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Guide to the Ruins

by Eve Müller


I.

It is dark outside the plane. You see your face in the window, harsh, more committed than ever to its path of decay. The plane hurtles across the night sky, carrying you from suburban Maryland all the way to Rome. You remember reading about Romulus and Remus, twin founders of the city, suckling at the teat of the she-wolf thousands of years ago. You are hoping to save your marriage, heavy with its own history. Rome will transform us, you think. You lean back in your seat, inviting a miracle. Loaves and fishes. Something holy, sanctified, but also useful.

II.

You arrive to find Rome closed. It is August and the Romans are at the beaches, flirting with waves, swimming in crystalline lakes, hiking through olive groves on Monte Subasio. They are laughing and drinking elsewhere—the city an empty vessel. Corks, bottle caps, bits of confetti, and flyers promising the perfect mattress lie crushed among the cobblestones, the only signs of life. You forage for your supper, try out your new skeleton key, ride up and down in the little red elevator. It will lead you up to and away from your husband all year, rattling along with the weight of daughters, grocery carts, time.

III.

A bag is misplaced. Argument ensues. You storm out into the blazing heat, find a loaf of bread, a ball of cheese, some anchovies. You remember the words for bread and fish. Pane. Pesce. You go home, feed your family. Does this count as a miracle?

IV.

Your apartment is eight flights up. A narrow balcony allows you to look down over Via Celimontana. You think this means “heaven’s mountain,” but foreign languages have never been your strong suit. Still, it can only bode well.

V.

You visit your husband in his office, the United Nations’ modern-day palace. He is preoccupied. He fills his tray with rabbit and duck and sauvignon blanc, everything cheap and good, but you suspect he feels no joy. The view from the cafeteria balcony should give anyone pause.  And yet they all chew, swallow, talk about crops droughts euros banks as if the rocky skeleton of Circo Massimo were not spread out beneath them like a second banquet.

VI.

San Clemente lies a few blocks away, an architectural palimpsest. Three levels down, the ruins of a Mithraic temple. Above that, the remains of a primitive church with bits of fresco visible in dim light. At ground level, a basilica with a golden tree of life that takes away your breath, rewriting—but not erasing—everything that came before. Here it is: The possibility of making something new without wholly replacing the old.

VII.

You’ve always wanted to visit Rome. As a long-time fan of ruin porn, dilapidated grandeur, the remains of what was once magnificent, you’ve sought out ghost towns, abandoned churches, the crumbling cores of industrial capitals. You love entropy in action, feel vindicated when weeds spring up between the paving stones, when vines take over walls. Given a choice between old and new, you always choose decay.

VIII.

Lying side by side in the darkness, you ask your husband:

Do you ever think of laying waste to what you love?
Reducing it all to rubble?
I have no idea what you’re talking about.

IX.

The children are speaking Italian. You marvel at how quickly this happens. Yet now you are locked out of their world as they prattle of bambole, orsi, palle.

X.

And so, Italian lessons twice a week. Not enough to speak of the sky, the lush feel of vowels rolling around on your tongue, your slow promenade towards death, but enough to buy garlic, bunches of parsley, greet the man in the wine shop downstairs. Your teacher commands you to open your textbook and read.

Do you speak Italian?
Parli italiano?
I do not speak Italian.
Non parlo italiano.
And yet you speak of ruins.
Ma tu parli di rovine.
You speak of nothing else.
Non parli d’ltro.

XI.

You make friends at the children’s school. Giulia and Maurizio and Lilli and Alberto and Ludovica and Giovanni. You drink coffee and giggle like a girl. You’re not a girl, and you get a bit loud. The café owner asks you to be quiet. She has other customers, and they don’t like American noise.

XII.

What are you reading?
Cosa stai leggendo?
I am reading about noise.
Sto leggendo del rumore.
What does European noise sound like?
Come suona il rumore europeo?
I do not hear anything.
Non sento niente.

XIII

Your younger daughter is turning five. The mothers at the school, a chorus of Roman fishwives, tell you where to buy a cake, special order. It is spectacular—Spiderman hazelnuts zabaglione, fit for a tomboy king. It costs a fortune. All her little friends in the scuola materna eat the cake with their hands. Constantine’s barbarians, they leave you none.

XIV.

The Italians know how to throw parties. This makes you a bit jealous. You only know how to throw potlucks. The host presents a magnificent loaf of porchetta. People roll up their sleeves, sigh with pleasure. A knock at the door interrupts all of you mid-sentence, mouths full of meat. A guest sweeps into the room. Helmet in hand, he grabs you by the waist, plants a kiss on your lips. You’ve never seen him in your life. His girlfriend laughs, Welcome to Rome!

XV.

Some days you can’t bear the splendor. Basiliche and glittering chapels and a million pizzerias and big looping graffiti on stone walls that insists on now at the expense of then. There are no trees, but the flowers in the market at Campo de’ Fiori are flushed pink and red like women dying of rheumatic fever.

XVI.

Some days bore you to tears. You drink a cup of hot tea, use the bidet, check your email. You might even mop the floors, but you’ve never been a very good housekeeper. You watch a YouTube video about objectum sexuals, people who fall in love with—and want to rub up against—the Eiffel tower, Statue of Liberty, bells of Notre Dame.  You understand this urge. How many times have you stood on the rooftop, hung laundry out to dry, fantasized about lying down among the ruins, becoming one with Roman stones?

XVII.

You watch your husband fix the bathroom sink. He remains an enigma after all these years. Solid and fine as Roman rock. You have spent your marriage trying to crack him open, lay him bare. Seeing him on his knees, head bent in concentration, you think: He is master of band saws, nuts, bolts, all things mechanical.  Yet of you, he has no inkling.

XVIII.

What do you want from Rome?
Cosa vuoi da Roma?
I want abundant life.
Voglio una vita abbondante.
And what of you?
E tu?
Will you never choose abundance?
Sceglierai mai l’abbondanza.

XIX.

Lying awake at 3am, you can’t remember why you came here. Your husband sleeps beside you. You haven’t touched in months. You are suddenly hungry beyond belief. Standing in front of the open refrigerator—cold air, white light pouring out into darkness—you think of all you want to eat. Chicken legs, black cabbage, stuffed pigeons, marzipan. But more than that, you want to fill your mouth with marble columns, Bernini’s ecstatic saints, Caravaggio’s red lipped boys.

XX.

Your husband comes home from work, stretches himself out on the couch like a dying god. You pour him a drink.  You know you should leave him alone—he is tired. But you can’t help yourself.

Do you ever think about desire?
No, not really.
Do you ever get the urge to grab everyone you speak with,
kiss them hard on the mouth?
God, no.
Do you remember the scene in Microcosmos, where the snails mate to the sounds of Wagnerian opera? Rise up on their glistening feet and merge from head to toe?
That’s what I want.
Good luck with that.  

XXI.

Steeped in Roman history, you’re tempted to forget your own.  You came to Italy with a pocketful of pills that keep you from flying too close to the sun, getting lost in serpentine darkness. Work has always protected you. But here in Rome there is little to hang your day upon. You and your husband tried all this before, many years ago before there were children—pulling yourselves up by the roots, planting yourselves in Mexican soil. You remember how you sank into depression like a stone into well water. Even though you wanted to bring your family to Rome, you are not without misgivings. History is so often a story of return.

XXII.

You discover Facebook and the middle-aged men come out in droves. This feeds your vanity. It’s too much, yet never quite enough. You refresh your screen. You find the waters irresistible. You type faster, fingers on fire. Your children have to pry you away from your desk.

XXIII.

Half a dozen confessions of ardor appear in your inbox. You think about the wooden gates of Santi Quattro Coronati, opened silently by slippered Augustinian nuns. They usher you into a frescoed room, life’s possibilities unfurled across the walls: Constantine is cured of leprosy, crowned Emperor, holds the wide green world in his fist. Now Byzantium is yours. You think, at last I will be loved as I deserve.

XXIV.

The language teacher, eyes thick with mascara, mouth a red smear, little black hooves where feet should be, tells you that what you are going through is pronounced crisi di mezza età—mid-life crisis. You like this. You like it so much that you go out and buy a pair of knee-high boots—gli stivali. You take a photograph of yourself in the boots, post it to Facebook, wait for the silver-tongued flatterers to sing. 

XXV.

It’s Thanksgiving and Rome doesn’t care, but your American friends are joining you for dinner. You special order a turkey from the butcher shop across the street. Tacchino. It’s got a nice ring. You go to pick it up, and the butcher gives you two chickens instead. You try to explain that this is not the same thing, but your Italian fails you. You mutter something about a festa americana. The butcher shrugs. You give up, head home, eat pollo and apple whiskey cake, go to bed with your back to your husband.

XXVI.

The stranger climbs steep hills.
La straniera sale colline ripide.
She sighs as she climbs.
Sospira mentre sale.
She finds herself among the clouds
Si ritrova tra le nuvole
looking down on granite tombs.
guardando dall’alto tombe di granito.

XXVII.

Your Italian friends think you are sleeping with another woman’s husband. You are surprised to hear this, a little bit sad and a little bit proud. You really are a Henry James heroine now, wandering the Colosseo at night with your gentleman friend, hopelessly lost in translation. 

XXVIII.

The crack in the bathroom mirror splits your face down the middle. You lean into the glass, peer closely at what is left of you after forty-five years. You see a web of lines and think of lace, broken china, the inlaid gold tilework of the Cappella di San Zenone, backroads connecting Umbria with Tuscany, the Fiume Tevere snaking through Rome. Yes. Even in ruins you are beautiful.

XXIX.

Who am I?
Chi sono?
Green eyed.
Occhi verdi.
House divided.
Casa divisa.
I paint my face each morning.
Dipingo la mia faccia ogni mattina
Comic, tragic, forgettable.
Comica, tragica, dimenticabile.

XXX.

The man in the cigarette shop sees you walking past the Colosseo in your rabbit fur hat, a child’s hand clutched in each of yours. He approaches the three of you, says you look just like Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. For a few golden minutes you forget your children, your failing marriage, are lost in talk of long-ago movies and far-away places.

XXXI.

You walk down Via Merulana in your black dress and boots, your skin alive, electric, your legs longer than ever. You stride past liquor stores, butcher shops, displays of shiny knives—the street is yours for the taking. A man on a motorbike stops dead in his tracks, blows you a kiss.

XXXII.

Strung out on espresso granita, you find the technicolor glow bright and gaudy in the winter sun.There are halos around everyone’s heads, and not just the saints on the walls of San Giovanni in Laterano.You turn to your personal intercessors—Cymbalta, Olanzapine, Ativan.

XXXIII.

On a whim, you enter Santa Maria Maggiore, settle into a pew, pray for healing of this bone-deep restlessness you feel, this hunger. After you light a candle, you descend into the crypt beneath the church, where you find a hair of the Virgin, the arms of St. Luke and St. Matthew. Proof, you think, of the Italians’ abiding affection for bodies—even the bodies of the dead. 

XXXIV.

In the Capuchin crypt beneath Santa Maria della Concezione, you find yourself drawn to the artful arrangements of skeletons, macabre valentines to death. There’s poetry to the names of each room—Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises, Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones. Later, you spot your reflection in the plate glass windows of Via Veneto, hunched, formless in your black coat, and think of what lies just beneath your own pale skin—scapula, clavicle, iliac crest. You turn and head east. Towards home. Relieved to find your children adamantly alive, demanding suppers and baths.    

XXXV.

The family is eating another dinner from one of your Italian cookbooks. Not on the roof tonight—it’s still too cold. No one is talking, and your husband is more remote than ever. You think, maybe you overcooked the pasta. Maybe you over-salted the meat. Maybe the silt that filters in through the windows and settles on the book shelves, counters, beds and tiled floor—maybe this dust of ages is burying you all alive.

XXXVI.

Your husband once told you that after his first time unzipping your dress, watching you step out of it, trembling—after the first year of playing house, growing lettuces, hanging bed sheets out to dry in baking sun, painting all the walls bright shades of blue and green—after the first baby bursting from your womb, wet with blood, loud as thunder—there wasn’t anything left. He’s been around the world half a dozen times. Perhaps for him, Rome is just more of the same.

XXXVII.

The children ride ponies in Villa Celimontana, your husband lies on the trampled grass, basking in silver light. He is noble, you think. His wants and needs so few. Not unlike the turtles sunning themselves on the lip of the fountain.

XXXVIII.

How can you stand it?
Living in a world where nothing’s ever new?
Boredom’s the price you pay for peace.

XXXIX.

You lean back on your elbow and take stock of this man beside you. You are struck by his beauty. How like a turret, you think: silent, steadfast, insular. But you want to lose yourself in talk, to speak of the Milky Way, the vast universe outside and within you, to love with abandon. And he wants none of this.

XL.

It’s a lovely spring morning. The ruins are calling. You and your American friend make your way down Via Appia Antica. You are surprised by how quickly the city turns to countryside. It’s 10am. You step into a small shop and your friend buys a bottle of wine. She’s a poet. She promises you that drinking this early will be a revelation. There is laughter and the twisting of an ankle on cobblestones. You can’t believe how much you are enjoying yourself. It is your turn to offer her something. You give her the Catacombe di San Callisto which extend beneath the fields for miles, are home to half a million bodies. In the dimness, you come upon Maderno’s statue of Santa Cecelia—hands bound, head neatly severed, face covered with a marble rag. You are both abruptly sober.

XLI.

All the families are out walking. You arrive at the gates of Villa Doria Pamphilij, littered with grottos, hedges, putti, artificial ruins. Why build crumbling towers? you ask. Why begin with endings? No one hears you. Your husband is far ahead. Your daughters busy chasing after swans.

XLII.

You think, if only you could make him see Rome as you do. Layered like a vast cake. You propose dinner with Italian friends, music by Monteverdi in the chapel at Santa Prassede. He declines your offer. You go without him. You find you don’t really miss him. You come home and he’s in front of the TV, doesn’t even look up when you enter.

XLIII.

After your night of stained glass and madrigals, the long walk home cloaked in darkness, you are surprised by how readily ecstasy morphs into anger:

I want to scream.
You make me want to scream.
Don’t start up.
I’m not in the mood for your hysteria.
Hysteria is the only thing that keeps us honest.

XLIV.

Today you choose self-denial, crawl all the way up the Scala Santa on your knees. You and a friend do it for kicks, but the feel of stone scraping skin, each step worn down by centuries of penitents creeping toward salvation, brings you close to tears. You bend over, let your forehead rest on the stairs for just a moment, try and strike a bargain with god.

XLV.

Today you choose Bacchus. Your husband stays home, watches Netflix reruns. It’s already midnight and you are just beginning. Your Italian friends take you to the Forte Prenestino, abandoned military complex, labyrinthine squatters’ lair. The whole place is illegally occupied, you sneak in under cover of darkness. You feel like a rat. See a few scuttling down shadowed halls. You are already thinking about how you can spin this to your American friends. You are drinking too much grappa, smoking hashish with people you’ve never seen. You are ridiculously free you are dizzy giddy rushing spinning burning liquid on your tongue you trip over your teeth speak in broken sentences hold up a few Italian phrases like bright jewels in the darkness.

XLVI.

You’ve reached an unspoken agreement. Your husband stays in Rome, while you and your daughters travel deep into the countryside to visit a Swedish friend. The children watch Jaws dubbed into Italian. You are all horrified by the blood, fascinated by the shark’s gleaming teeth. Clothes come off and everyone is naked in the river. Your friend’s father gathers mushrooms for dinner, lays them out on a big wooden table. They are larger than a man’s hand, bold shades of red and green. You think of fairy tale endings. They are surely meant to kill you—bad mother, failed wife. Who will live to tell the story? You close your eyes and eat.

XLVII.

How many mushrooms would you like?
Quanti funghi vuoi?
No thank you.
No grazie.
I do not eat the red ones.
Non mangio quelli rossi.
I do not court death.
Non cerco la morte.

XLVIII.

You pass the whores on the way to the beach. They stand by the side of the road, hard-eyed, unsmiling, spread out at equal intervals among the scrawny pines. It goes on like this for miles. You wonder, what would sex feel like on a bed of dry needles, a stranger in your arms?

XLIX.

The beach is mobbed with Romans reaching for the sun. A big fleshy woman, all ass, hip, belly, rosy areolas, dances frantic in the surf. Bare breasted maenad, transistor radio in one hand, sandwich in the other. She is everything you wish to be. Untethered, glorious, entirely without shame. 

L.

The children run wild. You drink cold coffee from a can, sit listless on a park bench, watch your daughters climb gates pick up trash hide in dormant fountains walk on walls spray-painted all the colors of the sunset. Slim-hipped boys swagger amidst the rubble of Trajan’s baths, conquistadores with cigarettes, tight blue jeans, attitude to spare. Your elder daughter appears victorious before you, holding up a broken plastic figurine. For her—a princess, mermaid, treasure. For you—a tiny naked martyr, neither hands nor feet to call her own.

LI.

You seek signs and portents everywhere, wander the streets, stumble upon Largo di Torre Argentina. Mussolini excavated these derelict temples. Julius Caesar was betrayed and killed here. Now the place belongs to packs of feral cats who strut, sleep, breed among the ruins. Perhaps you should join them.

LII.

You return home after your wanderings. Your husband speaks to you through clenched teeth.

You make a terrible housewife.
I never asked to be a housewife.
I ask so little of you.
Exactly.
If only you’d ask for more.

LIII.

You’ve been here before. Always an ocean roiling inside you. Always a forest of thick black trees shooting up between you.

LIV.

You’re like a dead man.
And you’re just looking for drama.
I bring you Italy
hand it to you on a platter
and you won’t fucking eat.

LV.

Your family climbs down from the bus, tramps through the fields and farms on the outskirts of town. You take pictures of the girls. You take pictures of your husband, moving through the grass in silence. You put the camera away. Why commemorate pain?

LVI

You pass the nymphaeum you love so much, take in the vivid green, the bubbling spring, imagine your daughter water nymphs bathing naked, pure.

LVII.

Do you like the water?
Ti piace l’acqua?
Yes. May I join you in the nymphaeum?
Sí, posso unirmi a te nel ninfeo?
I am sorry, age and pain have no place here.
Mi dispiace, la vecchiaia e il dolore non hanno posto qui.
What did you say?
Cosa hai detto?
Your age and pain have no place.
La tua età e il tuo dolore non hanno  posto.

LVIII.

Time is running out, the year is almost over, your life in Rome a reckless scattering of stones. You sit on a park bench in Piazza Celimontana, watch your children playing for the hundredth time. They plunge their hands into the ancient fountain, pull out turtles, hands dripping with water. They shriek with joy, turn to show you, faces radiant, turtle shells glistening in the sun.

LIX.

You lure your husband into yet another argument:

What do you think? Was it worth it?
What are you talking about?
Coming to Italy in search of miracles?
In case you haven’t noticed, your Rome and mine are two different cities.
I work all day in an office.
I’ve no idea what you do.

LX.

Your husband comes home early. You are playing memory games with your daughters. They are winning. He tells you the house is a mess. Filthy, he calls it, fed up with your Facebook housewifery. You exchange insults. Tears begin. You tell him to stop. He does not. A line is crossed. Neither of you sure how you got here. He standing above. You below. The children in the wings. Forks stones plates pins rain down from his mouth. You a heap on the floor. You don’t ever want to stand up share a mattress again. You lie face down for hours, kiss the cold stones.

LXI.

You awaken bone chilled and stiff, peel yourself off the hallway floor, survey your kingdom from the balcony. So much for heaven’s mountain.

LXII.

You command yourself to go on.
Continua.
Breathe.
Respira.
Hold your daughters tight.
Tieni strette le tue figlie.

LXIII.

You give your husband an ultimatum:

If you really want me, talk to me.
Tell me our happiness matters.
Promise me we’ll rise up together like snails.

He turns away without a word.

LXIV.

His silence spills into days and then weeks.

LXV.

You can’t stand it. You tell him it’s over. You will move out when you return to America in a few weeks’ time. You will take your daughters with you and live in a friend’s attic. He is mystified. But you are unyielding.

LXVI.

It’s almost midnight. Your husband has gone to sleep, left you with nothing. You walk out alone into the darkness. Men stand in doorways. Call out to you. Make lewd gestures with their tongues and fingers. You don’t understand a word they are saying, but are pretty sure it goes something like this:

Le gambe tue sono colonne di alabastro.
Your thighs are alabaster columns.
I tuoi seni come cervi che saltano.
Your breasts like leaping deer.
Allungo le braccia attraverso la tua finestra, e le mie mani sono piene di miele gocciolante
I reach through your window and my hands are filled with dripping honey.
Vieni a casa con me.
Come home with me.
Sdraiati con me.
Lie down with me.
Non te ne andare mai.                                                 
Don’t ever leave.

This is the Song of Songs they’re whispering to you. It feels like your swansong. Your finale. You are sure of it. You walk for miles, past throbbing discotheques, bells tolling in the distance. Rome’s songs of desire and mourning poured out for your ears alone. 

LXVII.

Wandering the narrow streets of Trastevere, noonday sun beating down, your elder daughter finds a speckled bird dying on hot stones and gathers it against her breast. She turns to you, eyes soft, and asks why the bird has to die. Some things cannot be saved, you say, and you both burst into tears.

LXVIII.

Your younger daughter joins in. The three of you form a forlorn chorus at the edge of the piazza. Behind you, water tumbles out of a stone mouth and into a fountain. You wonder to yourself, is this the sound of Rome falling?

LXIX.

The bar is filled with jazz piano and the weary voice of an older woman, tired of singing for tourists who care for no one but Beyoncé. You have asked your Roman friend to drink with you tonight. There is no one else to talk to. You are wretched, but you cannot stop. You cannot believe how lonely you are. She listens, passes silent judgment on your American grief.

LXX.

Have I been unfaithful?
Sono stata infedele?
Yes, you have loved a city.
Sì, hai amato una città.

LXXI.

It is dark outside the plane. Your younger daughter squirms in her seat. The elder leans into the warmth of your body. Both girls are bathed in the glow of their personal TV screens, rapt, angelic. You have no idea what you are doing with your dolce vita—sweet, sweet life. The plane shudders, turbulence right on schedule. You are overcome with nausea, retch until there’s nothing left, your body an empty vessel. You lean back, close your eyes. The plane’s engines lull you into fitful sleep. You dream of stumbling over mounds of broken stones, chasing after your daughters as they climb and gambol in their summer dresses, voices shrill as birds. 


NOTE: With thanks to Alberto Zezza, who generously corrected my Italian.


BIO

Eve Müller makes zines and paper cutouts. She is a relative newcomer to the world of literary non-fiction/memoir, but has published extensively on autism and language. She is a single mom who lives in College Park, MD, with two breathtakingly reckless teen daughters, two cats and a rabbit.

Marked

By Deborah A. Lott


The Torah forbade the Israelites from incising their flesh to express their grief. They were instructed to rend their garments instead.

My father’s hand shot up to his eyebrow, his finger poised there, as if he were about to stroke his brow. A gesture I’d always considered deeply imbued with his personality. The gesture he performed when pondering a problem. While reading a book or talking on the phone. Whenever he was thinking.

Was he, or whatever was left behind of him, still capable of thinking?

My father was dying. He’d had a massive bleed in his brain, the final in a series of strokes. I sat at his hospital bedside; my mother, two brothers, and I were all there. Intent on his every faltering breath, I could not take my eyes off the spectacle of his body’s failing. His face was inordinately pale and blank, while his body, under a white blanket, twitched and seized. Small jerks and larger rumbling quakes. They had taken out all the tubes; he was attached to only a heart monitor. I tried to distract myself by looking at those numbers rise and fall, but his body pulled me. They told us his organs were shutting down.

Dying suffused the atmosphere in the room; it was inside him, it was outside him, it felt like it was everywhere. The more I stared, the more I feared I would be consumed by it.

We were seeing autonomic reflexes, the doctors told us. He was unresponsive, they said, on the way to brain death. Yet all day long, his hand kept shooting up to his eyebrow in that familiar gesture. As if he were on the brink of telling me something. The motion repeated and repeated.      

The next day, I could not bear to go back to the hospital. That was the day the doctors predicted he would die. The rest of the family gathered there; I was expected to come. That morning I had gotten my period. Death was a shark circling his room; I knew the shark would smell my blood and get confused.  I was confused. My father and I had always been too close, too connected. I had been too susceptible to feeling everything he felt. What would it take to sever this connection? My uterus seized. If I were in the room, would I have to give birth to his death from my body?

That night after my father died, I went to my uncle and aunt’s house where the family had congregated. On my way up to the front door, their new cat wandered across my path.  It had been a stray, still half-feral. I impulsively picked her up, craving some comfort from the cat’s warm body, its soft fur against my face. She reached out her claw and scratched me. A deep, mean, diagonal scratch across my nose. It bled and bled. I cried, this sudden pain amplifying the deeper wound of grief. When I went into the house, I hid this bleeding from my family. It was too naked a show, rhymed too closely with the other blood rushing from me.  

Years later, my nose still bears a scar. My hand shoots up now, automatically, over and over again, several times a day, to run my fingers over it. It reminds me of my father. And then, of his dying. His death found its way to inscribe my body despite my efforts to hold myself inviolate. I could not keep it out.  


BIO

Deborah A. Lott is the author the recently published memoir, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me. Her creative nonfiction has been published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, StoryQuarterly, the nervous breakdown, the Rumpus, Salon, Los Angeles Review, Cimarron Review, Crazyhorse, and many other places. Her works have been thrice named as notables by Best American Essays. She teaches creative writing and literature at Antioch University, Los Angeles. You can learn more about her at deborahalott.com



In the Houses of Others

by Anita Kestin


            We are in England, in a house with a garden. My mother and I are visiting her friend, Penny. Penny: born into wealth, solitary, childless, tall, educated at Cambridge, elegant. I am holding onto my mother’s hand. Penny shows me to a staircase and tells me that a fairy lives under the stairs—a fairy who has hidden treasures for me all over the garden. Penny hands me a large wicker basket. “Go on,” says my mother, removing her hand from my grasp, and she and Penny return to the table where they are having a meal, laughing, and talking.

            The garden is unmanicured, even wild in places, and filled with rosebushes. I have no experience of treasure hunts and Easter eggs, but, once I get the hang of it, I scamper about, finding chocolate eggs and little toy rabbits everywhere. Into the basket they go, and now the basket is filled and things are spilling out as I run, so I stop, pick up the things I have dropped, and return to the table, where my mother has prepared me a plate of small sandwiches and cakes. My piece of cake is laden with pink roses with elaborate green leaves, all made of frosting. I take a few bites and then set about looking for the fairy who created this wonderful surprise for me, but she proves impossible to find. And then it is time to leave, and Penny tells me that I can keep the basket and she hopes to see us again soon.

            I begin to wake up the next morning in our house in London—the house my parents and I have been living in for several months at this point, but it is also the house that my parents are shortly planning to sell because the three of us are going to live in America from now on. Our house is a modest one with a tiny garden. Yesterday begins to take shape in my mind, and I lie in bed thinking of Penny’s garden and the white wooden staircase where the fairy sleeps.

            Did my father ever visit Penny’s house with my mother and me? I cannot recall, but I think not. Penny belonged to my mother’s world and not his. How old was I? I must have been three or four years old. I had never before seen such a place, and Penny was a stranger to me. 

            My mother’s childhood in Warsaw had included some degree of luxury and art of all kinds; my father’s childhood in Warsaw had not. They had both wound up in wartime London with nothing. Where had my mother first met Penny? I have no idea, but running through my mother’s adult life was a longing and a gravitational pull toward places that felt like her childhood home—graceful places, rooms where music and art and literature flourished. The house, the garden, the spring air, the china, my mother’s laughter, Penny’s elegance, and the rosebushes not yet in bloom: I remember all these things from our visit to Penny’s, but most of all, I remember the fairy who had hidden the treasures for me to find.

