knew:

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

Then he left for New York.

It was 1988.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I was wrong; it wasn’t easy.

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

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

*     *     *

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

*     *     *

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

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

He was not listed among New York City inmates.

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

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

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

His Medicaid card was expired.

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

They could check by description.

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then they went home to Chicago.

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

Fuck you.

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

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

We laughed.

“I’ll find him,” I told her.

*     *     *

I flew to New York.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

*     *     *

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

*     *     *

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

“Are you getting somewhere?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

I asked AJ if Benji had anyone special.

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wondered if it was dark.

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

If he closed his eyes.

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

I wondered if a crowd gathered.

If anyone said a prayer.

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

 

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

The Half-Buttoned Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Nothing Beats a Beergut Breakfast

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

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

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

What am I doing?

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

“How about bacon and eggs?” he asked.

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

“Soft-boiled egg?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

“That’s not true,” Beergut said.

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re unhappy,” he said.

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

“ROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!”

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

We turned around and strolled back up the hill.

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

“Amazing.”

“Want your breakfast now, Babe?”

“Think I’ll take it outside.”

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *    *

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

Home is Home

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few More Miles

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

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

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

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

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

And what now?

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grow up and get a driver’s license.

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

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

Cycling isnt safe in cities in the United States.

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

Someday I will lose him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

I guess he couldn’t take it anymore.

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

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

But his eyes might not be.

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

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

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

But it scared him. It scared me, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Party of One

Wo shi yi ge ren.”

Chinese for I am alone. Party of one. In English the phrase sounds celebratory: you’re alone, but hey, it’s still a party. Chinese lacks that aura of metaphorical festivity. You just count. One. I contemplate counting as I report my solitary number to the hostess at a restaurant in Suzhou, China’s city of canals.

I’m used to being a party of one. At home in Minnesota, my husband, Will, often sends me on my own to the opera or ballet, offering himself up as a chauffeur if it means I’ll excuse him from actually having to sit through the performance. I’ve traveled alone before, to New York and LA and Europe. I’ve hiked alone in the forests along Lake Superior.

But this trip is different. I’m 56. It’s my first time in China. I studied Chinese almost 40 years ago, before it was easy for Americans to travel and study here. Now I’m speaking more Chinese than I’d anticipated, surprising myself and the occasional Chinese service worker, like this hostess in Suzhou.

I picture what she sees as she looks at me. A middle aged white lady, walking around China alone during the off-season. The light rain has fogged my glasses and frizzed my hair. I am short. I am stout. I am sporting a travel-safe purse, strapped across my chest like a beauty queen’s sash. My sturdy walking shoes and water-resistant winter jacket proclaim neither the crisp sophistication of an international businesswoman nor the one-world panache of a globe-trotting bohemian.

If it proclaims anything, my appearance is screaming, “Help me, I’ve lost my tour bus.”

But when I open my mouth, I speak calmly in Mandarin. The hostess shakes her head, blinks and stares. It’s what most Chinese people do when they hear me. My accent isn’t great, but at least half the time they understand what I’ve said.

*     *     *

Friends were impressed that I decided to travel to China on my own. Being a party of one isn’t usually impressive. More often than not, it’s just embarrassing. I felt embarrassed when I went alone to a Garth Brooks concert about a month before my trip to China. I didn’t tell anyone I was going, and I was nervous about being there alone. What if the audience started singing? Or worse, dancing? Who would help me if someone spilled beer on my head? These perils didn’t typically arise when one went solo to a movie or the opera, but this concert would be different. It was being held in a big arena. Did people even go alone to shows like that? Would the other concert-goers feel sorry for me? Would they think I was a strange, pathetic creature in late-middle age, lacking the social wherewithal to find even one person to accompany her to a major, 11 sold-out performances, entertainment extravaganza?

Going to Garth Brooks was a lot like crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. You just have to step off the curb.   Once I’d bought my ticket and gotten myself downtown, there was no choice but to keep going.

But I really wanted to see Garth Brooks. The country megastar had been the soundtrack I’d used to raise my children. It started when my son, Anthony, was about two. He didn’t talk much. I didn’t know too many other at-home moms. It was before any of my friends had children, before I’d figured out whether and when I’d resurrect my professional life. But Anthony had a cowboy hat and boots, and he loved dancing to the Garth Brooks CDs I’d play on our living room stereo. And in that long stretch of empty between end-of-nap and dinner, I would wait for Will to get home and I would watch my son dance and I would listen to Garth’s fast licks and riffs, the bright major chords, the lyrics that celebrated wild red-haired girls and rodeo riders and all those friends in low places. The thumping tempo was a heartbeat pulsing through my lonely afternoons.

Years later, when the papers announced the concert, I knew I had to go. None of my friends wanted to come with me, and I knew better than to ask Will. A reasonably devoted husband in most ways, Will hates country music almost as much as he hates downtown traffic. He didn’t even offer to give me a ride.

Will did give me a ride to the airport the morning I left for Asia. I was nervous before the trip, like I’d been before the concert. What if I didn’t have the right visas? What if my luggage got lost? What if I was so overwhelmed with loneliness that I became too dispirited to sightsee, and wasted days and nights in my hotel room, a hermit hiding from adventure who’d traveled across the world just to order room service, watch TV, and mark time for nearly four weeks? What if there was no TV?

“You’ll be fine,” Will assured me. Easy for him to say. He couldn’t guess how sad I might feel when I finally stood under the image of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, but was standing there alone.

Still I knew I had to go. Our daughter, Lydia, was on a yearlong study program in Asia. The college had invited the parents to a banquet in Vietnam. It was too expensive for Will to come with me, but I wanted to see Lydia during her long year away. And Vietnam was just a stone’s throw from China. I’d waited decades. I had the vacation time. I was used to going places on my own. And I knew enough Chinese to be able to request a table for one.

*     *     *

My meager language ability wards off total isolation as I travel through China, but I’m not delusional about my skills. When I ask the Suzhou hostess for a table, I reflexively extend my right index finger upward, pantomiming my solitude in case my pronunciation isn’t clear. When it comes time to order I’m relieved that the menu translates the word for eel, a local specialty that I’m eager to try.

In the end it’s just as well that I’m on my own, because I’m making a mess with my chopsticks. The thin slices of eel keep slipping back to the plate, even when I try to secure them with a strand of fresh ginger from the miniature condiment bowl. A waitress rushes over, holding out a fork, but I smile and wave her away.

Kuaizi hen hao,” I declare, the chopsticks are fine.

I’m hoping she’ll understand from my smile—and the fact that I know the word for “chopsticks”—that I am not the type of traveler who requires culturally inappropriate tableware. Still, the eel is coated in thick, sweet sauce. When the waitress returns with extra napkins, I’m happy to accept them.

*     *     *

And there are times when I’m happy being alone.

Art museums, for example, I like to read the signs and learn the history. Sometimes I just want to sit in front of a painting for a long time without worrying if a companion is getting bored. I’ll stare at the brushwork, marveling at the texture of Van Gogh’s strokes or at how the flecks of gold leaf still adhere after centuries to the surface of a Gothic altarpiece. As much as a book may transport the reader, the author’s pen hasn’t physically touched the pages; the same is not true for paintings. I think of the artist’s hands, the brush on the canvas, the decades or centuries that separate me from the corporeal reality of the work’s creation. Sometimes my heart races. I am a private time traveler, a party of one to my own imaginings.

*     *     *

I become a real time traveler when I cross the International Date Line, a party of one en route to Ho Chi Minh City. It’s almost midnight when I arrive. The streets are mobbed with cars and motorbikes. Lights in every color canopy the way to my hotel. Decorations for Christmas, just a few days away, the hotel driver tells me, and for the Vietnamese New Year, which will follow two months later. I am dazed from almost a full day of flying, and the lights are like a dream.

I have a few days for sightseeing before Lydia’s group arrives. My first morning I walk to the Reunification Palace, the Ben Thanh Market, the Central Post Office. Crossing the streets takes practice. The daytime roads are even more jammed than they’d been the night before, and few of the intersections have signal lights. Traffic never stops.

At first I’m terrified, so I slyly attach myself to groups of other pedestrians when I need to cross a street. Eventually, however, I’m stranded at a big intersection. Individual walkers here and there are getting across, but there’s no one else standing on my side of the curb. I wait. The engine din and stream of motion seem endless, but finally I get a sense of when the traffic will break. I find a focal point across the street. I keep my eyes forward, inhale the diesel-choked air, step off the curb and walk. My steps are even in time and equal in length; I trust the cars and motorbikes to weave around me.

When I reach the other side I look around, wondering if anyone has noticed. I wish I could tell someone how Zen it felt to become one with the chaos of traffic, to let go of my fear and adapt to this wild rhythm. None of the strangers walking past me in Ho Chi Minh care. No one gives me a thumbs up or offers a high five. I have stepped into the maelstrom of Ho Chi Minh traffic and will do so dozens of times over the next few days, but I will never share my triumph. I will coalesce into the swarm, become part of the city’s rumbling, ceaseless energy; but each time I step into the street, I will join the crowd alone.

*     *    *

Going to Garth Brooks was a lot like crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. You just have to step off the curb. Once I’d bought my ticket and gotten myself downtown, there was no choice but to keep going.

It was a long walk in from the parking lot to the arena. I stepped sprightly in my close-toed shoes and “secret-stretch” jeans, keeping my eyes forward until I found my seat. No one around me especially cared that I’d arrived, but I felt ready to celebrate. I hailed a vendor and bought myself an over-sweet, over-priced strawberry daiquiri that was served up in a souvenir plastic container shaped like a long-neck guitar. No one stared. No one spilled beer on my head. And the music was fantastic. When Garth played “Friends in Low Places” I sang like gangbusters, one off-key voice merging with the crowd’s.

*    *   *

Sometimes being alone works out better than expected; sometimes you don’t expect to be alone at all.

After Vietnam, Lydia and I travel together to Shanghai. She’s been here before, but back when we were making our plans she said it would be fun to go to Shanghai together. I’d imagined her showing me the sights, showing off her Chinese, the two of us strolling through Shanghai’s museums and along the Bund. Turns out Lydia is tired after a semester of studying. She has papers to write and friends to see. I am a party of one for most of my sightseeing in Shanghai, and when Lydia goes out with her friends one evening, I decide to stroll the Bund alone.

The Bund is Shanghai’s most famous street, lined with Art Deco and Beaux Arts banks and hotels that were built in the 1920s and ’30s, monuments to commerce and European imperialism and Shanghai’s age of glamour. On the other side of the Bund a raised pedestrian boulevard overlooks the Huangpu River. I cross to the promenade, aided by traffic lights; in China’s big cities, being a pedestrian requires no special skill.

From the promenade I look across the river to Pudong, a new part of Shanghai. It’s a city of tomorrow with skyscrapers created from orbs and angles and open spaces that soar like a fantasy amalgam of outer space, Disneyland, and dystopian cinema. At night the skyscrapers dazzle with bursts and patterns and rhythms of moving light and color, fireworks wrought in architecture. Behind me, along the Bund, the grander, more dignified facades are also illuminated, with stately lights that shine motionless and white. I walk the promenade, as if suspended between the river and the century that separate these two places: the stasis of history on one side, confronting the chimera of an inchoate future on the other.

I’m not nervous, alone at night. There are plenty of people out, but the promenade is not unpleasantly crowded. In just two nights, I will be in Hong Kong and will hear on my hotel television that 35 people were trampled to death on New Year’s Eve at the exact spot where I’m walking now. Someone will throw some money into the air and the far larger crowd gathered for the holiday will go out of control. But tonight I can easily find a space against the wall to stop and look out at Pudong, and I feel comfortable taking my time.

*   *    *

Time has changed how we experience being alone. There are some types of modern solitude that I love, like shopping online. It’s efficient and convenient; it protects my anonymity while eliminating any need to worry about being a party of one at the mall. And internet commerce doesn’t make me feel especially alone. Like most people, I shop online for lots of reasons, not just to protect myself from the embarrassment of public fitting rooms. Moreover, nothing about the items I purchase reveals the solitary process through which I acquired them. I can wear these new goods without being marked a loner.

There are, however, other technologies whose sole function is to promote and celebrate solitude. Those innovations make me uncomfortable.

It’s the difference between selfies and the selfie stick. Selfies, the smartphone’s unintended gift to autobiography, are innocent enough. A cell phone, after all, has many functions; it’s not just a tool for promoting narcissism and isolation. So a traditional selfie can result simply because you happened to find yourself alone at a marvelous place and were so overcome by the moment that you impetuously decided to use your phone to take a picture. There’s no shame in that.

Selfie sticks, on the other hand, destroy any possibility that one’s narcissism was unintended or one’s solitude unanticipated. Indeed, these collapsible rods, designed for the sole purpose of improving the photos one takes of oneself, require considerable forethought. You have to know you’re going somewhere interesting, anticipate the desire to take a picture and acknowledge the fact that you will inevitably want to be featured in the picture. You must also at some point have recognized the difficulty of achieving a flattering composition and angle, and spent the time and money necessary to acquire the photo-enhancing stick. Then you have to remember to pack the stick and carry it along. But the final mortification is that you use the stick in public, revealing to anyone who cares to notice the level of effort you’ve put into ensuring that your party of one photo will be the best picture possible.

I knew I’d be alone for some of the highlights of my trip to China, and I suppose I knew I’d end up taking pictures of myself at places like the Great Wall. Still, in all my planning and shopping, I didn’t think about getting a selfie-stick. I’m not immune from the seemingly insatiable modern desire to consecrate one’s image. But I prefer the illusion of spontaneity. I prefer not to broadcast the fact that I’ve anticipated my vanity photos, or that when those photo-worthy moments occurred, I knew I would be alone.

*    *   *

The Bund is Shanghai’s classic photo op, and I have enough archival drive to want to memorialize my presence here. People all around me are taking selfies. Young men who seem to be here alone photograph themselves with Pudong in the background; clusters of young women photograph themselves individually first, then take group selfies with their friends. I am virtually the only non-Asian around, and it is hard for me to tell if my fellow promenaders are locals or tourists, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone is taking pictures; no one is asking anyone else for help.

I am similarly self-reliant. Phone in hand, I stand with my back to Pudong, extend my arm, and smile brightly. It takes several shots for me to capture a picture in which the lights of Pudong are in focus and I—frizzy hair, blotchy skin, eyes open way too wide—don’t look totally crazed. Finally, I’m satisfied. In part. Truth is, I would have loved a picture of Lydia and me on the Bund.

*   *   *

Before my trip I hadn’t worried about being alone on the Bund, because I thought I’d be with Lydia; but I worried a lot about being alone in Tiananmen Square. Not because of safety or the possibility of getting lost or the legacy of the 1989 government crackdown on the student democracy movement. When most Americans think of Tiananmen I know they picture that grainy news photo of a tank barreling toward a lone student who’s raising his fist in protest.

Not me. My picture of Tiananmen goes back at least a decade earlier, to the beginning of my obsession with China. I was 15. I had been focused on French and German and getting to college where, my parents used to assure me, my “time would come.” Then I met my summer Park and Rec boss, Roy: handsome, blond, seven years my senior. Roy was also studying Chinese. I was interested in foreign languages and cultures and travel. I didn’t have to fake my interest in China, the way I had to fake just happening to run into Roy outside the YMCA on days I knew he’d be driving by on his way to work.

Maybe Roy wished he’d had a little sister. Over the next couple of years he took me on several platonic “dates,” during which we ate dim sum, went to screenings of Chinese revolutionary cinema, or shopped for propaganda posters. One day he bought me a poster of Tiananmen Square. It showed a long view of the square, facing the side with the iconic picture of Mao flanked by revolutionary slogans written in Chinese characters on horizontal banners. The Forbidden City, Roy explained, lay just beyond.

None of it was political—Roy had no agenda with Mao or with me. But I fell crazy in teenage love, not just with Roy, but also with this world of melodrama and rosy-cheeked peasant soldiers, and with this language that was written in tiny pictures and pronounced with tones. It all whirled together in my mind: China, Mao, the fact that a super-cute older guy was routinely spending time with me alone. At the end of our outings Roy would drop me off at home and say goodbye with a wave and a frustratingly appropriate kiss on my cheek. It sparked a fervor that was not purely revolutionary.

*   *   *

When I drop Lydia off at the airport, my heart clutches as I wave and watch her head off to rejoin her classmates. I’m on my own again, traveling in a seemingly magic bubble of sunshine. Beijing is the last city I visit. It is notorious for pollution but when I arrive the sky is blue, the air is crisp. I don’t want to waste the light, so I leave my hotel moments after I check in. I walk to the nearby park and climb the hill to a pagoda that offers a panorama of the Forbidden City, former palace of the emperors. The north gate is just across the street, but the buildings and courtyards that comprise the emperors’ palace stretch south for almost a mile.

I am standing in the hilltop pagoda, looking out at the Forbidden City in the fading winter sun. It’s getting late but I know just where I need to go. I hold my hand up between the sun and the horizon line. I’ve got at least one hand’s width, at least an hour. It will be about a 40 minute walk around to the south gate. I have four nights in Beijing, and it’s already been a long day with a train trip and hectic transfer to my hotel, but Tiananmen, the south gate of the Forbidden City, is the place I’ve most dreamed of seeing. I start walking, fast.

*   *   *

My poster of Tiananmen Square had hung on my dorm room wall all through college. I carried it with me long after I’d let go of my feelings for Roy. That image was the backdrop to my young adult years, like Garth Brooks was the soundtrack to the years I spent at home when my children were small. But truth be told Tiananmen, and China, was more than a backdrop. I studied Chinese in college and in graduate school, which is where I met Will, who was studying chemistry at the same university. A few years later I was married and distracted from thoughts of working or traveling in China. Eventually I rolled up my Chinese posters and stored them away.

But I didn’t forget. I held on to some of the Chinese I’d learned, to my fascination with anything having to do with China, to that image of Tiananmen Square. Over the years I’d drag Will to whatever Chinese movies or dance performances came to town. I took a few Chinese classes. I ate dim sum whenever I could. Meanwhile, by the time Lydia reached junior high, Chinese language study was commonplace. With just a bit of motherly prodding, she chose it as her elective.

By then my Chinese was pretty rusty, and I had learned from Maoist era textbooks. My knowledge wasn’t always useful. I could say “diligently serve the people” but could not ask for a cup of tea. I’d learned the word for “comrade” right away but did not learn the words for “Mr.” or “Mrs.” until my third year. Still, I helped Lydia with her homework, and a lot came back. Not just vocabulary. When Lydia went on a 6-week study trip after her junior year in high school I scrolled each week through the photos her program posted on a blog. When I saw a picture of Lydia with the group, grinning and standing proud in front of Mao and the revolutionary banners in Tiananmen Square, I cried. Happiness for Lydia, pangs of yearning for me.

When my chance came, I knew I had to go. I’d had a picture of Tiananmen Square in my mind since I hung that poster on my wall in college. In the months before the trip, getting to Tiananmen was the moment I’d most anticipated. It would be the most important moment, the moment I thought would be the hardest to experience alone.

*    *   *

When I get to Tiananmen the sun is skimming the tops of the buildings. I am almost but not quite breathless from my walk and from excitement. Although the square itself is a huge open area, the police have somehow funneled access through a security gate and metal detector. I pass through quickly and find there are also stanchions keeping people off the road that runs in front of Mao’s picture.

I’m jammed in with a crowd and can only look from an angle, but after almost 40 years, I’m here. I stare up at the enormous image of Mao, and the banners with their Chinese characters whose shape and meaning I’ve had memorized for decades. I am surprised to see that the “banners,” as I’ve always thought of them, and Mao’s picture, seem to be made of metal. My poster was printed from a black-and-white photograph that had been hand-painted to add color; in it all the edges of Tiananmen seemed soft. But the image I’m staring up at is crisp and hard, like the cold blue sky where the sun is quickly fading.

The crowd at first is more focused on the road in front of the gate than on the gate itself. They seem to be waiting, as if for a parade.

Nimen deng shei?” I ask a stranger. Who is everyone waiting for?

My Chinese is not good enough to understand her reply. It doesn’t matter. After about 15 minutes the police move the stanchions away. I’m able to move to the center, directly in front of the image of Mao.