            Some of my grade school and college friends have had houses like Penny’s where I have wandered beside the botanical prints and the chintz armchairs, never quite feeling that I belonged, but returning time and time again to spend the night or be caught up in the magic of parties that took place there.

*****

            Right after college, I am scheduled to be in London for ten days. My mother writes to Penny to ask if I can stay with her, at Penny’s apartment in the city. The answer comes back on one of the thin blue paper aerogrammes people used in those days: Yes.

             In college, I had been startled by the effect on me of a live performance of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. When the dancers waved long blue cloths to represent waves and stepped into those waves, I felt the cool water, the heat of the sun, and the force of the waves. As I watched, I could feel my hands quiver at the intensity and magic of the performance.

            In London, I want to see more live events as I had heard that this was the place to experience live theater. I also want to taste the things I had eaten as a child: Ribena, biscuits, mashed potatoes, and milk chocolate with hazelnuts. I want to have a Guinness draft in a real pub. 

            I land at Heathrow and take a taxi into the city. We pass gardens and row houses and small stucco houses with tiny gardens. I think of the rosebushes, the basket full of sweets, and the fairy under the stairs.

            The woman who opens the door is bent over, with unwashed hair pulled into a bun held with a plain elastic band.

            She walks me around the apartment. Her eyes are aimed perpetually at the ground because of the curve in her spine. The place is filled with stuff:  newspapers, old letters, three capsules and an apple core on a plant saucer. The fridge is empty and she is apologetic and visibly ashamed. I am tired, and my clothes are damp and stale, but she immediately proposes a trip to the grocery store, fumbling around for her list while talking about a range of unconnected subjects.

            We set off at a slow pace, her face turned downward. She asks after my mother but struggles to reach the store, stopping at every bench to rest. At the grocery shop, she cannot find her list.

            When I wake up the next morning, I am still tired. The room is dingy and loaded with piles of clothes and magazines. I lie in bed, thinking of the garden and the stairs from long ago, of yesterday’s empty refrigerator and lost grocery list (which, as it turned out, had been in the woman’s pocket all along.) I think of the Penny I remembered– especially of her elegance, and how the things she said had delighted and amused my mother. Had my memory been so inaccurate? Was I confusing her with someone else? For a while, I wonder whether I have gone to sleep in the wrong house. When had my mother last spoken to Penny or seen her? Was this what my mother had expected when she had proposed that I stay with Penny?

            The woman has managed to make coffee but is visibly frustrated as she tries to find the food we bought last night. She is shuffling around the kitchen, face trained on the floor. When she needs to look at something higher, she has to tilt her torso backwards and I am afraid that she will fall. I pick up an envelope that has fallen on the floor and there is Penny’s name, so I am in the right place after all. This is reassuring and not reassuring at the same time. The only phone I have access to is in this apartment. I think of calling my mother, but what would I say?

            I ask Penny about the house and the garden. “That was sold a long time ago,” she says.  I tell her about my memories of the fairy under the stairs and the Easter egg hunt.  At this, Penny stares off into space for a while, but she never answers.

*****

            My trip does not go as I had fantasized. Mostly, I try to help Penny as she struggles to get things done. I do manage to have a Guinness at a pub, and it is as rich and acrid and reminiscent of molasses as I had imagined it would be. At the market on a trip I make by myself, I discover containers of yoghurt stuffed with hazelnuts and buy 12 pots of them, adding them to the basket already filled with biscuits and Ribena. 

            There are no outings to the theater, but Penny insists on that we go by train to Cambridge for the day. When I see her contend with the mechanics of buying a ticket and locating the correct platform, I realize how much she has wanted to see Cambridge again, how much pleasure the sight of its buildings might give her—and how incapable she is of traveling to Cambridge on her own. I feel a surge of warmth towards her that I had not felt before. When I comment that Cambridge looks like Princeton, I see a flash of the old Penny I thought I had been coming to visit when she replies acidly: “No, dear, Princeton looks like Cambridge.”

            I do take the Tube to see some old friends of my parents at their flat. This couple had also emigrated from Poland, and they knew my parents when they all were young and living in London. They live in an elegant stone building, but the staircase leading to their apartment is shabby and full of litter. The apartment is glorious, with wood floors, interesting artwork, and bookshelves lining many of the walls. The wife is vivacious and an excellent cook. The husband is a raconteur, and they tell me many stories about my parents that I had not heard previously. They treat me like a real grown-up, and the husband pours me a glass of cognac in exactly the proper glass for such a thing. I have never tasted cognac before. It is fiery and metallic, and I like these people immensely.

            But when I settle back into my chair and start free-associating because of the cognac, I recall the story of  my grandmother telling my parents that my father should have married the woman in whose house I am sitting. That is a story I do know, and the thought of the pain felt by my mother when my grandmother said this shoots through me. The warmth generated by the cognac and the armchair and the books fades to a chill. Was my immediate reaction to this woman disloyal to my mother? Or is it unfair to blame the woman for the cruelty of my grandmother’s remark?

            When it is time to leave, the husband offers to drive me back to Penny’s. His wife will not accompany us and, as they explain why, the disconnect between the condition of the stairwell and the apartment becomes clear. The building has been partly taken over by squatters, and this has occurred when apartments have been unoccupied for even a time as brief as an hour. The couple owns their apartment, but there is an ordinance that has prevented rightful owners from reclaiming their apartments when squatters take over, and long legal battles ensue. So, for the past two years, this couple has never gone out at the same time together. I think of this often, years later, during the pandemic.

*****

            When I return to Providence, my mother is shocked and despondent  at the news I give her of Penny and she also feels guilty about sending me to stay there. I have not yet started medical school, and I am unable to put the pieces together, but my mother and I surmise that Penny has developed some sort of dementia. My mother and I write Penny a letter to thank her but no reply arrives. Three years later, in another aerogramme, Penny tells us that she has been suffering for a long time from undiagnosed hypothyroidism and memory loss, and now that the diagnosis has been made and she has been prescribed medication, she is hoping she will get better. That is the last communication my mother receives from Penny, and neither of us learns anything more about her. When I Google her name, nothing informative appears.

*****

            When my children were small, and I was overwhelmed with the joy of hearing their happy sounds and the sounds of their friends reverberating through the house, I sometimes dreamed at night of finding a whole corridor in my house that I had not previously known existed. I would run through the new parts of my home, throwing open doors and thinking of what I would do with these rooms. How would I furnish and decorate them? What could I make of this new wing in my house? A suite for visitors? A study? A place for the kids to hang out with friends? 

            When I woke up from these dreams, I would try to place the rooms, for they would often turn out to be from houses I had seen before or from places I had imagined when I lost myself in the books of my childhood. Here was Sara’s bedroom from A Little Princess, the one she occupied before she was banished to the attic. Another morning, I awoke from a dream in which I had been wandering in an immense house with views of the water on three sides. The house was open and airy, filled with shells and maps of the Bahamas, and pillows with images of flowers and birds. On the ground floor, hibiscus blooms were visible from the many windows and a breeze lifted the slight curtains away from the window frames. I remembered passing by this house long ago when we were on vacation in Eleuthera. I had peered inside and wondered what it might be like to live there.

***** 

            Now, years later, I wake up from a different dream. My children have grown and the house no longer bursts with the sounds of children playing. My first thought upon awakening: it is still the pandemic. In recent dreams, I am being moved against my will into a tiny space, consisting of three tiny rooms. I see my belongings being flung into a large garbage bin and when I cry out and ask them to stop, no one seems to hear me.

            Some of our neighbors throw parties when the weather is good. Through our open windows or during our solitary walks, we hear the laughter and see the gardens lit up with lanterns and the outlines of the guests inside the houses. A pandemic walking route takes me by a property that reminds me of Penny’s garden. The house is rambling and white and sits on a hill, the gardens filled with hydrangea blossoms that spill over fences and masses of rose bushes. I remember the parties there—especially the walk I would make up the giant driveway and the times I waited on the doorstep to be let in.

            The evenings spent in those houses were, for me, filled with the same sort of evanescent magic as Penny’s garden, but my memories are always coupled with my memories of myself, standing outside on those doorsteps, hoping to be let in to these other worlds.     

            My husband and I have always enjoyed visiting homes for sale when there are open houses near us. During the pandemic, we embark on virtual tours of the places someone might choose to buy. If the house is elegant enough, it will have been photographed from many angles. We move through these houses, from room to room, in three dimensions, and once again find ourselves lost in the houses of others.



BIO

Anita Kestin, MD, MPH, has worked in academics, nursing homes, hospices, and locked wards of a psychiatric facility.  She’s a daughter (of immigrants fleeing the Holocaust), wife, mother, grandmother, and a progressive activist.  She is now attempting to calm nerves and stave off longing for family by writing (memoir, short fiction, nonfiction, poetry). She submitted her first non-scientific piece in her sixties (during the Pandemic) and is thrilled that over a dozen short pieces have been accepted for publication.



Dust Bowl Venus by Stella Beratlis

Reviewed by Linda Scheller

California’s Central Valley is a 450-mile-long stretch of rich soil irrigated by an extensive system of canals. This extraordinarily productive region abounds in fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, and poets. The hot sun and wide sky have nurtured many noteworthy poets, including Philip Levine, Mai Der Vang, and Juan Felipe Herrera. Another is Modesto Poet Laureate Emeritus Stella Beratlis. Dust Bowl Venus, her new book from Sixteen Rivers Press, is poetry of place grounded in the Central Valley city of Modesto.

During the Great Depression, thousands of people displaced by drought and poverty made their way to California. One of them was Hazel Houser, a migrant from Oklahoma who settled in Modesto and became a prolific songwriter of gospel and country hits. She is the muse of Dust Bowl Venus, memorialized by Beratlis in poems exploring their shared passions and common struggles.

Beratlis writes about desire, folly, and reverence in stanzas that juxtapose incantatory fervor with plainspoken determination, as these lines from “We Write Songs in His Rent Controlled Apartment” illustrate:

                        I beseech thee, stainless quivering leg of bone and ligament,
            allow me to finish the entire song. I’m no lead guitarist.
                        Is the song better served by a sharp tidy solo
            or the Janus tremolo of pure feeling? I wonder.
                        Do not counter with what is known. Fingerpick the hell out of
            these strings, in this small apartment with its brief luxuries
                        and cigarette smoke.

Many of the poems make reference to ligaments, bone, and the heart, most poignantly when the speaker reflects on her daughter’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” lays bare the terror felt by a mother shown the image of a tumor lodged in her daughter’s chest. “Castle of the Mountain” brings the reader chairside to behold the bag of bright red chemotherapy drug and hear the tick and beep of the infusion machine. Bertatlis depicts a mother’s anguish, endurance, and tentative faith with sensitivity and precision.

Dust Bowl Venus is replete with love and its flip side, loss. “All About Birds: An Elegy” is dedicated to the assassinated Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As in many of her poems, Beratlis here employs questions and anaphora to powerful effect, emphasizing the grief of the beloved survivor:

                        Which galaxy

            contains you now? Which bird’s throat?
                        In the pines,
            the wind swept through the thicket, and I saw.

                        I saw.

But not all is gloom in this collection. Beratlis plays with language in asides contained within dashes like a hand slyly screening the speaker’s mouth, “et cetera” waving away a rueful reflection, and parentheses cupping a muttered justification. Numerous poems apostrophize with “O,” and sometimes “Oh” precedes a thought like a sigh. Archaisms such as “whence,” “woe be unto us,” and “thou” echo the King James Bible that Houser, a minister’s daughter, transposed into gospel hits. Simultaneously, the occasional “goddamn” or “busting” keeps the reader in the rough and tumble West. This excerpt from “Conversation with a Lover About the Louvins” exemplifies the poet’s whimsical word play:

                        First,
            step down into street; in darkness delight. Next,
            rye paired with pear, the pair pared

            to leather, bluejean and thigh. Hazel’s rules
            for songwriting: Dip from the deeper well. Well, we are.

Intimacy and distance are balanced by scientific allusions interfused with the human condition in references to physics, botany, astronomy, and geology. The long poem “water wealth contentment health” alone contains “neurotransmitters,” “epigenetics,” “atmospheric river,” “genomes,” “fractal,” and “gut-brain.” These notes of erudition embellish poems that prove both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Affectionate address—“my love,” “my dear,” “my citadel fortress”—connects the speaker with people and things that inspire joy and spark recognition. A tribute to Modesto, “Republic of Tenderness and Bread” marvels at the community’s kindness. Even poems of disappointment and heartbreak hold commendable grace as in “Fracture Mechanics” and “Instant Messaging with Broken Glass” which invoke hard-earned wisdom with dry humor and a shrug of resignation.

Throughout Dust Bowl Venus, music conveys wonder, vulnerability, and revelation. As well as Houser’s gospel harmonies and rhythm guitar, the poems evoke Paganini, reggae, assouf and corridos, blues, punk rock, and christos anesti sung by the speaker’s Greek family in a Livermore cemetery. Beratlis composes verbal music by means of repeated sounds and careful rhythms, with phrases that cycle back like the chorus of a song, and in the counterpoint of silence. Her judicious use of spacing and punctuation control the tempo to compelling effect. These lines from the poem “How to Possibly Find Something or Someone By Praying” demonstrate the poet’s understanding of the power inherent in end stop and enjambment:

            I’m a typewriter wreck on the highway;
            don’t look at me.
            You are throwing your voice
            into every corner as I hunt and peck
            the light fantastic.

            A neon Lucky Strike sign, vintage automobiles, and other carefully chosen objects conjure the zeitgeist of Houser’s Modesto. “Historic Structure Report” tenderly addresses a specific building downtown—“Hush, my monolith”—and describes its architecture in detail:

            The asparagus fern of commerce
            overspills your planters,
            thrives along your bones,
            while inside, borrowed-money ball gowns
            and loggia daydreams consider a dance. Your glass,
            columns, composite floors, and floral-stamped metal—
            those vertical striations raked in cement—
            all expressions of a certain mid-century mindset.

Dust Bowl Venus is the cartography of two lives. Led to the canneries and dance halls of the “beloved city” familiar to both Houser and Beratlis, the reader is urged to observe, consider, and cherish people and places. In “All About Birds: An Elegy,” the speaker counsels:

                                    Remember to etch images
                        and locations into your mind—
            this poem is a memory palace:

In a region of relentless heat and meager precipitation, nonetheless, plants, people, and poetry can and do flourish. In Dust Bowl Venus, Stella Beratlis maps one Central Valley city and the intricate traces of the heart.

Sixteen Rivers Press        ISBN 978-1-939639-25-7      
$16.00       Paperback       80 pgs.      https://sixteenrivers.org/order/



BIO

Linda Scheller is the author of Fierce Light from FutureCycle Press. Her writing prizes include the 2020 Catherine Cushman Leach Poetry Award and 2021 California Federation of Chaparral Poets Contest. Her book reviews and poetry recently appeared in Entropy, The Inflectionist Review, Oddville Press, West Trade Review, and The American Journal of Poetry. 



Hit That Ridge Again But This Time Hit It Full Speed

By Riley Winchester


In the summer of 2003 I flipped a go-kart on its head in an attempt to impress my dad. I didn’t intend on flipping the go-kart, because my dad didn’t have some weird fascination with upside-down quadracycles, but in my attempt to impress him that’s ultimately what happened. What I was doing was following a simple order he had given.

Before the flip, I had been putzing around in the go-kart all afternoon with my younger sister Kylan in the passenger seat. We drove back and forth and around in laps in a brown barren field across the street from our house. I imagine we looked so tiny and slow in our cherry red 110cc go-kart, traversing the dry vast field like a Ford Focus driving through a Mad Max movie.

Across the street from us, my dad stood in our driveway and watched while he ate from a bag of cheddar cheese curds. At the time, I thought he was the biggest and toughest person in the world. He stood six-feet-tall; he wasn’t heavy but he was by no means thin—he had a small swell for a stomach, a flat chest, muscular biceps, and broomsticks for legs. 

I grew bored of driving the same routes and Kylan was too scared to drive, so I turned the go-kart back toward my house and started home. I was ready to take a break from driving and do my usual summertime activities, like reading lowbrow juvenile literature or paralyzing my mind with Nickelodeon.  

On the way back I hit a small bump in the ground that I hadn’t ever hit before. I was going slow enough that the go-kart only did an underwhelming little jump, bouncing maybe half an inch off the ground. I didn’t think much of it and kept driving toward my dad.

The closer I drove toward him, the more I noticed how excited my dad looked. His eyes had ballooned bright and his cheese curd chewing had been enlivened into cheese curd chomping. I stopped the go-kart about ten feet away from him and he ran up to the driver’s side and squatted down to talk to me.

“Did you feel that?” he said with a wide smile and raised eyebrows.

“Feel what?”

“That jump!”

“Uh,” I thought for a second, “yeah, I did.”

The smell of cheddar cheese emanated from his mouth and pervaded the air between us. My eyes squinted as I looked at him, attempting to block out the sun. Kylan sat silently in the passenger seat, not yet old enough or familiar enough with my dad to know what was about to come out of his mouth. But I knew, and I could already feel the nerves building up and the knot in my stomach cinch tighter and hotter.

Then he said it.

“Hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed.”

———

Nobody asked for the go-kart but one day my dad came home with it and surprised us all—my mom, two sisters, and me. He had somehow jammed it into the bed of his pickup truck, and when he returned home he fashioned a homemade ramp to drive the go-kart down out of the bed. But since it was a kid’s go-kart, he couldn’t fit behind the wheel to drive it. So my first time behind the wheel of a go-kart I had to drive in reverse down a steep decline on thin planks of wood that had been rotting in the back of our barn for at least two full presidential terms.

I think it took me forty-five minutes to drive down the five-foot-long ramp because my foot was anchored on the brake and only let off it for millisecond-long intervals.

It was around the time of both mine and Kylan’s birthdays, so my dad justified the go-kart purchase by saying it was a shared birthday present for us. That summer I was hoping for either some new Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards or the latest releases in the Captain Underpants series—Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets, and its sequel Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers. And I doubt Kylan had a go-kart on her birthday wish list. Nevertheless it’s what we were stuck with that year.

This wasn’t the first instance of my dad coming home with a new toy—as he called them—nor was it the last. At least a couple times a year he would come home with a quad or a UTV or a golf cart or some other small engine vehicle either packed into the bed of his truck or hauled in a trailer.

The funny thing was my dad always claimed the toys weren’t for him, even though we all knew they were. If he came home with a youth go-kart that he couldn’t fit in and drive, we knew his reason for buying it was so he would have something new to tinker on in the barn, a new engine to tear apart and figure out, a new project to consume his evenings and weekends.

My dad was a worker, blue-collar as they come, and he believed in the virtues of work, work, work, and then, when all the work is done, find some more work or make some more work. This was something I never understood. I didn’t like work, not one bit. It made me tired and sweaty, so why would I ever seek out more of it?

I thought my dad had some rare, still undiscovered mental illness—or at least some shades of masochism—because of his psychotic predilection for work. To me it was an unhealthy obsession with labor and an equally unhealthy aversion to leisure. We couldn’t have been more different in our philosophies.

My dad never sat still or slowed down. When I would help him finish a project in the barn, I thought I now had the freedom to sit and relax inside, read a book, study for tomorrow’s spelling test, level up my team in Pokémon Ruby on my Game Boy Advance. I would turn and start walking toward the house, then my fantasy would be interrupted by something like, “Grab me a 9/16 socket and a flashlight. And get under here and hold the light for me. It’s darker than rabbit shit—I can’t see a damn thing under here.”

His go-go lifestyle never allowed him to sleep in either, not so long as there was work to be done. And there was always work to be done. If I ever slept past 7:30 a.m. on weekends, my dad would Kramer-burst into my room, turn the light on, peel my eyelids open, and say, “Get up, don’t sleep your day away.” It was 7:30—the moon still hung hazily in the sky, the grass was blanketed with morning dew—and my day was already in danger of being slept away. When I would grumble and plead to sleep in for another hour, he would say, “Tough shit. When I was your age I was waking up at four in the morning to go milk cow tits.”

He wasn’t a man to ever slow down and stop and smell the roses, simply because he was too busy digging up an area for a new rose garden somewhere else. I didn’t understand. I liked slowing down and smelling all the pretty roses.

———

I swallowed down the gigantic nervous lump in my throat and said, “OK.” The word smacked of cowardice as soon as it left my mouth. I didn’t want to hit that ridge again, and I sure as hell didn’t want to hit it full speed. But I knew this was a rare opportunity for me, an opportunity to show my dad that I wasn’t weak or scared, and prove to myself that maybe we weren’t as different as I thought we were.

I turned the go-kart around and drove back toward the field, toward the ridge I was supposed to hit full speed, and away from the safety of my house. I sat at the end of the driveway, neurotically scanning back and forth across the street, checking for cars that I knew weren’t there. We were way out in the boondocks, no cars or any signs of civilization were within a country mile. And I knew that, but I needed to bide my time as long as I could before my imminent ridge-hitting death.

The go-kart trundled through the field. I stared at the ridge as I drove past it. I stared at it like an abandoned baby zebra stares at a clan of hyenas during a hungry summer in The Serengeti. Once I had driven what I thought was far enough past the ridge, I turned the go-kart around so I could hit the ridge while driving toward my dad. I figured if I was going to die trying to impress him, he ought to see it.

I looked at Kylan in the passenger seat—quiet, innocent, blissfully unaware—and wondered if I would be posthumously charged with murder after I inevitably killed us both.

The go-kart and I were still. My arms were rigid, hands glued to the wheel, right foot scared of the gas pedal. Sweat percolated through the papery hairs on the back of my neck. I licked my lips. They were dry, like the field I was about to barrel through at full speed against my will. The go-kart engine hummed, soft and unassuming. I took a couple deep breaths. I looked across the street toward my dad but all I saw was a fuzzy outline. The field ahead of me was speckled with heat mirages, looking like I was about to drive through a dozen little puddles.

Something possessed me—I don’t know if it was a murderous demon or a surge of dumb courage—and I hit the gas.

The engine screamed and I felt the stuffy air wash over my face as I charged toward the ridge. My foot pinned the gas pedal to the metal frame below it. It felt like I had broken the sound barrier in that brown barren field. I was going too fast and my mind was too scrambled to see where the ridge was. I started to panic, but my panicking was interrupted.

I hit the ridge.

And this time I hit it full speed.

The go-kart did a weak one hundred eighty degree flip, slammed back into the arid, compacted dirt, and kept moving forward on its head, sliding through the dirt and leaving a trail of red paint chips and indents in the earth.

When I finally came to, and when I finally found the courage to open my eyes, I looked straight ahead, out at the tree line off in the distance. It looked different now, like the trees were coming out of the sky instead of the earth. Kylan cried and screamed, castigating me for being stupid enough to flip the go-kart. Physically we were both unharmed—the roll cage, seatbelts, and helmets ensured that. But we were handling the mental trauma differently. Me, in shock and silence. Kylan, in tears and screaming.

I heard a familiar voice over Kylan’s screams.

“God damn! You really hit that, huh boy!”

My dad squatted down and looked at Kylan and me, still dangling upside down.

“I didn’t expect you to flip the damn thing,” he said.

He manhandled the go-kart back upright onto its four wheels and pulled Kylan out of the passenger seat.

“I’m gonna walk Ky back, OK?” he said. “You drive it back and pull it into the barn, bud.”

I tried to tell him I was too scared to drive it back but I couldn’t get the words out. It felt like concrete had been poured down my throat. It was then I realized I was nothing like my dad. He could flip a go-kart and get right back on it. I didn’t want to flip go-karts, let alone even drive go-karts. I wanted comfort and stillness and safety. I wanted to be anywhere but behind the wheel of that stupid go-kart in that stupid field.

———

Years went by and things remained the same. My dad continued his busy lifestyle, and I continued to do, and be, the opposite of him. He spent his time playing around with motors and listening to classic rock on the old radio in the barn. I spent my time playing online video games and listening to prepubescent boys call me slurs and say how they all had defiled my mom.  

Then in November of 2013 my dad was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer.

Life hadn’t just thrown a couple speed bumps his way, it had laid out miles of spike strips ahead of him.

Still, he continued, to the best of his ability, to live the same life as he had before. He underwent a total colectomy in March of 2014, and his colon and the cancer were removed. He was fitted with a colostomy bag, which was now, without a colon, his only method of releasing excrement. He joked that he now saved so much time without having to stop what he was doing to use the bathroom, and he could be even more productive than before. Life, he thought, had regained a sense of normalcy.

But the normalcy was short-lived.

Seven months after the total colectomy, the cancer came back, and this time it refused to be defeated. The cancer perniciously took hold of his body and destroyed it from the inside out. It spread to his lymph nodes, his peritoneum, his lungs, tumors invaded his back and lumped along the crease of his spine.

By December of 2015, the cancer had completely seized his body and there was no hope of recovery, not even a miracle could save him. There is nothing else in this world that weakens and destroys someone like cancer, not even the most destructive war or brutal fight. Nothing else can strip someone of their essence, of their self—these always remain, even after the worst defeat. But cancer will. It will take these elements of someone’s being and shatter and trample them into the dust for everyone to see.

My dad was admitted into hospice care where he was put into a medically induced coma. His body was plastered with Fentanyl patches, his veins ran heavy with Dilaudid and Oxycodone and Alprazolam and Methylphenidate and other pharmaceuticals to alleviate his physical pain and shut off his mind.

I spent five days in a sofa chair by his bedside. I had never seen him sit so still, never in the eighteen years I had spent with him. He had never looked so small. His body had shriveled; bones now outlined the parts of his arms that were before inhabited by muscle. His face was sallow and pruned to the jagged corners of his jawline. The biggest and toughest person in the world had been beaten, abused, and destroyed into a frail little fragment of what he once was. For the first time in my life I was bigger than him, and I hated it.

The man I saw in the bed, I thought, wasn’t the same man I had known, the man who raised me. The man who was always on the move, never living a passive life, the man who told me to hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed—because he wanted me to live fast and take chances like he did—was no longer there.

He died Sunday, December 6, 2015, at 2:25 p.m.

Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t the metastatic cancer that killed my dad but the stillness. For five days he lay in that hospice bed, motionless, unable to get up and move and live how he always had. I imagine the back of his mind was filled with little anxieties the entire time he was in hospice—the oil change my car needed, the water softener that needed to be refilled with salt, the shaky stair banister that he planned on replacing. It must have driven him crazy.

After he died, my mom, sisters, and I individually spent some time in the hospice room with my dad. Although his body had been essentially dead since he arrived at hospice, and I had spent five days with him like that, it was strange to see him now eternally still. I sat in the sofa chair by his bedside and stared at him. I wanted to say something but I couldn’t. There wasn’t anything blocking my ability to speak—my throat was clear and my voice box was smooth and ready. I didn’t say anything because I thought nothing needed to be said between us. Everything that needed to be said had already been said, and it was now the time for silence.

As I stared at my dad longer, I created this image in my head of him opening his eyes, turning toward me, smiling, and saying, “Get up, we gotta go home and snow blow the driveway!” Or, “Come on, we gotta run to the hardware store right quick!”

Part of me thought it would actually happen. I convinced myself enough of it that I inched my right index finger toward my dad and poked him on the shoulder to check if he was actually dead or just faking it.

He wasn’t faking it.

I laughed when I thought of how ridiculous I must have looked, how ridiculous I was for even having a thought like that. I like to think my dad, wherever he was, laughed too.