I stay at Tiananmen long enough for the sky to darken and the picture of Mao and those revolutionary slogans to become illuminated. My poster had an old-fashioned look; I hadn’t imagined that Mao’s picture and the slogans were electrified. I read the familiar characters, mentally pronouncing the Chinese while translating into English: “Long Live the People’s Republic of China,” and “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s People.” Behind Mao, the entrance, the actual Tiananmen or “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” is also illuminated. Tiny rows of lights outline its Qing dynasty architecture. The atmosphere around me is festive. People are here for the view and to take pictures, as they were that night on the Bund.

I am the lone westerner in a crowd of Chinese people. I am thousands of miles from home. I don’t really speak the language. It is cold and night is falling and I will have to walk two miles back to my hotel. But I feel like I belong here. In so many ways, I’m like everyone else in the crowd. I’m excited. I’m doing what everyone else is doing: walking around, taking pictures, trying to get a better view. I can even read all the Chinese characters; it’s just those two big banners, and I’ve been reading those for decades. I’ve imagined myself at this exact spot for almost 30 years. The place is bigger and sharper and brighter than I’d ever imagined, but it’s also more familiar than I ever dreamed it would be.

This is the moment. I wait for a gap in the crowd and step up to the waist-high metal barrier. I turn my back to the gate, pull out my phone and hold it in front of me. I position Mao in the background centered between the slogans, and I take my picture.

Tracy HarrisTracy Harris is a writer, pro bono political asylum attorney, and art lover living in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her essays have appeared in Lascaux Review and Mason’s Road. She is a frequent participant in the Cracked Walnut series of literary readings throughout the Twin Cities, and a former member of the editorial board of Water-Stone Review.

Counter Intuitive

The cop that wrote me up for trying to use a fake ID at an Ocean City bar was wearing yellow-striped shorts, an embarrassing reality that defused any grand aspirations of mine to spin the tale into one of proud delinquency. Where that cop is today, I do not know, and he does not know where I am, and it’s unlikely that, beyond the hour during which I sat on the curb reciting personal information for his report, our lives will ever cross again. Where those shorts are now is also a mystery—they could still be adorning his skinny, tan legs as he apprehends more underage drinkers; they could have been passed along to another officer; or they could have become undesired, as the yellow fabric faded and the threads loosened at the seams after many long, taxing hours under the Maryland sun. Once undesired, clothing can be interred in a messy closet, tossed out, or, in some cases, given a shot at new life via donation. If given to a thrift shop, those yellow-striped shorts would join the massive ocean of used clothing donations made by Americans every year—4.7 billion pounds, by some estimations.

During busy hours at the 96th Street Housing Works, one in a chain of thrift shops operating in New York City, it can feel like all 4.7 billion of those pounds have arrived in a single afternoon, unloaded unceremoniously at the donations counter for the attendant to sort through. I know this because I am the attendant, serving 40 hours of community service assigned by a Maryland judge as punishment for my use of that fake ID in Ocean City. My options for completing the hours were plentiful—volunteering at a soup kitchen, picking up trash in Central Park, cleaning animal cages for the ASPCA, and so on. I chose Housing Works at 96th Street at the recommendation of a college classmate, who called the labor boring but manageable.

I look down at my own body and imagine myself stripped down, my possessions assessed and passed along.

During the chunks of hours I put in over the weeks following my sentence, the Housing Works manager assigned me a variety of duties. Sometimes I swept the floors and wiped down the furniture. Sometimes I re-racked the clothes to comply with our color ordering scheme—red, pink, orange, yellow, green, blue, gray, brown, beige, black, white. Once, after a rack of blazers was stolen, I was told to act as a security guard and walk around looking for possible thieves. (What they expected me to do with the type of guy that pilfered items from a thrift shop was never explained, nor was how to differentiate a potential criminal from our less-than-polished clientele. I puffed out my chest anyway and stalked around the place, keeping an eye out for suspiciously stuffed pockets or hurried hand movements and fantasizing about foiling getaways with Heisman-worthy tackles.) But most of the time I stood at the gloomy and gray linoleum donations counter, as I do now, waiting for people to come in and drop off their stuff. In five minutes, I will have completed 39 hours. Today will be my last day.

A woman walks up to the counter. She’s wearing a pantsuit and has very straight brown hair and the click-click of her heels turns our hard thrift shop floor into a metronome. She probably just got off work. Along with the lunching hours, the end of the workday is the busiest time for donors to drop off their used clothes at Housing Works. In between are lengthy stretches of inactivity during which I struggle to stay awake. A man, her husband I presume, trails behind her with two black garbage bags.

“Welcome to Housing Works,” I say with a hint of enthusiasm, although she’s definitely not listening—could I have said “Welcome to Hell” without her even flinching? Her husband plops the bags on the counter and I untie the knots. Out spill high-end dresses, designer jeans, and a pile of silk scarves. One of those donations. Along the wide spectrum of quality that encompasses our endless and varying donations, this woman represents the superior end, the end created by Manhattan socialites who need to un-stuff their closets for the new season so they dump their dated collections at Housing Works for us to paw through. These prized contributions aren’t frequent, though. More often donors will leave sartorial flotsam: torn sweaters and stained shorts, frayed hats and scuffed sneakers, undesired uniform shorts and even some underwear every now and then.

At the bottom of the second of the couple’s two bags is a cardboard box with a sewing machine in it. Can this woman have ever even considered repairing something once it ripped? I stack it next to a dusty Cuisinart on one of our appliance shelves. The fact that we take household items in addition to clothing leads to the expected—old plates, spare pillows, video cassettes—and also the unexpected. One woman dropped off a bag of about 300 female condoms, looked me in the eye, and demanded I put them somewhere where they’d be sure to sell. One man deposited a set of wall curtains, each several hundred square feet in size. My manager knew that the few people who shopped for wall curtains probably didn’t do so at a thrift shop, and ordered me to tear them into pieces and throw them out. They proved to be perforated by an army of needles that stuck into my palms as I angrily ripped at the cloth, a bandana across my face to block my inhalation of the colloidal fabric that levitated from the shredded curtains. Another woman donated an unmarked box of assorted clear plastic pieces. A half-hearted attempt at assembly revealed the contraption to be a used breast pump. This too was deemed worthy only of the bottom of a trash can.

The reality is that a sizable portion of donations find their way to the garbage. The donated items are transported from the counter and placed in the storage room several yards behind, separated from the store only by a plastic curtain. The curtain hides us as we choose what to keep and what to discard, an essential barrier since some donors would be appalled if they could see how quickly we decide to throw out their former possessions. Although I don’t think this woman in particular really cares whether we keep her stuff or throw it out or if I put on six of her dresses at once and tap dance on the counter.

The source of our endless garbage is twofold. Sometimes people assume we can make use of items that we actually can’t, such as wall curtains or a used breast pump. More often the owners of these doomed donations had always meant to throw them out and wanted to leave that task to someone else. The thrift store donation counter is a hassle-free alternative to garbage disposal. Donors let us sort through paper, plastic, and glass. They let us decide what to do with their unwanted belongings. They let us feel the guilt of throwing away former favorites. They don’t want to look a teddy bear in the eye before tying the plastic knot above his grave. And best of all, they can shirk this responsibility all in the name of charity.

I scrunch up the garbage bags and the woman swivels on her heels to leave the store.

“Would you like to fill out the tax write-off?” I half-yell at her as she distances herself from the counter, waving the form like I’m bidding her goodbye from the deck of an outgoing ship. But she casually throws up the back of her hand as if lazily batting away a fly: she is like most donors, simply wishing to flee the scene of this hot-potato game of garbage passing. Some leave before I can even identify whatever they’ve left, the retail version of ding-dong-ditch.

Others do accept the chance to claim the deduction. The form asks that donors be thorough and specific about the things that they’ve donated and to determine values of items based on 40% of their original retail price. Most donors, predictably, stretch the limits of this suggestion. They scribble down a loose definition of their donations—“clothing”—and pause for a moment before deciding that they are worth as much or more than they originally cost. Somehow a moth-bitten hat has accrued value in the decade since it was first bought. They snatch up the yellow carbon copy of the form and zip out of the store, having been paid to not deal with their trash.

This is Housing Works. This is how it works. And I have an hour left.

*    *    *

An old couple walks in. The woman is pushing a black cart full of junk, and the man with her holds a stuffed garbage bag in each hand, also, presumably, full of junk. They shuffle their way to my counter. I brace myself for the incoming storm of clutter.

“Welcome to Housing…” I say, trailing off. The man spills out one bag onto the surface while the woman plucks objects one-by-one from her cart and lines them up. The items that emerge are virtually unsellable. Packs of cards with a third of the deck missing. A board game without the top to the cardboard box. Cracked bowls and dirty cups. A stack of withered books interspersed with the couple’s personal papers—are they really donating their own mail? A lamp with a severed power cord. Ragged T-shirts and mismatched socks. A Reagan-era PC that stares apathetically back at me.

I expect them to bolt from this glorified garbage dump, but instead the woman begins recounting a story for almost every item that sits on the counter. The cards and board games were purchased to entertain their grandchildren when they were born, but they have since outgrown such trinkets. One of the sets of bowls came from a vacation to Venice several decades ago. The books have all been read and reread.

“It’s time for someone else to enjoy them,” the woman says. I stack them up.

“He claimed he could fix this,” she says, gesturing toward the lamp. She looks at him and he chuckles. “I guess not…” she says.

The woman puts her hands on the sides of the computer and tilts it up to look at it. “We haven’t turned this thing on in years,” she says, “And my daughter bought me a new one in the spring anyway.”

They don’t explain every T-shirt as I fold them, but they do offer anecdotes for a special few. A University of Wisconsin shirt with a faded badger, the school’s mascot, draws a story of their son’s college days. A Regent Seven Seas shirt is the product of a recent cruise trip, an Obama ’08 shirt an expression of their political affiliation.

Eventually the counter is clear. I mention the tax deduction form but they brush it off.

“The money doesn’t matter,” the woman says. The man compresses the empty garbage bags and tosses them into the cart. I offer the couple my standardized gratitude for their donations. They smile and then weave their way through customers to the store’s exit. The bell above the door jingles as they pass through.

I transport all of their donations into the storage room. They all seem a little bit less shoddy now that a lifetime of stories has been attached to them. My grandmother used to have board games for me. The lamp could be resuscitated by any passable electrician. Was my first computer somewhere in the basement at home?

One of my superiors joins me behind the counter.

“Look at all this shit,” she says, scanning the items that the elderly couple dropped off. She pulls shut the curtain that separates the stock room from the counter, hiding our ruthless sorting of donations from our unsuspecting customers.

“Keep the books, the housewares, and the computer. Everything else is trash,” she says, and leaves me behind the curtain to dispose of the unwanted items. I scoop up the stuff, hugging it against my chest, before unloading it into the dumpster we keep in the storage room. What little order the couple had preserved is undone as I toss away their erstwhile belongings. The board game pieces scatter within the can and nestle in the corners of the bag. The shirts unfold and cardboard royalty slip from the deck of cards and down through crevices in the pile of rubbish.

I tie up the bag and sling it over my shoulder. I walk through the store, a bizarro Santa carrying the world’s rejected possessions. At the curb outside I stack the bag on top of the others from the day, totaling perhaps a dozen. There are homeless people waiting for the drop-off, a daily sight outside of Housing Works. As soon as I turn, they undo my knot and start rifling through the bag. I glance back one more time when I get back into the store. One homeless man has found the jackpot: the stack of old T-shirts. He jams them under his armpit and scoots down the block with his prize. The faded badger peeks out nervously from under his brown jacket.

Back in the storage room, I turn over a milk crate and sit down to start pricing the couple’s books, as directed by my boss. We have instructions on how to assess the value of the many used books that we receive—criteria revolving around the size, condition, and renown of the book, and even the original price tag if it can be found—but the process is somewhat arbitrary. I absentmindedly stick freshly inked 6s and 7s from the pricing gun to books I’ve never heard of.

I begin to think about all of the items that the couple donated. Where they began—toy stores, housewares outlets, clothing shops, onboard cruise ships, and where they ended up—a garbage dump, adorning a homeless man, or sentenced to an idle eternity on a Housing Works shelf. I look down at my own body and imagine myself stripped down, my possessions assessed and passed along. My pants and shirt hung on racks at Housing Works, my shoes pecked at by crows at some lonely landfill, my cell phone disassembled and separated into computer chips, my keys melted down and re-constituted as nuts and bolts. I sit there on the milk crate, naked. Then my skin is ripped from my flesh and fashioned into hide. The meat is torn from my body and molded into burger patties for a fast food joint. My eyeballs are extracted with tooth picks and frozen in glass and modeled in a museum. My hair is shaved off and stuffed into the cushion of a desk chair. My ligaments are tied into rubber bands and used to bind the elderly couple’s piles of mail. My bones are stacked up and tossed into the Housing Works garbage can, where bugs nip at them until nothing remains but a few chalky specks.

At the bottom of the pile of books I find The Moviegoer, a novel by Walker Percy, my namesake. My thoughtless streak of pricing comes to an abrupt stop. I put the gun down and hold the book in my hands. What are the odds that one Walker would find another in the bottom of a stack of forgotten books? How had this title avoided being carried away by a vagrant, left under a bed in an apartment, tossed casually in the garbage, burnt or buried? Surely this passing of men in time and space, this interaction between person and object, this evanescent moment of possession should be recognized! I set the price gun to $61,092, those digits a standard numerical representation of my date of birth. I stick the white rectangle on the cover, flattening it with my thumb. The book will have to be repriced, assuming no one is willing to shell out sixty grand for a shabby paperback from a thrift store. But for the moment it holds my mark and indicates that it once passed through my hands. I take it and the rest to the bookshelves in the store and spread them out. There is room enough that only one line of books needs to be formed, but I nevertheless hide The Moviegoer behind two others, saving its bogus price tag from a quick death for at least another day.

It is 7 P.M. I take off my Housing Works lanyard and leave it on the desk in the back office. I fill out my final shift’s paperwork and make sure the previous ones all add up to forty hours. I thank my boss, put my jacket on, and exit the store, to buy and sell, to collect and dispose, to cherish and forget, to meet the man behind the counter and attempt to explain value.

Walker HarrisonWalker Harrison is a young writer living in New York City. He works for a start-up and writes both fiction and non-fiction in his spare time. He studied applied mathematics and creative writing at Columbia University. His most recent published work can be seen in the Cobalt Review‘s annual baseball issue.

A Box of Chocolates in China

I cling to the back of a motorcycle, my hair wild in the wind, arms clenched around the slim waist in front. I am flying through the night, lights winking as we buzz around bumper-to-bumper traffic in a Chinese city of three million. Have I lost my mind, never having been on a cycle in my life? Am I so immersed in the culture I just don’t give a damn? Or is it love, crazy love?

How did I end up here? I responded to an ad: Volunteer for a month teaching in China. From that point everything careened out of my control.

*     *     *

I am flying through the night, lights winking as we buzz around bumper-to-bumper traffic in a Chinese city of three million. Have I lost my mind, never having been on a cycle in my life? Am I so immersed in the culture I just don’t give a damn? Or is it love, crazy love?

The orientation took place on a tree-covered campus in Virginia. Eleven of us sat through the spiel of The Chinese Lady Professor whose project we had become. She assigned the volunteers: four to elementary kids in summer English Camp, four as high school tutors, and two to a northern university near Russia.

I looked around, perplexed. “You haven’t assigned me.”

You will teach the teachers.”

What!? I wanted little kids, games with flash cards, like cat and dog. Fun. “I work with high school students,” I said, “and I was hoping for something different.” I didn’t say easier, but that’s what I meant. And she knew it.

The Lady Professor paused and looked over her list.

“But you filled out the questionnaire that you would work . . . let me see . . . wherever needed. I need you to teach the teachers. English teachers in China recertify just as you do, every few years. The government requires they be taught by a native speaker with a Masters in English. It’s you. Don’t worry, you’ll be great, trust me.”

Trust you! I should walk out and drive home. Well, I didn’t, but I sulked, and the snit lasted awhile. During break I had a talk with myself in the Ladies Room: Okay, put your money where your mouth is. You talk about teaching in a foreign country, your next great career. Quit talking, get off your ass, and do it.

I smiled at The Chinese Lady Professor. “Okay, I’ll do it. I’m supposed to fill up four hours a day for a month, right? So, where’s the curriculum?”

“You’ll bring it,” she responded, with what looked like a smirk.

*     *     *

August, 2001. Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China.

I stand in front of my class with the first of my brilliant teaching strategies, The Quotation for the Day.

“Each day we’ll start with a quotation. I’ve brought dozens. We’ll talk about the quotation in English without worrying about grammar. Chat away. It would be fun if you’d bring quotations too. Something meaningful, maybe a family saying.”

No response. They smile.

Twenty-two faces look up at me, nodding. I am Teacher, what they call me on day one and every day afterwards. Not my last name, not my first name, not anything I suggest. Simply, Teacher. Twenty-two Chinese teachers will treat me like royalty, argue over who has lunch with me, who takes me shopping, who gets me for dinner.

Now, however, they just smile.

“In my country when we don’t know the origin of a saying, we claim it’s an Old Chinese Proverb. For instance, here’s my favorite.” I write it on the board: Give me a fish and I eat today. Teach me to fish and I eat for the rest of my life.

They smile. A timid voice from the back, “We don’t know that one. It’s not Chinese.”

“Oh, okay. Do you have one you’ll share?”

No takers.

“Come on. In my country we participate in class. I need a quotation.”

They smile. Silence. Finally a hand in the air. It’s Ivan, twenty-one, the youngest in my class. Ivan’s not his name, or course, but they insist on using the English names they chose in university—Ivan, Leaf, Stream, Moon. I call them whatever they want.

Ivan waves his hand. “I have one, my favorite.”

Everyone smiles, waiting.

‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.'”

Now no one’s smiling. They’re looking around, nodding, laughing, and the ice is broken. They agree it’s wonderful, and they all know it.

“From my favorite movie, Forrest Gump,” says Ivan. “Forrest’s mother says it. The movie is about surprising things in life, and I agree. Life is about surprises.”

From that moment, the first hour of my first day in a class in China, I find that almost everything I have assumed is wrong. The Chinese I meet are not shy conformists, not unassertive, not out of the global mainstream. They are not immune to capitalism, ignorant of world history, lousy foreign language speakers, or all afraid of their government. Not characters out of a Pearl Buck novel. Not much different from me.

For one month I am enchanted and battered by the kaleidoscope that is China. My students stun me with knowledge, embarrass me with personal questions, frighten me with insights, challenge me with assertions, and humble me with kindness.

*     *     *

A few days after my arrival I walk my neighborhood, forced outside to fight loneliness. The students leave me after lunch, and except for special invitations, I’m on my own until next morning pick-up. The other volunteer Americans live outside the city, teaching kids in English Camp. They have each other, but I’m alone, feeling sorry for myself.

Ridiculous. So you can’t speak the language or read the street signs, just go out and wander. I grab a hotel card with directions in Chinese, pay attention to landmarks, and meander through the neighborhood. I find the river, sit under newly planted trees, and read.

Every day going to the river, I pass an old woman, squatting on her haunches, hawking fruit, glaring at me. Intimidated, I walk across the street to avoid her. One day, though, I look the old woman directly in the eyes and call out, “Ni hao,” the one phrase I know in Chinese—hello.

She jerks around, taken aback. A grin spreads across her face, revealing toothless gums. “Hello,” the old woman shouts in English, cackling like a hen. “Hello, hello, hello.” Every day afterward she waves and calls as I pass.

After the old lady welcomes me to street life, wandering becomes part of my day. I scramble through back streets of the market, swatting flies, my nose assaulted by dried blood, foul water, rotten fruit, and urine. Pigs’ heads, chicken carcasses, ducks’ feet, and unrecognizable innards dangle on iron hooks, but I don’t ask what they are. I adore Chinese food and help myself to most everything on a buffet, but usually I don’t ask what I’m eating. One day with Ivan I had broken my rule. “This is delicious, like corned beef. What is it?”

“Donkey,” Ivan replied, “a specialty of this restaurant. Not cheap.” Since then I’ve not asked. The only thing I refuse is fried scorpion, which looks too much like what it is.

*     *     *

One day in class as we discuss American history—and my students know lots of it—I digress to McCarthyism and the ‘commie scare’ of the 50s. I end by commenting, “It was a dark chapter in American history.”

A few days later Laura, my oldest student, recounts her experiences in the Cultural Revolution. She’d grown up in a house full of books until the Revolution, when she read Western classics secretly from torn-out chapters hidden throughout the house. “I could never get the whole plot because we had only a chapter here and there. Now I read the whole book and say, ‘Oh, so that’s how it ended.’ . . . The Cultural Revolution was a dark chapter in Chinese history.”

I choke, hearing my words echoed verbatim. I am stunned, almost frightened, by the power I have in this classroom. In some ways, my students are sponges, and I wonder if I should be more careful what I say.

The class talks of religion, politics, books, AIDS, postpartum depression, teenagers, and even Falun Gong—which we were told during orientation not to discuss under any circumstances. “Are there forbidden subjects in China?” I finally ask.

My students are indignant. “There are no forbidden topics. What are you talking about?” There’s nothing they don’t want to know, so after a couple of days, I quit worrying, and talk about whatever they request.

One day someone asks me to sing the American national anthem, which I wouldn’t have done earlier. I joke that it’s too hard, I can’t sing, and I don’t know the words, all true. They insist. So instead of The Star Spangled Banner, I belt out, completely off key, My Country ‘Tis of Thee. At least I know all the words.

They love it. After a round of applause, they beg me to write every word on the board so they can copy it. Then suddenly the entire class is singing it with me. A few tears sneak down my cheeks while I sing like a kid about my country in a sterile classroom halfway around the world. I never really thought about the words before.

What’s happening? Something’s getting weird here.

*     *     *

“What do you want to discuss today?” I ask the next morning. No longer hesitant, my students fight to pick the Topic of the Day.

“The One Child policy,” someone answers, and a lively debate ensues with strong opinions on both sides.

“We must keep it. It is the backbone of our strong economy and our new place in the world.”

“No, it’s immoral and should be illegal. A government should not dictate such things. It’s a family decision.”

“The peasants are the problem. They get exemptions that no one else gets. That’s not fair.”

“If we want to increase the standard of living and feed everyone, we need it.”

“Soon there will be no one to take care of the elderly, too few young people, and too many old people.”

“But that wouldn’t happen if young people still had the old values of responsibility. They’re too busy moving to the cities, getting ahead in their jobs, making money, buying clothes, and going to clubs.”

“What happens if you have more than one child?” I interrupt.

“We lose our jobs,” a couple of my students respond simultaneously.

“My mother had an abortion two years after I was born,” says Ivan. “She was sad and didn’t want to have it, but she had to or lose her job. Sometimes I wonder what my sister would have been like.”

I’m excited now. Here’s a topic I’ve wanted to explore since the day I arrived. “During the weekend I went to Pingyao with the other Americans,” I say. A six hundred year old UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pingyao is a village in the country, architecturally and historically significant. “We were walking down the main street when I saw a blackboard in the square with chalked numbers. Our guide thought it had something to do with numbers of children. Anybody know?”

“I know,” says Stream, the only one of my students who lives in the country. Principal of a rural elementary school, he rides his bicycle two hours round-trip each day to come to my class.

“Peasants are allowed more than one child,” explains Stream, “depending on circumstances. They can have two if they are elderly or disabled, or if the first child is a girl—they need boys in the country. But no more than two children are allowed. Sometimes, though, the peasants don’t care about the rules, and they’ll have three, four, or more. If they do, then the village committee fines them for each additional child. What you saw in Pingyao is the name of each peasant who owes a fine. His name will stay on the blackboard until he pays. The fine is huge, and the peasant is poor. Sometimes his name is there until he dies, and the family inherits the debt.”

At this point my students ask me what I think about the One Child policy. Each side wants me to support its conclusion.

“I came to China thinking it was a bad policy, but now I’m not sure. I’ve never seen so many people, and I can only imagine what it was like before the policy. I understand why the government thinks it’s necessary, but I also understand women like Ivan’s mother who grieves for her unborn child.”

I’m thankful not to have such a decision. Keep a child, lose a job; keep a job, lose a child.

*     *     *

We continue the exhausting One Child debate during lunch, and after my students finally leave, I head upstairs for a nap. Strains of The Wedding March waft down the hall next to the elevator—not music I expect in China. I peek around the corner and find a wedding in progress. The band stops, the bride and groom begin their toasts, and they spot me, embarrassed, spying on the gathering. The couple stops in mid-toast, and I prepare to flee. But they leave the table, come to the door, and pull me into their reception.

The bride wears the red dress of the traditional Chinese wedding. A formal ceremony, like this one—in a hotel, red dress, banquet, orchestra, cake, flowers, hundreds of guests—occurs months or even years after the civil ceremony. Couples wait until they, or their families, can afford the huge celebration, and sometimes it never happens. A number of my students have been married for years with no red dress yet.

The bride takes my hand and pulls me to the head table. Suddenly I am an honored guest, and the entire wedding party drinks a toast to me. Traditionally they drink three ‘neat’ cups of alcohol as a toast. I throw one down, and although they cheer, holding up two more fingers, I decline.

I escape as soon as I can, but the wedding makes my day. The entire incident takes place with none of us having the vaguest idea what the other is saying, smiles and gestures the international language we all understand.

I am never lonely again in China.

*     *     *

If I want to be lonely, or even alone, Cherry will not allow it. My most assertive, boisterous student, Cherry becomes my guide to life outside of class.

“Tomorrow we go to the Night Market,” she says one day. “We’ll eat and arrive when it opens at eight, stay a couple hours, not until midnight when it closes. No one comes to Taiyuan without visiting the Night Market. It’s one of the most important parts of our culture, and you won’t believe it.”

“Okay.” I don’t argue with Cherry. No one argues with Cherry.

Born into poverty, she grew up with a disabled widowed mother in a cold water flat on the top floor of a building with no elevators. As a child Cherry trudged to the basement every day, mixed water and coal to make ‘coal cake’ and hauled it up four flights of stairs. After supporting her mother and three younger siblings for years, she married late. Cherry is short, with a ragged, spiky haircut and crooked, brown teeth, but what she lacks in appearance, she makes up for in guts.

A feminist, Cherry takes no guff from men and considers most of them dependent and self-indulgent. “I will quit teaching, get a PhD in international relations, and go into government. If my husband doesn’t like it, I’ll divorce him, and he can stay here.” So much for the stereotype of submissive Chinese women.

I love this woman, but sometimes she’s a little scary. When she bargains, she turns into a harridan. A couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of telling Cherry I wanted silver zodiac charms, after which she bargained with a street vendor, and it got ugly. Bargaining is serious business in China, elevated to high art, and when Cherry swings into gear, I don’t want to be within an arm’s length of her. She’s formidable, even mean. Maybe it’s my American sensibility, but extreme bargaining embarrasses me, so that day I moved away and pretended not to be with her.

The charms were cheap, and I was willing to give the woman her asking price, but Cherry would not have it. “She’s cheating you because you’re a foreigner, and I won’t allow it.” I suspect her attitude was about more than that, but I said nothing. We stood at the stall for twenty minutes while the arm gestures increased, voices of the two women rose higher until they were shrieking, and a circle surrounded us, like spectators at a boxing match. This was high drama, even for China.

Cherry won, of course. She snatched the money from my wallet, threw it contemptuously on the table and smiled at me, her crooked, gold capped teeth gleaming. I was humiliated and felt like a cheap, unsympathetic foreigner. The woman who lost the duel gave us both a disgusted look, muttered under her breath, and spat on my shoe. An ugly scene.

*     *     *

I dread to think how many conflicts Cherry might instigate in an area as big as The Night Market, which is where she takes me now.

Sales start at eight, but vendors set up when they leave their day jobs. By the hundreds they migrate to their stalls, and the largest Night Market in Northern China unfolds. For blocks along both sides of the street, hawkers sell everything from toilet seats to trashcans, blouses to baby clothes, candy to vinegar, bicycle wheels, pirated CDs, fruit, jewelry, junk. And a unique meat on a stick—donkey penis.

You name it, someone’s got it, and if he doesn’t, he’ll go around the corner and get it. Men, women, and teenagers—everyone’s got something to sell. I’m flabbergasted by the conspicuous consumption, the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs, and the selection of wares. What’s going on? This doesn’t look like communism.

I ask Cherry, the political scientist, who sets me straight.

“In China we are communists in government, not in economics. We are as capitalistic as you Americans, and a person’s income in the marketplace is limited only by how hard he works. Everyone here has a regular salary, but they make a lot more at market than on the job. Someone’s always thinking of something new to sell. Everything in China changed after Mao’s death, when Deng Xiaoping declared a socialist market economy. ‘To make money is good,’ he said. He was a wonderful man. We missed him when he died. With him, we became a nation of entrepreneurs.”

At dinner a few nights before, Ivan had put it more poetically. “Deng Xiaoping said that whether you are a black cat or a white cat doesn’t matter. If you can catch a mouse, you are a good cat.” I had nodded as if I understood.

I don’t understand Deng Xiaoping’s cat, but I do understand that if what I witness here at The Night Market is duplicated in thousands of cities and villages throughout this country, China could become the world power of the twenty-first century.

*     *     *

A few days later Cherry continues to expand my understanding of The New China. “I’m taking you to The English Corner tonight.” She has become the self-appointed director of my social calendar.

“Every Friday night anyone who wants to practice English shows up in the square to chat for a couple of hours with hundreds of others who want to speak English. Everyone from kids to grandmothers. There are no rules, except we cannot speak anything but English the whole time. You’ll love it, you’ll be a big hit.”

And she’s right. I am mobbed like a movie idol, everyone pushing in to chat with me, even a press reporter who’s gotten wind of my presence. This might seem incomprehensible, but Taiyuan is not a city where foreigners drop in every day. I am a sensation. The reporter inundates me with questions, wanting my impression of his city: Do you think Taiyuan is pretty? Polluted? What do you like about the place? Dislike?

The city is horribly polluted, under a gray industrial haze so thick I never see the sun. Everyone knows this, and the reporter does too. I want to answer honestly, particularly about the environment, but I’ve become Chinese enough to put on a good face, so I don’t tell the entire truth. Instead of talking about the filthy air, I compliment the new trees by the river.

One mother elbows the reporter and pushes her son in front of me, commanding, “Speak to the foreigner.” And to me, “Speak to my son. He’s twelve and needs to practice.”

In perfect English, without an accent, the wide-eyed boy asks, “Do you have a Chinese Corner in your city where everyone comes to practice Chinese on Fridays?”

I am too humiliated to answer and pretend not to hear.

*     *     *

After the English Corner I lie awake, thinking about the global impact of language. I feel guilty not having learned any Mandarin. Typically I learn a little language when I travel and I carry a phrase book. Not this time. I had bought books and cassettes, but my attempt to speak lasted two days. Pronouncing ma with four different inflections did me in, to say nothing of thousands of indecipherable written characters.

“Don’t you hear the difference?” asked Li, the Chinese student I recruited to help me before I left home. “These are four different words, pronounced in distinct ways. If you don’t get it right, you could make a terrible mistake. There’s a rising tone, falling tone, even tone, and a lilting tone that combines a fall with a rise.” You’ve got to be kidding! After I called my mother a donkey, I called the whole thing off. My attempt to learn some Mandarin was depressing me to the point where I no longer looked forward to the journey.

The language thing makes me wonder about the role of our country in the twenty-first century. Do we suffer from complacency, arrogantly assuming everyone will speak English? Will we follow Great Britain into history books as the next ‘has been’? China has mandated that beginning in 2002 every first grader will study English. Already, privileged kids compete for spots in weekend and summer English camps, for which their parents pay steep prices. The government has put out an international call for native English speaking teachers for all areas of the country, offering special stipends in the far northwest autonomous region near Tibet.

“You should stay and teach in Urumqi,” urges Cherry. “Five hundred US dollars per month, a free apartment, and transportation costs. You could come to Taiyuan for holidays and visit me.”

Five hundred U.S. dollars a month is a fortune in China. I could live like a Hong Kong ex-pat, even hire a cook and a maid, and I think seriously about this for maybe two minutes. I have obligations at home—family and a full-time job. I’ve barely been able to carve out a month for this adventure, so staying is out of the question. I tuck the idea in the back of my mind and return my attention to my current students.

*     *     *

The month speeds by with invitations to homes and restaurants, and before I know it, I’m packing my bags with a mixture of excitement and despondency.

My last day in class, my last day in Taiyuan, almost my last day in China, I arrive to a class bustling with energy, too excited to keep a secret. “Surprise,” they call out. “We have a party for you.” What am I to do with my careful plans for the last day? I am, after all, American, and a teacher to the core—always evaluations.

“Oh, forget the evaluations,” I concede. “Let’s party.” They’ll never tell me the truth anyway—they like everything I do.

Out comes the food, the dishes I have come to love in this great sprawling buffet of a country. Laura has been up since four a.m., making me moon cakes, time-consuming holiday treats—sweetmeats wrapped in fragile bamboo leaves, tied with delicate ribbons of straw, works of art. I am touched almost beyond words.

“Why would you get up so early to make these?”

“Because,” she responds, “I love you.”

*     *     *

After the party Ivan asks me to go out that night to celebrate his twenty-second birthday in a dumpling restaurant. Not his mom, not his dad, not his friends. Me.

“I will pick you up on my motorcycle, and I swear I will drive as carefully as if you were my mother. I feel as if you are my godmother. So I will take great care.”

After three hours, three dozen dumplings, and a bottle of rice wine, before he takes me home, I extract a promise from Ivan. He will follow his dream, break out of the teaching he never wanted, return to university, and become the journalist he thinks he can be.

I sit on the back of the motorcycle, my hair blowing in the night wind, and chant my mantra: I am in love with this country, I am in love with these people, I will return, I will return.

*     *     *

AFTERWORD

Two weeks after I came home from China, on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center came down. My college daughter sat on the roof of her dormitory at Columbia University and looked downtown as black smoke billowed into the sky. Emails poured in from my friends in China: Are you okay in Virginia? . . . Do you live close to the Pentagon? . . . Is your daughter safe in New York City? . . . Did you lose friends in the collapse? . . . We are sad for you, for your family, for your country . . . Our hearts are with you . . . China grieves for the U.S. . . . We love you.

In August, 2001, I walked on The Great Wall, marveled at The Forbidden City, wandered in the Temple of Heaven, gaped at the Terracotta Warriors, and cried on the stones of Tiananmen Square. I know this because I have photographs of me in those places; but when I think of China, I don’t visualize Beijing, Xian, or Shanghai. I see twenty-two faces filled with love and friendship in a gray classroom in a gray city that no one visits. When I hear complaints—everything’s made in China, the Chinese poison babies and dog food, China causes the crisis of the dollar, China instigates North Korea—I do not join in.

For me, China is no longer faceless.

Esther JohnsonEsther Whitman Johnson is a former high school counselor and English teacher from Southwest Virginia who now travels the globe doing volunteer gigs on five continents, often writing about her journeys. She has completed a dozen international builds with Habitat for Humanity, the last in Mongolia, the next in Bolivia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad River Review, Main St. Rag, Artemis, Dirty Chai, Colere, Earth’s Daughters, Virginia Literary Journal, among others. She was first runner-up for the 2014 Ron Rash Poetry Award and winner of 2014 Asheville Writers Memoir competition. “A Box of Chocolates in China” is the short version of a chapter in her travel memoir in progress.

Preparing a Place

I am looking for someone. On the subway. At the hospital. Walking the sticky streets of the in-town neighborhood where I live in the shadowy, noirish, lost-dog summer nights. It takes me a long time to realize what I am supposed to be doing. Two years, maybe.

In my self-involved twenty-something way, I consider two years an unbearably long time. I think I’ve already seen enough of life to retreat from it. Enough has already gone wrong, gone past, or one way or another ended up in the “out” basket to give me grounds for resignation. A two-year long marriage, though much of that time was spent living in a “commune” with other people. I was fired twice from teaching jobs and left a few other jobs without waiting to be asked. Cohabiting with a student was a contributing cause in one of these departures. Missing school breakfasts at a residential school for special needs students was the official reason in another—when they work that hard to find a reason, you know they are so looking forward to saying goodbye.

I did my share of saying goodbye as well. I walked away from the hippie house where I lived for two years with the people I “loved,” a verb I was not afraid to use in those days and seldom used afterwards, until (as I wrote then in a poem) “love turned to words.” Sometimes hard words: I specialized in resignation letters, well-reasoned kiss-offs. The home of my youth, a family by choice, best friends, communards, all left behind. A second stab at community ended more quickly and bitterly.

Disillusioned, I filled the hole with “relationships.” One with a teenager with a drug problem, followed by a couple of unequal liaisons. When I found myself on the gives-more-than-receives end I wrote another goodbye-cruel-world letter and followed the wisdom of I Ching: the superior man knows when to retreat. But as seasons passed, my retreat became a surrender, my withdrawal an isolation. One winter night in the last days of February, a friend drove me to a rundown building in a Boston neighborhood city and helped me carry my stuff up a narrow, winding stairwell. He told me to call him if I needed anything, but I didn’t have a phone.

I would dearly have preferred some sort of window treatment to the metaphor of vulnerability, of naked anonymous exposure to an uncaring world, offered by my uncurtained window. But the prospect of doing something about it defeated me. I had no idea how to acquire curtains, or how much they cost.

I chose the path of solitude. I wondered how far that path would go, and whether I would know it when I came to its end.

I lived in that dark old building like an alcoholic who didn’t drink. My life was shabby, unwashed, neglected; hand to mouth; colored with occasional outbursts of irresponsibility. I permitted a cranky old car still registered in my name to rot on a city street, its tires slowly flattening. (This karmic trespass caught up to me a decade later.) The dog I was taking care of for a girl, the remnant of a last entanglement, sometimes crapped in the empty room of my apartment, especially on the nights I neglected to walk her. Sometimes I didn’t bother cleaning it up for days.

No telephone. No shower. I had a job in a hospital that would bore a high school dropout.

My condition cried out for intervention, rescue, a humanitarian mission. I was a failed state in need of a strong injection of external resources.

I needed someone.

And amazingly some part of me realized it. Because I began looking.

*    *    *

In the spring of the year in which I tried to resign from the human race but failed, I found myself wanting people. Female people, mostly. I worked on talking to the girls at my time-killing job in a city hospital. A short, cute blonde dropped by the room where I operated a mimeograph machine to chat, telling me she was engaged to a guy who lived in a different city—yet here she was in my doorway again. I liked her and her message was decidedly mixed, but I couldn’t get over the engagement thing. I was in my second adolescence: shy, insecure, defensive, while given to unexpected bouts of absurd over-confidence. I had a low threshold for complications of any sort. I needed someone to set the bar clearly; then I would leap over it, catch my foot, fall on my face. Another co-worker took me home to meet her father, but the invitation, as she carefully explained, was “not a date.” That made it safe. I changed into my sneakers so I could walk on a beach in Quincy and left my leather shoes at her house in a paper bag.

Back in my colorful, clannish North End neighborhood I frequented a Store 24 where the night clerk, a dark-haired siren, chatted to me about the joys of being Italian. Nothing developed there either because while she was attractive, she wasn’t the one. The talkative young wife out looking for her dog one spooky summer night found me instead. We stood on the sidewalk making tentative sense of the universe while a man stood in a doorway calling her name with growing irritation. No place for me there.

When I began to cross paths with Anne, however, the slender, smart-sounding admissions clerk who worked at the other end of the hospital taking insurance information from the poor souls who stumbled into the emergency room, I was at once struck with worry over what she would think of my life. The gloomy apartment, the bathroom in the hall, the shabby room where I kept the dog who sometimes used it to—well, I covered that point. But did I mention that when I failed to come home at night she would break into my cupboard and eat an entire bag of sugar, for instance, or something equally un-doglike and throw up on the floor?

I knew my living conditions posed some challenges.

I’m not sure who made the first move. Anne’s memory is that she made a point of walking by the little room off the corridor where the distribution clerk (me) pretended to be doing something. She saw me reading a book and flashed me her special smile. Somehow I failed to respond.

What I remember is nearly running her over in the corridor; and then Anne apologizing (though it was as much my fault); and the glow of the physical contact remaining with me for the rest of the day. I took it as a sign.