———

Had my dad been born in the Neolithic Period, he would have taken the newly developed scrapers, blades, and axes and cultivated a thousand acres of land overnight by himself.

Had my dad been born in Antiquity, he would have given Plato a wet willie and said, “Shut up with all that science talk and gimme that hammer over there.”

Had my dad been born in the Age of Discovery, he would have circumnavigated the world three times over before Magellan had even left port.

Instead, he was born on a summery day in April in 1966, and he was my dad.

At times I thought the only thing we had in common, and the only modicum of proof that I was his son, was how much we looked alike—we’re basically twins born thirty-one years apart. We thought differently, we acted differently, we lived differently. He liked to work; I liked to think. He was fearless and outgoing; I was demure and reserved. He lived fast and didn’t think about consequences; I preferred to take things slow.

My dad once said that people have a lot more in common than they realize, but it’s just that differences stick out a lot more and that’s what we notice. I had never given that much thought until after he died—I had always discredited it as another one of his hackneyed little aphorisms he liked to throw around sometimes to seem intellectual. The differences between my dad and me stood out much more when he was alive. But now with time apart—physically and emotionally—I’ve become privy to all that we shared in common. 

We had the same sense of humor and laughed at the same jokes—whenever he heard a new joke somewhere, he couldn’t wait to share it with me. We never took ourselves too seriously, no matter how serious of a situation we were in. We both liked mindless action movies with no plots. We both liked Detroit sports, and we even went to some Tigers, Lions, and Pistons games together. We both liked to eat our French toast smothered in ketchup.

They’re little things, but they’re little things that mean a lot to me.

And I know they meant a lot to him.

The day I flipped a go-kart on its head I thought I would never in a million lifetimes understand my dad. I thought I could never understand someone so different than me, someone maniacal enough to convince a six-year-old kid to attempt suicide by go-kart. It was a confluence of confusion and terror. I wasn’t even sure if my dad was human. But, as it turned out, I just didn’t yet understand the simplicity of his life philosophy.

My dad wasn’t content with putzing around in a go-kart in the brown barren field across the street. That wasn’t enough for him. He believed that, sometimes, you just gotta hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed.

 

 

BIO

Riley Winchester’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ligeia Magazine, Miracle Monocle, Sheepshead Review, Ellipsis Zine, Beyond Words, Pure Slush’s “Growing Up” Anthology, and other publications. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

Memoirs of a Lady Cab Driver

By Katy Wright


Prelude: Whether Permitting

I never planned on driving a cab.

I was a school bus driver, and proud of it. But I needed to make some summertime money until school started back up in September.

Both my brothers were cab drivers, and they both talked me into trying it. It had no real time commitment. As an independent contractor the cab company didn’t care who came and went. They just rented expensive yellow cars on the daily.

Trying out a new career would only cost me the price of getting a taxicab driver permit and a map book or two. What did I have to lose?

I had just finished my last run of the year as a school bus driver. My uniform shirt had served as an autograph collection device. One of the junior high school kids drew a fouled anchor on my sleeve, and wrote under it, “See you next year, you old sea hag!” and other nicer sentiments were all over various parts of my shirt. Nothing risqué, nothing written on any suggestive body parts. But it did look… silly.

I went to pick up my taxicab permit at the Santa Ana Police Department. If I recall correctly, I submitted my paperwork already, and returned later with my passport style photos and to get my fingerprints taken. It was Friday the 12th of June in 1981.

Time Twister by Katy Wright

So there I sat in the lobby of the SAPD. I was asked to take a seat, and told that an officer would be with me shortly. Then an officer did show up. He approached me in the lobby, asking me my name. Confirming my middle name, my date of birth, and my driver’s license number, he then put down his clipboard. He said to me, “I have to tell you that you have an outstanding…”

I knew he was going to compliment me on my perfect driving record. While I was honest enough with myself to know that I would probably never win the “Driver of the Month” award at Orange Unified School District, I knew I was probably an outstanding example of a safe driver. By cab company standards, anyway.

“…warrant for your arrest. Please walk this way.” He led the way to the guts of the building.

My reverie was shattered. I followed him, thunderstruck. There must have been some mistake that would sort itself out soon.

“If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder.”

The officer looked puzzled.

“Old joke. Sorry. Not the right time for a joke.”

“What’s the joke?”

“Guy goes into a drugstore and asks the pharmacist where to find the talcum powder. The pharmacist says, ‘Sure, walk this way.’ The guy answers ‘If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder.”

The cop politely chuckled. I bet he knew the joke, but was trying to put me at ease, or determine my demeanor. I don’t know.

The officer asked me if I remembered signing a ticket while driving a non-registered vehicle. Damn. The light dawned immediately.

I was pulled over while driving my dad’s pick up truck. He had procrastinated about getting it registered into his name. He had received it in exchange for sheet metal work he had done. It was an old work truck. I had signed the ticket and gave my dad all the paperwork. He said he would take care of it. I had even asked him about my ticket just a few months prior to being arrested.  

“Don’t worry about it. I’m taking care of it all.” I believed him. I forgot all about it. It then led to a warrant for failing to appear.

The officer had me place my belongings into a locker, and then he led me down the hall to a holding cell to await the next step, which was to be processed into the Orange County Jail. The holding cell itself was dreary. I seem to recall it was a dull yellow color. The bench in the cell had a large brown stain. I wouldn’t sit. I just stood near the bars, not touching anything. Holding my arms in front of me, by each elbow, hugging myself. Before much time passed, I suppose, another officer collected me to take me to jail. It just felt like forever.

“Sorry you had to wait, it’s shift change.” He handcuffed me with what seemed like a ziptie. Then he collected my things from the locker, and put me and my stuff in the patrol car. When we reached the sally port, he announced us in on the two way box at the gate.

“One cooperative female.”

It hit my imagination how, under different circumstances, having a handsome young cop call me a cooperative female would have definitely been foreplay.

There was what looked like a loading dock, with an open air bank of public phones. I was able to make a phone call. I called home but nobody answered. They allowed me to make another call. I asked my neighbor, Pat, to make sure somebody picked up my son Patrick from the day care center. And of course, pretty please, contact my brother Mike so that somebody can figure out how to get me out of jail.

I was then led into the building, and underwent processing. My belongings were stowed away. My identity was confirmed, pending additional processing that would happen when it was convenient for the system.

I was led, autographed work shirt and all, into a large holding tank with about 10 women. And a big stainless steel toilet on one side of the room. Wide open to the elements, as it were. One lady had to use it while we were all waiting for the next step, and everyone tried not to look. Dignity is often either acknowledged or disregarded depending on the group of people you’re with, ever notice that?

There were brief conversations around the room. Not exactly introductions, more like, “What are you in for?” One lady, dressed kind of like Peg Bundy (but not as brassy) embezzled from an employer. One lady was in for writing hot checks. I think one was in for burglary, I was never sure. There was one biker mama whose crime was never mentioned. And there were about a half a dozen prostitutes. The biker chick was after them like a Eugene O’Neill character, badgering them about giving up their hard earned money to pimps. They raged back, defending their bastard bosses to the bitter end.

Someone kept staring at my shirt.

The district did not issue an actual uniform. There wasn’t an actual dress code. But a lot of us voluntarily bought nice looking long sleeve button down shirts and sewed on the official Orange Unified School District Transportation patch. The circular patch was mostly orange, gave the name of the district in a circle around the outside perimeter, and had either a wheel or a bus logo. I don’t recall the graphics. But it was really neat looking, on a par with the kind of patch motorcycle cops wear, the kind with a wheel on it.

While staring at my shirt, and reading the “sea hag” quote below the district patch, the burglar asked me what my crime was.

“Failure to appear.”

She stared me in the face as if to question my intelligence.

“I got a ticket for driving my dad’s unregistered pickup truck, then I forgot about the ticket because –“

Just at that moment, an officer came to the bars and told me that I would be going upstairs for fingerprints. I was glad. I felt like they were all about to move away from me on the Group W Bench anyway.

Details blurred once I left the holding cell. The sheriff’s deputy was helpful, telling me what to expect next. It seemed like everybody knew I didn’t belong there. Not everyone who gets incarcerated is entrusted with the lives and souls of up to 79 kindergartners at a time in Southern California traffic… as my shirt proclaimed like a billboard. Hold the fat jokes, okay? If not white privilege, maybe it was school bus driver privilege? Maybe it was not unusual. But I appreciated the courtesy.

“In an hour or two, we will be processing everybody from the holding tank into the regular population. You will be given jumpsuits and dinner. But in the interim, you will just be shuffling here and there. And waiting.”

We went into an elevator and then a maze of corridors as she told me what was happening next.

“This next step is your mug shots. Then we will take your fingerprints. Ah. Here we are. Walk this way.”

I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t repeat the talcum powder joke.

I was positioned. I was given the obligatory black sign with the little plastic letters that went into the felt grooves. My name, never thought I’d see it like this. My bad. I was positioned and repositioned as the shots were taken.

“Well, Katy! I never thought I’d see you in here.” Chuckling arose from a voice that I couldn’t place.

Then Kristi Howison stepped from behind the camera.

We had taken a speech class together at Santa Ana College a few years back. Her talks were about her efforts to join the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (no trade secrets were revealed, just generic clues on how to get a decent government job). She also gave a self-protection lecture aimed at women.

“Oh my God, Kristi! I never expected you to see me here either! What are the odds?”

I went on to explain my embarrassment at having done something so stupid. She told me not to worry, it probably wouldn’t ruin my life. Then we laughed about my shirt. Some of the autographs on it were Hallmark quality cute. Then of course there was the old sea hag jab, which I assured her was good natured.

“Your brother is downstairs, trying to get you released. He was already admonished for yelling at the desk clerk. He was getting close to being arrested, himself. Kept going on about you not belonging in here.”

“Whew. I was wondering if he got my message.”

We exchanged more pleasantries while she took my prints. I’ve had prints taken for the bus job, so I knew the drill. Still got my fingers all blackened. We wished each other all the best.

‘You’ll notice I’m not wearing high heels, I am teachable.” We chuckled, that was my biggest takeaway from her shtick about street safety for unaware women. Heels are not safe in a crisis, too hard to run away.

Back to the holding cell. More awkward stares at my shirt. More ragging on the hookers from the Harley-attired chick. She was a true feminist. She wasn’t judgmental about their profession, just giving away a percentage of their take to their manipulative managers.

I was called away, my release was arranged. We collected my purse and stuff, then I was led through a door to a lobby where my brother Mike and our family friend Steve “The Greek” Chronopoulos were waiting for me. They were both amused by my shirt, by the looks on their faces. But we didn’t talk about that.

On the ride home, much information was covered. Steve drove, bless him, because neither of us was operating on all cylinders. Mike was still red in the face from his emotions. He said that when he told our brother Noel, he had a fit about it.

“‘You’ve got to get her out of there! She doesn’t belong there! She won’t know how to act!’,”  Mike quoted Noel as saying. Noel would have come along, but he had a long drive home after a long day, if memory serves.

“And by the way, what was all that about picking Patrick up at day care? Don’t you remember he stayed home with Nita because he had a cold and you kept him home?”

All I could do was shrug. I thought they’d all rag on me, but any anger and frustration was saved for Stan. If he would have not blown me off about the paperwork on the truck, I would have seen that I screwed the pooch on the overdue traffic ticket.

I suddenly realized how catastrophic it would have been had I been involved in any kind of fender bender with a school bus full of kidlets. Because even when an accident is not your fault, you still have to provide all relevant info. In an idiots way of thinking, you could say I got lucky.

“I guess this means we won’t be taking my training day tomorrow, huh Stavros?” I asked Steve. He was scheduled to take me out for my first-and-only day of training the next day. Newbies got one day of riding along with a veteran driver, and to get that one day, they had to show their Santa Ana taxicab operator’s permit. I still didn’t have it yet. Something interrupted me … oh yeah. I remember. I got arrested.

The legal ramifications were minimal. I had to pay a hundred dollar fine to the courts. I had to show that I had registered my dad’s truck. The judge told me not to worry. He said that most people get arrested at least once in their lives. He predicted that I would learn from this one mistake and never let it happen again. The school district made me fill out reports, but it didn’t jeopardize my “real” day job of bus driving next year.

Monday I got the taxicab permit. Tuesday, Steve The Greek took me out and gave me the best cab driver training that the company allowed. 

But that’s another story.


BIO

Katy Wright is a retired Jill of trades, and avoids recidivism after rehabilitating herself. She can be found on Facebook as Katy Wright Arts and Letters.

.

Schooled

By Donna D. Vitucci



Sister Antoinette

In sixth grade the music came to us. Sister Antoinette brought her mouth organ to our classroom. That’s what the boys called it, no matter its official name. The instrument was a piano-like keyboard the nun blew into, while playing the keys. Never saw one before, and haven’t seen one since. To us, she was old but I bet no older than I am now. Hard to gauge a nun’s age when her hair was covered with the wimple and her body hid inside a shapeless dark habit. The old-lady black lace-up shoes and the round rimless glasses she wore didn’t help. Most nuns were sexless and old, in our experience. Sister Antoinette taught all three sixth grade classes music. She brough it to us in Room 206 on Tuesdays after lunch.  She changed classrooms, we stayed where we were, all day in that one seat, arranged alphabetically by last name so I sat near the front, with a prime view of Sister’s spit when it leaked out the end of the instrument after fifteen minutes of off and on blowing.

Our school had finally purchased music books. Prior to that year, music instruction had been church hymns and mass hymns and hymns for sacraments we were preparing to receive: First Confession, First Communion, Confirmation, and the school-wide yearly May Crowning. The new books had words and music, the staff and the cleff, whatever those were. Words, to me, mattered, as they do today. What we learned: As Those Caissons Go Rolling Along; Roll On, Columbia, Roll On; This Land is Your Land; I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair; Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal—The American Songbook.

Sister Antoinette may have been hard of hearing, not swift for a music teacher, but Catholic elementary schools invested more in religion than the arts. Her slight deafness, or pretended deafness, allowed the boys to make fun of her, her mouth organ, the songs, and the spit. She was the butt of their jokes, and they piled on while my anger increased like rain in a barrel.

Here, in the person of Sister Antoinette, good was tackled and taken down. Bad would not always be punished. Disrespect slithered along and the boys’ mocking accrued as the music classes added up. I ached for Sister Antoinette, what she acted blind to, or was blind to. That she let bad run riot disgusted me. She was either blind and deaf, or a coward. They were just puny sixth grade boys, who held our lives in their hands, in their words, in the ways they cut us down or spared us. Us being the girls.

At the end of music class one day, Sister left our room for hers. I rushed to Mr. Miller, our usual teacher, who’d returned to assume his class.

“I need to tell Sister something,” I said.

He waved me on. “Well, hurry up.”

I dashed next door, to a classroom like the one I’d just left, full of trapped, mopey sixth graders.

The nun’s bleary eyes took me in their focus.

“Sister,” I said. “I’m not like those others. I’m sorry they won’t listen, won’t behave. But I’m not like them.”

She nodded, she probably thought I was nuts. Or a suck-up. And I guess I was.

Because it was a lie, and not even my best lie. With no spick of rain or salt. The lie lacked the fork. The lie lacked spice. Bold-faced, it was the lie trying to get across the border, the one where an adult would take note of a child, where the spotlight shone down through the young one like a knife pinning her to the earth. The lie was in the child’s mouth, there right now, glinting on her molars, x-ray-ing the wisdom teeth still inside her gums. Nothing else in the world was so shiny as her standing before the woman, and making the child, herself, into a spare truth. She was a tattle tale. She was her own livid dream.

May Crowning arrived, an evening of whole-school procession, class by class, grades one through eight, around the school and church grounds, praying and singing to the Virgin Mary statue in the parking lot, amid her circular bed of flowers. Children were instructed to bring a flower from home, then the flowers were collected in each class and one representative brought the room’s bouquet to the Virgin, stepping out from the rest of the children.

Mr. Miller couldn’t attend, so he sent his wife to organize our class. Mrs. Miller didn’t know us, she was ignorant of who merited the bouquet. She deferred to Sister Antoinette’s choosing.

Thus I earned the great honor with great treachery. I wanted the privilege and I also didn’t want it, a chance to grandstand, to draw my classmates’ attention. I processed with Room 206’s bunch of flowers, for all to see, and who was watching anyway, except God? My skin burned with my-only suspicion Sister had chosen me due to music class piety. I had always been a head-down don’t-make-waves girl, complete your work, do it well, make your parents proud. Up to then, every “A,” every holy card, every gold star I earned, I earned, but I snagged the May Crowning honor by tattling. What’s worse, I bore it alone–punishment of sin, demerit and demotion, demolition of a child’s small will.

Look at me, at an age older than then-Sister Antoinette, still flush with this sick memory. Priests and nuns, with their voodoo, they really needled us good.

Folz

Boys were smart but girls were smarter, until junior high when boys wised up, quit their high-jinks, or they managed high-jinks and high math like salt and pepper, one in each hand. Where girls suddenly found the allure in dumbing down, noted how not-so-smart girls, even slutty girls, caught the boys’ eyes. We noted and absorbed as if by breathing, that knowing wasn’t all there was to knowledge.  We were twelve.

Then the rumored math teacher walked in. Newly-minted, he set to teaching us seventh grade algebra. Mr. Folzenlogen, only the second male teacher the school had ever hired in those heady experimental days of 1970. Even nuns had to nod to the changing times. They let their crow ranks be infiltrated. And we were ready for pants.

Mr. Folzenlogen charmed us from the start. Blue-eyed, almost twinkly blue-eyed if you must know, he had a few freckles across his nose, just the right amount. Black-rimmed glasses were his one cast-back, in this wire-rim time, to his own school days. He had a kind voice, a manner wrought with good cheer, with making math fun, and for the boys, sure for them, utter jokiness, for he knew he had to win them over first, and he did, with a maneuver he displayed on his first day.

Math was for figuring, and figuring was chalk on a blackboard, and chalk was Mr. Folzenlogen’s lasso. My uncle had a wart on the underside of his forearm, about an inch up from the elbow. Look for yourself and you might see a slight dimple on your own arm there. In this spot on Mr. Folzenlogen’s “almost-elbow” he set the stub of chalk he’d chose to write with and then in one motion snapped his arm, let the chalk drop and caught it in his hand. His signature move. First, we were tickled by it, then we took it for granted. It was his nervous tic, his trademark. He roped us in; we were caught.

During out-of-school time, the boys worked at mimicking the move, then perfecting it, doing it swifter and cleaner than Mr. Folzenlogen, if they could, as they bragged they could. What boy doesn’t want to best his brother, his father, his teacher, his boss? Because here was the time when the boys we grew up with—those boys we’d sat alongside in classrooms since first grade, who we’d tottered behind at school skating parties when they rolled past us faster and ten times more recklessly, who we’d passed notes for while trying to earn their favor—these boys were coming into their own knowledge that they were bound to outpace the fastest skaters, the nuns’ crabbiest lectures, the most charming math teacher.

If life was a race—and at that time junior high encompassed all of any life importance to us—then Mr. Folzenlogen drew our starting line with his chalk.

Facts in Five

In a ranch house, in a house of achieving, lived a family of smarts. To you he was a just a boy. A smart boy, but still a boy. Boys didn’t much take notice of you, except that you were smart, too. Not smartest, but among the smart.  Also among a group of boys and girls, all smart, in a certain geographic radius within the same Catholic grade school, in the top reading and math groups. All on the accelerated tracks of ninth grade.

It was a wretched time, especially for smart boys and girls. Yes was on the stereo. A cinnamon cake baked in the oven, its welcome aroma in place of the parents who were gone, or at least unseen. Danny was your host for Facts in Five.

Invited were Sue, John, Tim, Danny, Karen, you.

Sue. A girl among brothers, lived just over a short hill, a distance your mother permitted you walk when you were six, if you carefully crossed the street. Sue’s backyard had a tall slide like those at playgrounds, and a sandbox, a fence where the large yard went larger. There were sleepovers at her house. The morning after one slumber party, all were carrying cups of hot chocolate down the stairs to the finished basement. You slipped on the carpeted steps, splashed hot chocolate all over.

Karen. Came to the crowd later, later being fourth grade; the rest started as one group from the first grade gate. She played the flute, she had a beagle named Penny who you adored and petted every time you visited. She enjoyed a free rein that made you green-eyed; she attended Seals & Croft and Yes and Alice Cooper concerts on school nights. As her Biology lab partner, you heard of these escapades, what your mother would never allow.

John. A brainiac in a family of brainiacs. He wore glasses, for many years black-rimmed plastic, but in 1972 they were gold wire rims. You invited him, as your “guest,” to Straight A ticket baseball games once or twice. Double dates, parents still driving, dropping off and retrieving, no romance, no matter how much you wished. The baseball was forget-able.

Danny. His brothers and his baby sister were all freckled. Some few, some many, Danny many. Blond haired, a little bit of a tic in the slight way he often adjusted his head on his neck. A math whiz. A prodigy. You didn’t know the select classifications they have for behaviors and personalities. Your junior high classrooms had acoustic tile ceilings. And Danny counted the length and breadth of dots on one tile, and then counted the tiles and multiplied, or whatever math to determine the number of dots in your classroom ceiling, an astronomical number that didn’t stick with you. Just Danny being Danny.

Tim. Another genius, or maybe he memorized facts and trivia really well, maybe he had everyone snowed. In fifth grade he gave you a gold and crystal ring from the gumball machine, so for a brief time you considered him a boyfriend. He taught you how to roller skate one Saturday afternoon in Price Hill, that roller rink long ago demolished. He took the errant path during the ascendance of grass, those heady high school years, where he got lost in the weeds.

You were all smart, and backward in boy-girl relations. To develop a sexual self, to flirt, to tease, to be honest—where are the books for that? All had sat in the same accelerated classes in Catholic school until age fourteen, then split for sex-segregated high schools, and Danny helped mend the rupture with his Facts in Five.

You stumped each other with questions, five facts, a pre-Trivial Pursuit trivia game. The boys played air guitar. Rod Stewart was Maggie May-ing. Later, you were on the Roundabout.

“In and around the lake
Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there”

Cinnamon cake that Danny baked—a boy that baked!–and the time it took to devour it.  Boys wolfed it down, girls licked fingertips and then pressed fingertips into crumbs, brought crumbs to tongues, tongues being the point. A keep-away game devolved from tossing a ping pong ball, to tickling, wrestling, touching.

No boy dove for the ping pong in your belly or armpits. Karen and Sue whirly-dervish- kicked, the shag carpet electrified their hair. They had tears in their eyes, happy tears, fever tears. Never had they been more clear-eyed.  You barely contained your want to suffer a rug burn, a pinch, to tear up from over-tickle. Shrieks– the good kind–crabbed and died in your throat. In your diary you would call the afternoon half-hearted, hard-hearted, a catalogue of rust.

You slumped in Danny’s living room, on the floor because everyone was on the floor, the rug a comfort that equalized heights. It was hotter on the floor since you were closer to the core of the earth. The boys’ top lips, where they would later grow moustaches, dimpled with perspiration. They were in every game to win. And you? You didn’t know one fact, much less five.

There was little color to these memories except…

The pale pink of the fetal pig Karen and you flayed and labeled.

The iron rail you gripped amid skaters shouting and wheeling, and Tim encouraging yes, yes, yes alongside you the whole rink’s circumference, the din-filled cavern where you bloomed.

The blond table where Danny rap-rap-rapped his knuckles. He dumped Facts in Five from its box, and your crowd took the kitchen. Your elbows dug into cake crumbs, as you leaned in with magnificent feigned ardor.

Pokeberry Interlude

See these poison berries? An elemental player in our summers, in our games, in our imaginary world of princesses and queens. A girl imprisoned, a boy must rescue her. She was carried away in a wagon into the woods. The wicked queen brewed up the poison berries which grew plentiful in every damp corner of the woods, alongside the long hill that was our backyard. The gullies especially favored the pokeberries. In the sandbox, with the muffin tin, we “made” muffins topped with pokeberries.  We never thought of eating them. Pokeberries were props, they stained our fingers, they made the birds crap purple.

Israelite Village

My Israelite village could not be transported by bus to school. Our classrooms and busses were overcrowded. The bus drivers insisted we sit three to a seat. Small skinny children could pack in like sardines, but we carried school bags and lunch boxes and we wore bulky winter coats, girls clad in uniform skirts and white anklets. Our little bowling pin legs chapped and went numb at the bus stops, so some girls in the coldest of weeks wore leggings but had to shed and store them in their lockers.

Three to a seat provided no room for my Israelite village anchored to a very large rectangle of poster board.  It would be smashed in transit.

“Your daddy will have to drive you to school,” Mommy said.

My daddy was an up-and-at-‘em guy. As usher at Sunday 8 o’clock Mass, he arrived at the locked church and had to wait for the priest to let him in. Weekdays at work he was first to arrive, and started coffee brewing for his colleagues. He left home in the dark and he came home in the dark, especially during winter. And he dropped me off at the school in the dark—except for the parking lot spotlight and green glowing emergency exit lights– before anyone but Mr. Burke the janitor stirred.

My fourth grade class was in the new annex, off the basement cafeteria, an area that had housed the Undercroft until the summer’s renovation.  The rooms down there had windows at the top of the wall where we could observe feet walking by– three fourth grade classrooms and a one-room library. Before that we had Bookmobile visits.

Outside my classroom I slid my back down the wall, tenting my legs and warming them under my uniform skirt. My Israelite village I placed carefully flat on the floor. I straightened the  pipe cleaner men and women. I pressed down on the edges of the short cardboard tube that formed the village well. Alongside my project I poised my school bag and my lunchbox, handles straight up and ready to be grabbed once someone came and brought me light.

Groundhog

I was a child who could not bear the spotlight, nor the teacher’s disappointment, my classmates’ rubber necks, the soul-deficient shotgun-shouldered lack. I completed extra credit like a demon. I was already in Sunday night bed when horror struck me. I jackknifed to sitting beside my snoring sister, my heart a mallet beating the bars of my wispy chest cage. I forgot to write a school report due first thing Monday morning!

Daddy lounged on the living room couch watching television, but my mother stood ironing in the kitchen where the glow of the wall lamp my sister made in Girl Scouts turned everything, including Mommy, soft and golden. Soft-gold-Mommy, in her untucked button front shirt and pedal pushers, penny loafers yawning over her insteps. She never slouched at the ironing board; she shoved into the press of the iron, every item flattened, hot perfect percale. Her hands adeptly wielded the sprinkle bottle and the Procter Silex. Solution, heart salve, comfort – Mommy!

“What are you doing up?”

“I have a report to write for tomorrow.” I was unlatching my school bag and fumbling inside for pencil and lined paper.

“Just now you remembered?” Her tone doubtful, or Sunday night-weary.

“I said I forgot.” I sat, the scalloped shaped wood of the kitchen chair cool through my nightgown.

I chewed the eraser, my mind blank, my heart skipping madly along with the elapsing minutes. Time and fear held hands, embedded in Al Schottelkotte’s report from the living room TV. Whenever I heard the 11 o’clock news pipping through the walls, I panicked. Why couldn’t I fall asleep? I was a child insomniac who chewed orange baby aspirin to help me relax and hoodwink sleep into my lair. Panacea, placebo, no words on paper. It was late and I wouldn’t be back to bed for a while. I had no story, no report.

“I can’t think of anything!” Goody-two shoes anguish.

I cried, I chewed baby aspirin, my teeth marks mucked up the pencil that was cramping my hand. My life lacked story, spark, lift, surprise. I had nothing to shape or build a report around.

Mommy said, “Why don’t you tell about Mary and the groundhog?”

Downstairs neighbor Mary Clements, bottom tenant matching we top-floor renters, she’d been about to drop trash into one of her outside metal garbage cans when she was…think of a good apt word—ambushed? surprised? scared out of her wits?—Mommy challenged me to describe it like it happened to me even though I never witnessed the animal popper. The story was my mother’s heresay, and she passed it to me like an heirloom.

“Go on, use it. Make up the rest.”

You might as well accuse me of knitting the fabric surrounding Mary, her groundhog and his shiny barreled hideout. I fashioned my report, and thus a fiction writer was born. Thank you, Mommy. When I sleep, because of you I dream.

Rosary

A verbal prayer formula, a mantra, its rhythm and pronouncement, bears power.  This, the Sisters would have us believe. Prayers have less sense and information inside them and are more like the Essence of God. Such words repeated, or even better, chanted, create a sound temple, a sealed sacred place, a zone of contact with the divine. Spoken prayer surrounds and envelops us in holiness.

Prayer then is the trance, the ecstasy, an insensible mantra that facilitates rapture—like the trance brought on by praying the Rosary. When I was a little girl I prayed, especially when I couldn’t sleep, Hail Mary after Hail Mary, decade after decade, rote and repletion that ran together in my head like a stream or a train, failing eventually into nonsensical babble, the words eliding, skipping, no thought, no real thought, in the praying. But while babbling, inside the babbling, my mind closed off other things and spiraled me into something both smaller and larger than prayer beads and prayers. The Rosary, as mantra, brought my smallness closer to the bigness. As a child, this ecstasy slayed me. I believed utterly, not a whiff of doubt in God as my Savior, in Jesus my rescue. I’m not much able to get inside that prized babble anymore; too much noise, too much right brain-halt, I’ve lost the naivete and trust. But I’ve got a Rosary stashed somewhere, I know.

Voting on Arrow

Without speaking the words, we somehow knew since the time of President Kennedy that we were Democrats. Mommy and Daddy weren’t political, and it was the rare family discussion that touched on government. We knew that Tricky Dick was mocked and pitied, Bobby Kennedy revered, and Ronald Reagan dissed for being movie-star-folksy. What crested the waves of our supper table talk: Daddy’s commission check, what could be froze from the garden, the knocking noise in the car, quiz me on my vocabulary words, and sign this permission slip. I will say this– and it was not shocking, it was no ripple in the norm, it just was–my parents voted every November.

They did it quietly, without discussion, almost ploddingly. Once they took me with them to vote, this in the days when polling places had sometimes been assembled in the basements of neighbors. It’s true we lived in a rural area. They took me with them to Arrow, a street off Boomer Road, about a mile from our house. I was small because I remember standing among their kneecaps in the tiny lighted booth areas. From over my shoulder in that rearview far-off, I can see me wanting to more than stand alongside them in their civic duty.  I wanted to vote, to pull the lever or color in the box (I excelled at coloring!). The Arrow basement appears green-hued in my memory, grassy and with hope. The green lighting in each of the individual voter stations told me “go,” be positive. You there, it’s a privilege.

Kreimer’s Interlude

A gaggle of girls sat on Kreimer’s front slope, that small dip to the Stop sign plugged into their yard, or rather into the ten feet of public property at the intersection of Boomer and Race. The four way Stop slowed plenty of hot rods for our inspection, the drivers and riders offered up, or so we expected, for our perusal. All of us under fourteen, a couple only ten or eleven years old. Tanned summer girls, aimless. Barefoot, short-ed, middy-shirt-ed or haltered, with nothing much to halter. Not smoking yet, but we might as well have held cigarettes. We posed and screamed and shouted to boys as they slowed or screeched to their stop. Race Road had the hills they liked to hop. Hot-rodders passed by, windows all open and they smiled, hooting at us. Or convertibles, maybe on their way down to the Par 3 Golf Course, the driving range, the snack bar, but heavens, no liquor. We tried buying cigarettes there. That didn’t fly. The boys, teenagers, not very often men, but yes, sometimes young men, even old men (in our minds they were old) they slit their eyes at us, estimating, split-second rejected us. But nothing wrong with a little jive at the Stop sign, dusk coming on fast, the clover and onion grass perfuming our butts, the sweat pearling at our hairlines and pasting long hair and ponytails on our necks. We would slouch home to watch innocuous summer re-runs, the riders and the drivers meant for darker, dirtier ruin. We had no truck with that. We tossed it all off like sweat, sweat that blackened the already black road, the newly set tar, just another summer job that brought workers to our street and men into our lives. Men and their whistles, which we craved without understanding.

Christmas Coats

Aftershave, perfume, leather, cold gusts trapped in molecules of wool and fur collars, mothball smell, heady in the spartan bedroom where the coats were piled on Grandpa’s bed. The cranked heat and the laughter, your grandma’s cackle and the booming baritones of your uncles, the warm light downstairs, curled around your feet in their patent leather shoes, your good shoes. Christmas seeped through the floor boxes for cold air return. You called them radiators, but they were really the opposite. Radiators were free-standing metal monoliths you must not touch lest you burned. They were seething pieces of furniture.

Christmas coats were shed in the spartan bedroom shared by Grandpa and Uncle Joe, your bachelor uncle, the good timer adored by every niece and nephew. Handsome, happy-go-lucky, in service to his mother and father. Only later, many years later, would you consider him chained to this tan room, with tan bedspreads on the twin beds, tan furniture, real wood, but not Grandma’s rich and dark dresser set across the hall. The blonder wood was spare mid-century modern, though you didn’t know that style-name yet. Two beds and a chest of drawers. Atop the chest presided a familiar Virgin Mary statue. Your own chest of drawers at home had one. Mary was blessed and beautiful, hands folded as she stood forever looking down on you, praying for you, because you needed those prayers.

Grandma’s room across the hall was a womb of dark wallpaper, coral pink bedspread and draperies, the dark polished wood of her dresser, which was stocked with glorious perfume bottles, just as your mommy’s dresser. Here Chantilly and Lily of the Valley. Mama’s had Tigress and Ambush. Your mommy was no sexy thing but she bought with the times. Her party dresses would be your dress-ups one day. Till then, you stroked her satiny skirt when you sat on her lap. She drew you close, you little imp, protecting you from what?—the cold? the booming uncles with their sloppy kisses?. Your family was somehow outsiders in this Catholic bosom, though you were as Catholic as children come. Mommy was the outlier, the Protestant who attended no church, and who ushered you girls out the door with Daddy to eight o’clock Christmas Mass so she could enjoy a bath.

Aldona

Our 1960’s American neighborhood, more rural than suburb, with roads hilly and twisty, no sidewalks, had backyards that declined into woods, ravines, and pastures of cows, sheep, horses. Our neighbor to one side had ponies. Our neighbors’ family names: Sanders, Donahue, Taylor, Griffith, Mueller, O’Donnell—Germans and Irish. We celebrated Sunday Mass one mile up the road at St. Ignatius Church, our parish for church and school. Our—everyone’s–parish. We spoke English, except the Binder’s old German grandmother. That grandmother didn’t count. You only met her, and smelled her, when she opened the door to you peddling Girl Scout cookies.

One across-the-street family had emigrated from Lithuania–a country you’d never heard of. The boy and girl were called Algist and Aldona, with last name Liauba. Their language crunched consonants; the one word I recognized from Mrs. Liauba was her daughter’s name—Aldona. I felt between us a special link, since with my name Donna, we were called nearly the same. Likeness begun and ended. Aldona, blond and fair-eyed, paled beside my dark brown hair and eyes. My hair was curly, hers straight. We were both skinny. She was older, and a loner, you hardly ever saw her.

We didn’t know the word immigrant. Friends at school and on our street were the same in my eyes, our families had been Cincinnatians for at least two generations. Even most of the grandparents spoke English, owned farms or houses, were established Americans.  What to think of the Liaubas? Their house smelled like no other house, with their particular cooking. Their language abrupted the scenery. The parents didn’t pal around with neighbors, and the children kept to themselves. Maybe three times at most Aldona invited me to play in her finished basement. It was linoleum-floored, with impossible light for a basement and airy because of block glass windows set high up in the walls, sparsely furnished. Today I would know to call the décor modern. Liaubas were miles ahead of us in style.

The Tall Book

It was a tall book, one that fit only into the double deep desk drawer, bottom right.  This book of fairytales had a cover shaped like a tall tree trunk. Depicted around its roots and the ground where it anchored were mushroom, chipmunk, ant, acorn. Halfway up, a hole where a squirrel peeked out and a woodpecker at work on a knot. The branches at the top of the book sprouted off the edge. I carried this book like a log in my armpit.

Each page featured a complete story. There were known stories like the Billy Goats Gruff and The Woodsman, but one story I’d never read or heard before became my favorite: The Pot That Would Not Stop Boiling. A gruesome-looking young girl (horrible drawings on purpose?) was given a magic pot and brought it home to her poor mother, poor home, poor village. All she need say was: “Boil, little pot, boil,” and soon it filled magically with piping hot porridge that satisfied her and her mother. “Stop little pot, stop,” were the words that made the pot cease cooking. But satisfaction was rare, fleeting, if not downright absent, and in that absence rooted greed.

One day when the girl was away, the mother wanted to show off to the villagers and got that pot’s magic going. But when the time came for quitting, she couldn’t remember the command. Porridge overflowed the pot, then the kitchen, and onto the streets of the village, sweeping all the people down a huge river of porridge, until the flood rushed past the girl, who’d been visiting a neighbor village. She rushed against the porridge current, all the way up the long tall page to her home where she yelled, “Stop, little pot, stop!” Mother suitably humbled, village destroyed, villagers mollified and ugly girl back “on top.” What was porridge anyway? This story stuck with me, all its elements, down to the white apron the little girl wore, her knobby elbows poking where she had pushed up her sleeves, her hair thin and fastened in a sensible bun, her ears big, even her lips gross in their largeness. The repelling illustrations dizzied. For the first time ever, words came in second.

Santa brought me this book one Christmas. It has long been torn, tossed, lost.  If anyone knows it, please please tell me its name or how I can find it.

Rock Of Ages

David Cassidy’s was my first rock concert, the summer between seventh and eighth grade. My then-friend Sharon and I raged with adolescent silly over him, the kind of innocent yearning I doubt exists anymore. Adoring boy-man idols used to be a rite of passage.

I papered one bedroom wall with glossy covers and inserts of David Cassidy from Tiger Beat and Sixteen. I swooned over The Partridge Family TV show and The Partridge Family albums. I knew all their lyrics. David Cassidy’s favorite artist, reported by the teen mags, was BB King. Who, I thought?

David Cassidy announced a summer tour, and I begged, pleaded, whined: “Daddy, please please please, if he comes to Cincinnati, promise me I can go.”

Daddy resisted and then caved, the way he said okay to nearly everything we wanted, a funny and unenforceable response since he was never the final arbiter.

A Friday evening in June would be the breathless event, a night in which I could barely stay in my shoes. I felt sure I’d levitate. But before that, a wedding invitation arrived for the very same Friday, at the very same time. My oldest cousin was getting married. Out of the question, our refusal to attend, or further, my dragging a parent from that wedding so as to drive me to a David Cassidy concert. My dad would not miss his nephew’s wedding. We’d already bought the concert tickets. In my family, if we’d paid good money for something, what had been bought would not be forfeited.

In the back of church, Mommy lingered with me while the bride walked the aisle and met my cousin at the altar. We slipped out before the vows, picked up Sharon, and then drove on to Cincinnati Gardens, where I’d only before been to see the Shrine Circus via free tickets from our landlord. Once we passed through the admission, from the opposite side of the turnstile, Mommy said: “I’ll be right here to pick you up when this is over.”

An opening act played too long, and David Cassidy took the stage later than promised, wearing a white-fringed Elvis-like jumpsuit. With the concert behind schedule, I wondered if Mommy would return and drag us out before the end. I wanted my “money’s worth.”

Driving from the Gardens to Cincinnati’s west side, and traversing the highway, fighting traffic, not to mention parking hassle or cost, meant she never went back to St. Theresa’s Church, or on to the wedding reception. She stood outside Cincinnati Gardens or sat in the car or remained planted at the turnstile where I’d turned my back on her. Waiting for four hours, in place, is what I would have done for my own children. I was just twelve or thirteen then, barricading against her moment by moment. One long, cruel I Think I Love You story, hardly about David Cassidy and all about my mommy.


BIO

Donna D. Vitucci has been writing forever, and publishing since 1990. Her latest novel, ALL SOULS, is offered by Magic Masterminds Press, as are her previous 3 — AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE, SALT OF PATRIOTS & IN EUPHORIA. Her work explores the ache and mistake of secrets among family, lovers and friends. She writes whatever in her head sounds good, and then she chops and squishes and compresses until it pleases her. Cadence has a lot to do with it. She lives in North Carolina, where she enjoys her cherished grandsons and burgeoning gardens. Her work appears most recently in Red Coyote and The Sextant Review; forthcoming at MemoryHouse Magazine, SinFronteras, and Gargoyle. Read beginnings from her novels and selected stories at: www.magicmasterminds.com/donnavitucci

Birthday Surprise, 2003

by Lourdes Dolores Follins

“Ma, whaddya wanna do fur yer birthday?” I nervously ask my mother. Her fifty-fourth birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks and I am calling to find out if I need to take the day off to spend time with her. She still lives in our hometown, Staten Island, N.Y., while I live in Brooklyn—only fourteen miles apart, but a world away. I’m half hoping Mom says I don’t need to miss work. I nervously play with my short, black two-strand twists and wait with bated breath as I walk into my bathroom. Glancing at my smooth brown skin in the chrome-rimmed medicine cabinet mirror, I adjust my nose ring.

“Oh, I dunno,” my mother comments. Somehow, she manages to make a two-syllable word (‘dunno’) have three syllables.

I’ve been asking Mom the same question every year for the past four years, and each time, she seems surprised by my question. Four years ago, when I turned thirty, I realized that if I wanted our strained relationship to improve, I had to be more accepting of her and be the one to make the effort to change it.

As a child, I was a satellite in my mother’s world, soundlessly orbiting her. Mom often worked overtime at her job as a psychiatric nurse so that she could send me to parochial school. That meant she was usually either sleeping or getting ready to go to work when I came home from school. The few times we were around each other, Mom rarely spoke to me. She raised me to speak when spoken to, so I learned to be silent. I interpreted Mom’s silence as disinterest in me and because she often complained about being tired, I studiously stayed out of her way. A voracious reader, I secretly wished that Mom was like those White, middle-class mothers I read about in the Judy Blume and Nancy Drew books she bought for me each month—warm, doting, and attentive. I assumed that she too, believed in the stories in those books and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. So, I worked harder at getting good grades.

Before I started contacting my mother for her birthday, I barely called her because we have nothing in common except being Black women and even that we experience differently. Mom is a Baby Boomer who never discussed race and racism with me, while I, her Generation X daughter, constantly fumed to friends about the racial microaggressions and systemic racism I faced at the historically White schools my mother worked so hard to pay for. As a result, I always think about race and racism. I imagine that we’ve both experienced racial discrimination and microaggressions, but Mom’s response is to ignore them and work harder, while mine is to call out people and fight back. An example of this was when I was called a nigger, the ten-year-old version of me cussed out that little White boy the best I could. When I told her about it, Mom simply shrugged her shoulders and said, “People are stupid.”

But the main reason I barely speak with my mother is because she rarely calls me. I’m not sure if it’s because Mom doesn’t want to talk to me, she forgets about me, or because she’s busy with work and other family members. However, when we do talk on the phone, the ‘conversations’ tend to be soliloquies for her. This is a continuation from my childhood—all of our conversations revolved around her: her work, her life, her thoughts. But I am working to change our relationship and making the effort to spend time with her for her birthday is part of that process.   

As a result of those books and 1970s television shows, I subscribed to the societal belief that every daughter should want a good relationship with her mother. But by the time I turned thirty, I’d accepted the fact that we would never be like those White TV families. As working-class Black people, we had more important things to focus on, like surviving in a borough that didn’t want us there and working twice as hard to get half as far in work and in school. I wanted our relationship to improve not out of obligation, but because it was the right thing to do. As a Black woman, I believed it was my duty to foster a relationship with Mom in a world where we are all we have. Also, I look like my mother: I have her almond-shaped eyes, oval-shaped face, and very expressive eyebrows. Even though she annoys the heck out of me, how could I not have her in my life when I am constantly reminded of her when I look in the mirror?

So, today I pace while Mom thinks.

“Whaddya mean, you don’ know?” All my life, I’ve worked hard to suppress my Staten Island accent because I think it sounds ugly and coarse. It reminds me of the anti-Blackness I experienced from White Staten Islanders. But when I’m speaking with my mother and I’m frustrated (these two things often go hand in hand), it slips out. Staten Island-ese sounds like a cross between Brooklyn-ese (think Saturday Night Fever, Do the Right Thing, or Just Another Girl on The IRT) and New Joisy-speak, but a little slow-a.

“I dun-no.”

“Ma-a-a-a-a-a-a!” Exasperated, I try another route. “Well, if you could do anything for yer birthday, what wouldja wanna do?” I’m still pacing.

“Oh, I dun-no…”

“Ma, yuh know we go through this every year, right?”

“And every year, I dunno what I wanna do for my birthday. I know what I want for my birthday, but I nevah know what I wanna do for my birthday.”

“Well, whaddya want?” I ask with trepidation, even though I know what’s coming next. I put my hand on my Gladys Knight forehead, as if it will ward off the impending headache.

“A million dollas!” With that, Mom cracks up. She has made herself laugh so hard that she doesn’t even notice that I’m not laughing at the same old, tired joke she’s been making for years. I roll my eyes, hold the phone away from me, and stare at it incredulously for a minute. Then, I sigh.

“If you could do any-thing for yer birthday, Ma, what wouldja wanna do?” I ask again, hoping this time will be the charm.

“Hmm. I nevah really gave it that much thawt.”

“Give it some thawt now, Ma. We can do whatever you wanna do. We can go wherever you wanna go, and you can have anybody you want present.” I plunk down on my futon and sit cross-legged. I glance over at my orisha altar and silently ask Obatala to give me strength and patience. Conversations with Mom are like walking with a toddler—slow-moving at times, wandering to whatever topic catches her attention.

“Oh…” she responds finally.

Mom has never considered the fact that she can choose who to spend her birthday with. I know this is foreign and radical to her. I give her this option because my mother is still angry with my dad for losing their rent-to-own home last year. My family had lived there for twenty-four years and, in keeping with their overall lack of communication about challenging topics, Dad didn’t tell Mom that he fell behind in the rent. As a result, they were evicted. I figure not being with Dad will make her birthday easier for all of us.  

I can hear the cogs of Mom’s mind turning through the telephone wires. At times, they creak as if they haven’t been oiled in years and at other times, they quickly glide against one another.

“I wanna go to a casino,” Mom says.  

I shake my head, astonished. In the process, my hair shakes a bit and my large silver hoop earrings gently slap the side of my face.

“A ca-seeno?! You wanna go to a casino fer yur birthday?” I stop myself from climbing on a soapbox about gambling and pissing away one’s money because I did say that if she wanted to do something, go somewhere new—besides going out to eat at her usual spots, Perkins and Charlie Brown’s—I would go with her.

“Okay, Mom. We’ll go to a casino. Who do yuh wanna to go with, besides me? It can be just the two of us or you can invite anyone else you like.” I half expect her to say that she wants Dad to join us because they go almost everywhere together.

“Nobody.”

“Hunh. Okay, do you want to invite any of your friends?”

“No.”

I am relieved. The prospect of spending the day with Mom and her girlfriends would drive me to drink. They’re nice enough, but my mother doesn’t seem to know any other reserved middle-aged women; her friends talk non-stop and they would talk at me. In her friend group, Mom is the quietest of them all. There’s Pat, a boisterous African American woman who laughs so loud that God covers their ears; there’s Beverly, a garrulous Jamaican woman who’s always got some rip-roaring tale about her family members, and then, there’s the other Pat, an Irish American woman who claims to be a witch. Of course, all of these women are psychiatric nurses like my mother.

“Is there any particular casino that you’d like to go to? One that you’ve visited before or have wanted to visit?”

“No. I mean, I’ve been to Atlantic City and that’s fine.”

My face involuntarily wrinkles in a disapproving frown. Hmpf. You can go there any time! If I’m going to schlep to a casino, it betta be someplace we can explore togetha, I think to myself. Because Mom lives in Staten Island, she can get to Atlantic City in two hours. Less, if she’s driving with her usual ‘lead foot.’ 

“How about we go somewhere you haven’t been?” I ask.

As if on cue, the catchy jingle from the 1996 Mohegan Sun casino commercial pops into my head. “Moe-hee-gun Sunnnnn!” The first time I saw the commercial in the 90s, I thought, “Oh, cool!” But then I realized that it was land owned by the indigenous Mohegan people in Connecticut and I was ambivalent about the fact that an Indigenous tribe needed to make money through casino ownership. Questions about reparations for Indigenous people and the morality of facilitating gambling addiction, alongside images of busloads of barely ambulatory senior citizens clutching walkers with those greenish-yellow, Wilson tennis balls on the bottom, and smoke-filled rooms ringing with the cries of people losing their life savings danced in my head. Shaking these images out of my mind, I suggest we go to Mohegan Sun and Mom is game. She’s not usually an adventurous type, but if she’s driving, she’s down to go almost anywhere.

With that, it’s a done deal. Mom and I are going to spend the day together, at a casino! I’ve never been to a casino before because they’ve never appealed to me and even though it’s my idea, I’m nervous about spending the entire day alone with my mother. Did I mention that my mother doesn’t really talk with me, that she talks at me, without pausing or coming up for air? It’s as if she’s throwing pasta at a wall and seeing what sticks.

Most of the time when we’re on the phone, I take a break by gently laying down the receiver while she’s talking and walk away to tend to something more pressing (cooking, dusting, folding laundry, etc.). When I pick it up again, I’m sure Mom didn’t even notice that I was off the line (she never does). But driving together for almost three hours is daunting because I can’t remove or shut off my ears, jump out the car window, or anything subtle like that. No, I’m going to be stuck listening to my mother talk at me for almost three-long-Gawd-forsaken-hours. Alone. Did I mention that we’re going to be alone? I just want to make sure.

***

The day of Mom’s birthday, I call her soon after I awaken at around 6:45 am, because I’m fairly certain she’s awake.

“Heh-low?” Mom sounds groggy. I doubt she’s slept soundly. Mom sleeps with the TV on; she says she listens to it while sleeping.

“Hi, Ma! Happy birthday!!” A few years ago, I began what I think is a cute tradition where I call my mother twice a year—once for her birthday and once for mine—to wish her a happy birthday. Mom never seems to fully get it, but she always humors me, says, “Thank you” and then falls silent. In keeping with said tradition, that’s what happens this morning.

“Whaddya doin’?” I’m trying to be chipper. I’ve prepped and psyched myself up for this trip for the past two weeks. I talked to all the people in my support system (i.e., those to whom I have complained about Mom’s emotional coldness and seeming indifference about my life): my girlfriend; my closest friends; my spiritual godmother; and various people from my 12-Step fellowships. They all assured me that this would go well, or if it didn’t go well, it wouldn’t go too badly. Honestly, I expect the latter.

“Oh, just watchin’ the news,” Mom replies.

“Where’s Dad?”

“In the living room, I guess.” I imagine her shrugging as she says this. The living room is so close to my parents’ bedroom that she can hear if Dad is there. I decide not to probe about Mom’s lack of interest in Dad’s whereabouts. Since the eviction, Mom doesn’t have a kind word to say to or about Dad; it seems as if he can do nothing right in her eyes. This breaks my heart as Dad is the parent who taught me things (chess, using hand tools, cooking, gardening) and let me ask questions. Although Mom provided for my material needs, Dad nurtured me in his quiet, patient way.

“Okay, so are we still goin’?” I ask with crossed fingers.

“Yeah,” Mom affirms.

Drat! I think to myself.

Why? Did somethin’ come up?” Mom asks. She almost sounds like she’ll be disappointed if we don’t go.

“No, just checking. What time do you wanna meet up?”

“I’ll pick you up at eleven.” I know that really means eleven-thirty, noon.

“Okay! See you then, Mom.”

***

Like clockwork, Mom picks me up at noon. It’s just above seventy degrees, so I’m wearing a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of navy-blue sneakers. I’ve got a tan, lightweight jacket, my Nikon camera, and a few toiletries in my forest green backpack. As my mother pulls up in her navy-blue car, she’s smiling a bit.

“Hi, Ma!”

“Hi,” she says weakly. She stiffens as I give her a peck on the cheek. For years, I thought Mom didn’t like it when I gave her a kiss. I’ve since realized that she freezes up and moves away when anyone (except young children) is physically affectionate with her.

“I printed up the directions, so we’re good to go!” And with that, we’re off! With WCBS-FM playing in the background, I direct my mother to the first leg of our journey.

“How’s Cassandra?” I ask. Mom’s relationship with my twenty-year-old sister has grown progressively worse over the years. There’s a fourteen-year age difference between my sister and I, so we’ve never been close. Although Dad and my sister had a great relationship, my parents only found out that Cassandra was expecting because my mother snooped in her things. By then, she was seven months pregnant with my niece, Kira.

“Oh, yuh know… she’s workin’ fifteen ‘ours a week at Sears. She’s makin’ signs and puttin’ them up around the store. She seems tuh like it.” Mom shrugs and frowns.

“Fif-teen? Why so few hours?” Since my sister isn’t paying rent and doesn’t have to buy anything for my niece, I figure she can save money so that she can move out of our parents’ home. In my mind, she’s taking advantage of them.

“Oh, I dunno. Yuh havta ask her. But she took Kira to see Gabriel and his family.” Gabriel is my four-year-old niece’s father, but he and Cassandra broke up soon after she became pregnant. My parents didn’t even know my sister was dating someone, let alone that she was having sex. “And, she’s been disappearin’ for ‘ours and then, comin’ back like nothin’s happened.” Mom sounds indignant.  

“Ohhh.” Glancing over at her, I notice Mom’s thick hands gripping the steering wheel a bit tighter. Her nails are freshly painted in Fire Engine Red, but her cuticles are dry and cracking. Her Jheri curl is as moist as a freshly baked, Betty Crocker Bundt cake. Two short, dark brown hairs sprout from her jawline and a few gray hairs insistently peek out from her dyed, ear-length bob. My eyes get wide and I gulp. The situation doesn’t sound good and I’ve avoided giving my parents advice on how they should handle it. I steer the conversation to neutral territory—the song playing on the radio. It’s Nelly Furtado’s, “I’m Like A Bird.”

“Hey! Didn’t this song win a Grammy last year?”

“Oh, yeah! It did.” Significant discomfort averted. For the next two and a half hours, Mom and I chat about her job, Kira’s capers in daycare, the latest thing Dad did to piss her off, my mother’s friends’ drama, and wherever else my mother’s mind goes. Much to my relief, it’s a relatively smooth conversation. Mom typically only sees her friends two or three times a year (even though they live in the same borough), so Dad ends up being the person she talks with the most. However, she’s still pissed at him, so she vacillates between berating him and chatting with him as if nothing happened. It occurs to me during the ride that talking with me provides Mom a much-needed outlet, so even though it’s draining for introverted me to be ‘on’ for this long, I oblige her. It is her birthday, after all.