We had a casual date. The little complications of life make me stumble. The girl at the hospital who took me on outings that were not, we agreed, dates said she would see me for lunch in the cafeteria as usual. But I was not having lunch as usual, I was having lunch with Anne. A social coward, I neglected to mention this fact, and so, an hour later in the noontime hubbub of the cafeteria, two women eyed one another while I stumbled over an introduction. The not-a-date girl took the hint and backed off. The next day she brought me my shoes in their paper bag.

Anne and I went out to a jazz club (definitely a date). Anne only pretended to drink whatever she ordered. I drank only the one-drink minimum, because I couldn’t afford more. We listened to the music and talked between sets, both of us relieved to get past the first date.

Things progressed, but then came the Sunday afternoon when we met for a walk. The day was hot and the North End lethargic. Should I tell you how being “hot” affects Anne, burning her pale blue eyes and wilting her enthusiasm? (Well, I suppose now I have.) We went back to her apartment where she appeared to tire quickly of my company. I was on my way to the door when, apropos of something, I uttered the phrase “when I was married.”

“You were married?”

I told her the tale. It took a long time. I highlighted the more intense events, Penny’s dramatic runaway, the confrontation with the psychiatrist who wanted to lock her and her married partner-in-escapism up in a psych ward. I acknowledged some of my own subsequent (and concurrent) peccadilloes, such as my failure to realize that the girl I was doing a thing with, as we said then, had become addicted to heroin. What “thing” did I believe I was doing if I failed to notice this elephant in the room?

I was wooing Anne, I told myself, like Othello arousing Desdemona’s sympathies with his war stories. Some role model. (I knew Othello, a voice whispered, and you’re not him.)

*    *    *

A couple of weeks later, I waited patiently in a bland administrative corridor far from the crises of Anne’s emergency room or the surgery wards, where I delivered medical orders and prescriptions and picked up gossip.

“What are you doing here?” Anne asked, leaving an unhappy meeting with a supervisor who was unable to find time for her until after her shift. “I told you not to wait.”

I made no answer. My presence was the answer. I was there because I was remembering how to be a human being. And because she was the one.

Though she had told me not to wait, she was happy to see me. We left the hospital together and, for the first time, ended up at my apartment. This was not a moment free of conflict and apprehension for me. I have already mentioned a few of this place’s special qualities, such as the absence of a bathroom or a phone. My apartment was on the fourth floor of a dark, damp, ancient building in an ethnic neighborhood with an Old World feel that was clinging to its clannish black-coated, black-veiled, foreign-film, urban-peasant lifestyle with its desperate, garlic-scented fingertips. The sixties never happened in the North End. A long-haired single male was unlikely to find anyone to rent to him, but for some reason an old building squeezed between banana warehouses was owned by an embittered Polish immigrant with her own hang-ups.

She rented me the place for very little. We got along well enough until Anne showed up in my life.

When Anne came to my place that first afternoon and completed the thirty-second tour the place merited, she offered no judgments though I could almost taste the blood from her bitten tongue. She stood in the doorway of one of the small, dark, unkempt rooms and said, “Is this where you sleep?”

Suddenly I realized that we were going to make love for the first time.

My eccentric bedroom space, however, presented a problem. The bedroom window, as it still embarrasses me to recall, lacked a curtain even though my windows and those of the apartment in the neighboring building were kissing-cousin close. The view from my bedroom window was what you saw in old, black-and-white movies set in atmospherically depressed tenements: another tenement. I lived in a noir.

I would dearly have preferred some sort of window treatment to the metaphor of vulnerability, of naked anonymous exposure to an uncaring world, offered by my uncurtained window. But the prospect of doing something about it defeated me. I had no idea how to acquire curtains, or how much they cost. And nobody in my life I felt I could ask. As the expression goes, you can either light a candle or curse the darkness. I didn’t even bother to curse. I changed in the dark and went to bed.

But now, finally, after a year alone in my dungeon, there was too much on the line.

“But what about the windows?” I asked, desperately. “I have no curtains.”

“We’ll just have to hang something over them.”

My god. A problem solved.

Instead of getting mad at me, throwing up her hands, storming out of the house in disgust at my inadequacy, telling me I was pathetic, or merely leaving in a dignified huff, Anne found some sheets and draped them over the windows so we could take our clothes off and go to bed together without fear of the world watching.

A revelation. An approach to life that challenged my hopeless embrace of misery by making things better. Not a world revolution, maybe, but a personal revelation.

After that we were an item, a relationship that punctured the shell of my obstinate self-defeating singularity. I didn’t get better all at once. I was often distant, grumpy, unresponsive to conversation, sleepless, dream-haunted. Anne’s old friends came to visit, but I withdrew into puerile silence. I didn’t want to share her attention.

But changes happened. Anne talked me into getting a telephone in my apartment, though the poor technician almost fell off the roof trying to find a wire to plug it into while some crazy woman screamed at him. “Oh,” I said, “you’ve met my landlady.” I got the phone so we could discuss plans (your place? my place? nobody’s place?), but it turned out I wasn’t very good at talking on the telephone.

Our relationship was not seamless. I did not realize how much younger than me Anne was because I found in her a maturity and responsibility I lacked. I had thrown away the need for those qualities when I jettisoned the ideas and values (or so I believed) of the conventional, middle-class world and assumed I would find somewhere else to live. Now that I had sunk those illusions and gone down with my ship, I did not find it easy to pick up the useful everyday real-world skills I had shoved somewhere into the back of my brain, like some abandoned needlework project left to get tangled up in a closet. My personality was buried under the old shoes in the back of that closet. Not only was I unable to solve the conundrum of how to cover my bedroom window, I slept without sheets because I did not wash clothes, except in extremis, and sheets were just too big a job. I did not buy anything I literally couldn’t do without, and that narrowed the field to food and cigarettes. I had minimal social skills and couldn’t get on with anyone who required a demonstration of them on my part. When I interviewed for a job, I could not think of any reason to offer why I wanted it except for a pressing need to pay my rent. The hospital personal director hired me while candidly predicting, “You won’t stay.” (Yes, but I hope to be vertical when I leave.) My minimal conversational skills did not include inviting anyone to my place because I was ashamed of it. I couldn’t picture abiding anyone’s company for more than a half an hour without withdrawing into a sullen silence, which limited my circle to those few “old friends” accustomed to my depression and strangeness.

So Anne’s ability to improve my performance in the basic area of sustained companionship, in addition to her demonstrated practical skills in areas such as washing sheets and installing them on my bed, established her in my reckoning as at least a peer. She wasn’t. She was only a year out of college.

Still, she had lived long enough in those youth-oriented days to have her share of relationship history and disappointing conclusions. As I was to discover when the time came, at least in my view, to take the next step.

*    *    *

We met at the end of an evening that we had spent apart in a coffee shop on Cambridge Street, midway between my place in the North End and the apartment she shared with roommates on Beacon Hill. The winds blew; the night was cold. City lights hid most of Orion, but I had seen its brighter stars when I crossed the windy desert of City Hall plaza, because nowhere in the city was the air colder and clearer than that expanse of empty pavement in front of the old town’s modernist city hall. Still, I took that walk gladly because something was on my mind.

“I think we should live together,” I said, sitting across from my salvation. “This figuring out what we want to do every night is getting me down.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready,” she replied at length.

I took a breath and drew on my deep experience of relationships.

“It’s natural. It’s what people do when they’re serious.”

I did have other arguments at hand. My domestic qualifications might not have shone in anyone’s first impression of that dump on North Street, but I was making progress. We now had sheets on my bed. I had given up smoking. The dirty foster-dog had gone back to its owner, an ex-girlfriend. (Anne was always delighted to meet my ex-girlfriends. They hung on the border of things, possibly because I was willing to take care of their dog or paint their apartment. Anne’s approach to ex-lovers was goodbye, good riddance, get out of my life.)

Some of my rusty life-skills, besides dog-walking and painting old apartments, were returning. I could cook well enough (rice and stir-fried vegetables) to keep two people alive. Anne was a vegetarian who did not cook often and at times appeared to subsist solely on bread. Besides, we had good times together. Stir-frying the stuff we bought from sidewalk vendors at Haymarket; going out somewhere inexpensive (such as to someone else’s apartment); walking back to her place; then having a little too much to drink before stumbling into bed together.

“I don’t want to rush things,” she replied.

I persisted, lowering my voice in the emptying cafe, muttering in a wounded, exasperated manner more to salvage my pride than to convince her, now that my bold proposal had apparently been rejected.

But Anne was talking to herself as well.

“All right,” she said abruptly. “But I never want to be in the position of having to divide up our things afterwards.”

I continued talking to myself, somehow having failed to hear the “yes.”

“Smile,” she said, with some exasperation of her own. “We’re going to live together.”

“We are?”

Later, much later, she told me she agreed because she was afraid of losing me.

I should have said, “I’m not like that. I’m faithful: like ice, like fire.”

Besides, I might also have said, “If we break up, you can have my things as well as yours. My ex-wife has already taken the good stuff.”

We left the cafe and separated for the night. She would be getting up early the next morning; I wouldn’t. We kissed goodnight on the sidewalk beneath invisible constellations.

I turned away and took a running step or two in the darkness. My heart leapt up.

*    *    *

It was the decision to live together that brought her parents up from New York City so we could eat together in a traditional Boston restaurant like the Union Oyster House and look at each other. All I could tell her parents was that I wrote poetry; I’d already quit the job at the hospital. The personnel director was right; but so was I, since I left with a lighter heart than I’d arrived with.

Oh and by the way, I’m not Jewish. We were all very cautious and careful and stepped lightly around one another, but I could tell her parents were kind people.

*    *    *

Committed now to cohabitation, we looked for an apartment in the North End, checking into any place with a sign out, and found a pretty spot on Copp’s Hill with the best of neighbors, a cemetery across the street. The landlady showed us the apartment, but then asked if we were married. We knew this could be a sticking point in old-country Catholic North End, but Anne said “no” without hesitation: to live in sin you must be honest. The landlady politely, but decisively, showed us the door.

We hadn’t even talked about marriage. Marriage was a serious step as I knew well, having already taken it once and fallen on my face. Who greased the stairs?

In Cambridge, where community standards were lower, we found a rare affordable apartment, a second story loft looking over a big front yard where the owner parked his enormous black shiny truck.

We lived happily above the truck in Cambridge. I collected unemployment (my favorite job), wrote poetry, connected with a group of other aspiring writers. We started our own “tabloid” lit mag published on newsprint. Liberating herself from the hospital, Anne was temp typing and applying to graduate school. Harvard accepted her, but UMass-Amherst came across with a better fellowship deal. When she took the better offer at an institution a hundred miles from Boston, I was faced with leaving my little poetry scene in Cambridge to follow her to the Pioneer Valley. Each twist in the road is a choice, a decision, a renewal of commitment.

We moved to Amherst and lived in the woods. Almost literally.

A year went by. Living, eating, washing the dishes. Getting excited over the scent of autumn in the air, the first snow, spring, the first flowers, conversations over books, movies, or newspaper stories in which we never precisely agreed but seldom seriously disagreed. Poking fun at one another’s foibles. At our own.

I found part-time work as a research assistant: a low-commitment opportunity that left a lot of time for long walks in the woods, followed by periods of notebook scribbling. Anne drove to the university (after I taught her how) and finished her course work in a year.

Things could have gone on this way. I would not have said anything was missing in my life. Money, opportunity, a career? I lived apart from the goods of the world—except, of course, for food, coffee, sweets, warmth, a roof over my head, books, and a warm body next to mine at the end of the day. Otherwise, I buried myself in words.

When the second autumn of our woodland idyll came, Anne said she had something to tell me. She was pregnant.

“When did we make this choice?” I asked myself. Now we had the conversations we should have had earlier, but they were tough and slow-going. I gave the wrong answer in one of these, or rather was unable to commit to any answer.

“Then I’ll have to get some counseling about my choices,” Anne replied.

The next time I was able to get together with myself, however–I mean with whatever it is inside of us we need to pay attention to and can sometimes hear if our inner ears are working–then the right answer was very clear. Very obvious. And felt good.

Did I want my life to go on just as it was? How long? Forever? Change nothing? Make no marks? Leave no footprints?

“We should get married and have the baby.”

Did I say it just like that? I don’t really remember.

Maybe she said it first and then I came to the same conclusion and thought I was the one who thought it up. Eureka! What an idea.

Life went on. You have made a decision. Your wife is pregnant. She discovers she wants to eat chicken, so you buy it, cook it.

Then one day you wake up before dawn and drive to the hospital. Something inexplicable happens—something totally unbelievable though it happens every day, all around you—and that changes absolutely everything in your life for about twenty-two years. Or, by another accounting, forever.

 

Robert KnoxRobert Knox is a husband, father, rabid backyard gardener, Boston Globe freelance writer, and blogger on nature, books, films, and other subjects. His short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary publications, and he was named a Finalist in the Massachusetts Artist Grant Program in fiction. Recent publications include stories in The Tishman Review3288 Review, and An Earthless Melting Pot. His novel on the origins of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, Suosso’s Lane, was published in October 2015 by Web-e-Books.com.

I’ve Never Touched One

The year was 1993 and I was eight months pregnant and trapped in an elevator with an unstable guy who was rumored to have murdered his wife. I wanted to get out, but thought it would be rude, since I’d already told him I was going to the top floor for something to eat. Mr. Thomas was a large, shy man in his late 60’s and I was his social worker. We were in the Times Square Hotel, a residence for homeless people that my organization had recently converted into the largest supportive housing residence in the world. The place had been a rat-infested mess when we first took it over, with ceilings and walls falling down and crack addicts sleeping in the lobby with their weapons nestled to their faces like security blankets. We’d had to put Vicks Vapo-Rub under our noses when we entered just to stand the smell. 60 Minutes later said it looked like the Waldorf Astoria, when they did a story on it, and we were enormously proud to have created a beautiful home for people who had done with so little for so long. We were willing to do whatever it took to keep them living there for the rest of their lives, safe and stable. If we knocked on a resident’s door and were cursed out or spit upon, we simply went back the next day. And the next, and the next, and however many nexts it took to gain their trust. There was a grand piano in the elegant lobby with a sign “play me” and artists like Cindy Sherman lent their art for exhibitions and hung it alongside that of resident artists. Much like the physical renovations, it was thrilling to watch our residents morph from vulnerable discombobulated shadows into a closer semblance of the person they were meant to be.

I was dizzy with fear, my knees started to feel like they might give out on me and I thought, this is how people die.

The work veered from mundane to high stress, like being on the front lines in a war. Most homeless people aren’t dangerous—they’re just like us except a cruel combination of busted genes, bad luck, and betrayal conspire to derail their lives—but we were filling the place with 650 of them and many had serious chronic mental illness and substance abuse issues; the transition could be profoundly disorienting for those who had lived on the streets for years. Situations arise. In our line of work it was generally assumed to be your own fault if you got hurt by a resident, as most incidents were the result of bad judgment on the part of the worker. I’d had a table thrown at me, a gun pointed in my direction, and dodged a machete, which fell unexpectedly from a dropped ceiling, but I’d never been hurt. I’d been lucky but had a tendency to let my clients be overly familiar with me, which presented risks; starting with my first job as a student teacher I’d been criticized for acting in ways less than professional, when I’d allowed an emotionally disturbed student to braid my hair.

I was a young scrappy girl doing this as a real job, not to ‘give something back’ to anyone for gifts that had been bestowed upon me, which was the case with many of my co-workers who came from more privileged backgrounds. I went home to a tiny studio apartment all too similar to the ones in the Times Square Hotel and my sole income came from the salary.

I’d just come from a meeting where our treatment team had sat around a large conference table discussing Mr. Thomas and brainstorming ideas to help him avoid the impending meltdown he seemed headed for; he’d recently become uncharacteristically agitated, more withdrawn than usual, and was mumbling to himself. We wanted to head off the kind of emergency that brought out dozens of policemen in riot gear to address an EDP, or emotionally disturbed person, as many of our residents were labeled. I mentioned his intense loneliness and how embarrassed he’d been when I’d talked to him about his urinary incontinence. He said he could not discuss such things with a member of the opposite sex and that he was “still a man.” In the meeting, to the horror of my co-workers, I’d suggested we consider buying him a prostitute for a night or two, using our petty cash fund. We were located in the heart of the sex-for-hire-industry after all. I explained that we could coach her not to tell him she was being paid and the whole affair might give Mr. Thomas a boost of masculine confidence and let him know he was still connected in this world. The idea was shot down, not surprisingly.

After the meeting I’d hopped in the elevator to head up to the fifteenth floor garden roof deck when Mr. Thomas happened to enter just before the doors closed. I felt a twinge of claustrophobia and the nauseating smell of cigarettes, grease, and urine was impossible to escape. He began nervously running his left hand through his short hair while his right hand stayed suspiciously inside his bulging pocket. I couldn’t see his hand or get a good look at what was going on over there, because I did not, under any circumstances, want him to see me looking at him down there.

Mr. Thomas alternated his gaze between floor and ceiling, as if an invisible flying insect was trapped with us. We stood side by side in silence, me with my enormous belly sticking out and he with his—then he started cracking his knuckles loudly, as if preparing to throw a punch, and clicking his teeth together while sliding his jaw forward. I was dizzy with fear, my knees started to feel like they might give out on me and I thought, this is how people die. I had fainted once before, early on in my pregnancy, so the idea of passing out in a secluded room with a potentially dangerous man was not out of the question. But, I wanted to eat and was still trying not to be impolite, so I stayed. What’s the worst that could happen in the fifteen seconds we’ll be in here together?

We rose, floor by floor, as if they were centuries. “You going to the roof?” I asked. No reply. “It’s amazing how many plants are up there now, huh? The garden group has done a great job. . . . ” I trailed off as it was clear he didn’t want to talk.

Finally, my protective Mother instincts kicked in and I reached to push eight and get out of there.

“Um. I’ve never touched one before,” he said abruptly and sort of snort-chuckled.

What? Is he talking to me? I had three thoughts, in rapid succession: First, he was hearing voices telling him to touch one or more of my private parts. Second, he said this to his wife right before he killed her. And, third, maybe . . . he’d never touched a pregnant belly.

I was prickly with heat and my breathing was shallow. But, with only two floors to go, I thought, screw it, and took his hand in mine, both our gazes still fixed forward and unwavering, and placed it over my baby bump.

“If you leave it there, you might feel the baby move.” Amazingly, he left his hand in place and after a few seconds we both felt the baby kick. I turned towards him and he looked stunned, and then said, “Oh! Wow!”

“Boy or girl?” he asked. “We won’t know until the baby is born,” I whispered. And just like that, we were in on a surprise together, practically swapping stories and braiding each other’s hair.

The doors opened onto the bustling roof garden and sweeping views of midtown Manhattan. It felt like the elevator had its own time and space dimension and I almost didn’t want to get out. We walked in different directions, he towards the garden, and me, the food. I came out feeling like a better person–more alive, awake, and appreciative of everything around me. Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures that have the biggest impact.

I’d trusted the tiny little voice inside my head that day, the one that told me to connect to the humanness in this man, and it had changed my relationship with him, forever. Whenever I find myself in situations where I’m not sure what to do, I try to amplify that voice and to drown out all the superfluous noise about how will this look, or, what will people think, or, can you REALLY trust your instinct. It has been my experience that you can build your instincts the same as you build any other skills, by practicing.

And, Mr. Thomas was right, it was a boy.

Anne McGrathCommunity organizer and event planner Anne McGrath is devoted to the art and craft of storytelling. She has been featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essays and Speak Up, and lives with her husband, two sons, and two dogs in Rhinebeck, New York.

Taking the Edge Off

 

  1. IT’S BEEN A LOVELY DAY (EVEN IF I DID WANT TO KILL MYSELF)

“I find that being in a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.” —Anne Enright, The Gathering

Greetings all,

After a pleasant Thanksgiving with Mom and my siblings where he won all the after-dinner games, my father suffered a massive stroke. He’s currently on life support in the county hospital. Mom was also admitted, so they are on the same floor!

Dad is not expected to live, and Mom is referred to hospice, meaning the final months of her life.

That’s all I know at the moment, receiving hourly reports here in Manhattan, but please send loving thoughts as we all make this transition. 

My parents died exactly one year apart. It was as though a hole opened in the universe and sucked them away.