When we finally reach the casino, Mom parks the car, and calls Dad to let him know that we’ve arrived. While she does this, I take out my little digital camera and start snapping pictures of her and the place so we can have something to commemorate the day. I’m twisting and turning like Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Gordon Parks, trying to capture the way the sun’s rays land on my mother’s nut-brown face. Mom rolls her eyes at my antics as she adjusts her oversized denim button-down shirt over her grey t-shirt. She hefts a navy-blue tote bag over her right shoulder as she holds her cellphone to her ear. Her gold-tone eyeglasses sit perched on the bridge of her angular nose. I never noticed until now, but Mom stands upright like a solider—with her feet about a foot apart.

“We’re heah! Everything okay? Whaddya doin’?” she inquires, rapid fire. I don’t know how Dad does it. The way Mom asks him questions, it’s like he’s completing an oral obstacle course.

“Oh. Okay,” she replies. I suspect Dad said something satisfactory to Mom, for there is a smile creeping across her face. I exhale a bit. It’s become difficult for me to spend time around them when they’re together, because it’s too brutal and painful to watch. Mom is harsh and scathing, while Dad says nothing in response. The rare moment he snaps back—like a snapping turtle awakened by a child’s prodding—seems futile in comparison to Mom’s vicious verbal attacks. It wasn’t like this when I was a child; Mom was civil then.

“Alright. Well, I’ll give you a cawl when we’re leavin’. Bye.”

My right eyebrow creeps up on its own accord. I’m surprised that there was no badgering, no snide comment about how “pitiful” my dad is. Mom seems…peaceful, placid, like the man-made lake alongside the casino. I seize the moment and ask, “You ready tuh go in?”

“Yeah,” Mom says eagerly, as she stretches and arches her back a bit. That slight smile remains on her face as she steps forward in her black leather Reeboks and her navy blue, polyester elastic waist pants. She looks as if she’s heading in to do a shift at the state psychiatric hospital where she’s worked for most of my life. Her house keys, car keys, and some keys from work all dangle and clank against one another from the royal blue fabric lanyard keychain around her neck. I smell the flammable Soft Sheen Care Free Curl Gold Instant Activator—even though I’m standing four feet away from her—and am trying not to gag. I am well acquainted with that smell, having had a Jheri curl when I was in high school in the 1980s. Twenty years later, Mom is still hooked and loves the look.

As we walk into the casino, I notice the stacked stone veneer on the walls and the lit metal sconces. All the colors in the casino are muted, as if we’re in the desert. That is, a desert that’s actually a resort, with hundreds of slot machines and table games, several poker tables, forty-seven bars and restaurants, multiple nightclubs, a hotel, a spa, a golf course, a planetarium dome, concert and sports venues, and thirty-four shops. There are lights everywhere—bright lights, flashing lights, dim lights, and for some odd reason, strobe lights.

“My gawd! I hope there aren’t any epileptics here, with all the strobe lights.” As a nurse, Mom always notices the medical aspect of things. Meanwhile, I’m agog by the never-ending line of boutiques chock-full of gorgeous things. I’m a sucker for jewelry and nice clothes; I suspect it’s because Mom was never into those things. Both my grandmothers are clotheshorses; Mom is a workhorse. I’m a cross between the two, a workhorse trying to be a clotheshorse, but never quite succeeding. As I flit from store to store, oohing and ahhing, Mom chuckles with her hands folded behind her. After about two minutes, I realize she’s not even remotely interested in any of these things, so I flit back to my mother’s side like Black Tinkerbell and steer her towards what we came here for: the casino.

Once we enter the first casino room, Mom is in her element and I’m getting whiplash, looking from side to side, up and down. I quickly notice that almost all of the people here are middle-aged or senior citizens. There’s an East Asian posse of seniors with canes and large, colorful twenty-ounce plastic cups filled with something that’s making them guffaw and smile broadly. Just past them is an equally large group of Black senior citizens channeling the 1970s, wearing matching t-shirts, baseball caps, berets, and jeans, giggling with glee as one of their own has just struck it big. On the other side is a gaggle of White senior citizens in velour lounge suits chattering to each other, as they pull down their slot machine levers in sync. The only people under forty-five are Indigenous workers and me.

“Whoa!” I exclaim. “I had no idea…!”

“Whaat?” Mom asks. It’s also really loud in here. I make a mental note to check my hearing when I get back home.

“I had no idea so many…older people come to these places!” I’m not sure what the lingo is these days—‘old people’, ‘older people’, ‘senior citizens’, ‘elders’, or something else—and am trying to be respectful.

“Oh, yeah! They spend hours, even days heah. They come by bus!”

Just as I suspected, I think, pursing my lips in disapproval. “Hunh.” I eye the elders, looking them up and down, trying to figure out their deal. Where on earth did they get the money to be here? And what happens if they lose it all? I wonder. But it’s too loud for me to think clearly and too dimly lit for me to see much.

As I ponder the politics of the place and grimace at the intermittent mournful cries, Mom finds a slot machine at the end of an endless row of them and whips out a little black Le Sportsac bag. I inch closer, peer over her right shoulder, and realize the bag is filled with quarters.

“Ma! Ma!! Ma-a-a-a!!!” I shout until my mother hears me over the din.

“Whaaat?” Mom barely gives me a sidelong glance, transfixed on her mission.

“Can I have some?” I meekly point to the bulging bag.

“There’s a change machine ovah there,” Mom gestures over her left shoulder. This is the same woman who’s never given either of her children a sip from her cup or a forkful from her plate. Why on earth did I think she would spare some change?

“Okay.” I trundle off glumly to the change machine. I warily gawk at everyone I see seated in front of hundreds of slot machines that fill a room that has the size and acoustics of an auditorium. “Cling-ca-ching! Ding-ca-ching! Clunk-a-dunk!” These sounds bounce off the walls in supersonic stereo.

After getting thirty dollars’ worth of quarters, I wander back to where my mother is seated. Serendipitously, there’s an empty machine right next to her. It’s obvious that Mom’s done this before: her eyes barely leave the screen as her hand dips into the bag of quarters, picks up a quarter, drops it into the slot, grabs the lever, and pulls it down. A broad, toothy smile fills the bottom half of her face, as the light from the machine emits an eerie glow onto Mom’s face, making her look like a zombie. I don’t know whether to be horrified or awed, so I silently mimic her actions. Unlike Mom, I’m not numb to each successive loss of a quarter. It feels as if pieces of me are dying each time. I grimace, groan, and barely manage to stop myself from falling onto the floor, bawling in the fetal position. This goes on for two solid hours. Mom and I seated side by side, both losing money—I am the first to call ‘uncle’.

“Ma? You hungry?” I plead to God that she is; I’m not sure if I can take much more of the overwhelming sights, sounds, and loss of money.

“Not really… but I do havta go tuh the bath-room.”

“Hunh. Well, I’m hungry and tired. This place is wearing me out, Mom.”

Mom chuckles and flashes a smile. “Shucks! Just when I was about to start winnin’ again.”

I blanch at the thought that I took my mother away from a winning streak on her birthday, so I ask her if I am taking her away at a bad time.

“Kinda… I lose some, then I win some, then I lose some, and I keep playin’ ‘til I win it back. I was just beginning the part where I play to win it back.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mom!”

“It’s okay.” Mom glances at her gold-tone, stretch wristwatch. “We should be heading back soon anyway. It’ll be dark soon and I wanna avoid traffic.” And with that, Mom gathers her things, meticulously and unhurriedly. As she turns to me, I notice she walks like a grizzly bear—slow and heavy.

We leave and grab something at a McDonald’s on the way home because it’s her favorite restaurant. The car ride back to New York is smooth and easy, as I ask Mom questions about her previous experience at casinos. As she talks, there is a light in her eyes, and she looks free. I’ve never seen Mom look free before and I am taken aback by both the image and the realization. At some point, she mentions Dad and something he recently did that pissed her off. Feeling emboldened by the ease and levity of our conversation, I take a chance and ask Mom something we’ve never discussed before.

“Ma, do you love Dad?” My breath catches, for this is a question that I don’t know the answer to and I don’t know what possessed me to ask this. A pregnant pause follows as Mom’s mind registers the question.

“Yeah?” she replies as if she is half-asking herself.

“You do?” I’ve never seen my parents show any verbal or physical affection towards each other or talk about one another in even remotely loving ways in the twenty-eight years they’ve been together. I’m beyond shocked.

“Yeah….” Mom shrugs her shoulders as if to say, ‘I can’t explain it, but I do.’

“Hunh.” I’m not sure what to say now since we don’t discuss feelings in my family. But another question tumbles out of my lips before I can stop it. “Did you love my father?” I’m referring to my biological father, the man who co-created me. “Dad” is my stepfather, the man who raised me.

“Oh, yeah! Even afta he made me have an abortion.”

My head jerks involuntarily so that I’m staring at Mom’s profile with the sun setting behind her. “What?”

“He made me have an abortion after I had you.” Mom says this off-handedly, as if she’s talking about what she had for breakfast this morning.

Another question forcefully pushes past my lips. “How many have you had?”

“Two. One with your father, and the other with Harold before Cassandra was born.” Harold is Dad’s name.

Feeling as if I’ve been punched in my stomach and all the air has been sucked out of the car, I lean back in my seat and quietly hyperventilate. I didn’t know that my mother had any abortions, let alone two. As someone who’s never had an abortion or seriously considered giving birth, I can’t imagine Mom as a young woman making such a life-changing decision, nor can I imagine what it was like for her to undergo this procedure as many times as she’d given birth—twice. I catch my breath and stare out the window, barely noticing the lights from the storefronts and strip malls we pass on I-395.

As I collect myself, I recall that in my sophomore year of high school, Mom woke up early one weekend morning and quietly rushed around before leaving the house.

“Where you goin’? It’s seven o’clock in the morning!” I asked. I was reading the Sunday comics in the living room. Mom isn’t a morning person, so seeing her moving around so quickly and so early in the morning was unusual.

“To Washington. There’s a march,” she replied, as she grabbed a tote bag and her jacket. Mom only walks to and from her car, so I couldn’t imagine her marching anywhere, with anyone, for any reason. Sixteen-year-old me stood with my mouth agape, watching Mom brim with excitement. Mom’s pretty impassive most times and hardly ever looks excited about anything. It was odd.

Bringing myself back to the present, I ask, “Hey, didn’t you go to some march when I was in high school?”

“Yeah, the March fer Women’s Lives in ’86. It was organized by NOW.” Mom responds, as she looks at the road. The lights on the highway are all we have to guide us now.

“Wow! You marched?” I gaze at my mother in awe.

Mom chuckles. “Yeah, for a bit. But then I got tired, so I stood on the sidelines and listened to the speakers. It was thrilling!”

“Wow. I had no idea.” I murmur, turning back to look out the window. “You are full of surprises, Mom.”

Mom laughs and says, “I don’t know about that….”

I do.”

I’d learned more about my mother in one day then I’d ever learned in the thirty-plus years that I’d known her. All this time, I’d only seen her as someone who loved her job more than she loved her children. I never considered Mom’s inner life or what her life was like before she had my sister and me. Clearly, I really didn’t know my mother. The word ‘love’ was never spoken in my parents’ home. So to hear Mom say that she loved the two men she’d only ever been with is both jarring and oddly reassuring. Weary from the day, I lean back in my seat and ponder what to do with this new information and more importantly, how it will change how I see Mom from now on. 


BIO

Lourdes Dolores Follins is a Black queer woman who comes from a long line of intrepid women and working-class strivers. She’s been published in Rigorous, Watermelanin, What Are Birds, HerStry, Feminine Collective, Writing in A Woman’s Voice, Writing Disorder, and elsewhere. When she isn’t writing, she works as a psychotherapist with QTIPOC and kinky people. Check her out at www.lourdesdfollins.com





Tricky Friend

by Natthinee Khot-asa Jones and Hardy Jones

When I started kindergarten, Father bought me a new school uniform: a navy-blue skirt and a white dress shirt. All of the girls in my school wore this uniform and all of the girls had the same haircut: short bangs in the front and a bowl-cut on the sides and back. Also, the boys had the same haircut—a crewcut—and uniform: brown short pants and a white dress shirt.

The female teachers had an official uniform that they wore on certain days such as when they had parent conferences or a government leader visited. But on regular days they wore their own clothes, usually a skirt with a split in the front or the back. I was impressed with how beautiful the teachers’ skirts were and wondered if I could ever dress like them.

One day after school, I didn’t change out of my school uniform and played with my best friend Na. We played in our homemade playhouse under a tamarind tree. Na asked me: “Do you want to have a beautiful skirt like our teachers with a split?”

Na’s question reignited my dream to dress beautifully.

I immediately told her: “Yes, I want to have a dress like our teachers.”

“I can make a split for you.” Na said and took me to her house.

She went inside the house and returned with small black scissors that her mother used to cut her hair.

I was excited to have a split in my skirt; it would make me feel beautiful and grown up.

“Would you like to have the split in the front or the back?” Na asked and smiled.

“May I have one in the front and one in the back, please?” 

Na bent down and used the scissors to slowly cut the bottom of my skirt. “How about two inches?”

“Good. I like it.”

“Do you still want to have one in the back?” Na asked.

“Definitely!”  I turned around.

“Beautiful. This looks like our teacher’s skirt,” Na proudly proclaimed.

I was happy with what Na did for me. We played a few more hours, and then I went home to see Father.

When I entered the house, Father immediately looked at my school uniform.

“Come here, baby girl.”

I stood in front of him and smiled.

“What happened to your skirt?” Father asked and bent down to inspect my skirt. 

“I wanted my skirt to have a split like the teacher’s skirt. So Na helped me. Isn’t it beautiful, Father?”

“Na cut it for you or you cut it yourself?” Father’s tone was harsh.

“Why are you so angry at me?”

“Just answer my question. Did you cut your skirt or did your friend cut it?”

“Na cut my skirt.”

My answer saddened Father’s eyes. He looked down and took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure if he was disappointed because my skirt had a split or if he was disappointed because I allowed another person to cut my skirt.

Father straightened up and looked in my eyes.

“Your school uniform should never be cut like the teacher’s skirt. You are not a teacher or an adult. You can’t wear a skirt with a split. This is not right.”

I realized that I had done something stupid again and made Father sad. I lowered my head and was afraid to look him in the face.

“I’m so sorry, Father.”

“Your skirt is cut. How can you wear it to school? No student in your school has a skirt split like a teacher, and you should not cut your skirt for any reason.”

I didn’t answer but kept my head bowed. I felt so guilty.

“Did Na cut her skirt too?” Father asked.

“She cut mine only,” I said quietly.

Father’s face turned red and his tone grew harsher.

“Your friend tricked you, don’t you know? A few weeks ago she tricked you to eat her boogers, and today she tricked you to cut your school uniform. You should know what’s right and what’s wrong!”

I could tell that Father wanted badly to spank me, but he knew that I was naïve enough to be tricked.

Whatever happened to me, good or bad, Father always blamed himself. He never spanked me but only talked loudly to me when I did something wrong. Father knew that he didn’t have time to raise me like families with two parents did their children. Father tried his best to work and support all of us and teach us to grow and become good people.

Father went to the market and bought me a new skirt. He asked my oldest sister to patch up an old dress for me to wear around the house. I didn’t get to play with Na for a few days, and when I did ask Father if I could play with Na, he told me: “Don’t let your friend trick you. Do you understand?”

“Yes. I will protect myself.”

Those were Father’s final words about Na and her tricky ways.

Later, when I was thirteen-years old and in my first year of junior high school, Na was in her second year at the same school. After her father passed away, she quit school and worked full-time with her family, taking care of her family’s water buffaloes. One weekend I went to take care of my family’s water buffaloes on the south side of the village and saw Na.

“Do you like school?” Na asked.

“It’s ok. Not too bad.”

“If you don’t like school, why don’t you quit like me? It’s more fun to take care of water buffaloes than to go to school.”

I thought about her advice. It sounded good for a person who didn’t like school, but for a student like me who loved school (after my rough start, I became fluent in Thai, made many friends, and enjoyed learning), it didn’t sound good.

“No,” I said. “Taking care of our water buffaloes is fun on the weekend, but I want to get an education so I can have a good job. I don’t know how to work in the rice fields like my brothers and sisters. Education will help me get a good job.”

Even though I went to the rice fields with my family, my job was to cook delicious food for them and take care of the water buffaloes, a job Father and my siblings didn’t like. That’s why Father assigned this job to me along with cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These might be hard chores for other adolescent girls, but for me they were the best jobs ever.

“Silly, girl,” Na said. “A junior high school diploma won’t help you get a good job. You need to get a college degree.”

“Well, first I have to finish junior high school, graduate high school, and later go to college,” I said.

“I don’t think you can do it. You don’t have any money. Poor country girls like you and me, we will never get degrees. Sometimes you need to accept who you are,” Na said.

“I accept that I am a country girl and that I am poor, but it is free to dream, and I dream to have a college degree. Don’t you have a dream?”

“Nope, I don’t dream of anything. Just live day to day.”

That was the last day I talked to Na in our village. I didn’t see her for more than two years. I found out that she went to work at a plastic factory with her oldest brother in Prapadeang, a city near Bangkok. After I graduated from junior high school, I too worked in Bangkok, and even ended up working with Na at the plastic factory. I was only 15 years old: too young to get a good job. Our time at this factory was fun but it held no future.

Our job was to cut the plastic into smaller sizes to be shipped. We worked 12 hours per day, 5 days per week. We were paid 100 Baht per day (about $3.15 per day) and if we worked on Sunday, we were paid double. The job’s only benefits were that it provided you with a room that included utilities—electricity and water. We bought our own food. Early on, I liked the job, but when I thought about my future, I knew this job was not good. I needed to work where they provided benefits like healthcare, life insurance, and a retirement.

Today we hear a lot about the exploitation of child labor, and that was what this job did to Na, me, and thousands of other Thai teenagers. As time went on, I kept telling Na that I didn’t want to work weekends. Instead, on the weekends I wanted to go to school to get an off-campus high school diploma (GED). Na didn’t like my idea. She repeated constantly how much she hated school.

I only worked with Na one year and then I got a job with an American company (Seagate Thailand). This company was good; they provided great benefits and were ranked as a top 50 company to work for in Thailand. An important element at Seagate Thailand was that they would assist you with your education. When an employee took GED classes, the company paid for a teacher to come to our company and conduct classes. I earned my high school diploma in less than two years.

After I graduated, Father passed away. I resigned my job and went to a Business college in southern Thailand for two years, receiving my Associate’s degree in Accounting. After graduation, I returned to Bangkok to work with a Japanese company. I had a good job with great benefits, and I appreciated how education helped me move up economically and professionally.

One weekend, my sister wanted Na to join us in her Bangkok apartment to cook and hangout. I was happy to see Na again. She worked in a different factory and earned a set salary with no overtime or benefits. I tried to convince Na to go back to school, but she wouldn’t listen. Same old Na: live day to day.

After lunch, Na and I agreed that we would take turns pulling each other’s under-arm hair—we never shaved our armpits like farang (Western) women. I pulled her under-arm hair first, and when I lay down for her to pull mine, she said, “I’m tired. I don’t feel good.”

“Are you ok? Or you just don’t want to do your turn?”

“I just don’t feel good. I’ll do it for you later.”

Same old Na: tricky ways.

Although she tricked me, as a friend I forgave her; but I would never let her trick me again.

After that day, I didn’t see Na for more than five years. I considered Na my friend, but I categorized her as only my childhood friend. As adults, she didn’t seem like a friend; I couldn’t trust her with all of my heart. I just hope she does not treat others the way she treated me.

Tricky ways create bad karma.


BIOS

Natthinee Khot-asa Jones is a memoirist, novelist, and short story writer publishing in Thai and English. She is a country girl from the Thai side of the Thai-Cambodian border who grew up speaking Cambodian, Thai, and Laotian. In 2001, she graduated from Sophon Business School in Thailand, and later attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Auburn University, and the University of New Orleans. Her English publications include the memoirs Wal-Mart Girl, When I Was a Child, A True Story of Child Labor. She is the co-author of the story collection Coconuts and Crawfish, and the novel International Love Supreme. Please check out her books at https://www.amazon.com/Natthinee-Jones/e/B089G9GH8R/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_ebooks_1.

In addition to being a writer, Natthinee is a photographer, and one of her photos was used for the cover image of the “Family Secrets” (Issue #44) Sugar Mule Online Magazine. In 2006-2007, she was a Laotian translator and interpreter for Louisiana’s Folklife “New Populations Project.” For this project, her husband Hardy Jones received a research grant to write about Songkran, the Buddhist New Year’s celebration in the Laotian community of Lanxang outside of Lafayette, Louisiana. The essay and photographs from their research are on the Louisiana Folklife website. Natthinee loves cooking Thai and Cajun food, and in 2006 her Phad-Thai recipe was featured in the Wal-Mart Family Cookbook. Organic gardening is her newest passion, building on her childhood experiences on her family’s farm in Thailand. Her website is www.natthineeandhardy.com.  She is the co-founder and the Webmaster of the online journal Cybersoleil (www.cybersoleiljournal.com).

Hardy Jones is a Creole/Cajun educator and author in New Orleans. He is a two-time Pushcart Nominee, the author of the novels Every Bitter Thing, International Love Supreme, the memoirs People of the Good God, Resurrection of Childhood, and the story collection Coconuts and Crawfish. He is the co-author of the memoirs Wal-Mart Girl, When I was a Child,and A True Story of Child Labor. Please check out his books at this link https://www.amazon.com/Hardy-Jones/e/B00494EAS6/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_ebooks_2. His creative nonfiction won two grants. His stories were anthologized in the 2009 Dogzplot Flash Fiction Anthology, The Best of Clapboard House Literary Journal, Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South, and Summer Shorts II. He is the co-founder and Executive Editor of the online journal Cybersoleil (www.cybersoleiljournal.com). Hardy holds a Ph, D. in American Literature from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis, and a M.A.T. in Secondary English Education from the University of New Orleans. He taught in universities for 18 years and is a certified teacher. His website is www.hardyjoneswriting.com and he is on Twitter @HardyJonesWrite. Hardy splits his time between New Orleans, Louisiana and Si Sa Ket Province Thailand.



The Blizzard of ‘47

by Anita G. Gorman

In 1947 few cars were parked on our street in Elmhurst, Queens. Those who had cars kept them hidden in garages behind their homes. Rarely did a neighbor drive a car to work; most took the bus on Queens Boulevard or the subway at the Grand Avenue station. An occasional car might travel up or down 55th Road, on its way to the excitement of Manhattan, perhaps, or in the opposite direction toward residential neighborhoods in the more hilly part of Elmhurst. In the summer I would ride my bike up and down the street, and when I was a teen I would venture as far as the World’s Fairgrounds in Flushing or the congested areas of Long Island City. But in 1947 I was only eight and not allowed to venture far from home. Our street and the nearby streets, filled with two-storey houses and narrow driveways, sidewalks and elm trees, would have to provide the entertainment I craved.

On summer days we kids would play potsie—the New York version of hopscotch—or I Declare War, a game that involved a ball and a large chalk circle drawn in the middle of the street and divided into countries we had heard of but never visited. And when winter came, we looked forward to sledding down 55th Road, which boasted a small hill at its top.

As Christmas approached, we hoped for snow, knowing full well that snow and Christmas went together, along with presents and Christmas cookies, and Christmas trees with ornaments and tinsel. In our house Christmas also meant my Swedish mother’s endless toil in the kitchen, making korv (sausage) and head cheese (pressylta) constructed from unknown parts of the pig, jellied veal (kalvsylta), and rice pudding (risgröt) with an almond hidden inside, promising to its lucky recipient good luck in the near future.

How excited we were as we imagined the presents we would receive on Christmas Eve and the second batch of presents on Christmas Day when my mother’s cousins, Ethel and Mabel, would arrive for dinner carrying a suitcase filled with delights for me and my little brother. How excited we were as we imagined the snow that just had to arrive in time for Santa Claus and his sleigh, and for the neighborhood kids and their sleds.

Yet in the midst of all the excitement and happiness, fear loomed, fear that we would be thwarted in our attempts to glide down our little hill on our American Flyers, thwarted by a lonely woman who lived in a basement apartment at the top of the hill. The apartment was part of a two-family house that fronted onto Van Horn Street, and the rear of the basement was exposed so Mrs. Hume did not have to walk down steps to get home. She was tall and thin and had white, curly hair. She lived by herself, and we had no idea what had happened to Mr. Hume. Did she ever have any children? She certainly did not like children. We did not seem to bother her too much in the summertime, since our games were held outside of my house on the more level part of the street. It was during wintertime that we played near her apartment, because she lived right by the little hill, and we needed that little hill. When it snowed, we would pull our sleds up the street to the top of the hill and begin our descent with a flying start at the summit, hoping our sleds would run fast, faster, as fast as possible. Our sledding enraged Mrs. Hume.

At first she would look out the window and peer into the street, scowling at our red and laughing faces. Then she would appear at her door and yell at us, telling us that this was her part of the street and we were not allowed there. I knew that Mrs. Hume did not own the street, that we had a right to go sledding and that she could not stop us. Ah, but she could, and she did.

Snow had already fallen that December in 1947, and we had played boisterously in spite of Mrs. Hume. Then about a week before our Christmas vacation was to start, snow started to fall again. I was in my fourth-grade classroom at Public School 102 at the top of our little hill. Our teacher was employing her usual method of dealing with my naughty classmates: she was yelling at the top of her lungs. That day the yelling didn’t bother me so much, since the snow was falling and once school was over we could take to the little hill and fly down 55th Road until our sleds stopped somewhere in the middle of the street when it became more level.

The snow kept falling, and I was so happy, happy that I would be able to hop on my sled that afternoon and fly down the hill. Finally the bell rang, the snow had stopped, and we were out the door. Our house was a minute from the school, and I was soon in the door, gulping my glass of milk and stuffing a cookie in my mouth. Then I put on my snow pants, my hooded jacket, and my boots. My mother opened the garage door for me, and soon I and my sled were walking up the street. Other kids, I knew, would soon be joining me.

Suddenly I stopped short. Something was wrong. A black line had appeared across the little hill on top of the newly fallen snow. I went up to it, wondering what it could be. I approached slowly. Then I saw what had happened: a path of ashes was now wending its way from one side of the street to the other. Where were the ashes from? They had to be from Mrs. Hume’s coal furnace. Who else would have sprinkled ashes across the street? She had to be the guilty person. Mean Mrs. Hume! There would be no sledding on the hill that day. I turned around and went home.

But that is not the end of my story. Christmas came, and so did my presents and Christmas cookies and the long-awaited visit from my mother’s cousins. Then Christmas dinner was over, and vacation days stretched out in front of us. We longed for more snow. We longed for so much snow that Mrs. Hume would not be able to put ashes on the road. The snow would fall and fall, and no matter how she tried she would not be able to prevent more lovely snowflakes from covering her awful ashes. I was going to get my wish.

The snow started falling on Christmas Day. It did not stop until the next day. I was jubilant. We—Mother Nature and I—had thwarted Mrs. Hume. She would never be able to compete with the Blizzard of ’47. By the time the snow ended, more than twenty-six inches had fallen, and drifts much higher appeared throughout New York City. Mrs. Hume could not leave her apartment to toss ashes on the street. There was one problem: we could not leave our houses either. There was too much snow. Mother Nature had thwarted all of us.

BIO

Anita G. Gorman grew up in Queens and now lives in northeast Ohio. Since 2014 she has had 71 short stories and 19 essays accepted for publication. Her one-act play, Astrid: or, My Swedish Mama, produced at Youngstown Ohio’s Hopewell Theatre in March 2018, starred Anita and her daughter Ingrid.

Let He Who Is Without Sin Hurl The First Haggis

By James W. Morris

Like most fiction writers, I spend a significant portion of my time alone, obsessively and intensively fretting about the personal problems of people who don’t exist. Whether an inborn proclivity for solitude leads a person to accepting a calling to write fiction, or whether a fervid desire to write fiction forces an otherwise normal person to develop a tolerance for being on his own is a controversy on which I take no stance. I’m not worried about it either way.

Neither am I concerned about the fact that I talk to myself when I’m alone. I often compose sentences aloud, voicing possible dialog, or sounding out hard-wrought descriptive passages, listening ardently for the music I want them to make.

What I am worried about is that lately when I talk to myself I’ve been doing so with a Scottish accent.

My first thought upon making this realization was just what anyone else’s would be: “Hey, I’m suddenly speaking with a Scottish accent! I must have had a stroke!” But then I remembered that having a stroke makes speakers of English produce a French accent, not a Scottish one, and I felt a bit better.

But the question remains: why Scottish? I have had some minor contact with that culture over the years, but enjoy no direct ancestry from that country that I know of, and even if I did, my family on both sides have been in America for centuries. It’s true that my grandmother’s second husband was a Scottish immigrant, and I liked him and occasionally emulated the interesting way he talked, but he was no blood relative, so I can’t imagine how any previously-dormant, burr-inducing gene or revenant race memory could cause my new way of speaking.

Of course, as a writer, I have found much to admire over the years about the literary culture of Scotland. A number of great authors hail from there—Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Burns, the nation’s premier poet, who in the 18th century wrote these memorable lines:

                        Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

                        Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!

These thoughtfully constructed, sincerely admiring lines were part of a lengthy (eight stanza) love poem addressed to—you guessed it—a haggis. How very Scottish.

Speaking of haggis, I experienced some hands-on contact with that moderately-disgusting feature of Scottish culture in 1998, when I attended a local festival and managed second place in a haggis-hurling contest. A haggis, by the way, is a traditional Scottish pudding made from a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, chopped up and mixed with oatmeal and suet, and slow-cooked in the animal’s stomach. (If you don’t know what suet is, be glad.) Creating a contest in which the (surprisingly dense and heavy) haggis is tossed for distance might seem an arbitrary exercise, but to me it makes perfect sense: the first thing any sane person should want to do when faced with a haggis is throw it as far away as possible.

Maybe I’m just bored with my normal way of talking. I’m from Philadelphia, and we have a distinct, if not entirely charming accent, being fairly well-known by linguistic types for pronouncing the word “water” as “wood-er.” Also, try to stop us from substituting an “f” sound for some our word-ending “th”s, and inserting an arbitrary “h” between any “s” and a “tr” we come across. Thus, we might say:

                        “Yo, go wiff me up Fiff Shtreet to get some wooder ice.”

Let’s face it: you can get tired of this sort of thing after a while. So is it entirely unreasonable to imagine I might make an unconscious decision to employ a more enjoyable accent—one with trilling “r”s and rising inflections on sentences that aren’t even questions—as long as no one else is there to hear it?

But writers are as superstitious as ballplayers, and we worry about little things affecting our individual prose style the way a batter worries about his swing. Could talking to myself, composing sentences in an accent other than my traditional one, infect my precious prose? Might it, in some indefinable manner, add a deadly taint of falsity? A P.G. Wodehouse story read in a Jamaican or Transylvanian accent would still be quite amusing, yet ridiculous in a wholly unintended way. An author can be always be silly but should never be ridiculous.

Sometimes the best way to consider a proposition is to reverse-engineer it: can I picture Robert Burns amusing himself by speaking in a Philadelphia accent while penning paeans to haggis? Well, no. He was true to himself and his culture, and I should probably just shut up and be true to mine. As one of the great philosophers (Popeye) once said: I yam what I yam. Besides, I’ve realized there is a locally-made foodstuff I could write about which is the gastronomic and moral equivalent of haggis—scrapple. This product is the equivalent of haggis because anyone contemplating eating some should be equally afraid to know what is in it. A cement-colored thick meat paste, scrapple is molded into a brick shape, then sliced and fried. According to admittedly unverified rumors I heard as a kid, it contains mostly ground-up pigs’ guts, blood, eyes, lips, bones, gristle, snouts, hoofs, and tails, as well as whatever was swept up from the floor of the slaughterhouse at the end of the night—including sawdust. As a vegetarian, I’m going to find it a quite a writing challenge to compose an eight-stanza love poem about scrapple—but at least whatever I produce will have a genuinely Philadelphian accent.     


BIO

James W. Morris is a graduate of LaSalle University in Philadelphia, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published dozens of short stories, humor pieces, essays, and poems in various literary magazines, including PHILADELPHIA STORIES and ZAHIR. He has also written one play, RUDE BABY, which was recently produced, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno.

The Other Daughter

by Lourdes Dolores Follins


On the Monday after Thanksgiving I was back at work after the long weekend. As a Black, queer, female psychotherapist who mostly works with queer people of color, many of my clients have feelings about seeing—or not seeing—their families for the holidays. I had five sessions scheduled that day and as expected, most clients needed to debrief. Thanksgiving with my sweet, self-centered, and well-intentioned in-laws was as trying as usual, but my wife and I always use the holiday as a bonding moment.

Even though I was well-rested on Monday, by mid-afternoon, I was halfway through what was turning out to be an emotionally draining day. Eager for a distraction, I checked my email and noticed this cryptic message:

From: Yida G.
To: Lourdes D Follins
Subject: Re Leon Follins

Hello my name is Yida G., Im a very close friend of your fathers. Please contact me as soon as possibel regarding your father. My number is +13869519216 . 
Best regards
Yida G.

Initially, I did not know what to make of the email and was confused. The formal grammar and typos led me to think it was a scam; especially since I hadn’t seen or heard from my biological father in twenty-five years. The last time I saw him was when I was twenty-three years old. Before that, I hadn’t seen him since I was five years old, when my parents’ divorce was finalized.

Suspicious New Yorker that I am, I Googled this Yida G. I found out that she and I were the same age, she was married to a man with a British surname, and she had a criminal record. With a raised eyebrow, I sent the following cool response:

Subject: Re Leon Follins

Hello,
Thank you for reaching out to me. I am in meetings for most of the day every day this week and will not be able to call you until the weekend. Please email whatever you need to share with me about my father.
Wishing you well,
Lourdes D. Follins

I figured if she really knew my father and if something was really wrong, she’d get back to me. Thirty minutes later, I received a more straightforward email from someone else:

From: Joseph K.
To: Lourdes D Follins
Subject: Death of Your Father

Hi Lourdes,

I live in Orlando, Florida. I am a friend of Leon Follins, your father. He told me that in the event of his death, you should be contacted as his only living child.  Please call my cell phone on 407-421-7040.  

Thank you.

Dead? How is that possible? He’s only…sixty-eight, I mused, calculating my father’s age. And why tell me?  Puzzled, I looked up this Joseph K. While I was searching for information about him, he sent me an identical email, this time through my business website. So, I called him.

“I’m sorry to tell you that your father died this morning,” Joseph said. He sounded as if he was telling me that it was going to rain tomorrow.   

I felt a mixture of curiosity and numbness. “Do you know how he died?” I asked matter-of-factly. I always want to know how people die—whether it’s due to natural or unnatural causes. It helps me understand how to respond to people’s grief.

“Oh, I think he died of a heart attack,” Joseph offered. I tried to place his accent; it reminded me of the Nigerians I’ve met.

“So, he hadn’t been ill or sick, then?” I probed. I was curious to know how he died, especially since his medical history effects my medical history.

“No, no…I don’t think so. But if you contact Sister Yida G., she can give you more information. They were very close.”

I felt a twinge of discomfort at that phrase—“very close.” I wasn’t sure if she was a mistress or something else, but I knew that I had to respond to her email. The term “sister,” however, made me wonder about the nature of their relationship. After thanking Joseph for reaching out to me, I called Yida a few hours later. I had a couple more clients to see before the end of my day and needed to maintain my focus. I didn’t have time to think or feel; it was business as usual.

“Oh, hi!” Yida gushed as if we were long-lost friends when she answered my call. “I knew your father for the last few years and we became close.” There was that word again: “close.”

“Oh?” I swallowed my pride and unease and prepared to ask as many questions about my father’s death as possible.

“Yes! I met him and Claudette—she was his wife—at the Kingdom Hall and he helped my boys learn the Bible.” I vaguely recalled that my father became a Witness when he met Claudette, but we never discussed religion when we were in each other’s lives.

“Really?” I had been pacing in front of the picture window in my office while we spoke and caught a glimpse of my incredulous, scowling face staring back at me. Since he was absent for most of my life, I was both moved and hurt by the idea of my father helping someone else’s children.

“Yessss! He was a great influence on them and helped me get my husband to become a Witness,” she said excitedly. “Witness” is the word Jehovah’s Witnesses use to refer to themselves.

“So how did he die?” I was trying to be patient, but I was in-between clients and needed the call to be quick.

“You know, it’s odd… he died of a heart attack, but if he had called 911 earlier, I think he’d still be here,” Yida said.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, he called me a little after midnight, but I was asleep. When he couldn’t reach me, he then called about three or four other Witnesses to tell them that he wasn’t feeling well. I guess at some point, he just lost consciousness and wasn’t behaving rationally….”

“Hmmm. I guess not.” The fact that my father was dead and that I was officially an orphan at age forty-nine had just sunk in. I was at a loss for words and didn’t know how to feel. My mother died suddenly four years ago, and although she raised me with my stepfather, he was not legally my father. I’d never harbored any fantasies of reconnecting with my father and I was surprised that someone thought to contact me about his death. In fact, I rarely thought about him.

“The Witnesses wanted me to tell you that if there is anything that you need, just let us know.”

I’m wary of Jehovah’s Witnesses because in New York City pairs of modestly dressed twenty- and thirty-something Witnesses conduct door-to-door ministry with some regularity. They knock and ask to speak with you about “The Word of God.” Most people peer at them through a peephole and refuse to answer; however, people who are unfamiliar with the Witnesses are kindly but determinedly bombarded with offers to hear the “Good News” or to read a few colorful pamphlets when they open their door.

For those of us who are accustomed to living in a largely secular city, having proselytizing strangers knock on your door can feel like an assault or an invasion of your limited space and time. Older Witnesses are less assertive; they smile blandly while sitting next to fairly ornate stands filled with The Watchtower and Awake! Magazines. They distribute pamphlets with titles like, “What Can the Bible Teach Us?” and “How To Remain in God’s Love” in subway stations. Because of this, I am not inclined to ask the Witnesses for assistance. Also, I worried how they would treat me once Brother Joseph told them that I am queer. On my business website, I am explicit about being queer. I didn’t know how else to respond, so I just said, “Thank you.”

“So, when are you coming down to Orlando?”

“Um…I need to see, but if it’s possible I’ll be on a plane tomorrow. I’ll confirm with you later this evening, if that’s alright with you.” Even though I would have to close my practice for the next three days, something told me that this is what had to be done. Something told me that I needed to go to Orlando and be my father’s daughter, tending to his affairs, just like I did for my mother. All I felt was a sense of urgency, a sense that time was of the essence—just like I did when my mother died.

“Sure! It’s great that you can get down here so quickly. That’s great!” Yida sounded nervous, or maybe I was projecting. I was uneasy and uncomfortable. I wanted to know what their “closeness” looked like, but I had a sinking feeling that I would learn more than I wanted to know.   

Before we hung up, Yida said that my father had wanted to leave everything to me, his only child. This struck me as odd. I’d accidentally reconnected with him when I began tracing my ancestry at age twenty-two. At the time, I was living in Staten Island, New York and my father was living in Brooklyn, New York. Soon after we reconnected, I moved into the same coop building that he lived in. Most times we were together, my father was as quiet as his wife Claudette was vibrant and inquisitive. In the brief year that we passed through each other’s lives, Claudette was the one who took an interest in me. My father looked on with mild curiosity mixed with boredom while Claudette and I chatted.

The last time my father and I spoke, he called me a liar. I was about to graduate from a master’s program and had told him that I wasn’t going to attend the ceremony. I hated the program and commencement meant nothing to me.

“Well, if you change your mind, I’d love to attend,” my father said.

“Really?” I didn’t understand his enthusiasm, but I figured he wanted to make up for lost time since he’d missed other graduations and nearly everything in my life.

“Yes!”

I shrugged and said, “Okay. I doubt I’ll change my mind, though.” Days later, a few of my friends from the program cornered me. “You gotta go, Lourdes! It’s our graduation from this program. We survived it!!”

“Yeah, but we’ll be sitting in the middle of Washington Square Park listening to boring, old, irrelevant White men droning on about how ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life’ and blah, blah, blah. I don’t wanna sit in the hot sun and listen to that for two, three hours! Plus, our names won’t get called, so there’s not going to be any focus on us. Why would I want to be a part of that?!?” I argued.

But my friends persisted and convinced me to change my mind. By that point, I only had a day or two to submit my request for guest tickets. I requested the maximum that we were allotted, three: one for my mother, one for my stepfather, and one for my sister. I put it out of my mind until the day of the event, three weeks later. I didn’t see my father again until a few days after commencement.

“How was your weekend?” he asked with a smile.

“Oh, it was okay. Commencement was as dull and dry as I expected…and the rest of the weekend was fine.”

My father’s jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed as I spoke. “You went to your commencement?”

“Yeah.” I was confused by his facial expression.

“You said you weren’t going,” he replied.

“Oh, yeah!” I remembered our conversation from four weeks prior. “After we spoke, my friends convinced me to go. They said it would be one last time for us to hang out,” I shrugged.

“Did your mother go?”

“Of course.” I didn’t understand where this was going.

“So, you lied,” he responded curtly.

“What?”

“If you didn’t want me to go, why didn’t you just say so? You didn’t have to lie.”

“But I didn’t lie. When we spoke, I wasn’t planning on going. After we spoke, my friends begged me to go. When I ordered the tickets, I didn’t remember that you and I spoke about it—until now.”

“You didn’t want me and your mother to be in the same space.” What? I thought. I was baffled. This was the furthest thing from my mind. Then I remembered that he believed that my mother still resented him after all those years. My mother had sole custody and since visitation with my father stopped when I was five, I think he assumed that I felt some sort of allegiance towards her. I did, but not enough to avoid bringing them together to celebrate my commencement.

 “Um…no, I forgot.

“You didn’t have to lie. You could’ve just said that you didn’t want me there.” My father’s lower lip poked out as he sulked. I had never seen him like this, and it felt as if there was nothing I could say to convince him that it was an oversight on my part. I was also angry because generally speaking, I don’t lie. I don’t purposefully tell mistruths, nor do I purposefully withhold relevant information from others. I feel uncomfortable lying. I worry about not remembering what I’ve said to whom. So, to be called a liar was insulting—especially from a man who barely knew me. After that, I never spoke to him again and it was the last time I’d seen him alive.

To learn my father left me everything was surprising because I remembered how hurt and offended I was the last time we spoke. The idea that my father would leave me anything besides some Watchtower pamphlets and a Bible stunned me. However, what helped me to push these feelings aside were my belief that my father owed me something after not providing for me when I was a child, a genuine sense of curiosity about his life, and my belief that as his adult child, it was my cultural duty as a Black woman to tend to his affairs. After briefly chatting with my wife and mulling the idea over, once I got home that evening I decided to fly to Orlando the next morning.

***

When I arrived in Orlando on Tuesday, Yida picked me up at the airport. I had seen a picture of her online, but I forgot to send her a picture of me. I was worried that we’d miss one another, but when she pulled up in her charcoal gray 2017 Ford Mustang, she behaved as if we were bosom buddies. She leapt out of the car, beaming, her dark brown ringlets wildly framing her face. She reminded me of the brown-skinned Afro-Cubans in my Yoruba-Lukumi religious community back home. At six feet, Yida dwarfed me as she enveloped me in a big hug. She giggled a bit and it seemed as if she were stopping herself from clapping her hands with glee. Instead, she clasped them together and squeezed. I was dumbstruck by this excitement from someone I’d never met.

“Hi! Oh my gosh, you look just like your father!” All my life, I had been told how much I resemble my mother, so Yida’s comment surprised me.

“How was your flight? This is my youngest son, Ian,” she chirped as she relieved me of my suitcase. Ian unfolded his nearly six-foot self out of the back seat and smiled shyly. I held onto my backpack because it held my laptop and other valuables.

“Hi there…! It was uneventful,” I fibbed. I was so nervous about the trip that I barely slept. I developed a pounding headache on the plane and was dehydrated because of the stress. To make matters worse, the young and very in-love Latinx couple seated next to me chattered the entire flight. I was drained.

“Hi, I’m Lourdes.” I extended my hand to the sheepish and lanky sixteen-year-old Ian. He weakly but politely shook my hand. I couldn’t tell if he was nervous, didn’t want to be there, or both. After two minutes together, I gathered that Ian was a neutralizing force to his mother’s frenetic energy—which is exactly what I needed. I told myself I would circle back to him later. I needed to focus on Yida so I could figure out her relationship with my father. Although I was eager to begin sorting through my father’s things, something told me to follow Yida’s lead.

As soon as I settled into the front seat, Yida reminded me that my father’s body was still at the hospital morgue. “Brother Michael was with him when he was taken to the hospital by the ambulance, but they need a family member to release his body.”

My mother died at home, so her body was taken to the morgue by the Medical Examiner’s office, then picked up by the funeral home that my stepfather selected. At first, I didn’t understand why my father’s body needed to be moved. “Okay…?”

“I mean, Brother Michael is listed as his ‘brother’ on his Medical Directive Card, but he’s not ‘family,’ you know? We need you to decide whether you want to go get his body released or see if they will let Brother Michael do it.” Yida was referring to the signed Advance Medical Directive Card that Jehovah’s Witnesses carry in their wallets. The card instructs medical providers not to perform blood transfusions on Witnesses and lists at least three or four people as countersigners. The Witnesses interpret several Biblical verses from the Old and New Testament as God’s command to avoid allowing blood into their bodies.

Ahhh! I’m considered family even though we have not been in touch for decades. Our blood relationship overrides relationships with the people who actually knew my father…. I realized. Scenes from old episodes of CSI Las Vegas when people were asked to identify their family members’ corpses flashed across my mind and I felt a bit queasy. I imagined seeing my father lying on a cold metal slab, with a plastic sheet covering most of his body as he lie in repose. What if I don’t recognize him? I wondered nervously. It had been twenty-five years since I’d seen him. My mental picture of him was so hazy that I wasn’t sure that I would know if it was my father or some other Black man.

“Okay…. sure!” I shrugged. “Let’s contact Brother… Michael, you said?”

“Yes, Brother Michael Jackson,” Yida confirmed with a nod.

“Seriously? His name is Michael Jackson?” I turned and looked at Yida, thinking she was joking.

“Yep, that’s his name!” Nodding, she added, ”He gets that a lot…!”

Brother Michael Jackson agreed to meet us at the Orlando Regional Medical Center so I could claim my father’s body. It was on me to call a local funeral home once the morgue agreed to release his body to them. When we met Brother Michael Jackson at the hospital’s Information Desk, the Patient Services Representative told us that hospital policy had changed; family members were no longer allowed to see the deceased in the morgue. Family members could only call to tell the morgue where they wanted the body sent. So I called the morgue.

“Morgue! Jensen speaking,” a woman gruffly answered.

“Hi, I am calling to see if my father, Leon Follins’s body is still there.” Although it felt odd referring to him as my father, I coated my voice with enough honey so as to make this go more smoothly.

“What’s your name?”

“Lourdes Follins. I’m his daughter and his only living relative,” I added. I fibbed this last part, since I wasn’t sure if his older sister, my Aunt Anita was still alive. The two of them were never close.

“Follins, you said?”

“Yes….” I was losing my patience. This felt like it was taking too long and I was weary.

“Yep! He’s here. What do you want us to do with him?” Gruff Lady asked.

 “I have asked the Buena Vista Funeral Home to come pick up his body. Could you please make sure that he is released to them?”

“Sure. Just have them call us first so we can prepare the body.”

“Okay! Will do. Thanks for your help!” I cooed as I turned back towards the Witnesses.

Yida looked at me and tried to read my face. “Everything okay?”

“Sure! I just need to call the funeral home and tell them that the Morgue will release my father to them.”

“Oh, okay. So, we’ll wait ‘til you finish to tell you about the plans for the memorial.”

I was taken aback since yesterday Yida told me that the Witnesses wouldn’t be able to pull together a memorial for my father while I was in town. That was perfectly fine with me because I knew that I would have enough to do and did not want to have to contend with anything else. Turning away from them again, I called the funeral home to pick up my father’s body and arranged to complete the requisite paperwork the next morning.

When I turned back to my father’s friends, they were talking about the last time they had each seen my father and how shocked they were by his sudden death. Brother Michael Jackson told me about the possible memorial.  

“If we can make it happen before you leave, it would be great if you could join us,” he said with a smile. “Your father was loved by so many people and it would mean a lot to them if they could meet you,” he added. I did not understand this and wondered if they would they still embrace me once they found out I’m queer.  

“Sure,” I nodded, secretly hoping they wouldn’t be able to pull together a memorial so soon.

“Great!” Yida exclaimed.

After we parted ways with Brother Michael Jackson, Yida and Ian regaled me with stories about their lives as we drove towards downtown Orlando. I asked Ian about himself and was pleased that he opened up so much with each question. It was like watching a peony in bloom—the broad petals initially closed tightly like a fist and slowly but surely unfolding, stretching open in layers. Within an hour, Ian was smiling, chuckling, and initiating conversation with me from the backseat. Chatting with Ian provided some respite from Yida’s bubbliness. I found it odd that she was so chatty and effusive. I expected her to show her grief more given how “close” she and my father were.

Yida asked if I was hungry and what I felt like eating. I gestured to the Vietnamese restaurant we had just driven by.

“Vietnamese? Hunh! I don’t think I’ve ever had Vietnamese food,” Yida said, while making a haphazard U-turn. Looking in the rearview mirror, she asked, “Have you ever had Vietnamese food, Ian?”

“No, Mom. Never,” he responded while typing away on his cellphone.

“If you like Chinese food, you’ll like this. It’s like Chinese food with a richer flavor and a bit more spice,” I offered. As a connoisseur of East Asian food, I knew this wasn’t entirely true, but I didn’t think they would know the difference.

Like twins, Yida and Ian shrugged their shoulders in sync and Yida said, “Really?? I had no idea! Sure, why not?”

Over hot bowls of pho, Yida told me how she had met my father and his wife, Claudette at Kingdom Hall eight years ago. They became close when my father took an interest in her three sons. At the time, she was a Witness mother with three teenage boys, but her husband was not a Witness yet. With my father’s help, Yida’s husband converted and her sons learned the Bible. In between slurps of broth, Ian chimed in with memories of my father. I smiled as I saw him experiment by adding varying amounts of spicy red sriracha sauce and aromatic bunches of fresh green basil and crunchy white mung bean sprouts in his large bowl of beef pho.

Between the two of them, they created an image of my father as a wise, grounded, and focused older man guiding and supporting a young family as they deepened their faith. This was a man I had never known. I knew him as someone who disappeared a few years after he joined the Navy, a man who later wrote my mother letters begging her to let him see me when I was five years old. I was curious to learn more about this man, this version of my father.

“So, my father and Claudette were like grandparents to you?” I asked Ian.

Yida looked over at him. “Well, since my father isn’t in my life, yeah, I guess you could say that Leon was like a grandfather to them,” she said as if she’d realized it for the first time. I felt sorry for and empathized with her; my stepfather was a great dad, but I was always aware that he wasn’t my father. Ian nodded in agreement as he struggled to slurp up noodles using the tiny, ivory-colored melamine soup spoon that was designed to only hold broth. He sniffed from time to time; the red chili peppers in the sriracha sauce working their magic on his nose.

Soon after this conversation, I mentioned that I was tired, so we left the restaurant. Yida offered to drop me off. “So, where are you staying? Are you staying at your father’s house or at a hotel?”

“It hadn’t dawned on me that I could stay at my father’s house.”

“Oh! You know, I just kinda assumed that you’d stay there, but I don’t know why I didn’t ask you before,” Yida said ruefully.

“It’s okay. I’m fine with staying at the hotel tonight. I’ll stay at my father’s house for the rest of my time here.”

“Okay. Don’t let me forget to give you the papers that we found at your father’s house. They have all the information you need, but the Brothers and Sisters wanted me to let you know that if you need anything, all you have to do is ask.”

“Please let the Witnesses know that I appreciate the offer and will reach out if I need help,” I replied, even though I had no intention of calling on any of them.

“Of course!” she replied. As we continued on to my hotel, Yida casually mentioned that she and my father spoke almost daily after Claudette died. A stone lodged in my throat. What could they have to talk about every day? Yida mentioned that he was fit and in relatively good health, so he didn’t need to be looked after. Were they lovers? I wondered. As curious as I was, I was afraid to ask in case it was true. I didn’t want to think that my father had a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman old enough to be his daughter.

When we arrived at the hotel, Yida rummaged in her purse and handed me a large, tattered manila envelope that was bursting at the seams.

“This is the folder that I told you about on the phone. It’s got all the telephone numbers and other contact information you’ll need, as well as a piece of paper on which your father wrote out his wishes. He told me that he wanted to leave you everything. ‘Since I didn’t take care of her in life, maybe I can take care of her when I’m gone,’ he said. That was one thing that he kept telling me over and over in the past couple of years.”

Really?” I asked. First, I was astonished, then I was moved by my father’s sentiment. It showed me that he knew that he hadn’t done right by me. My shoulders and upper back ached from the day. It was then that I realized that I had not breathed deeply since I landed. Exhaling, I accepted the envelope and smiled weakly.

“Thank you for everything, Yida. I really appreciate your kindness and generosity. Ian, thanks for making the day a bit easier for me.” Adults tend not to acknowledge teens’ efforts to make them comfortable, so I thought that was the least I could do for him. Ian nodded humbly.

 “You’re very welcome! I’m not working tomorrow—I took a few days off from my job—so I can come pick you up tomorrow in the morning to take you to the funeral home and then your dad’s house,” Yida said.

“If it won’t be out of your way, Yida, that would be great.”

She waved away my concern. “I have an errand to run early in the morning, but it’s no problem to come get you afterwards. Just text me in the morning and let me know when you’re ready, okay?”

“Sure! That’d be great,” I said, sighing to myself with relief. With one last sigh, I bade them goodnight and headed inside.

After checking in, I trudged to my room and dumped my things on the bed. Although  exhausted, I was curious about the contents of the envelope that Yida handed me. I gently began pulling things out of it, almost ripping the envelope in the process.

“Shyte!” I winced and decided to take things out one-by-one. The first piece of paper was a handwritten document that my father created on June 25, 2018. It read: “In the event of my death, my daughter, Lourdes Dolores Follins, SSN# 134-50-9999, is my sole beneficiary.” What followed were my last known address, my date of birth, and the name of the person my father had designated as the executor of his estate and secondary beneficiaries in the event that I predeceased him. Yida and a man named Anthony W., from my father’s Kingdom Hall, were the secondary beneficiaries. Other things stuffed into the envelope were two black address books, a piece of paper that listed four institutions that needed to be contacted upon his death along with telephone numbers for them: the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, MetLife, and Stonebridge Insurance, and three copies of an unsigned will.

The rest of the documents in the envelope were of no use to me. While it was frustrating that most of the items in the envelope were not going to be helpful, I appreciated the Witnesses’ efforts to make things easier for me when I was to begin the task of managing my father’s estate. My left eye began to twitch, the way it does when it’s past my bedtime. Gingerly, I returned everything to the envelope, put it on the desk, undressed, and crawled into bed. Thoroughly depleted, I fell asleep within minutes.