The upbeat, even cheerful tone reveals the depth of my denial, up to and including the exclamation point. And here’s the weirdest part, and if anyone can explain it by logical means, please let me know. My parents died exactly one year apart. It was as though a hole opened in the universe and sucked them away.

From early childhood, I suffered from depression. At various times, I believed that if I killed myself, I assumed power over pain and death. I tucked suicide into my back pocket, an option and sometimes a threat, to extract as needed. You can’t kill me because I’ll kill myself first.

“Who wanted you dead?” When I finally succumbed to asking for help, that’s what the grief counselor asked.

“Oh!” I said cheerfully. “Everyone!”

 

  1. IT WAS THIS

When your parents die, your molecular structure breaks down and is re-arranged. You literally become a different person. –Mark

The morning after my father died, I woke with energy and enthusiasm. I loved my first espresso in the bright Manhattan morning. I was ready to run out onto Broadway and dance around. Then my mood shifted. Mark, my partner of ten years, was distracted. He had a show coming up. When he is concentrating on his work, he hardly acknowledges me. This makes me crazy. Or it used to. Before I learned how to cry, if anyone ignored me, I felt invisible. Being invisible was akin to being dead.

I thought I can’t stay one more second in this stupid relationship.

“Are you ready to be a pioneer in the middle of nowhere?” I asked for the third time that morning. When Mark failed to respond, I said, “You don’t care about my feelings.”

“I’m tired of your feelings,” Mark said. He danced around in a fierce circle and pounded the air with his fists. “Why would I want to live in the middle of nowhere when I can be in Manhattan?”

I didn’t bother to respond. I could not wait until he left the apartment, and then I could not wait until he returned. As I followed him around the apartment, I felt like one of our dogs, dependent on his attention. That day, across the nation in sunny California, a famous writer hung himself, and I totally got it. At least I thought I did. I was more arrogant then. I thought Now he’s captured everyone’s attention forever. He’s saying: ‘Here is my pain and here its breadth and height and depth, its weight. This is how grief smells.

 

  1. HOW TO CRY

You only become yourself when both your parents are dead. -May Sarton

When Mark and I finally returned to the sea and sky of the Pacific Northwest, my father no longer in it, I was unprepared for the blow. Nearby, in hospice, my mother’s body died more slowly. For the months it took her to die, my universe shrank to the length of trails near our cabin and my mother’s bedside, and, when the only other choice on offer was drugs, the support group.

“Want something to take the edge off?” Sarah, the physician’s assistant, turns her face toward me, and for a moment, I’m bathed in her gaze. I exist.

“Yeah, a lethal injection,” I say. “Of course I want something to take the edge off.” I think I’m hilarious and ironic, but Sarah returns to the laptop she usually taps instead of looking at me. Suicidal ideation. I could be in big trouble for letting that slip out.

“If you refuse medication,” Sarah says, “the hospital offers a bereavement support group.” Crying lessons, I called the sessions I began to attend every week. As my mother shriveled, I hunched into a brown metal folding chair and shared secrets with strangers with whom I had nothing in common. Except, of course, death. We had death in common. That thing, that word you weren’t supposed to say. Just as I wanted all of Mark’s attention devoted to me, in the group I didn’t want to listen to other people’s sorrows. I wanted to writhe on the floor, my fellow mourners tossing tissues at me, or at least kicking the tissue box in my direction.

“Do not hand a tissue to someone,” the counselor said. “That’s an attempt to stop the crying.”

“Isn’t that why we’re here?” I asked. “To make the pain stop?”

Everyone looked at me and smiled. The other group members were always so nicely dressed, and smart, and dignified, yet I sensed that if I rolled around on the floor and sobbed, they’d be fine with it. And very quickly, despite myself, I did become interested in their lives. For one hour every week, I didn’t have to make tidy. I didn’t have to pretend my father passed. I could say my mother is dying. For one hour, I could rage at the dead and dying, or, more likely, at myself, or I could feel nothing at all. At times, I could even laugh.

 

  1. THE SCENIC ROUTE

Addiction to family impacts us on a cellular level, and because of this, escaping is like withdrawing from heroin. –Grief counselor

In Central Park, on my last day before returning West, the witch hazel started to bloom. When I arrived at my cottage in the West, the witch hazel my mother gave me burst with golden stars. I could hear her voice that winter afternoon in Port Townsend when she saw pots of witch hazel for sale on the sidewalk: “Would you like that for your birthday?” And without waiting for my response, she leaned over and swept the heavy pot onto her hip.

Grief became a screen that separated me from those I loved. Although I craved comfort, I forgot the rules of engagement. On some days, I couldn’t even remember how to talk. But worst of all was the exhaustion. My limbs felt heavy. I dragged myself from bed to espresso pot to shower, and then onto the forest paths to walk for miles, so tired I wanted to lie among the mosses and sleep. Several times, tended by my golden retriever and collie, I did. At night, if I finally managed to sleep, I jolted back awake, sometimes filled with terror, the child who has lost its parents and become prey.

Mark stuck it out. He wrapped himself around me like a warm and fragrant blanket, and his touch allowed me to relax in what felt like my own final days.

When we visited my mother, Mark always seemed to know how to be, perhaps because he tended his own mother as she died. He touched her and talked, or just sat quietly with a calm I lacked. My mother had no idea who I was, and without her recognition, it was as if I lacked a self. I dreaded visiting, and then felt guilty for my dread. Once, when ten days passed between visits, the hospice owner, Rosemary, said, “Long time no see,” and I obsessed about it for weeks.

The hospice consisted of two private rooms in the sea-facing home of a couple who grew organic fruits and vegetables. Chickens and dogs rambled around the property. Rosemary prepared meals from scratch and allowed my mother to eat or not eat as she chose. “She’ll eat when she feels like it,” Rosemary said, but I wanted to spoon feed my mother as if she were a baby I could somehow keep alive.

Sometimes, when I returned home, I imagined kayaking toward the horizon, and how it might feel to slide, gently, into the sea. Before my mother was moved into Rosemary’s house, she often kayaked alone, her arms whirling and her body almost invisible in the shallow seat.

“Should you be out there without a life preserver?” I called from the cliffs above the bay.

She shook her head. You really don’t get it, her look said.

 

  1. THE GRIEF-CAVE

In essence, a testimony is always autobiographical: it tells, in the first person, the shareable and unsharable secret of what happened to me, to me alone, the absolute secret of what I was in a position to live, see, hear, touch, sense, and feel. -Jacques Derrida

On that December morning in Manhattan, after my father’s sudden stroke, when I felt almost merry, there must have been some kind of shock to my immune system. Within weeks, I was struck by one cold and flu after another. Then came kidney stones, two or three bouts with trips to the emergency room. A tooth abscessed, requiring multiple surgeries and a gum graft, which then failed.

Being sick served a purpose. I could burrow into my grief-cave. In our Washington Heights sublet, I hung double layers of dark curtains over the windows, and when that wasn’t sufficient, I bought a silk eye cover. I inserted two layers of ear plugs. I had tumbled over some kind of edge, and my internal structure collapsed. I yearned for that merry day when the patriarch died, and I was, at last, free. Now I wanted to take the scenic route, as my mother always called it, and arrive someplace else.

“Is this normal recovery from a bone graft?” I asked the surgeon when the graft failed.

“No,” he said.

After a month in my isolation chamber, I started the walking cure. On my first day out, an airplane crash landed in the Hudson beside me. When everyone survived, I counted that as hope for me, too. I walked Manhattan for miles, up and down, back and forth, and around the length and width of Central Park. I didn’t listen to music or talk on my phone or look at people. I didn’t really even think.

One night while heading home at night, north on Broadway near Columbia University, I passed a brightly lit café. As I glanced inside, a young woman froze in place, swayed slightly, and then collapsed. I looked around for someone to help, but a policeman arrived almost instantly, and then another stood in the street to flag down the ambulance wailing its way through traffic.

I ran through the dark to our sublet. Once inside, I leaned against the wall, started crying, and could not stop. I replayed the image of the young woman’s collapse, an endless reel of a horror film. My heart pounded.

“What happened?” Mark asked.

“I wish that ambulance was for me,” I said.

Gradually, and then suddenly, like electric shock, a memory appeared as stark as that crashing plane in the Hudson. During my first semester at college, I held three jobs and still couldn’t make ends meet. I took on another, as an artist’s model, and was assaulted. The following morning, I showed up for one of my other jobs: serving pancakes and eggs to my peers. As I stood behind the food cart dishing out plates of food, I fainted.

“Get her out of here,” someone said. The food service inspectors were due at any minute, and when I awoke, I was back in my dorm room pounding my head against the wall.

 

  1. COMFORT MEASURES

Social contact constantly rearranges our DNA. -Anna Fels

After my mother could no longer drive, my parents were locked into a six-mile radius around their home. “You need to write your wishes,” I told them, “what you want after your death.” My parents sat in their usual places at the maple table we’d had since I was a kid, their one splurge covered with multiple layers of plastic, so that a lifetime later, the surface remained immaculate.

Obediently, my parents leaned over the bright green Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment Paradigm or POLST. They wrote rapidly, and without consulting each other. They knew exactly what they wanted and what they didn’t want. As if completing an exam, they handed the forms to me.

What about afterwards, I asked. Did they want a funeral? Cremation? What did they want then? They needed to write down their wishes about that, too. They glanced at each other and frowned.

“I want to donate my body to research,” my mother said.

“And then what?” I asked. “Do you want to be buried or cremated?”

“Buried,” my mother said. But when I asked her where, she had no idea.

“I don’t need a grave,” my father said. “Just scatter my ashes on the bay.”

“No scattering,” my mother said. “You’ll be beside me.” When my father shook his head, she looked him straight in the eye. “You’ll see,” she said, in a humorous mock-stern tone she often used with him.

I asked around our little village and learned that my parents qualified for a site in the historical cemetery. I contacted someone on the cemetery commission, an elected office, and secured one of the last available sites. My parents seemed disinterested in my efforts, but one afternoon, my mother asked me to drive her there. Just six miles from their cabin, the cemetery overlooks the bay, and the Olympic Mountains rise directly behind. The plot I’d chosen was beside that of the Native American founder of our village.

“You can have a line of poetry if you want,” I said, “on a stone.” She shook her head. Once again, I wasn’t getting it.

“Daddy,” she said.

Then I understood. She meant the grave was for him. That he would die first. And she was, of course, right.

 

  1. WAKE TO SLEEP

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. / I learn by going where I have to go. -Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”

I’d been frightened about my mother’s physical death, but with the guidance of the hospice nurse, who’d known my parents for decades, the active dying, as it’s called, was gentle. That first night, two of my sisters and I sang every song we knew, including those she taught us when we were small. The next night, as my sister held our mother in her arms, I read from a book my mother gave me when I was in fifth grade, Words for the Wind. For the thirty minutes or so that it took me to read “Meditations of an Old Woman,” a poem I’d set to music in my teens, my mother stopped her intense dying breath, opened her eyes, and fixed her gaze on mine the way a child does as she’s being read to sleep.

After my mother’s burial, my father’s ashes tucked into her coffin, I felt flattened. Every day, I roamed the trails behind my house. All these decades, my parents lived just through the forest on this land where I grew up, anchoring me to the world. Some of the trails along the shoreline dated from the original people who lived here for ten thousand years. It was my job as a child, and then as an adult, to keep those trails clear.

Once a week, I continued to meet with my fellow mourners. Several of us lost significant amounts of weight, becoming almost skeletal. I could not imagine how I had ever been able to do anything, or that I would ever again function in any kind of normal way. “All responses are correct and normal,” the counselor told us. “You can’t rush grief.”

Most of us focused on regrets. We hadn’t spent enough time. We hadn’t done enough. “She wanted a scarf,” said one widower. He looked down at his hands. “The scarf only cost six dollars, and I wouldn’t let her have it.” One slept in her beloved’s shirt, and another carried her sister’s purse. Yet another tore the clothes from her mother’s closets and flung them into garbage pails, dragging them to a distant shed.

“Don’t rush into any changes if you can help it,” the counselor advised. Yet everyone else pushed the survivors to change. One widow wondered if she should move closer to family, as her sisters were insisting, and abandon the house she loved. The widower’s kids wanted him to shed the too-large family home where he’d spent so many years caretaking. “But then I’d have to pack,” he told us. “I don’t have the energy.” A young woman wondered if it was proper to stay on in her mother-in-law’s house.

“Am I even related to her now that my husband’s dead?” she asked.

One widow suffered none of these pangs. She joined us only once, and she spoke of her husband’s death with glee. “My girlfriends and I are headed for Hawaii,” she said.

“Take us with you,” we murmured. She didn’t need us, and we were glad. But we lacked the will to minister any such kindness to ourselves. In that icy Northwestern winter, our grief seemed frozen into our flesh. We might yearn for bright sun on sandy beaches, but it wasn’t going to happen. Not yet. None of us could even manage hugs. Despite the intimacy of what we shared, we never exchanged numbers. We returned to our warrens like snails to shells, to reappear the following week.

Until we didn’t. When we were done grieving, we simply vanished. Time collapsed and fell forward, moment telescoping out of moment, until I barely remember any of them at all, but for that stretch of time we embraced without touching.

K.C. PedersonK.C. Pedersen lives on a saltwater fjord in Washington State, holds an MA in writing and literature, and blogs at www.kiriepedersen.com.

Boiler Rat

The power plant loomed out of the morning blackness, hulking above the Iowa corn fields like some menacing, malevolent, medieval castle. It was surrounded by trees in soft fall colors, planted there in an attempt to showcase it as environmentally friendly and to soften its sharp square lines; but you can’t hide that much ugly.

I passed the memorial park, a rock with a bronze plaque listing the names of men killed during the plant’s construction and subsequent overhauls with space at the bottom for more names, a reminder that if this plant was on your yellow brick road, your life sucked.

The little park had a sidewalk leading to and around the rock, along with picnic tables and benches nobody used. The families of the dead men had moved on—ol’ ladies remarried, kids grown and scattered, living out their own dramas, looking for their own big rock-candy mountains.

It’s better if you don’t survive an industrial accident. Then you don’t have to watch your family leave, because when the money stops, they leave. When Big Mike got that hook buried in his head and they had to cut pieces of his skull out of his brain, his wife and kids were gone by the time he learned to walk and talk again. It’s better for the company, too, if you don’t survive; it’s cheaper for them to buy your family off than to take care of you the rest of your life. Most families settle out of court, and by the time the lawyers take their cut, there’s not much left.

It was the last overhaul of boiler season. The guys had come in from all over the country with pockets full of money from other jobs; enough money to do whatever it was they did—drugs, booze, road whores. The outfit had pulled all three of its boiler crews in for the job, and it was western.

From the parking lot the boiler was silent, and I wondered if night shift was made up of ghosts caught in some never-ending, boilermaker hell, going about their tasks in quiet agony, forced to serve for eternity the same evil they served in life—the almighty dollar. Only this time they know the payoff—broken homes, failed relationships, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, and industrial carnage. I thought about turning around. I felt like my soul would be damned as soon as I brassed in, but I’d cut that deal long ago. Someday, I will join that ghostly crew and be greeted by their vacant stares, recognized, and welcomed.

A Navajo woman was selling burritos at the gate. They’re tasty, but go off like a five-hundred pounder two hours after you eat one. I passed.

Two of the big 750s were still on line, and as I got closer to the plant the hum of operation—the rumble of the boilers, the rushing sound of I.D. and F.D. fans, the roar of the suck trucks, and the rev of ninety-ton cranes—became a wall of sound that drowned thought.

On big projects, how many men they plan on killing is figured into the price of the job, just like lost, stolen, and broken tools.

By the time I got to the unit we were tearing into, I could hear the big boiler groaning in protest at the violation and pick out the individual sounds of the overhaul in heat—the hiss-crack of the gougers and the pop of molten metal hitting pavement; the angry snarl of nine-inch grinders cutting their way through water walls; the high cymbal clash and deep clunk of light metal and heavy iron being moved; the rhythmic pound, pound, pounding of nine-pound beaters and the thump of separation with its clouds of rust, fly ash, and insulation; the knock, knock, knocking of the air chippers busting out refract, and the piercing, teeth clenching whistles of the suck truck’s big vacuum hoses.

Up on level 8, the nightshift was barely visible through the clouds of fly ash. Their eyes were blank and twelve-hours tired, and their faces were covered in brown dust. They looked at me without seeing. They’d been thinking about cold beer for the last three hours and just wanted the shift to end. They’re tough rock-and-rollers for the most part, getting old before their time, with no way out.

I headed down the catwalk to the back of the boiler where we had our gang-boxes staged and where the crew met for the morning safety meeting. Boom-boxes pounded out AC/DC, Metallica, and Monster Magnet from inside the firebox.

The crew drifted in one at a time. A couple of them looked and smelled like they’d been out all night. A few more were animated and wired for sound—obviously on meth. A lot of them are level-one primates with no recognizable human response mechanisms. Oh, they know when they are hungry, horny, and thirsty, and they do feel pain, but have no sympathy for the pain of others. They aren’t the kind you would want around your daughter. Most of them I’d shoot if I saw them in my front yard—out of common courtesy for my neighbors. On a good day, when they aren’t sick, throwing up, and soiling themselves from the excesses of the night before, they wipe their ass and toss the shit-paper on the floor. You try hard to keep from becoming a product of your primitive environment, and it makes you antisocial in most people’s eyes, but direct in yours. You become blunt, with language that is socially unacceptable, and like the rest, addicted to adrenalin. Still, there are a few good guys in the mix. Lem walked up and we nodded in greeting. I had worked with Lem for ten years. Lem was one of the good guys.

Some of the crew were coughing, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the whole crew was down with whatever they had. I wondered if I still had any meds left from the last time boiler crud went through the crew.

The safety meeting was the same ole BS from the general foreman, foreman, safety men, and company ass-sucks who couldn’t care less about safety—all trying to justify their existence. On big projects, how many men they plan on killing is figured into the price of the job, just like lost, stolen, and broken tools. The reality is that broken bones and stitches hardly foster comment, and managing the risk is the best that can be hoped for. But management loves the sound of their own voices. Hell, when I got hauled out in the meat-wagon in ’94, they didn’t even pay the doctor bill. If they cared about safety, they would drug test some of their pushers. The general foreman was sweating like a whore in church, and his brother-in-law, a foreman, had a syringe sticking out of the pocket of his coveralls. It’s the same with all these outfits; they load the job up with their non-productive sons, sons-in-laws, and sons-of-bitches, and then demand productivity from the rest of us. The meeting and the paper work they make us sign are just so they can cover their asses when something does happen, and for the company to get a break on its insurance. If you pay attention at the meeting, you can pick up on the political intrigue and power struggles, but I had no time for it. I was there for the paycheck, not the “intelligent” conversation.

They put the word out that they were in a bind for welders again. Welders had been dragging up and going to other jobs. Boiler outfits deserved that though; they call all over the country to get skilled labor to travel into their jobs, and then act like they’re doing them a favor by letting them on the jobsite when they get there. They asked us for phone numbers of any welders we knew who might want to come out. I did know a couple, but I kept my mouth shut. That outfit was too chicken-shit for me to take a chance on losing a friend.

I saw Lem at the gang-box and asked about his kids. He had two boys playing in state finals in football and was thinking about pulling the pin so he could go home and watch them play. The foreman stopped to line us out, with slurred speech and animated motions. I was headed for the water-wall-screen and Lem, for the v-bottom. I grinned at Lem and he rolled his eyes. We made plans to meet on the turbine-deck for lunch.

I slipped into my harness, grabbed my tool bucket, and crawled through the manway into the boiler. Some kid was working next to the hole and sprayed me in the face with his grinder. Pieces of metal imbedded into my skin like thousands of hot needles. I didn’t say anything to him and worked my way to the other side of the boiler where I dug my welding hood out of my bucket and started attaching tube shields.

I had put on six or eight shields and was leaning back on my pelican hooks, fishing in my pocket for a can of chew, when I noticed that the boiler was quiet. I could hear the distant hum of the suck truck but nothing else. I checked my watch to see if it was lunch time, but it was only 10:30. I looked around but didn’t see anybody. I looked over at the manway and saw a foreman from another crew motioning me to come out of the boiler. I crawled through the hole and asked, “What’s up?”