***

Buena Vista Funeral Home was an ordinary, ranch-style house along the side of a highway. It was so nondescript that if it weren’t for the sign outside the building, we would have missed it. As we entered the building, a stylish, blonde, forty-something White woman who wore a jacket and looked as if she were heading out greeted us.

“Hi! Can I help you?” she asked in a slow, Florida drawl, as if she were chewing Laffy Taffy.

“Yes, I have an 11:00 am appointment with Brittany the Funeral Director,” I answered.

The woman escorted us to a cozy office with a window that faced the highway. As soon as we sat down, I understood why she had been wearing a jacket—the room was cold. My stepfather had been the Chief of Maintenance of a health clinic when I was a child, so I can tell whether a room was insulated or not. This room was not. As if on cue, Yida and I shivered in tandem as we looked around. Similar to the funeral home I used to cremate my mother, this room had a variety of urns in different materials, shapes, colors and sizes, necklaces for cremains, advertisements for other ways to display your loved ones’ cremains, and folded flag displays on clear glass shelves that lined two of the four walls in the room.

 “This is so unnatural!” Yida’s slightly pointed nose wrinkled up in disgust, as she shivered.

I’ve been called an abomination by passersby and told that my sexuality is “unnatural”, so I have a visceral response to the word. Also, at that moment, I felt protective of the death care industry. “I guess they want to give you as many options as possible to help you keep your loved ones near,” I shrugged.

“But it’s not supposed to happen,” Yida replied, shaking her head.

I sensed that we were not talking about the same thing. “What do you mean, ‘It’s not supposed to happen’?”

“Death! It’s unnatural…we’re not supposed to die,” she asserted.

Trying not to give her the side-eye, I gently pressed, “What do you mean?” I’m a licensed mental health professional and my mother worked as a psychiatric nurse with chronically mentally ill people for most of my life. I know a thing or two about delusions and how to recognize them.

“We’re not supposed to die… The Bible says, John 3:16, ‘He who believes in me will not perish, but will have eternal life.’ Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, we get sick and die. And Romans 5:12: ‘Through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned.’ But we’re not supposed to die. We’re not supposed to get sick. We’re supposed to live forever!”

“Oh…okay…” I said, slowly nodding my head as if I understood her. I knew better than to challenge her, so I sat quietly and waited for Brittany. Yida continued to look around the room with disdain, while I suddenly became aware of the traffic outside. I watched cars changing lanes and occasionally heard the revving of engines.

“Hi, I’m Brittany!” A dumpy, natural blonde in her mid-twenties entered the room and offered her hand to Yida and me. She reminded me of the Pillsbury Doughboy, only with long hair. She too, sounded as if she had been eating Laffy Taffy. I shook her hand out of gratitude for the distraction.  

“Hi, I’m Lourdes Follins and this is my… Yida… my father Leon Follins’…friend.” I wasn’t quite sure how to refer to her: Mistress? Fellow congregant? So I settled on “friend.”

Once the pleasantries were over, Brittany asked us a series of questions that each of us answered individually because we each had access to different sets of information about my father. There were a few questions that neither of us could answer, like the highest level of education my father achieved. The only response we had for that question was a shrug.

“Was your father a veteran?” Brittany asked off-handedly.

“A veteran? No!” I scoffed. “I mean, he was in the Navy, but he went AWOL…Why?”

“Oh, if he was a veteran, you would get a flag to put next to his cremains.”

Frowning, I replied, “Oh. No, he wasn’t a veteran.” No one in my life would ever call me patriotic. Some of my ancestors were enslaved and victims of domestic terrorism in the United States. The idea of having an American flag in my house repulsed me.

After I initialed and signed all the paperwork, I paid the $787.00 to have my father cremated. Yida drove me to my father’s condo in a planned community called NorthLake at Lake Nona. We had come so that I could begin to settle his affairs. As soon as we crossed the condo’s threshold, Yida turned and handed me the house keys, which were attached to my father’s car key fob. Like the real estate agent that she once was, Yida showed me around the compact, two-story, four-bedroom condo with a two-car garage as if it was on the market.

Walking around the house of a dead man—a man I barely knew but who co-created me—was overwhelming. What struck me as odd was the lack of decoration. The only rooms that had anything hung on the walls were the living room, the dining area, and the kitchen. In the living room, a 12-inch gold-tone oval mirror hung behind the front door and two framed posters from the mid-1990s that advertised cultural events at the World Trade Center. In the dining area, a faded, framed poster of a music jam between male musicians hung behind the dining table, while in the kitchen there was a round, silver-tone wall clock hung over the sink. Besides these things, nothing in the house emitted an essence of its former inhabitant. No framed pictures, no pots of potpourri, no tchotchkes, no Post-Its with sweet little forget-me-nots written on them. Nothing of sentimental value was in the house. It looked like the glorified storage unit of a minimalist.         

After we toured the house, I laid my cellphone, my father’s keys, my wallet, and the manila envelope on a ledge that divided the dining room from the kitchen. Yida’s eyes widened when she noticed what I’d done.

“Oh my gosh! Your father used to do the same thing: line up his things side by side, in order like that.” She covered her mouth with her hand as if she was holding back something.

Taken aback by the coincidence, I stuttered, “O-oh! Really? I’ve always done this. I like things to be tidy and in order.” I had no idea we had this in common.

“So did your father!“ Tears filled Yida’s eyes and she looked away. “I thought it was something he got from being in the Navy,” she continued as she swallowed slowly.

Yida chattered on about the house, where things were located, and how my father had been looking forward to attending the 2019 Jehovah’s Witness Convention in Copenhagen. At some point, she took a breath, checked her watch, and realized that she had to run.

“Please don’t hesitate to call or text me if you need anything, or need help finding things. As I told you earlier, I used to come by to clean for your father after Claudette died two years ago, so I know where most things are located. Okay?”

I wondered if “clean for your father” was a euphemism for something else. “Thanks so much for everything, Yida! If I need anything, I will definitely reach out to you.”

Once Yida left and I found myself alone, I let out a deep sigh of relief. I momentarily shut my eyes. Feeling the cool wooden door against my shoulder blades, I paused and thought about what to do first. I brought my bags to what would be my bedroom for the next few days and got to work in my father’s office.

While meticulously going through my father’s papers on Thursday morning, I found his DD-214, the Report of Separation from Active Duty issued by the U. S. Navy. I recalled a moment when I was fourteen years old, coming across copies of letters my mother wrote to the Navy searching for my father, because he had stopped writing and stopped sending us money. At the time she wrote the letters, my mother was twenty-five years old and struggling to provide for both us with those monthly allotment checks and a nursing job. For the past thirty-five years, I told the story of how my father joined when I was three years old and then subsequently went AWOL—from the Navy, my mother, and me. That was the story I created for myself and the story that I knew to be true. But as I scanned the form, I noticed the word “Honorable” typed in the “Discharge Type” box, and circled, as if for emphasis. Bewildered, I almost dropped the paper as if it were on fire. I discovered that my father had received a National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal, and a Combat Action Ribbon (1 Star). I stopped reading and heard myself speak aloud, indignant.

“You left us?” As my words hung in the air, I knew that that wasn’t the entire truth.

“You left us?” All this time, I comforted myself with the story that my father had abandoned not only my mother and me but also the United States Navy. That was more palatable—it seemed badass, even. A part of me liked the idea of being the Child of a Badass, the Child of Someone Who Rejected The U.S. Navy. But the DD-214 changed everything.

“You wanted to provide for me in death?!?” Gripping the wooden dining room chair, I shouted angrily, “I don’t need you now! I needed you then!!!”

Up until this point, I had been standing over the dining table with my father’s records divided into tidy piles, moving between the table and his large shredder, sorting as I went. Finally, I slumped over the chair and began to weep.

“I needed you then!” I imagined three-year-old me crying, reaching out for my father as he prepared to leave for boot camp and shuddered.

“Why did you leave us? Why weren’t we enough for you???” I wailed, tears streaming down my face with snot chasing them. As the sun poked through the Levolor blinds, my sobs ricocheted off the walls. I hadn’t expected to cry. But I needed to be here, in his house. I needed to see who he had become without my mother and me in his life. There was, it seemed, no way to be here without letting it all out. And so, I wept until there were no more tears left in me. With each Navy document I lifted out of my father’s file cabinet that day, the narrative I’d created at age fourteen changed. My image of my father became kaleidoscopic: constantly changing, more multidimensional, and increasingly nuanced.

Yida texted me asking if it was alright to come by to clean. Despite my protests about how I did not need her to do so, she insisted. As soon as she entered the house, she stopped in her tracks when she noticed my shoes and sneakers lined up by the front door.

“Oh my gosh! At first, I thought these were your father’s shoes, but when I took a second look, I realized they were yours. He used to line up his shoes like that too,” Yida noted with a tear in her eye. Not knowing how to respond, I smiled ruefully and shrugged. With that exchange, we both got to work. As I made my way through my father’s file cabinet, Yida quietly made her way around the house. About thirty minutes later, I heard a strange sound come from upstairs where Yida was. At first, I could not make out the sound, but then I recognized it: sobbing and the sound of air being sucked in when one is struggling to breathe. It was the sound of someone who had suppressed her tears, the sound of someone who hadn’t been able to mourn fully…openly. Yida eventually came downstairs with tears in her eyes, apologizing.

“Are you…okay?” I took a few halting steps towards her. Ordinarily, when I see a stranger cry, I reach out to them to see if they are okay. Yet, this was someone I barely knew, but with whom I was inextricably linked. I did not know whether to comfort her or let her be. I worried that reaching out would lead to another long, drawn-out conversation, and I was aware of how little time I had before I returned home. I had also been dreading the moment when Yida noticed my wedding ring and asked about a husband. My wedding ring belonged to my wife’s maternal grandmother and has a unique Art Deco design that catches most people’s eye. Ever since landing, I had been holding my breath, as I expected her and the other Witnesses to stop being kind and helpful to me once they learned that I was married to a woman.

“I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t do this to you…You’re the one who lost her father,” Yida said as she wiped at her face.

I gestured for her to sit down. “You don’t need to apologize! You lost a very dear… friend just a few days ago and you’re in his house. It makes sense that you’re crying.” We sat side-by-side on the large antique red leather couch my father told Yida he especially wanted me to have. I awkwardly reached out to hold the tall, sobbing woman who was crying so hard she was shaking. She leaned into the crook of my arm. “It’s okay…it’s really okay….” I murmured.

“I just spoke with him! We had a conversation the day before he died and he was telling me about how he was preparing for Convention. I shouldn’t be doing this!” Yida pulled away, wiping her face with a paper towel. “You have so much to do and are going through your own process.” She looked at me as if she expected me to agree with her. She exhaled deeply. “I just can’t believe he’s gone!” Shaking her head, Yida stood up and let me know that she was done cleaning the house and would be heading out soon.

“Oh! The memorial is tomorrow and the Brothers and Sisters were wondering if you would be able to come…. It would mean so much to them if you could be there,” she added.

Inwardly, I panicked because I hadn’t packed an outfit for it.

“How do most Witness women dress for Kingdom Hall?” I asked.

“Oh, very modest…what you wore the other day is fine,” she assured me. I’d worn a multicolored cotton Nigerian tunic with skinny jeans and blue suede sneakers. As a child, I attended church weekly so I knew that that was not appropriate church wear. I had to go buy something. Plus, I had noticed at least ten snazzy suits in my father’s closet and twice that many equally fine neckties; as his daughter, I had to ‘represent’ and look nice.

“Okay… of course I will be there! I owe it to him to show up as his family. It would be tacky if I came all the way down here and didn’t show up for the memorial,” I said with a half-hearted smile.

“Oh good! I’ll tell the Brothers. Do you want me to come pick you up?”

“Yes, please.” Concerned that her kindness would eventually run out, I made a point of showing my gratitude.

Friday evening, when Yida came by, I noticed that she was wearing makeup and a dress. I immediately felt underdressed and plain. Earlier in the day, I’d run out and bought a long black skirt and a pair of black leather booties at a chichi boutique in Downtown Orlando. I had however, brought none of my makeup with me. I nervously ran my hands down the side of my multicolored tunic.

“Hi! You ready?” Yida asked as she stood in the doorway. She seemed reluctant to enter the house. I wondered if someone had told her about me.

“Yes! Just let me get my coat. It’s supposed to get a bit nippy tonight.” I said.

  On the way to the Kingdom Hall, Yida and I chatted. At one point, I cautiously asked, “What was my father like?” I had been searching for clues about his life this whole week and I felt silly asking outright what I thought I should have always known.

“Oh! He was a good man, a kind man. He had his moments when he could be stubborn, but he was a good man!” Yida shared. “And he spoke about you all the time!” she added.

“Really?” My father and I hadn’t spoken since 1993. He never responded to the letter I wrote him in 2014, telling him that my mother died.

“Oh yes! All-the-time!” Yida exclaimed. She looked at me as if to say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ but her facial expression quickly changed when our eyes met. The confusion and hurt I felt must have been all over my face. “One time, I asked him why he didn’t reach out to you and he said, ‘Oh, she’s mad at me.’”

I shook my head. “Seriously?”

“Oh yes! He said, ‘My daughter’s strong…and she’ll never forgive me.’ And I said, ‘Well, Leon, how do you know that if you don’t reach out to her, if you don’t try?’ But he wouldn’t listen. That’s one thing about your father—he was stubborn when he wanted to be! He was a good man, but boy, could he be stubborn!!” With that, Yida chuckled and shook her head.

Even though I wanted to jump out of her car and run far, far away, I made myself keep looking at her. I wanted to go away and cry in peace. The stress of being afraid of the Witnesses’ rejection, of being sleep-deprived (I was working late into the wee hours of the night and waking up early to get things done), and having to be ‘on’ for everyone else had worn me out. I felt connected to Yida in age, but I was afraid her religious beliefs would prevent us from getting to know each other better. However, I wanted to learn more about my father and his relationships with other people.

Learning more about him would allow me to learn more about myself, especially the pieces that don’t reflect my mother’s influence. I listened intently as she described his work as a “Pioneer,” the Witnesses who sit or stand quietly in public spaces and patiently wait to catch the attention of someone interested in hearing the Word of God. They spend seventy hours a month preaching and evangelizing. Since my father and Claudette were retired, they often did it together, but not always. In addition to a few photographs of him pioneering with Claudette, I also found a cluster of photographs of my father pioneering with young Black women. In these photographs, my father wearing either a suit and a hat or dress slacks, a dress shirt with a tie, and a tan bomber jacket over the shirt. He was always beaming and looked comfortable, content, and at ease.

When we arrived at my father’s Kingdom Hall, Yida introduced me to a large, multiracial, and intergenerational group of people by saying, “This is Leon’s daughter!” It was odd hearing that given how distant we were and even odder seeing people’s faces light up with joy as they eagerly shook my hand. I felt as if I had stepped back in time: All the men and boys wore suits and ties or dress slacks with button-up dress shirts, while the women and girls wore skirts or dresses and flats or heels. Everyone I met—young and old—had something to share with me.

“Your father was so loved!”

“Your father was a dear friend!”

“Your father was a joy and an inspiration to me.”

“Your father had a great sense of humor and was such a practical joker!”

“The first time I pioneered, your father made me feel so comfortable!”

It was as if they knew that I was searching for clues, for information about who he was.

Although it was a memorial, the room felt charged with joy and a few drops of grief woven in to temper it. Unlike Black Christian funerals I’ve attended, no one was crying or aggrieved, no one even held a handkerchief in their hand in case a stray tear escaped from their eye. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was a regular church service—which felt weird to me. I spoke with an elderly Black couple who had been looking forward to attending the Copenhagen convention with my father. Soon, everyone took their seats. A short, muscular, sharply dressed Filipino man with a military-style flattop named Brother Zeke began by leading the group in a prayer. The pleats on his slacks were so sharp they would have cut bread. He read from the obituary in the program handout. I was listed as his only child and when he read my name aloud, he gestured to me in the front row so that Witnesses could come speak with me later.

“If we turn to John 5:28-29, we know that the dead are in the grave, awaiting resurrection. Brother Leon is not suffering nor is he in any pain, my friends. He is merely asleep, awaiting for the time to be summoned to God. Remember, God wants us to see Brother Leon again, to hear his jokes and his laughter, to see his smile as he spread the good news about Jehovah. We can take great comfort in knowing that because of his work as a Pioneer and our work as Witnesses for Jehovah, we will see Brother Leon again!” Murmurs spread around the room. “Amen!” someone added. As Brother Zeke spoke, the two tweens seated to my left were bent over their smartphones. Thinking they were playing a game or texting one another, I smiled and looked a bit closer; they were looking at the same website. On my right, Yida pulled out a large iPad. She tapped a purple icon and an electronic version of the Bible opened. I leaned over out of sheer curiosity. Yida mistook my interest as a desire to read the Bible with her and moved the iPad so that I could see it better. When I glanced back at the tweens, I saw that they too were following along on the same app.

“I’ve never seen the Bible in electronic form!” I whispered to Yida. I kept my voice low since we were seated directly in front of Brother Zeke.

“Yeah, this is great! It makes it so much easier to carry the Bible and follow along,” she added. For the remainder of the memorial, we sat with our heads tilted towards one another and bent over the iPad, our lips moving in unison, and standing up and down in sync when it came time to sing the lyrics of the sole, closing hymn that were projected onto the walls so that all present could follow along if necessary. Anyone who sat behind us and didn’t know better would have thought we were sisters. I was grateful for this kind gesture to include me, the Heathen Within Their Midst, in the service. It felt good to temporarily belong. Before I could thank Yida, the memorial was over and I was immediately facing two fast-forming, long lines of Witnesses—one to my left, the other to my right—eagerly waiting to speak to me. Yida disappeared and I was left alone to play the role of The Good Daughter of Brother Leon Follins. One of the few things my mother told me about my father was that he was very charming; with ease, I tapped into that part of him within me.

Just as I did at my mother’s memorial, I greeted and thanked everyone. I smiled earnestly, listened intently, and held their hands as they spoke with me. I gave unlimited time and attention to anyone who wanted to tell me how sorry they were for my loss, tell me a ‘funny’ story that epitomized their relationship with my father, and ogle me while remarking how much I look like him. What was most striking to me was that everyone told me they were comforted by the fact that they were going to see my father again at Resurrection, the time when Jehovah revives the dead and reunites them with their loved ones. One regal, Black Jamaican woman in her late 60s said to me:

“I’ll tell your father that you were here at his memorial—that you showed up for him. But I suspect that you’ll become a Witness…just you wait!” She chuckled at my bemused expression, while her husband looked on with a smile. He seemed accustomed to her grandstanding.

“Oh, really?” Her audacity amazed me. I toyed with the idea of bantering with her, asking how she knew that I would become a Witness, but I remembered that I was here to represent, not argue. I was here to learn about my father, not get into religious or philosophical debates about life, death, or life after death. I bit my tongue—hard—and simply smiled back at her.

Over the next twenty minutes, I continued greeting and thanking a colorful parade of Witnesses of all ages—people of South Asian, African, East Asian, Latin American, European descent and multiracial people—for coming to the memorial and showing up for my father. During this time, no one asked how I was faring or feeling, which made me feel like a prop, a stand-in for all that my father represented to them. My thoughts and feelings about my father and his death were irrelevant. No one wanted to hear anything else from me.

Yida whispered in my ear, “The Sisters are preparing the repass in a community center nearby. Are you ready to go?”

Relieved to be done with my Vanna White duties, I looked around the room and nodded. “Sure!” As the two of us headed out of the room, many of the Witnesses present asked if they would see us at the repass. When I assured them that I would, their faces lit up like teeny-boppers.

As we walked to the parking lot, Yida said, “They’re all just so grateful that you’re here! All this time, we thought that Claudette was the only family Leon had; people are overjoyed to know that he had a daughter.” I still didn’t understand why they would be overjoyed by this, but I was too tired to find a diplomatic way to ask. Climbing into Yida’s car, I leaned back and let the seat cradle me. This was the first time I’d been still all day and I was determined to enjoy it for as long as I could. That was when the wave of exhaustion overtook me.  

As we headed to the repass, I had a niggling feeling, a sense that I needed to give Yida something even though she was the one who had had more time with my father. I felt like I needed to acknowledge her role in my father’s life and by now, after all of our conversations, I believed I knew who she was to him—even if it had never been acknowledged. I paused, listening to the rhythm of the tires on the road.

“You were my father’s other daughter,” I said tenderly. “You were there for him in ways that he needed before and after Claudette died. I appreciate that.”

Yida’s eyes filled with tears as she looked at me. “Thank you…Thank you for saying that! It means a lot to me to hear that from you,” Yida replied.

“You were. You cleaned for him, called and checked on him, met with him to make sure he was okay, and nagged him when necessary—these are the things a daughter does.”

“Thank you,” Yida sniffed. Shaking her head, her curls bounced as she quickly wiped at her tears and drove on. “Thank you so much!” She cleared her throat and with a look of determination, leaned forward as if willing the car to go faster.


BIO

Lourdes Dolores Follins has been published in Rigorous, Watermelanin, Medium, and elsewhere. She also edited an award-winning book, Black LGBT Health in the US: The Intersections of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. When Lourdes isn’t writing, she’s a psychotherapist with QTIPOC and kinky people. Check her out at www.lourdesdfollins.com

Amen Sure Thing

by Mindela Ruby


I forgot to request an exemption for jury duty this week.

Some enthusiasts feel cut off at the knees when they don’t get empaneled on a trial. I’m not among them. Nor do I align with my lawyer friend who texted me disqualifying answers to the Prospective Juror questions—“Provided you have the gall,” he wrote, “to make racist comments in court.” No way.

Jury service in some cases can be time well spent. My spouse once got elected foreman in an armed robbery case. He has told the story in my earshot a dozen times to entertain our friends. The lead witness, the plaintiff, testified that the defendant walked into his liquor store one night at 8:45, wearing a yellow sweatshirt and red bandana. The defendant rushed the counter, wielding a knife, and robbed the store owner of $73 in cash. Witness Two, the defendant’s brother, got up and swore that at 8:58 the same night, his brother, who was sweating and twitchy and wearing a yellow sweatshirt and red bandana, flung himself into his apartment. He threw $73 in cash on the table and then a big knife while exclaiming, “I just held up the liquor store around the corner.” The defense attorney attempted to spin the case as a sham, an example of “sibling rivalry.” The jury, led by a sterling foreman, unanimously reached a guilty verdict.

One of my graduate school professors was a juror on a complicated murder charge. Afterward, she took a year’s hiatus from university teaching to write a book about the proceedings’ profound philosophical implications. So, you see, a day in court may offer soul-searching litigation or humorous crime testimony. What squelches my keenness for the enterprise is the 8 AM arrival. Being forced to rise at an appalling hour messes with the delicate circadian balance that allows an insomniac like me to sleep at night. These days I’m already wrung-out beyond toleration. Therefore, on the off-chance of wrangling an excusal at this advanced date, I log onto the AgileJury website.

Today’s juror instructions are posted on a landing page with a red banner at the top. LOCATION CHANGE, it announces. Instead of the Oakland courthouse, the reporting place has switched to Dublin. Getting way out there demands a one-hour train commute followed by a bus ride of several blocks. In my car, a ninety-minute rush hour creep would be likely. This Thursday could require the same dastardly 4:30 AM wake-up.

On the Excusal page, I input my badge number and type my medical excuse:

Brain tumor

To the right of the “reason” space is a file upload field for documentation. The only information in my possession that confirms I have a meningioma is an email from my primary care physician that summarizes the MRI result. I Copy, Paste, and Save the evidence from my medical provider’s email, then navigate back to the judicial page to click-load the new file.

A message box pops up: “Upload unsuccessful.”

The second effort—new document, upload—proves equally futile. Code embedded in the HMO’s email program must be corrupting or blocking data sharing.

Dang glitch. How much better it is to staple a well-composed hardship letter to the tear-off section of the summons, like we did in the old days. But epistolary communication, especially if it involves any nuance, takes time to process. No one has the time to read letters anymore. I file the digital appeal without my corroborating attachment.

Nursing a mug of tea,I recall the few occasions when I slogged to court at the appointed hour, pussyfooted through security protocol, sat tight in greige staging areas, twiddled thumbs, stared askance at weirdos, only to be informed, hours later, that my juror pool was dismissed. Other years, I called the jury line for reporting instructions the night before and heard the recording declaring my duty “fulfilled for twelve months.” It’s not like I’ve routinely shirked my obligation as a citizen.

If my digital request for a discharge isn’t processed in a timely way, in two days I could be tasked to trek to the hinterlands of my sprawling county at the crack of dawn for in-person jury assembly. Or, the court could reassign me a new report date, one that’s less convenient than this early August week. What if I’m a juror no-show? Will I be fined?

Panicking at my desk, I snatch the postcard summons. On the backside a line at the bottom reads “For assistance by phone.” I call the number. A mechanized voice cites a one-minute wait. What a fairy tale. Government agencies never answer phones that quick. But in less than a minute, before I’ve conjured a plea to utter, a live woman is on the line asking how she can help.

What a feel—not waiting on hold in bureaucratic purgatory.

“Yes, hi, um, I completed an online request for a medical excuse,” I explain, “but an upload fail message popped up. Twice.”

“What is your badge number?” she efficiently asks.

I tell her.

“What is your medical excuse?”

“Brain tumor.”

A not surprising pause greets me. For weeks I’ve described my hidden olive-sized growth with friends and have been met with pregnant pauses. Many adults don’t like hearing about frightful maladies. Like small children, they shut down emotionally. But with news of my cranial abnormality circulating, I’ve decided to tell everyone rather than having to keep track of who knows and who doesn’t.

“Oh, Lord,” the phone-clerk sighs. “Are you comfortable with me asking whether your tumor—is benign?”

Her forthrightness catches me off-guard. But why not answer? I appreciate the curiosity. “The doctors think so, because the growth is calcified. No guarantees, obviously.”

“When did you find out about it?”

I love her perfect questions. “May 29. I’d had a headache for a month and went to my doctor thinking it was a sinus infection. I’m still accommodating myself to the scan results,” I overshare.

“I hear that. Please don’t think this is prying. I’m interested because I know something of what you’re going through. My son had a brain tumor when he was twenty-one. He’s thirty-two now.”

I think of my own son with a pang. “My younger boy is thirty-two also. I’m so sorry.”

“He’s fine now, thanks to God. That misfortune with his brain came out of the blue. Julius, that’s my son’s name, dropped down in broad daylight, bam. He had one of those, uh, it was a…” She pauses, the word on the tip of her tongue.

“Seizure?” Obsessive research has rendered me an amateur brain tumor expert, with terminology at the ready.

“Mm-hmm. The worst kind. That can kill a person.”

“A grand mal seizure?”

“Correct, and woo, it was terrifying. I didn’t have a clue what was happening.”

“Of course,” I say.

The seizure possibility petrifies me, the irrefutable indication that my brain is compromised by a  spreading intruder I can’t see. A friend of a friend confided to me about her first grand mal episode. She woke up in a hospital to learn she had to have brain surgery to remove a meningioma the size of a lemon.

“Did your son have any symptoms before his seizure?” I ask the clerk.

“No, Ma’am. No warning signs.” She spills the whole of her son’s story. 911 call. Ambulance. Her ragged nerves. The happy turn: his operation went as well as could be expected.

“I tell you,” she goes on, “God watched over my child. Without Him, who knows what might have happened? It was God guiding the hand of my son’s surgeon. That doctor did a wonderful job. Julius has had no lasting problem with his brain.”