“They want everybody out of the boiler.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Don’t know. I think something happened in the bottom-ash,” he replied.

Ten minutes later they passed the word that they wanted everybody off the unit. When I got to the ground, I saw the head safety man directing everybody to meet in front of the office trailer. I walked up and he tried to ignore me, but I stepped in close to him and asked, “Who is it?” He finally looked at me and said, “Lem.”

I asked him, “How bad?” and he just shook his head.

“What happened?”

“Scaffold collapsed…somebody cut out one of the panels supporting the scaffold.”

We stood around in front of the office trailer for about an hour until the project manager came out and said, “Lem died on the way to the hospital.” We were told to hit the gate and come back in the morning, a routine I was familiar with, having been through it eight times before.

I went back to my travel trailer, showered, put on the best clothes that I had, and walked across the street to a quiet little bar to get good and drunk, think about Lem, and honor him in the only way I knew how.

It was a nice quiet place, and I took a seat alone at the bar and ordered up two shots with two beer chasers. I sat one shot and one beer in front of the empty stool beside me—Lem liked his booze—and proceeded to slowly and quietly get plastered.

A couple of hours later, I sat staring at Lem’s drinks in front of his empty stool. The fluted shot-glass reflected dull amber light through the whiskey, and the sweat from the beer bottle had pooled onto the bar. I tried to remember his face, laugh, and the color of his eyes, but he was already fading. My eyes filled with tears. I slammed down another shot, slid off the barstool and headed for the door, drinking any more would be disrespectful.

The next morning we had a meeting with the corporate damage-control team. They had flown in from California the night before on a private jet to stick their fingers in the dike. They all had brand new company coveralls on—I didn’t know they even had company coveralls—with the fold creases still visible. They all had brand new welding gloves on—the same gloves that they took money out of our checks for—so they could look like one of the guys. They all had brand new company hardhats that they carried under their arms, so as not to mess up their hair. They talked about what a great guy Lem was, but they didn’t know him, had never met him, had never shared their lunch with him or loaned him a few bucks till payday. But you’re always a great guy after you buck out. They looked put out, their tidy corporate lives had been interrupted and they had to look at us, the industrial human rags that had been employee numbers up until now, and it was uncomfortable. They said we needed to put the tragedy behind us, because we had a lot of work left to do to get the unit back on line. We knew they were only worried about busting the bid and losing their Christmas bonuses.

Out on the unit, the thing I noticed most that day was how the hands couldn’t look each other in the eye. They looked down as if ashamed, as if they felt complicit in Lem’s death—and maybe we were. We all knew about the drugs, the lack of supervision in the boiler, and the job-first-people-second attitude. Hell, most of us had participated, or at least accepted all of it as the cost of employment.

After the meeting, I got back in my hole and sat on my bucket for most of the morning, eyes welling up, at times overflowing. I took my welding hood and put it on so I could hide under it when the tears came. I thought about the meeting and how the execs had called Lem Leonard. I realized I had never known Lem’s given name, and he had never known mine. Most of us went by nicknames—Tiny, because he was big; Ladder, because he was tall; Hook, because he hooked up the crane; Eight Ball, because he hooked up the hands; and Fubar, because he was. I wondered if it was some primeval survival instinct that made us do that; if I know your name and speak it, I own your soul. My friend Charlie came and pulled up a bucket. We sat for a long time without saying a word—what could we say? Finally, he stood up, put his hand on my shoulder, turned and started for the hole. I said, “Hey Charlie…what’s your real name?” He looked at me for a moment, smiled and said, “William, William Charles.” I stuck my hand out and said, “Mine’s Robert.” We shook hands and he crawled out through the manway.

I rolled up my bucket highway tight and headed for the parking lot. There was a job in Texas I could get on. The conditions would be the same; the dangers, the drugs, and the systemic nepotism would all be there, but at least I wouldn’t be working for the same shitbirds.

 

Robert RobinsonRobert’s work has appeared in the following publications: The Flyfish Journal, Fly Fisherman Magazine, Fly Rod & Reel, Fur-Fish-Game, and World Unknown Review. He lives, hikes, and fishes in Utah with his dog, Touch. His blog can be found at flyfishingthehighcountry.com.

What Goes Around

“What is this place?” my father asked.

“It’s Seattle, Dad,” I said. “From up high.”

Lunch for two at the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant had seemed like a good idea when I’d wrested him away from his wife, Donna, that clear summer day. I’d hoped he’d be able to point out the marina where he’d docked his boat for years and lived aboard long ago, the places where he’d worked. We looked down at the tiny buildings and bug-sized cars. A ferry pulled out of the dock at Elliott Bay, container ships motored toward the port; sights we’d both seen many times albeit from a different angle. He tried, but the view meant nothing to him. His city, his waters, spread out before him, all just out of his mental reach.

Dad had been a sailor, out on Puget Sound from spring to fall each year. My summer birthday, my milestones, and then my children’s, all celebrated without him. Once he and Donna were back at home for the winter with the boat moored, they went back to their professions—he was a carpenter, she was a schoolteacher. I saw them at Christmas. We spoke on the phone. Donna was a constant presence, finishing his sentences and answering questions I’d intended for him. Seldom were he and I out together, just the two of us.

Before we left his house that morning, Donna handed me a tote bag with an extra pair of slacks inside. “See you in a few hours,” she said.

I’d been working on accepting my father’s frailty—his memory loss and shuffling gait— but extra slacks? The times I’d watched him at his house, he’d always made it to the bathroom. Donna was being overly cautious, but I knew better. I shoved the bag into the back of the car and left it there.

On the drive downtown, I tried to get Dad talking. I asked about his day and he struggled to answer. His memory seemed to have gotten worse in the two weeks since I’d seen him last. He couldn’t remember where we were going, but I hoped as soon as we got to the Seattle Center and he saw the Needle, all would come back to him. He’d remember the year he finished the work on the revolving restaurant; the long-ago day before the elevator was installed when he climbed the stairs to the top.

We pulled into valet parking and I jumped out and ran around to Dad’s side to make sure he had his cane.

“The Space Needle, Dad,” I said. “Remember?”

“Oh?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

Maybe the Center had changed since he saw it last. Surely once we were inside and things looked the same as before, his memory would return. We rode the elevator up and were seated next to the window.

“What do you want to eat, Dad?” I asked him.

“Whatever you’re having,” he said.

He hadn’t even looked at the menu. Was that because he could no longer decipher the words? My stomach twisted. My dad—the prolific reader. The self-taught man, who recited poetry and brought home stacks of books from the library. I took a deep breath and launched into a hopefully foolproof subject. I pointed to the wall moldings. “Dad, you were the carpenter who installed the woodwork in this restaurant back in the sixties,” I said.

He looked up. “Oh?” he said. “Nice.”

I told him how my husband, Gary, used to treat our daughters to lunch at the Needle on their birthdays when they were growing up. How, as each girl’s birthday approached, a dress was chosen, shoes shined, hair bows set out. On the appointed day, I stood on the porch and waved goodbye as they skipped to the car and drove off with their dad. Later, after their trip to town, they bounced in the door clutching the requisite plastic Space Needle—in which a special drink had arrived at the table spouting dry ice vapor—and chirping about the elevator ride, the observation deck. About Daddy.

When night came, I’d tuck that day’s birthday girl into bed, her little body squirming with happiness, and listen to the details of her over-the-top day. I’d listen and be transported to my own childhood with a dad who routinely missed my summer birthday. A dad who—like the bumper sticker says—would rather be sailing.

In the sixties, the court determined the slice of my childhood I was to spend with my father: every other weekend and a week in the summer. But the court hadn’t got the memo: Dad reserved weekends for solo sailing trips. Our visits dwindled to a few hours a month, and no overnights. Once he married Donna, our contact lessened even more.

If he’d been grim or ill-tempered, I’d have been grateful not to see him. But those hours when we were together, when he joked and sang and held my hand, only made me ache for more. I’d spent some years trying to find a replacement dad—a fatherly teacher, an elderly neighbor man—never quite right but sometimes good enough. Now I was with the real guy. He might not be his old self, but he was here.

I didn’t tell him that day how hard I’d worked to bury my resentment. Instead, I chattered at him about the weather. Small talk was my strong suit; I could go on all day about nothing. It was the important things that stuck in my throat.

I demolished my fish and chips. Dad picked at his. He was happy enough. He smiled and told me how much he appreciated our lunch, but he might as well have been at McDonalds. The waiter took away our plates and brought dessert.

“Look, ice cream!” I said. His favorite.

Dad reached for his cane and turned in his seat, trying to get up.

“Where are you going, Dad?” I said.

“I gotta pee,” he said.

I looked for the restroom sign and found it nearby. We’d have to climb a long narrow stairway to reach the men’s. Not only that, we were sitting on the outer rim of a restaurant that was revolving 360 degrees per hour. Our table would soon be in a different place, nowhere near our current landmarks. The chances that Dad could find his way back alone were nil.

“I’ll come with you,” I said, adding, “I have to go, too.”

I followed him. I couldn’t help but hover. I took his elbow and put my hand on his back to guide him. The stairs loomed in front of us. People bustled up and down. The men’s room was off to the right of the steps about halfway up to the women’s room and the entrance to the observation deck. I followed close as he climbed the stairs. I’d have to let him go in by himself, and for the time it took him to finish, I wouldn’t be there to help if he needed something.

What had I done, bringing him to this place without backup? As if I knew what I was doing, thinking I could handle anything that came up. I hadn’t once let myself consider what Dad’s decline meant in real life. This was supposed to be fun, an elevator ride into the sky to look down at his city. But for my dad, the day had been disorienting, meaningless. He’d have been happier at a park. Why had I gotten it so wrong?

The minutes ticked by with no sign of him. Heaven only knew what was happening in there. He could’ve fallen, or worse. I watched the faces of the men leaving the washroom for signs they’d witnessed a disaster. Finally, I stopped a middle-aged man and asked if he’d seen my dad in there.

“Yeah,” he said, “he’s doing okay.” I breathed a little easier.

Soon Dad came out the men’s room door and started back down the steps. As he came closer, I noticed a wet stain on the front of his slacks. Not just a tiny little drip, but a splash that went from his front zipper down his left pant leg. It could’ve been water but… no. For a moment, I wanted to run away. Let someone else take care of this old man who so often couldn’t be bothered with me. But one look at him—confused, weary, and wearing wet pants, I pushed that thought away. I pictured the bag with the extra slacks inside 500 feet below us in the back seat of my car, wherever the valet had parked. Dammit. I didn’t know what made me feel worse, that I’d left behind Dad’s extra pants or that Donna knew him so much better than I did, or ever could.

Just then it struck me, the reason I’d been determined to make this day happen. Why hadn’t I seen it earlier? I’d told myself this lunch was a treat for Dad, a chance for him to enjoy the view. But my mind had played a trick on me. True, I didn’t have a party dress or dry ice or a plastic souvenir. I’d have had to wait until he didn’t have much choice in coming here. But I’d made it happen at last, my own special Space Needle date with Daddy.

I stepped forward to hold my father’s arm, and help him navigate the last few stairs. He brushed the wet spot with his hand as if to make it blend in somehow. I kissed his cheek. Gave him as big a smile as I could muster, and looked around to place myself in the ever-turning dining room. With luck, he’d forget about his soggy slacks by the time we reached our seats. Assuming I could find our table.

Joyce TomlinsonJoyce Tomlinson graduated from Antioch Seattle in Arts & Literature and received her MFA from Pacific University in Oregon. Her work has been published in Gold Man Review, Full Grown People, Crab Creek Review and We Came Back to Say, an anthology of women’s memoir. She is currently at work on a book about her relationship with her father.

Panic at Twenty-four Frames Per Second

Dead Birds is a documentary about the aboriginal people of New Guinea. Behavior Modification shows early attempts to treat autism. Orange is an erotic film in which a man peels and eats an orange. Slowly.

I worked my way through undergraduate school as a film projectionist, screening movies for the university’s classes. It didn’t pay much, but had other benefits: flexible hours, easy work, interesting subject matter. The only problem was that I was assigned to show the most popular films in the college’s library so many times that after only a few months on the job it became impossible for me to stay awake while they were running. At some point I trained myself to fall asleep during the opening credits of these films and wake up just before the loose end of the trailer began to flap against the projector stand.

Color Chromatography demonstrates—you guessed it—color chromatography. Sirene is a 1968 animated short about the destruction of the natural environment. A Normal Birth shows a normal (human) birth; at least three people would faint during each showing. This is Marshall McLuhan. I assume no explanation is necessary.

Behavioral Studies of Obedience was a favorite of the psychology department: a sixty-minute film summarizing experiments by Dr. Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, in which an actor posing as a doctor was able to persuade some of the study’s subjects to administer what they believed were painful, even lethal electric shocks to another actor in an adjacent room. The telecommunications and film department couldn’t get enough of Why Man Creates, an Oscar-winning twenty-five-minute short by famed film title designer Saul Bass. I must have shown that movie more than 700 times in the four years I worked for audio/visual services, sometimes four times a day. The film professors also ordered older classic feature films for their classes—Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Dark Victory. And two evenings a month the student union would sponsor a more contemporary feature film—Easy Rider, Woodstock, Last Tango in Paris—at one of the campus’s bigger venues: outdoors in the Greek bowl or in a large hall in the student center.

º

I’m telling you all this because it’s important that you believe I know what I’m talking about. Because if you’re a film buff, as I am, what I’m about to reveal will sour your future film-viewing experience as sure as there will always be a dirt-blackened piece of Bazooka imbedded in the carpet under your theatre seat. Yet all you need do to continue enjoying classic films is to read no further. Turn three pages and go on to the next story or essay or poem in whatever journal you’re holding in your nervous fingers. That’s what I’m advising you to do.

Why would I offer you information so disturbing, so disruptive, that it would merit this warning? My reason may be as simple as the fact that misery loves company. Or you may imagine me as Mephistopheles, seducing you, as Faust (whose story has been made into no less than four different movies) was seduced, with an appeal to your obsessive thirst for esoteric knowledge. After all, here you are, still reading after I’ve advised you to stop. What can I do in the face of such determination? How can I deny you what you’re willing to risk so much to discover? But I’m not a monster. I’ve given you an out.

Now your curiosity begins to get the better of you. Your heart quickens; you feel you must read on. A true film buff, you thrill to the obscure and thrive on the arcane. While viewing Ken Russell’s 1969 film Women in Love, only you among your friends noticed that sliced bread was used in a scene that takes place in 1920, eight years before pre-sliced bread was commonly available. In Casablanca, guns switch from one hand to the other or disappear entirely between takes. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ hand shifts from his left pocket on one side of a cut to his right on the other faster than you can pop a Junior Mint. These are the kinds of things you search for, and revel in.

But this story has nothing to do with trivia. You can find that stuff on the Internet.

By now you suspect I may be teasing you, that I’m dangling my “secret” in front of you as though it were an unreleased clip from Terry Gilliam’s latest attempt to film Don Quixote. I may as well forge ahead, you think, see what it’s about. Maybe you’re so sound of mind that you needn’t fear what I might say. I could be over-exaggerating (though I assure you I’m not). Wouldn’t it be wiser to be safe, to heed my warning to stop? What secret could possibly be worth the risk of ruining one of life’s great pleasures? Don’t be the Sam Spade of this story; don’t carry things too far. This is your last chance.

 

There are just two things you need to know in order to see a film as a projectionist sees it:

  1. The largest film reel that fits on a 16mm projector (the kind I operated) holds sixty minutes worth of film. 35mm reels hold less—maybe thirty minutes—because the film is twice as heavy. Since full-length feature films are longer than sixty minutes, they’re always on more than one reel, sometimes four or more.
  2. To achieve a smooth, apparently continuous film screening, two projectors are used. The first is for odd-numbered reels, the second for even. The projectionist handles the “switchover” from the active projector to the one loaded with the next reel.

So, how does a projectionist know exactly when to switch?

Before I answer, here’s another question: did you notice anything unusual near the bottom of the first page of this essay? Did anything catch your eye, distracting you for a second or two, perhaps diverting your attention, interrupting the flow of your thoughts? If not, go back and look now. Do you see the black circle near the right margin about three inches from the bottom of the page? What if I told you that from now on, every print book or journal will have a black circle like this one after the final paragraph of every chapter or story to signal that you should go on to the next page? In fact, just to make sure you don’t miss it, there will be a “warning” circle two inches above the final one. How long do you think it would be before your subconscious begins to keep a constant watch for that warning circle? Would it distract you from what you’re reading?

This is the solution film distributors came up with to solve the switchover problem. A small hole is punched in one frame of the film ten seconds before the end of each reel. When that frame passes through the projector at a speed of twenty-four frames-per-second, a small white dot or flash appears in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen. This GET READY! warning is followed ten seconds later by another flash: SWITCH! And the projectionist flips the switch on the second machine, where the next reel has been cued-up at the first frame.

No doubt you’re thinking, a twenty-fourth of a second? That’s what all this is about? Big deal!

I admire your confidence, but yours is the reaction of someone who has never noticed the dots, or perhaps thought they were just random scratches in the film. All that has changed as of this moment. Now that you know what they are, you’ll always see them. Soon you’ll find yourself obsessed by the watch for dots, your heart drumming in your chest at the “GET READY!” signal, your nerves tightening. It seems too long to be just ten seconds. A panic sets in. Did you miss it? Suddenly, the second flash, SWITCH!, and you relax, you can breathe again, and you return to the film with fitful attention, almost ignoring the plotline, impatient with the dialogue, silently estimating, over and over, the interval until the next reel change. And so you’ll become, like me, an anxious addict, counting the minutes, twitchily waiting for the next visual twang, finding relief, at last, only in a brief flash of light.

º

I’ve dragged you to the brink of the abyss, but the final step you must take yourself. I have one last instruction for you, one I know that, having come this far, you will not be able to resist. The next time you’re watching an old movie, keep an eye on the upper-right-hand corner of the screen starting at the twenty-five minute mark. I’ll bet you’ll see switchover dots. And, having once seen them, will never be able to not see them again.

º

Jim Brega Jim Brega earned his BA from San Diego State University and an MFA from the University of Illinois. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Lime Hawk, Hippocampus Magazine, Red Savina Review, Plenitude, and r.kv.r.y. He lives near San Diego. You can find more of Jim’s work on his blog: jimbrega.com.

 

 

The Housekeeper’s Daughter

My brain is starting to unravel. It’s gone bad. I can feel everything loosen up, softening, rippling under the inverted moonlight of my eyes. It’s really gone bad.

I’m starting to see the big picture now, and I’m not sure what it isblurred candy shadows, a scorched candlewick, the skin of eggshells, a smile in the dark?

Late at night as Los Angeles purrs in its sleep, I dip my fingers into my decomposing skull. It’s soft and gooey, a non-Newtonian fluid keeping secrets I itch to uncover. I creep and dig, my fingers rummaging through the mess and I’m tired, tired of being me. So tired, exhausted, withered and disgusted with whom I’ve become. I’ve realized I am so predictable. Day to day I spend too much time wishing. Wishing I were different, wishing I had a better life, wishing I were new; an other worldly being to blow away the masses, open mouthed and drooling, wishing I were animal; peligrosa y cruda. I have spent my entire life wishing.

When I was a child, my brother and I used to go to work with our mother. We were the housekeeper’s kids. Come to raid the fridge, devour cable TV, swim in the poolour underwear our swimsuitsand play with the dogs and cats. It was another world to be consumed, set ablaze by our wide eyes, a privilege, a dream.

We were the housekeeper’s kids; I was the housekeeper’s daughter.

Alone, I would nap in king size canopy beds and dream about my future, hoping to one day live in the homes my mother cleaned up along the curves of Benedict Canyon, Mulholland Drive, Los Feliz, Brentwood, Coldwater Canyon, Malibu. Wishing, always wishing.

I’d slide from room to room touching everything, leaving behind my fingerprints, imprinting myself onto glass paperweights, stationary bikes, unused seat cushions, bay windows, paintings I could not understand, white pristine bed sheets, photographs, flowers in the garden, mirrors and most of all the air, the lovely clean air. Imprinting, leaving behind splinters of my soul so I could come to collect when I was older.

Being the housekeeper’s daughter never bothered me. I loved it. My mother was often embarrassed, not wanting me to tell others what she did. It never bothered me, not even when she cleaned the houses of some of my best friends. Today it still doesn’t bother me, but my view of it all has altered.

My mother’s patronas used to be 99.9% perfect; refined creatures of beauty with long slender legs, graceful fingers decorated with golds and silvers, smooth skin, bellies that never growled, and little to no nalgas, which made no difference because they possessed tits that had been well cared for. I wanted it all.

Today, I no longer want what they have. It’s all the same, just different packaging.

Today, I am the housekeeper.

I slide from room to room, a snake licking the unclean air. Whispers breathe onto my scales and I know their secrets. I know when husbands no longer sleep with their wives, I know when one glass of wine has increased to two bottles of whiskey, I know when a pets passing bruises the ceilings and walls, I know when annoyance becomes deep and fractured hostility, I know when disease becomes another family member, I know when redecorating has become compulsive, I know when a child’s broken bones or explosive temper becomes another knot in the dining room table, I know when the longing for a mate dissolves beneath the bed, forever a distant dream.

It’s all the same, just different packaging.

They are my family and I don’t want any of it.

I don’t want their muck.

I don’t want to wash their tear stained pillowcases.

I don’t want to smooth their wrinkles.

I don’t want to be their secret keeper.

I don’t want to mold them new lives.

I don’t want to see them cry.

I don’t want to feel their fear.

I don’t want to smile when they lie to me, to their partners, to their children, to themselves.

I don’t want to help pick up the pieces.

I don’t want to throw out the trash.

I don’t want to scrub away the scum.

I don’t want to dust away the memories.

I don’t want to be their treasurer, retaining their troubles.

It’s all the same, just different packaging.

I want my own life.

I want me.

I want my future.

I want I want I want.

I want eternity to figure out what I want.

But tomorrow I will be their treasurer, their secret keeper.

They are my family; I breathe their air.

I am no longer the housekeeper’s daughter. I am the housekeeper.

Tomorrow I will keep wishing, as I always have, little girl or not.

A.R. CastellanoA Los Angeles native, A. R. Castellanos writes poetry, fiction, and memoir that draw upon her vibrant and tenacious ancestral heritage in Guatemala and California. Her conjured worlds encompass feral spirits, otherworldly legends, and the disconcerting realities of domestic workers in Hollywood celebrity homes. Her work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Chaparral, and Duende, among others. Aside from writing, Castellanos loves watching movies over and over again with her dog Nola, a rare breed of wolf-bear. For more please visit https://arcastellanos.wordpress.com.

Negative Space

First you notice the writing students in front of you slowing down, then pausing, and moving into the street.

Yellow tape is stretched across the sidewalk tied to a tree and a lamppost. You can’t read the black printing.

The now visible police cars and years of TV say crime scene.

The red lights flashing across the street shift your focus.

More yellow tape, an ambulance, several officers, EMTs, and perhaps a witness or plain clothes somebody talking to a police officer.

Behind all of them is a building with balconies. Black rails. Glass. Red brick. You count the stories.

The grass is green and the bushes are in bloom with pink blossoms.

There is a blank space. White. Like whiteout on a picture. Like an unfinished painting. Cleanly erased. Lacking relief. Flat white.

You don’t stop at the yellow tape. The students with you keep moving into the street around the cars and back on the sidewalk.

A woman outside a church says he jumped. Students pass by and you look up at the building.

Are you searching for the balcony? Counting floors again. Imagining.

You turn and walk on and wonder if all these writers and poets and playwrights are constructing narratives.

Are they building plots, forming characters, metaphors?

You turn back. Stop. Walk a few more steps. Stop. Turn back again. Wonder why?

The urge for a cigarette, a drink, your lover’s embrace floods you.

Close your eyes and breathe, fill the space, and shake like a dog just wet from the ocean.

At the lecture hall, stand in line for your decaf Americana. Find someone to sit next to. Ask him if he saw. Ask her what she knows.

Open your notebook. Open your iPad. Check your email. Start writing.

Ted ChilesTed Chiles’ fiction has appeared in several literary journals including Canteen, Wacamma, Smokelong, Quarterly, and riverbabble. Vestal Review nominated his story “A Recursive Love Affair” for a Pushcart Award. Chiles lives in Santa Barbara, California with another writer and two cats. In a former life he taught economics, the most dramatic of the social sciences.

 

 

Some Lines of Feeling 

“Autumnthat season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tendernessthat season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

― Jane Austen, Persuasion

 

The oppressive, heavy, humid heat of another climate change Ohio Valley River summer makes way for fall. Makes way for winds that blow away lingering dew drops in the morning grass. Makes way for skies that do not lighten until I’m almost home from working the night shift. This is my favorite time of year, the time of year that makes me stop and think, pause and reflect on change as green leaves turn fiery before drying up and blowing away. As the wind blows goosebumps along the patches of skin left bare between my scarf and cardigan, and as pumpkins and Indian corn overtake berries and peaches at the farmer’s market down the street, I always think of the past—how different things are now, how many people are missing from my life. More than anything, fall makes me think about academia. As wool and double-knit takes the place of summer dresses in my wardrobe, I think about dry leaves crunching underfoot as I make my way along sidewalks between classes. This is my new year, much more than January 1.

And most of all, I think about Ralph.

In my early twenties, after a failed first attempt at college and several years spent aimlessly drifting from job to job, I enrolled at a community college in downtown Louisville. The buildings housing the classrooms where gifted professors rekindled my love for literature and creative writing—and kindled my love for philosophy and social justice—were sandwiched between high rises, fast food joints, and subtly-labeled services for the invisible: homeless shelters, rehab centers, food closets, and soup kitchens. Their clientele stood on the sidewalks between the main campus building and the languages building four blocks away, men and women who had seen better days and who now spent their days asking for spare change. I gave what I could, but didn’t often carry cash.

I spent most of my lunch breaks at the Taco Bell across Broadway from the liberal arts building. Fast, cheap, and convenient, it was the perfect college meal. Taco Bell is where I met Ralph.

Weathered, beaten down, clad in so many layers of ripped and soiled jackets and pants that he could have weighed anywhere from 150 to 450 pounds, Ralph towered over my 5’1 frame. With his dusky skin darkened even more by car exhaust and street soil, he was like any number of the homeless I passed during my school days; except he wasn’t a number, he was Ralph.

I still can’t tell you how we clicked, the homeless Army vet alcoholic and the drifting, artsy-district dwelling, nerdy white girl. Maybe we were both drifting. Maybe we were both seeking what we’d lost—him to napalm and bomb-wired boys blowing themselves apart in Vietnam and protesters spitting in his face when he got back home, me to years under a lover’s controlling fists—but we did. Maybe it was the softness in his gaze under his wind-hardened face. But whatever it was, instead of walking past him with an “I’m sorry, I don’t carry cash” explanation when he asked for “just enough change for a taco, please, ma’am,” I gestured with my head to the door, saying “I have extra on my card. C’mon. I’ll buy you some lunch.”

It was awkward at first. I didn’t know how to eat without a book in front of me, and he hadn’t really eaten anywhere but soup kitchens and church basements in “Oh, ‘bout twenty years,” but we found ourselves in a booth by the window, a tray of tacos between us. He tried to grab a taco and leave, but I asked him to stay. I don’t know what spawned that—I don’t like eating with other people; I never know what to do with my hands if they don’t have a book in them, and can never figure out how many bites it’s polite to take in between words, but it seemed right. Not “right” as in “Oh, the right thing to do” charity line, but right as in “the right thing to do at the moment.”

“Do you go to that college?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Whatya studying?”

“Everything,” I shrugged. “I’m an English major, but I keep taking classes I don’t need. Philosophy and the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, mostly.”

He laughed, bits of lettuce falling in his lap from the taco. “I wanted to go to college. Thought I’d teach math.”

“I’m awful at math!”

“Well, I am now, too.” He pointed to a scar under the tight gray curls along his temple. “Uncle Sam took learning from me. I can’t remember much no more, can’t read no more, either.” He took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. “Do you want to teach? Or write your own books like them you’re carrying in that heavy backpack?” he asked, pointing.

“I want to teach, yes, but more than anything, I want to write. Seeing my name on the spine of a book in the library—that would be heaven.”

He nodded. “You will. And I’ll buy it. You seem like a smart young lady. Stay in school. Don’t be like me. These streets—they’ll kill ya.”

I smiled. “I will.”

He stood up. “Gotta run. Places to go, ya know.” He winked. “Thank ya for lunch. It’s nice to be seen.”

I nodded. “I know.”

He stood up. “Gotta run. Places to go, ya know.” He winked. “Thank ya for lunch. It’s nice to be seen.”

I don’t think either of us expected it to, but that lunch became routine. Once or twice a week—any time I got sick of packing sandwiches from home—I crossed the street to Taco Bell, and, more often than not, he’d be outside. “The manager, he’s a good man,” he told me. “He lets me sit out here, so long as I don’t bother nobody.” Over tacos, we exchanged stories. He told me about growing up in a coal mining town in Eastern Kentucky and going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and how he “never could read past kid books, but numbers—man oh man, I loved me some numbers. They was the most beautiful thing.” He dropped out, though, because he couldn’t pass English. He told me how a boy who’d never gotten in so much as a fist fight—Mama, she’d’ve kilt me”—could still be drafted to Vietnam, and how that same boy could watch his buddies get blown apart by bombs wired to the local boy who’d visited them every day for weeks. That blast, he told me, “shot something into my skull. I don’t know what, but I ain’t been right since.” After recuperating in a field hospital, he was flown home where he was greeted by protesters spitting in his face and the news that his high school sweetheart had married someone else. I told him about growing up an honor’s student who passed math because my little sister did my homework, and being in love with language and words, and being diagnosed with dyscalculia and A.D.D. in college, and about dropping out to take care of a man who wound up abusing me. There was a lot of head shaking over both stories.

Some weeks, I didn’t make it, especially during exams, but any time I did, Ralph was waiting for me. The last week before winter break, we ordered, same as always—ten soft tacos, four without lettuce for me, and two large sodas—but before I could dig my wallet out of my backpack to pay, he stopped me. “I been saving the change I get,” he said. “For Christmas.” The cashier rolled her eyes at the mound of quarters and dimes he plunked down, but to me the change sparkled like new snow. When I thanked him, he shrugged. “I always wanted a little girl. If I’d’ve had one, she’d be about your age.”

 

Louisville comes alive during Derby. Something about horseracing and bourbon brings in celebrities and inspires local women to dress in outrageous hats and fancy dresses. I’ve never understood the draw—in fact, I spend most Derbies passing out leaflets about the horses who didn’t run fast enough to qualify and wound up glue or dog food—but after meeting Ralph, the horses stopped seeming like the biggest casualty.

Derby brings in celebrities, like I said, and celebrities bring in glitz and glamour. Louisville rolls out the red carpet—trash-lined streets are suddenly swept clean, empty lots are planted with flowers, and artists are commissioned to turn horse statues into works of art. The homeless—of which we have nearly 10,000—are not sparkly, and so shelters are paid extra to put out more beds, and churches line their basements with cots, all to get the homeless out of sight and out of mind. I used to think this was a good thing; regardless of the motivation, any extra beds were a blessing. That is, until I realized that there are some people, like Ralph, who don’t want a borrowed bed.

Before that Derby, Ralph had never told me where or how he lived, just saying “I get by, same as everybody else.” On one of our lunches, Ralph was unusually quiet, mumbling short answers and looking at his lap and not at me.

“Is something wrong?”

“I ain’t got my home,” he responded.

I looked at him, trying to figure out a polite way to say “I know you’re homeless,” when he continued.

“The cops, they didn’t think tent city was the right place for us to sleep. So they took their bowie knives, like the one I used in the army, and sliced up the tents. They said we needed to sleep inside at the shelter for our own health.”

I touched his hand, not knowing what to say.

“So, I’m at a shelter. But it ain’t home.”

I don’t remember what else we talked about that day. I wish I did because it was our last lunch.

 

Who we are comes from what we do in a crisis. Do we remain calm and collected, or do we panic and freak out? Or, shamefully, do we run away and hide? If this is true, I don’t like who I am. Or at least, I don’t like who I was then. The moment I should have stood strong, I backed down and ran the other way.

If this was a movie, some feel-good Lifetime movie of the week, I’d end this telling you about how Ralph grew to like the shelter, got sober, and went back to school. There, he’d have a Good Will Hunting worthy moment where untapped gifts were brought to light, and he’d go on to MIT or Harvard. But this is real life, where happy endings are not guaranteed.

Around the same time tent city was being sliced up, Taco Bell went through a management change. The old manager, who let Ralph sit outside, quit. The new manager, a younger, hipper guy who wanted the restaurant to draw more students, papered the entrance door with event fliers and signs, offered a student discount…and put up a “No Loitering” sign. I don’t think he was malicious; I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing.

I don’t remember what else we talked about that day. I wish I did because it was our last lunch.

The week before Derby, I was walking across the street to meet Ralph. I only had a week left of classes before I transferred to a four-year university across the river in New Albany, and had a parting gift—a new jacket—in my bag for Ralph. The wind was warm, promising summer, and my feet skipped as I neared the Taco Bell. Just as I was about to wave hello, a cop car pulled in and rolled to a stop next to Ralph. Ralph looked up, expressionless, as two officers exited the cruiser. The younger put his hand on his gun when he realized how tall Ralph was, then pulled out his cuffs. “You have the right to remain silent…”

“What’d I do?” Ralph asked.

“Loitering. You can’t sit here. It ain’t safe.” In my memory, the officer sneered this, but I’m not certain if it’s my own rage darkening the exchange or if he was that callous.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, hurrying over. “He wasn’t loitering. He was waiting for me.”

“For you?” He looked me up and down, taking in my skirt and sweater, probably wondering why a clean-cut, obviously nerdy college girl was hanging out with a homeless man who smelled of yesterday’s booze and the desperation of the shelter.

“Yes.” I tried to ignore the trembling in my voice. “We eat lunch together every week.”

“Well, the manager, he called, said he’s been out here every day for hours.”

“He sits here all the time.”

The second officer walked over. “Welp, not anymore. See that sign? It says ‘No Loitering,’ so I’m going to need you to step away and let us do our job.”

“I can’t read that, sir,” Ralph said.

“Why? You blind?”

Ralph shook his head, defeated.

“He can’t read. That isn’t a crime,” I said.

“Look,” the first officer said, “you can either walk away or be arrested, too.”

“For what?”

“For being an accessory to a crime.”

“An accessory to loitering?” I asked in disbelief.

I wish I could say I stood my ground, that I was cuffed and put in the back seat behind that metal grille with Ralph, that I’d been with him as he was taken downtown. I wish I’d raised a fuss, called the media. But I didn’t. Ralph shook his head at me and got in the car. I raised a hand in farewell, but I don’t know if he saw me. I hope he did. I wish I didn’t remember how defeated he looked, a big man reduced to a scared little boy.

 

I never saw Ralph again. A soldier haunted by brain damage and the ghosts of alcoholism and long-dead friends, a man who saved his change to buy me lunch for Christmas because he always wanted a little girl, was reduced to a number, another victim of a system that measures success in beds filled and ignores lives lost.

I used to ache every spring at the memory of my friend in the backseat of that cruiser, but I stopped letting myself remember. Now, though, it’s fall, and like every fall, the leaves crisp and change colors, and I remember Ralph. Not the goodbye, but the “hello,” the budding of a new friendship and all the missed chances and opportunities.

“Write a book,” he told me when I told him I wanted to be a writer. “And I’ll buy it, and have someone read it to me.”

It isn’t a book, my friend, but a memory. Wherever you are, I hope you know I remember.

Karyl Anne GearyKaryl Anne Geary is an adjunct instructor at Ivy Tech Community College and works on a children’s psychiatric unit. She is the founder of the Rojong Yoin Writing Community in Louisville and is working towards an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Spalding University. Her essays and poetry have been published in Lunch Ticket, Sweet, New Southerner, so to speak, Stonecoast Review, IUSoutheast Review, and Barbaric Yawp. She is currently working on a collection of essays about growing up in Kentucky, and a segmented memoir about healing from personal trauma while simultaneously working with child trauma victims, and blogs at karylannewrites.wordpress.com.

A Map of Jerusalem

For years my face and name were a message I didn’t know I was sending. In kindergarten, our teacher gave my classmate Daniel and me blue and white construction paper to make cards for our family when everyone else got red and green. I knew this was because we were both Jewish, but my mother had to explain that blue and white were the colors of Israel. Growing up in Virginia, Daniel and his family were the only other Jews I knew.

“You have the map of Jerusalem across your face,” my father told me once when I was in high school, which I thought was a nice way to say that I had a big nose, brown eyes, and curly hair. I smiled at his attempt to make me feel better about my awkward looks; after all, I looked just like him.

We were so secular that we had a Christmas tree every year until I turned 18. At the top of the tree was a sun instead of an angel because my father was an astronomer. My father was raised a Jew in Indianapolis. He went to temple, but it met on a Sunday, and he had no inclination to practice Judaism as an adult. My mother was also Jewish, but was raised as a Christian Scientist. If you asked her if she believed in God, she’d tell you she was a member of the Unitarian Church, where she played piano. Even as a kid I knew that wasn’t a real answer.

Like many young bookish Jews, I went through a World War II phase. I read The Diary of Anne Frank, The Summer of my German Soldier, The Upstairs Room, Journey to Topaz, which was about the Japanese internment camps in the United States, and Snow Treasure, where the kids used their sleds to smuggle Norwegian gold to a boat under the nose of the Nazis. These books taught me that I was part of a people who had been killed in Europe thirty-five years before I was born. I thought about whether I could bear being hidden in an attic with my family, or whether I was brave enough to join the resistance. But it was just an intellectual exercise. No one I was closely related to had been killed; my father’s family had been in the United States since the 1880s, and my mother’s family came over from Germany sometime around the Civil War.

At the end of my World War II phase, I discovered Roman Vishniac, who photographed children in the Eastern European shtetls just before the war. One photo captures two boys about my age on their way to yeshiva. Forbidden to cut the “corner of their beards,” their long earlocks curl in the rain the same way my hair does. It was the first time I had felt viscerally that I was a Jew.

*     *     *

In 1990, my parents and I watched the first Gulf War on TV mostly during dinner. I hated the idea of fighting, but I was also fascinated. A war! In my lifetime! The newscasters were excited too. They talked in detail about missiles and missile strikes. Reporters described the new “smart” bombs in breathless detail. My mother’s mouth tightened as the nightly news stopped covering domestic events, or anything but the shiny new war.

My mother said, “When I was a teenager, everyone knew someone, a friend or a brother or father, who had died in World War II.” She went to high school in the late forties. My father turned 18 in 1942 and knew he didn’t want to fight; so he signed up and joined the Signal Corps, where he was a radio repairman. He went back to school on the GI Bill and became an electrical engineer and eventually an astronomer. His stories about the war were mostly about his own ingenuity. He told me about repairing a juke box for officers in the Philippines, and being rewarded by one cold beer, or about sleeping on the floor of a Mitsubishi factory in Japan and rigging up a wire that electrocuted the rats that ran across their bags as they slept. When his ship arrived in San Francisco, he remembered seeing a sign visible only to incoming boats that said, “Welcome home, soldier. Job well done.”

But as he watched the news about the war in Iraq he said, “We had to go to war to stop Hitler, but this one….” He shook his head. “The Arabs and the Jews are brothers.” I gave him a hard time about not including sisters (inclusive language was a long-term recreational argument between my father and me), but his words were aphoristic and I remembered them.

*     *     *

At the end of my World War II phase, I discovered Roman Vishniac, who photographed children in the Eastern European shtetls just before the war. One photo captures two boys about my age on their way to yeshiva. Forbidden to cut the “corner of their beards,” their long earlocks curl in the rain the same way my hair does. It was the first time I had felt viscerally that I was a Jew.

Don’t talk to the Goldsteins about Israel. It was the Western Goldsteins we meant, my father’s brother and his family in California. My oldest cousin Lisa was in rabbinical school, and my aunt and uncle went to synagogue every week. We were the Eastern Goldsteins, living in Virginia. The first time I was ever in a synagogue, I was seventeen years old, and we joined the Western Goldsteins in New York City to see Lisa’s ordination. I watched my uncle and male cousins put on the black yarmulkes offered in baskets at the end of the pew, and I looked around, wondering what it would be like to have been raised in this familiar, foreign faith. My father did not take a yarmulke, and my mother looked politely bored. She had been a church pianist for years, and liked to say that she could give a Unitarian sermon in her sleep. Although she taught me how to recognize Jewish names, she called herself a self-loathing Jew.

“Why?” I finally asked her.

“I just don’t find any connection with other Jews. I wasn’t raised Jewish, I don’t know the same people they do, it just seems judgmental and narrow minded.” I knew she was referring indirectly to my aunt. My mother and aunt had never gotten along.

*     *     *

People often look at my Jewish looks and name, my lack of religious upbringing and assume that my mother wasn’t Jewish. But because my parents were born in the 1920s and 1930s anti-Semitism meant they were not likely to marry outside their religion. For someone my age, I am remarkably racially pure. It’s such a troubling phrase, once used to keep Jews from opportunities, but when someone questions whether I am a Jew, I can’t help but think it.

My parents told me instances of oblique anti-Semitism. My father, a professor at the University of Virginia, once remarked that he would not have been allowed to teach there a hundred years ago. My mother would tell me the story of her cousin Paul, who rushed a fraternity at the University of California. During the swearing in, the men stood in a circle.

“Step out of the circle if you’re Jewish,” they said as part of a list of “unacceptable” traits of future fraternity brothers. Paul, who was not religious, stepped out.

“We don’t mean you, Paul! Come back!” the other students shouted, but he was already putting on his coat to leave.

Both of my parents liked to talk about history. When I learned about Kennedy’s assassination in elementary school, my mother told me people didn’t want to elect Kennedy because he was Catholic.

“Why would they care?” I asked. There were not very many Catholics in my hometown either.

“They worried he’d be ruled by a religious authority outside the United States,” she explained. “They used to say the same thing about the Jews,” she added.

*     *     *

Just after college I went to visit Lisa, who became a Hillel rabbi. She led services on Friday night. We sat in a circle in a room off the student union and the prayers were sung. I was embarrassed to be the rabbi’s cousin, and not know anything about her world of Judaism. And so I relied on my years of playing in orchestra when the prayers started. I mumbled the words and followed along with the tune, sight-reading the prayers. After, Lisa turned to me in surprise and said, “Where did you learn those prayers?” She knew for a fact I didn’t learn them at home.

I became used to sight-reading Judaism, faking my way through the encounters. I understood the cultural cues of being Jewish, but I knew nothing about the religion.

*     *     *

My father and his brother were close, even though they lived on opposite sides of the country. My uncle flew east frequently when my father became sick with terminal brain cancer. My aunt and uncle came together sometime before Passover, and my aunt was not eating anything that the Israelites wouldn’t have had on the exodus out of Egypt.

“Isn’t it rude to have such strict diet requirements in a house where someone is dying?” I asked my mother over the phone. I was 24, and I watched some of my friends give up leavened bread around Passover, or candy for Lent, but this seemed extreme.

“I think so,” my mother said. “Your father and I laughed about it. It was one of the last things we laughed about.” Not long after the visit, my father slipped into a coma.

*     *     *

“Why do they have to argue all the time?” my colleague at the bookstore asked, gesturing to the two older Jewish men standing by the newspaper rack, arguing about Israel. I smiled and said nothing. After my father died, I went to grad school, and got a job at the Brookline Booksmith, in a very Jewish suburb of Boston. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by Jews and I was just beginning to pick out aspects of my family that seemed to me to be Jewish. And Goldsteins, East and West, sure loved to argue. My dad and I used to argue all the time. Usually they weren’t fights, just heated discussions about all sorts of things such as whether we’d go back to horses when we ran out of oil, or the ethics of the atomic bomb, or the best topping on a hot dog. I was outspoken in my family, especially with my father, but quieter in public. I hated to argue when I didn’t know the facts, and I couldn’t always articulate what I was trying to say. I lost some confidence without my father’s keen appreciative eye. My favorite opponent, gone.

*     *     *

My father’s cousin Dave sent me a chain email that talked about how the Jews had contributed incredible learning and culture to Spain, but were expelled in 1492. The email suggested that Muslims contributed poverty and violence to European culture and should be expelled. I was tempted not to answer. I didn’t talk to Dave often, and I wasn’t sure how to talk to a man sixty years older than me about how short-sighted and racist I found his email. Then I remembered my father’s words.

I wrote back that I was glad to hear from him. I told him that my father had always said that the Jews and Arabs were brothers. (I knew that statement had the purity of coming from a dead man everyone loved.) I asked him to stop forwarding me emails of this kind, but that I would love to get letters from him. I told him a few things about my job and that I was moving in with Mike, the man I would eventually marry. I never heard from Dave again.

Don’t talk to the Goldsteins about Israel. I now realize that does not mean, “don’t start an argument.” My family loved a good argument. Instead it meant, “Don’t nudge the sleeping dragon of racism.” We don’t want to know. Because if we knew we would have to act, or at least speak up. And then we would have to deal with what followed.

*     *     *

At a neighbor’s Hanukah party (my second Hanukah party ever at age 39), I sit next to a woman in her sixties. “I don’t have a mezuzah,” she said. “I don’t tell people I’m Jewish.” She lives in a smallish town in New Hampshire.

“Why?” I ask.

“I’m afraid of prejudice,” she said. Our conversation moved on to other things. Twenty minutes later, I heard her tell someone else, “I would never get on a plane with an Arab.” It was thirteen years after September 11.

“Oh, come on,” the other person said. “Not all Arabs are terrorists.”

“You never know,” she said. Her face hardened. “I wouldn’t feel safe with any of those people. Would you?”

I wasn’t silent out of respect. I was silent out of fear, not fear for my safety, but fear of what people would have thought of me. And even more so, I was afraid of being embarrassed, of being looked down on, of being wrong, of having my cover blown.

To my shame, I did not respond to my neighbor’s friend. I was angry, but did not engage. Instead Mike spoke up about the many Muslim students he had taught over the years, and others joined him in the conversation. I had gotten used to talking to my non-Jewish liberal friends about how I found Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians hypocritical to say the least. But when there were Jews around, I was silent around the subject. What could I tell her that would make her understand? I thought to myself. I can blame the fact that my parents taught me to be polite. I can blame that I was the youngest nonfamily guest and I didn’t want to offend the hosts. I can blame that on the old Eastern/Western Goldstein silence. But they’re just excuses.

I wasn’t silent out of respect. I was silent out of fear, not fear for my safety, but fear of what people would have thought of me. And even more so, I was afraid of being embarrassed, of being looked down on, of being wrong, of having my cover blown. Everyone would know I wasn’t a real Jew.

*     *     *

A month later terrorists blew up the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The prime minister of France lamented that this violence might cause Jews to flee France, and how that would be a loss to the Republic. He discounted far-right anti-Semitism of white supremacists, and instead talked about “this new anti-Semitism comes from the difficult neighborhoods, from immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who have turned anger about Gaza into something very dangerous. Israel and Palestine are just a pretext. There is something far more profound taking place now.”

In the early twentieth century, many Americans talked about the new, dangerous immigrants with close ties to foreign radicalism. A banker on the Board of Overseers at Harvard wrote to Harvard’s president, “there is acknowledgment of interests of political control beyond, and in the minds of these people, superior to the Government of this country—the Jew is always a Jew first and an American second…” During World War II, a Gallup poll revealed that Americans saw Jews as the group with the greatest menace to American security, over Germans and Japanese.

*     *     *

When I was a teenager, I made my own peace with Israel by vowing that I would never go there. I figured I didn’t really know enough to be able to engage either side, so I held myself above the whole situation. This was something I learned as an Eastern Goldstein. My mother protected herself by proclaiming to be a self-loathing Jew. My father offered platitudes. But platitudes sound different coming from a man who was in World War II.

My father and I are (were) profoundly naïve, ignoring a wide range of politics that we never really understood, to say that the Arabs and Jews are brothers (and sisters). And I have been silenced by politeness, by ignorance, by the desire to get along. But I am a writer, and my silence will certainly not protect me. My voice is not political except with my face and my name, and I have a new message I would like to figure out how to send.

 

In 1951, Hannah Arendt wrote that Jews were the canary in the coal mine for Europe. A rise in anti-Semitism indicated a rise in totalitarianism. The world has changed since 1951, and I think Islamophobia is a new indicator of the danger of far-right nationalism. Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism. And it is an anti-Semitism that Jews perpetrate.

After the bombing of a Danish synagogue, a month after the Hebdo massacre, local Muslims gathered to form a human ring around a synagogue in Oslo. Jews should be forming rings around mosques and Islamic centers. To be a Jew should be to protect other people’s precariousness as well. For if not us, who?

Ellen Goldstein was born and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has appeared in journals such Ellen Goldstein asPost Road, Solstice, The Common, Measure,andCarbon Culture Review; as well as in the anthologiesNot Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs, Letters to the World, Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry,andQueer South,which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. She lives in Eastern Massachusetts.

The Persistence of Wolves

I

Stillness in the mountains, in the way the mist clings, eternal, like suspended cobwebs on the prickly pine needles and limbs of green guavas, in the way the mountains curve like the rolling hips of the women hiking red dirt clearings far away. They’re balancing bread in baskets atop their tightly turbaned hair. Time, here, is crystallized against the mountains around my friends’ house. The stillness is abruptly broken, first by their adhan, a call and response weaving a song, their song a prayer, their prayer a call to persist, persistence to desire a right to live, to exist in the flesh among the fertile minarets of Haiti.

From the balcony, we watch this world stretch wide like a vintage post card of the days before we were broken by putsches and pillage, before we learned to turn our rage inward.

Stillness, first broken by song, now splinters like desiccated bamboo. The crack is irreversible. The clouds huddle overhead as frightened ewes in the approaching storm, but it does not rain. It’s just the sky bracing itself to cry over Port-au-Prince, as bullets crack the afternoon down its middle.

II

I hide behind the pillars of my father’s legs and plug my ears with my fingers. I’m thankful and aware, perhaps for the first time, for his height, finding reassurance in his stillness. He is unmoved and unimpressed. He is a mountain, too, arms folded on his chest. Next to him, his friend adjusts the butt of a rifle against his daughter’s shoulder and teaches her to aim, to seek out the peak of pines through the rear and front sights, to target the imaginary enemy who isn’t yet at their door. It’s only a matter of time, he says, showing her how to wrap that finger around the trigger, and pull.

“This is a necessity,” he says to my father. Foolish is the man who cannot provide safety for daughters and mothers in a country where men have morphed into wild dogs. They rape and hate and teach submissiveness, he says. They force the husband to watch as they take his wife, and force the father to rape his daughter and force the mother to watch, and the violence is now a flash flood rushing through our veins. Blood, blood in our eyes and blood in our mouths and blood on our hands, ready, aim, shoot, and try again.

The girl pulls the trigger. She is my age, and she wears a dress hemmed above the knee, and I can see her brown legs tensing with each blow of the gun, like chords on a violin before they snap. It’s only a matter of time before they come for you, or me, her father says. My father is still a mountain, unimpressed, deciphering for himself the silence of mountains around us.

I imagine what blood tastes like in the mouth when a bullet hits the flesh. I think it tastes like a shrapnel explosion would, like cold iron or peppered gunpowder. The clouds close in, thick layers of cotton dripping a milky, misty film over peaks, swallowing the songs of women.

III

He has four daughters in these mountains, and my father has just one in the plains.

We meet here on occasional Sundays to measure and compare the effectiveness of fathers.

Other families have both parents to shield them in the midnight hour when the werewolves come bursting through doors to feed. Violence now becomes a need, and we are teaching each other self-defense by arming babies.

It used to be that what we feared bumped in the shadows: hairy tarantulas, vicious centipedes, or the blind collision of bats in the night hunting for fruit, tossing almonds and custard apples against our windows. It used to be that we turned our clothes inside out or smoked our pipes upside down to ward off evil spirits, night walkers, zobop and chanpwèl and loup-garou roaming the dark, reaping innocent souls. We used to fear the unknown, the impenetrable mystery carried through the Middle Passage, woven in the cavernous hold of the Negrier ships, hauled through the oceans from coastal beaches of Benin, or the Congo.

Fear, for a while, was killing mothers by licking a table knife, or pointing to an owl at night, or letting a black butterfly flutter close. Fear was dying of a coup de poudre and living death to be zombified.

Haitians now fear two things in this world, they say: rain drops, and bullets. When they feel or hear both, they disperse and disappear, ducking for shelter.

Now, fear inhabits us during the day and at the onset of night. Now, each man, and woman, and child, learns to survive the edge of machetes and the fatal blow of machine guns, which seem to abound more than magic. Now, fear is sending a child to school with nothing for food but a rock of salt under the tongue for sustenance, or a glass of sugared water for breakfast. Fear is a rubber necklace that begins to melt into the skin when a tire holds a man’s arms in place and he is set on fire. Fear is the silence on the radio after the voice of the journalist has been silenced with bullets. Fear is the knocking on the metal gate. Fear is a man in uniform entering the house, asking to use the telephone. Fear is the men in khaki driving past homes, eyes hidden behind dark glasses.

I devise to hide under the bed, as if bullets cannot pierce my mattress. I devise to crawl inside the armoire, as if men with machetes cannot smash through mahogany and reap the limbs they came for. Violence is already in my house, in the way fear possesses my father at the thought of the task to raise children alone. There is no sleep tonight, or tomorrow, or any other night, for a long, long time, a never-ending time, for as long as those wolves persist in the dark.

IV

On the way home, driving from the mountains, my father clutches the wheel and veers left, then right, to avoid the ghosts roaming the road. They walk through dusk as zombies do, fighting the density of the city, blending in with the darkness, barely grazing each other, arms wrapped around buckets of glorious gladiolas and sunflowers, around strings of leather masks and clusters of feathered hens and cocks. They pack the remnants of their day as the clouds descend lower onto the needling domes of cathedrals and fences, their midst opening a wide mouth to swallow them whole.

Night falls on Port-au-Prince at its own pace, yielding them with time for the final offerings of oranges and avocados, the fear of the dark already twining in their eyes. We’re all afraid of the same monsters, I think. But I wonder if we—my father and I—aren’t more susceptible, behind our oak doors, beneath our blanketed beds, inside our acacia armoires, than they are within the four walls of their slum villages, and somehow I manage to resent the world for that cold critter crawling up my esophagus as we arrive home and lock our gates.

There will be no sleep tonight, nor tomorrow, nor any other night, as long as fathers teach daughters to shoot, as long as my father teaches me to feel safe and still as he, in the dark, unpacks his own secret weapons and slips a pistol under his pillow.

Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat is a native of Haiti living in Miami. She graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University. She writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her work has been featured in Fourth Genre, Grist Journal, Damselfly, and Off the Coast Journal.

Dispatch from Liberty Ave.  

Pittsburgh, PA—

It’s another day: not a sale, not a bite, not a solid, single look-e-loo. So I stand alone at the window and watch the old men walk in a stiff and stony parade up and down the avenue past my post at the East End Book Exchange. I count the ways to be an old man: to rein trembling fingers in coat pockets, to search for solid ground with each forthcoming step, to let cigarettes hang from thin lips, to pretend to wait for buses, to steal the company of strangers, to zombie into traffic, to crink over and collect butts of cigarettes, and to scrounge enough grit to roll your own.

The sun descends behind the tenement brick across the street, obscuring its rays from our window plants. The languid philodendra, the once-proud succulents, lush months before, droop in the shadows, when, finally, a silhouette at the door appears. A wrinkled woman, at once elegant and gritty, snubs out a cigarette behind the doorframe and enters the store in a long fur coat.

“You seen an old man named Lee in here?” she asks. A second-hand tick echoes. “You know…Lee?…The old man who smokes cigarettes?”

I shrug.

She says, “You know—Lee? I think he comes by the bookstore.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “A lot of old men come by.”

She steps outside, lights a cigarette and begins to yell: “Lee!…Lee!…Lee!…Lee!…Lee!”

For five minutes she yells.

I step out and join her. Light a cigarette, too. She says the missing man is brother to her aunt who’s married to her mother’s brother—who are all dead. The whole family, she says, is just about dead. We both look up and eye the windows of the apartments above the bookstore. She says she hasn’t heard from Lee since the day he helped her haul garbage to the curb a fortnight ago.

“I’m breaking in,” she says, “Can’t wait.”

She ascends the stairs, lights another. In the bookstore, through the floorboards, I hear a tromping, a slamming, and more tromping before the woman reappears, an unlit cigarette gripped in her fingers.

“Lee is dead,” she says. She is stoic. Her eyes are stones. “Lee is dead,” she says again. She is solid, sturdy, immovable. She moves nearer to me. Her lower lip trembles ever so slight. A teeny, tiny dab of water wells in the corner of one eye. I light her up and we step outside. We stand. We smoke… We watch. For a long time we say nothing. Then she says, “Lee is dead. Lee is dead,” she says. “Lee is dead.” We watch a crooked old man on the other side of the street take one long, slow, eternal step forward.

Timothy MaddocksTimothy Maddocks lives in Pittsburgh and writes essays, stories, and reportage. He is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh, where this piece first took shape. He is currently at work on a book about kindnesses gone awry.

 

 

 

 

Classy

I’m particular about my gym wear. To illustrate, my socks must be white or a shade approximating my skin tone. I call the shade “nude.” Crayola misguidedly called it “flesh.”

After a torturous day’s work, I reached the Y desperately in need of a stress-defusing workout. Too bad I’d forgotten to bring allowably-colored socks. I hadn’t time to run home to fetch them. I also knew, if I showed up at home, I’d be held captive there. I checked the car trunk and backseat. No socks. I contemplated dumpster-diving into the pool deck’s lost and found bin, teeming with abandoned bathing suits, towels, plastic dinosaurs, socks from one-footed people, and what have you. Faced with the prospect of diving into that gloppy, ammonia-stinking, intertwisted morass, I decided I’d sooner stand in rush-hour traffic in an ice storm holding a sign like the homeless people carry, but mine would say, “Need socks.” I bit the bullet and wore the only socks I had: dark blue.

The locker room deposited me into a room crammed with seasoned weight machines decorated by red pleather upholstery. I hoped nobody would observe my sock irregularity. Before I started working out, a 17-year-old girl engaged in reverse lumbar curls made it patently obvious she was looking over her left shoulder at my dark blue socks. She seemed to laugh and then flashed a smile. I figured she laughed because I looked like a nerd.  Wearing dark blue socks to the Y is as nerdy as slipping those old plastic ink stain protectors on a shirt pocket. It didn’t matter she was only 17. That’s plenty old enough to make me feel mortified.

I exited the weight room and walked fast to the far end of the Y. I didn’t talk with or even look at anyone to avoid attracting undue attention. I finally reached safety. On the balcony overlooking the indoor pool, I’d be alone in the embrace of hothouse humidity punctuated by muffled, indecipherable pool yells. In peace, I could ride a recumbent bike there, eyes shut, with nobody to observe my dark blue socks.

A few shameless minutes into my bike ride, the same 17-year-old showed up, prostrated herself on the mat in front of my bike, and began a stretching routine: hamstrings, calves, quads, hip flexors. It looked like she was planning to stretch everything. I wasn’t staring. She’d planted herself directly in my line of sight. It was only then I noticed she was wearing dark blue socks just like mine.

“I thought you were laughing at my blue socks, but you’re wearing them too!” I said.

Mid hurdler’s stretch, she looked up, opened her brown eyes wide, smiled knowingly, and confidently pronounced, “They’re classy.”

She resumed stretching. When done, with legs crossed, she took a few slow, deep, yogic breaths. She then stood, gave me the familiar smile of an old friend, and opened the balcony’s exit door.

I kept on riding in my classy dark blue socks.

James RossA newly-retired health researcher, Jim Ross has published poems, photos and stories recently in Lunch Ticket, Friends JournalPif Magazine, and many other journals. Forthcoming includes Apeiron Review, Cactus Heart, and two photo essays. He and his wife split time between MD and WV and look forward to becoming grandparents of twins this summer.

Weird Gelatinous Things

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?”

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

“Was that you?”

We will laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

   What if this squall

   What if this drought

   What if we

   What if weird gelatinous things

The wind will change direction. The sun will not.

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

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