“Fantastic,” I say. My acquaintance had her lemon-sized growth surgically excised without a hitch as well. Two years later, though, she developed permanent epilepsy. “Your son had the best possible outcome.”

“That’s right, and, um…Mindela?” The court clerk has checked my juror record to get my name, incorrectly stressing the second syllable instead of the first, but pronunciation’s of no consequence in this moment.

“Yes?”

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I would like to know if you by any chance lead a Christian life?”

When asked this question under other circumstances, usually by Jehovah’s Witnesses at my front door, I disclose my atheism. Sometimes I act flip about it. Conversation with avid followers of religions unsettles me. Steering clear of holy topics seems best.

Yet this telephone call requires more finesse than my habitual no interest rejoinder. This woman has the power to make me take a train and a bus to Dublin the day after tomorrow.

More to the point, she has shared with me one of the most important stories of her life. We are bonding over tumors. She has reached out through the phone wire.

“Not much, sorry” I say.

“That’s all right. It’s not uncommon. But let me tell you. In my job, I talk to a lot of sick people. They call in seeking a jury excuse. You would not believe the afflictions I hear about. I tell all of them, Put your faith in God to get better.”

“Where was your son’s surgery?” I ask, to lead the conversation away from preachiness.

“Redwood City. They have a fine facility over there.”

“At Kaiser?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the hospital where I’d have surgery if and when I need it. Right now, the doctors on my team are calling this a watch and wait situation. They’re brushing aside my headaches and dizziness.” I gulp and add, “The neurologist prescribed another MRI in a year to measure for tumor growth. All I can do is hold tight ‘til then. Unless, of course, I have a seizure.”

“You stay positive, Mindela.”

“I’m trying.” Brain tumor statistics are in my favor. Ninety percent of the sort I have hang out trouble-free inside heads, invisible except via a scan. Still, a year is a long time. Ten percent is not zero.

“Let God help you. He will be there for you.”

Who’d have ever expected an administrative call to end up here? Not me. But she intentionally started shepherding me to Christianity, and, considering my lack of faith, it’s crazy how grateful her solicitude makes me. By contrast, my HMO seems to have deducted from some terrible cost benefit analysis that patients need only to be told Don’t worry. We are shunted into a risk pool of subscribers who must wait and see, with skimpy consolation.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to say a prayer for you. Will you let me do that? It will bring you ease.”

“I don’t mind,” I say.

“Dear God,” she starts, assuming a beseeching timbre. “I ask you to take care of this woman in need. She is hurting. She is scared. She feels alone. Show her she isn’t alone. God, I ask you to reach down and touch the tumor in her head. Make that tumor stop growing. It’s in your power to block this thing from hurting Mindela.” I hear her rapid breath.

Actually, it’s me who’s gasping. Because, I discover, I’m weeping. Unbelievable. This call is touching a nerve. I don’t want the court worker to hear me lose control.

“Mindela, I want you to pray for ministration. Oh, and by the way, in case I didn’t say this before, your jury service is excused. You don’t need to report. But you should make time every day to remember that God is the healer who watches over us. What you can do for strength is believe. Tell me you can do that.”

I produce not so much of a yes as a choke. We are two women united in hardship. She must detect how moved I am. It’s not just joy at getting out of jury duty.

“That’s good,” she says. “I know from my son’s experience that the mightiness of God is all we need. My son is alive. He’s finding his way, figuring his life out, but the important point is he’s healthy. Health is the greatest gift, a blessing directly from God. Think about the comfort He furnishes. If the Lord is with us, we have no fear. That’s the truth.” She inhales deeply.

“Amen,” I say, hearing in her pause a conclusion. We have glorified God for over seven minutes on this call.

“Amen sure thing,” she says. “God is good. He protects us from whatever threatens to tear us down. Many things wait to harm us. Find your way to God, you’ll be alright.”

The call concluding, I’m aghast to be succumbing to shudders. My body feels like crumbling stone. I have been brave and stolid about this tumor business most of the time. This telephone encounter is wreaking barriers. It feels simultaneously right and wrong. “Of all the people to take my call,” I say, “it was you.”

“That’s God, too,” says this human who understands the weakness bodies are prey to. Who knows my anxiety, knows my hope.

“I want you to call me back later,” she says, “and let me know how you’re doing. Promise to do that? This is more than a job for me. I’m here for a reason. I’ll want to know God is guarding your brain, like he did for my child.”

From the box on my desk I extract a tissue and blot tears. I don’t dare blow my nose and sound maudlin. Much as I appreciate her generous sentiments, I don’t envision calling back with updates and professions of new-found faith. My doubt is too ingrained.

I might need a medical excuse next year, however. “Do I call this same number to reach you?” I say. What condition, I wonder, will my brain be in next year?

“This same number. Ask for Kirby. I’m always here.”

“Thank you for being so compassionate. I should let you get back to work, though. Other callers might need your help.”

“When I’m doing God’s work, the court is secondary. But all right then. Take care of yourself. And trust God. I have seen him do wonders and lift up those who ask him to.”

“I will think of this call for a long time, Kirby,” I say. “Bye-bye, now.”

“God bless.”

Even disconnected, phone put down, listening to crows cawing outside, I cannot stanch the tears. Am I crying for the stranger’s act of kindness? Because my children don’t know how to let me be scared? Because something’s missing in my life?

Cranial tumors that grow fast hijack brains. My MRI noted the “slight mass effect” already impinging on my cortex. My healthcare providers see no cause for angst in that. They say the bulging pressure in my forehead, ice pick stabs behind my eyes, tingles down my scalp, spears of current shooting through my skull are phenomena to ignore, variants of migraine headaches. But no migraine website corroborates this analysis or explains what feels like disarray in the invisible strategic center of my being.

I pick up the Jury Summons postcard and safekeep it in my desk drawer. Lacking a higher power as my rock, I am forced to face my brain’s fate without a hallelujah. When I say amen, the word is a pleasantry, not a ratification of God’s will. My lot is the peril of atheism. I used to think of my stance on faith as an enormous strength, but that certainty has all of a sudden started fading.

Leftover sobs break from my chest. For me, for now, no spiritual solace lies ahead. Cold silence is more like it. To have to weather. To have to bear. I almost wish it weren’t so.


BIO

Mindela Ruby has published a novel, Mosh It Up, and prose and poetry in Coachella Review, Rivet: the Journal of Writing That Risks, Marathon Literary Review and other magazines as well as the anthology Unmasked. Her work has been Pushcart Prize and Sundress Best-of-the-Net nominated. She completed a doctorate at University of California and teaches at a community college and Lifelong Learning program. She’s a member of the California Arts Council and reader at the Baltic Writing Residency.

Wonderful Vacation

by J L Higgs


As I drove away from the Amtrak station, I called out,  “Have a wonderful vacation.”  Loaded down with suitcases, backpacks, and our two kids, my wife looked anything but amused.   After dropping off the car at my employer’s, I’d return to the station. Highway down, a quick subway ride back, 45 minutes round trip. 

The sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky when I hit the four-lane highway. A perfect start to our vacation. Then, rounding a curve in the roadway, I suddenly encountered a wall of red tail lights.  

After traffic had been at a standstill for 15 minutes, people began getting out of their cars.  That’s when I learned there’d been a multi-car accident up ahead and decided to call my wife.  I opened the center console, reached for my cell phone, and … no phone. As we’d left home that morning I’d shoved it in my backpack.  F#!%!

At least 20 minutes passed before the emergency vehicles arrived and began wending their way through the backup. My window to drop off the car and return to the Amtrak station was definitely shrinking. I looked at the people in the car next to me. Would they be willing to babysit my car for a week?  What if I offered to give them the car for free? 

Forced to merge into a single lane, traffic finally began trickling past the accident and I made it to my employers. Now all that remained was checking in with security and returning via the subway.

“What?  There’s no mention of my prearrangement? I…”

“Sure, color, make, model, year, plate number … no problem.” 

What’s with the piece of cardboard and the black magic marker? 

“Oh, hang this on my rearview mirror?  Gotcha.” 

Christ, you mean I could have just scribbled a bunch of numbers on a piece of cardboard and hung it on my mirror? 

OK, parking handled, next, the subway.  Up the steps, through the…  what the?  The door’s locked!  Entrance closed on weekends?  Use other entrance?  F#!%! That’s at the other end of the building.  Crap, the signal lights on the inbound side of the track are red.  It’s my train!  

Down the steps, I sprinted and through the station’s parking lot like my hair was on fire.  At the far end of the building, I took the steps two at a time, burst through the entrance door, and charged on to the platform.  The train’s doors were closing, so I jumped.    

When I got back to the Amtrak station, I searched its lobby for my family.  They were waiting for me near the ticket windows. 

“Very funny,” said my wife as I approached them.  “I called your phone.  And it rang.  Right here in your backpack.”

I then told her about the accident, but her expression remained pure skepticism.  Fortunately, a train station employee passing by overheard my story and confirmed it.   Thank God for that guy!     

#         

Onboard the train, the kids plastered their faces against the windows, determined not to miss a thing on their first long-distance train trip.  That night, my son and I spent a relatively quiet night in coach despite the distant sound of the train’s horn.  But unaccustomed to sleeping sitting upright, we only took brief naps.

The following morning, we went to retrieve my wife and daughter from the sleeper we’d booked for them.  When they opened the door to their teeny room, they both looked disheveled and discombobulated.  My wife told us that shortly after bedding down for the night, the train’s rollicking motion had bounced our daughter out of the fold-down bunk above the main bed.  Thus, they’d attempted to sleep together, my wife’s knees folded sharply, and her feet on the sleeper toilet’s lid.  But sleeping had been impossible.  Theirs was the first car after the locomotive.  For the entire night, they’d been kept awake by the train’s horn blowing at every railroad crossing.

#

We all arrived at the resort hotel sleep-deprived and settled on a quick dinner, then bed.  At some point during the night I thought I heard my wife say, “Someone’s at the door,”

Rolling out of bed, I made my way to the door with the grace of a zombie, opened it, and there stood a young woman.

“We forgot to give you your welcome basket when you checked in,” she said, flashing a smile brighter than the wall lantern outside our door.     

Barely able to nod, I accepted the belated gift.

“Have a wonderful vacation,” she said, her 1000-watt smile still blazing as I closed the door.

Basket in hand, I staggered back across the pitch black room and placed it on a dresser.  

“Who was it?’ whispered my wife.

“Welcome wagon,” I replied, collapsing back into bed.                        

#

After breakfast the next morning, we headed back to the room to retrieve our backpacks, snacks and water bottles to begin our day.  I inserted my key card into the door lock and…  Nothing.  I reinserted it.  Nada.  Convinced the fault lay in my ineptitude, my wife took the key card from me and inserted it.  No click or green admittance light.  We were locked out. 

I volunteered to go to the resort’s check-in desk for help and as I departed my son said, “Well, at least it’s not raining.”

I’d only made it about a quarter of the way when the skies suddenly opened up.  Caught in a downpour, I abandoned my quest and ran back to rejoin my family.  Drenched, clothes clinging to my skin, I stood there as we huddled together, trying to decide what to do.  That’s when my wife spotted a housekeeper.  We explained our predicament to her and she led us to the maid’s supply closet and placed a call from its phone.           

Minutes later a maintenance worker arrived.  After observing our futile attempt to unlock the door, he removed the lock’s outer casing, replaced a pair of double-A batteries and told us to “give it a try.”  Sure enough, problem solved.  As he left, he wished us a “wonderful vacation.”             

#

The next day the sky was overcast, so we took the resort’s shuttle bus to its arcade.  Though the kids could have stayed there forever, my wife and I reached our arcade games limitwithin a few hours.

Strolling back to the shuttle bus stop under darkening skies, my wife doled out the ponchos she’d packed.  Thanks to her foresight, we were well protected when the rain began and forced us to run the remaining distance to the shuttle stop’s shelter building. 

From the shelter, we watched as the roadway flooded in a matter of minutes.  Then,  as the storm gathered strength, thunder and lightning began. 

“Unbelievable,” I said as a man with three children joined us in the shelter.

“Yeah,” he replied, above the sound of rain hammering the shelter’s roof while lightning flashed all around us.  “We were at Safari when yesterday’s storm came through.  One of the giraffe’s got struck by lightning.  Killed on the spot.”

Great, I thought.  Anyone for blackened, smoked giraffe?

Tears appeared in the eyes of his little girl and my daughter, the animal lover’s lower lip was quivering. The boys? His two and mine frowned and shrugged as if to say, what can you do? 

Right then a thunderclap exploded directly overhead, causing us all to jump.  A lightning bolt immediately followed.  As my wife tightened her grip on my forearm and gestured upward with her head and eyes I looked up.  The shelter’s roof was made of tin.   Perfect.                       

#

When the shuttle bus arrived we all scrambled aboard.  Having dodged the threat of getting fried a la giraffe, we were happy to be safe and relatively dry. 

“How many stops until we’re back?” asked my son.

“Ours is the third one,” answered my wife as the bus pulled up to the first one. 

The people waiting in the parking lot’s shelter building quickly boarded and took seats.  Then the shuttle headed toward the lot’s exit.  After we’d gone about 30 feet we stopped.

“Look at all the people,” said my daughter. 

Looking out the shuttle’s window, I saw a horde of people heading towards us. As they reached the parking lot, many were getting in their cars, starting them up, and pulling out, clogging the exit lane.  Because of the storm, the resort had just closed its water park.     

#

Creeping along, it took an hour for us to finally exit the parking lot and continue on to the next stop.  There, everything went off without incident.  We then resumed our trip until we stopped for a red traffic light.  Shortly after stopping, the light turned green and the shuttle driver pressed down on the bus’ accelerator.  The shuttle then shuddered and died.  

“Uh-oh,” said my son. 

Well, at least we’re not in the intersection,” I said, seeing the look of exasperation on my wife’s face.

Finally, on the driver’s fourth attempt, the bus came back to life.

“Should we cross our fingers?” asked my daughter.

“Toes probably wouldn’t hurt as well,” responded my wife.               

#

The following morning, with no trains or shuttles on the day’s agenda, we went to pick up the car I’d rented for the rest of our vacation.  I walked right up to the young woman at the reservation counter, gave her my name, and she promptly typed it into her computer. 

“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing under that name for today.”

Armed with preparedness that would put a boy scout to shame, I whipped out my confirmation email and handed it to her.

“Here it is,” she said after typing in the confirmation number.  “That reservation is for a week from today.”

Was I on Candid Camera? Or Punk’d?  We needed a car now, not next week when we’d be back home.

Despite the mix-up, the young woman assured me she’d be able to provide us with a car.  After making a phone call, she handed me a set of car keys, smiled, and spoke those inimitable words …  you know, “Have a wonderful vacation.”              

#

The days that immediately followed were uneventful.  We swam, enjoyed the amusements and entertainments the resort offered, and watched their nightly fireworks display.

As the end of our vacation approached, the kids lobbied to go to the resort’s newest attraction. Inside its theater-style building, we strapped ourselves into a model car attached to mechanical arms covered with thick black hoses arrayed like octopus tentacles.  The theater lights dimmed leaving us in darkness, a film began playing and the cars took flight twisting, turning, and tipping in the air.

About 5 minutes later, a loud pop sounded, the film abruptly stopped and the theater lights snapped on.  At that point, one of the ride’s attendants told us there’d been a malfunction but that the ride would restart momentarily.  10 minutes passed and then another attendant confessed the restart attempts had been unsuccessful and they had requested help.

Undaunted by the mishap and with us as a captive audience suspended high above the ground, the ride’s attendants then came up with an ingenious idea – playing a trivia game.  With unparalleled excitement, they began taking turns shouting out questions about television shows.  Correct answers received cheers and applause as they jumped up and down with an enthusiasm that would leave competitive cheerleaders envious.  It was beyond riveting!  A ride and a game. Talk about getting more for your money!

After 20 minutes of thrilling trivia, a loud hiss like that from an air hose filled the room and the cars slowly descended.  With the cars back on the floor, the attendants told us the ride would restart shortly. 

“No way,” said my wife and I looking at each other. “We’re getting the hell out of here.” 

Joining the stampede to the exits, we passed a group of smiling resort employees.  They … oh hell, you know what they said.       

#

On the morning of our departure, the kids were sad our vacation was ending.  Me?  I told my wife that if one more person told me to have a wonderful f#$*ing vacation; I was going to punch them. 

Suitcases in hand, we arrived at the train station and gave our tickets to the man on duty.  He eyed our bags and frowned. 

“They ain’t gonna fit,” he said.

“Excuse me,” I replied.

“The bags.  They ain’t gonna fit.”

“How can they not fit?,” I asked.  “We brought them here on the train.”  To my wife, I whispered, “What’s he think?  We tweaked our noses and they just magically appeared here?”

“I’m telling you.  They ain’t gonna fit.  Y’all try ‘em in that there thing,” he said, pointing.  “If they can’t fit in there, they ain’t gonna fit.”

With his hawkish eyes on me, I placed each bag in “that there thing” one at a time.  Sure enough, every bag fit, though mine was a bit snug.

“They all fit,” I said, smiling.  Asshole.  Too bad HE didn’t wish us a wonderful vacation.    

#

Now, being experienced long-distance train travelers, we knew what to expect – light dozing overnight.  But fortunately, this train’s teeny sleeper was a sensible distance from the locomotive.

Things went smoothly that first day, so after lunch the next day we remained in the dining car playing UNO.  With only a few travel hours remaining, the train pulled into a station.  Passengers boarded and exited, and then we continued on our way.  Minutes later, the train began slowing down until it came to a halt. The conductor announced that we’d lost power.  A few minutes after that we were once again underway.  But then, just when we appeared to almost be up to full speed, the train again slowed until it stopped. 

O Over the public address system, the conductor announced that the engine was stone cold dead. Abandoning UNO, we went directly to War, playing card after card slapping against the dining room tabletop. Broken down, we remained idle until another train reached us and could push us the rest of the way.  

Back at the station where our vacation adventure had begun, we retrieved our bags and boarded the subway to go pick up our car.

Above the clatter and squeals of the train wheels scraping along the rails my daughter said to me, “Dad?”

“Yes, hon,” I replied.

“Where are we going on vacation next year?”          


BIO

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has had over 50 publications and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Magazines publishing his work include Contrary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, Dime Show Review, Remington Review, The River, and Fiction on the Web. He resides outside of Boston.

California Fugue

by Teresa Yang


C is for ceasefire, as in “Cease, fire!” As if, like telling the universe to stop expanding, we could command the many California wildfires to stop burning.

Taken another way, ceasefire might be a brokered truce between Mother Nature and man, our encroaching development like a stray hair irritating her eyes, one that she decides to brush away or scissor off entirely. A ceasefire, though, does not resolve conflicts; it’s a mere time-out for both sides to recover their breath, or plot new strategies. Breath restored, mankind might grudgingly accept the stark reality of climate change – that, yes – cigarettes do cause lung cancer and maybe that extra cell phone that fell out from your husband’s backpack and his mysterious absences don’t mean he works for the CIA.

A is for awakened. It’s three in the morning and the phone is ringing. Brain disoriented, I think, don’t the robocallers know it’s the middle of the night? But I pick up, prepared for Serenity Haven to say, “Your mother didn’t suffer; she went quickly.” Instead, it’s my neighbor warning us of a threatening newborn fire and the immediate mandatory evacuation. I check my phone and there are NotifyLA alerts wallpapering the dark screen, texts and emails growing like the fire.

Though I have an evacuation list, it provides little comfort. All I can think about is my blood pressure, the one I’ve been diligently monitoring since the other day at the doctor when it was on the cliff waiting to be rescued by a diuretic. The list is in English and Spanish, in descending priority order, created and honed after the last recommended evacuation. I had to consider need versus want. I need to pack sweats and tennis shoes, clothes you wear after your house has burned down. I need to pack my underwear, those hard-to-fit bras and the bikini panties that hide a stomach like a quick finger wiping escaping cake batter, the underwear that cannot possibly be bought online without trying it on first, the underwear whose purchase I’ll have no patience for after my house is gone. I want to pack my mother’s leopard coat, given to her by her mother-in-law, the one she wore so fashionably in those Kyoto wintertime black and white photos. No one needs a leopard coat. I want to pack my thirty-five photo albums, in chronological order, the ones I’m saving to show my future grandchildren. My daughter laughed later, saying, “But Mom, they’re all digitized.” I want to pack their scrap books, Mother’s Day cards made by kindergarten teachers and, later, poignant ones where my son wrote messages he was too reluctant to say in person.

L is for loss, tangible and intangible. There is the obvious potential loss of the house which we just remodeled, for the third time, a few years back. This was the we-will-die-here remodel, the one where I corrected all the features I disliked from the outset but couldn’t afford to change before, the one where I finally got the soaking bathtub. I treated the bathtub like the beach, sand to be admired from afar, and stepped into its pool only once to assure myself it wouldn’t collapse into the living room below. Our dream remodel also produced the great room, one where the kids could hang out with their friends under my watchful eye. Sadly, the kids had their own apartments now and could hang out unobserved. This was the remodel that promoted the washer and dryer from its spidered existence in the garage to its own laundry room, now that we were doing less laundry than ever. This was the remodel where I got my walk-in closet, the one I would’ve been happy to evacuate into and live out of.

Half the house remained unused, freezing in winter and boiling in summer. We considered renting out that portion but soon realized we would need to add an extra kitchen. We had lived in that area of the house throughout the better part of our remodeling year. All the furniture had been put in storage save for the essentials. With one functional bathroom and no indoor staircase, we walked up and down outside to get from the bathroom to the kitchen. It reminded me of our first apartment and I wondered why I thought a washer and dryer would require its own room.

The intangible losses are tougher. This was the place where I learned about nurturing and growing things – children, dichondra, and homemade apple pie with green fruit from the yard.

I is for information, too much and not enough. It’s an endless, anxiety provoking loop, which we watch for fear of missing out, waiting to hear that Arnold’s house, or mine, has burned down. It’s watching the governor, or mayor, in real people clothes, out of their bespoke suits, talking to us like our next door neighbor, which they’re not.

F is for fire, now so common that we’ve given them names. But, like most names, they’re easily forgettable. We should name them Lucifer, or possibly Dante.

Once, when my son was three or four and I was at work, we had a kitchen fire. The first thing my nanny did was take him outside, next to the pool. “Wait here, puppy,” she said. In the chaos, she forgot about the fire extinguisher; instead, she soaked the small rug next to the sink and threw it onto the stove top, killing the fire. He didn’t know how to swim at the time, but wide eyed, he stood glued to the grass.

O is for objects. I’ve long since given away the things that don’t spark joy, like the matching picture frames my mother gifted one year, the ones with too-happy Disneyland fake flowers. I had to wait until she no longer remembered she had given them to me. Now I’m left with twinkles of joy everywhere, like pastel macaroons or hidden chocolate, so many fragile, difficult to pack treasures that I love. I take none of it, unwilling and unable to select my favorites. It’s like asking me to identify which child I love more. Instead I take the cash, several thousand dollars in twenties and Ben Franklins, hidden inside Dennis Lehane’s dark book, Mystic River. I pack my mother’s pair of black and grey onyx bookends that sit on the floor and accent the black fireplace like the beauty mark she used to embellish on her pale cheek. The heavy bookends could come in handy for protection, I think.

I take my jewelry, all of it.

R is for the many reasons that fire reigns now, climate change chief among them. It’s not just the one or two degree increase in average temperatures, but like a two or three pound weight gain, it’s that resultant bloated feeling where waistbands strangle and zippers suffocate. It’s the cascading effect: the extremes in temperature are greater, the devil Santa Ana winds howl that much stronger, the rains become torrential, or the air desiccates in postmenopausal dryness.

It’s the faceless corporations, utilities who didn’t maintain the electric infrastructure, their only remedy with all this power is now to turn off the power.

It’s the explosion and implosion of the California dream, man inhabiting Mother Nature’s backyard, the one wired to burn periodically to allow renewal and regrowth. Only now those areas are crowded with housing developments, Costcos, and grammar schools. And we still have a housing shortage. Yet in my neighborhood, the homeowners refuse to consider the building of “granny flats,” additional smaller units on the lot for, well, grandmothers or other orphaned people. We joked that we had already built our own granny flat in the unoccupied half of the house.

N is for Nola, my sole remaining friend from high school. I’m always the one to suggest we get together. We meet halfway between her home in northern San Diego county and mine in Los Angeles, always at the same Pan Asian restaurant, always ordering the noodles with the secret sauce. I am surprised when I receive an unexpected text from her asking about my well being. I agree with my dad – there’s nothing like old friends.

The texts keep appearing like electronic ash. Why are people awake at this time of night? Busily packing, I don’t answer. Like tracing shell companies, one nearby friend who had sent increasingly worried texts finally texted her son in Hong Kong to text my son in San Francisco to track us down in my silence. People I hadn’t communicated with in months reached out.

Although I was disappointed not to hear from my friend Constance, whom I considered a sister once, not having any myself. She used to live in the very canyon that was now burning. We drifted apart as our children grew up and she became more religious. Once I hinted she was too religious. If you’re at all religious, you know you can’t ever be too religious. Maybe she was traveling in the jungles of Borneo, I hoped.

I is for insurance – like a deadbeat husband, it’s nice to say you’re married, but really, what good is he? When the specter of earthquake became an actuarial certainty, earthquake insurance turned into its own entity and cost, separate from the homeowner’s policy. And now that fire is so commonplace, will it also have its own classification and price tag? No matter, the premiums have already doubled or tripled, or worse yet, entire policies cancelled. Even insurance companies can participate in our “cancel culture.”

A is for air mattress, the queen size one I decide to buy at Target. I pick the cheapest one only to realize after opening the unreturnable box there’s no pump. The evacuation will likely be over by the time I manually inflate the mattress. After another trip, armed with the electric pump, I proudly assess the makeshift bed. Despite its size, it’s not meant for two people. Newton’s immutable third law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – means that every time my husband moves, I am lambasted by a tidal wave of motion. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, we pump the other queen mattress.

I chide myself for not packing the chairs-in-a-bag we used to lug to soccer games, for there is no place to sit except the dirty floor and the clean bed. With only two changes of clothes, but lots of underwear, I can either sit on the floor in my underwear or put on my flannel pajamas and sit on the air mattress. One day I did take a shower and got in bed at 4pm. I suppose I could’ve picked up a soccer chair, but it would’ve been another reminder of loss, of trying to live in the past, so many wonderful hours spent watching my children from the sidelines.

F is for the fortunate and the fucked. Even the lucky ones, like Lebron James, cannot find shelter. “Man, these LA fires aren’t no joke, “he tweeted. On Twitter, besides some personal invitations that he be their house guest, he was told to check out the Four Seasons in Hong Kong, or to contact the Chinese embassy. Then there’s the man who wondered, anonymously and publicly, how he could save his Lamborghini. The internet might be an even more dangerous place than fire infested California, a place where Lamborghinis, or their owners, could be destroyed.

The unlucky ones are the people whose homes have already burned down once, who have been living in a FEMA trailer, who have experienced serial, multiple evacuations. They’re the ones whose entire town was nearly destroyed, like the ironically named Paradise. They’re the ones without fire insurance, worse off than the people who discover their policies might only rebuild half a house. They’re the ones, elderly, perhaps alone, perhaps diabetic, unable to drive, whose power has been off for a week, looking at their dwindling food supply and wondering: What’s worse? Take a chance and eat the unrefrigerated week old delicatessen turkey? Or mix my white processed sugar with water so I don’t starve? They are the ones too old, too sick, too tired, too dead to resurrect.

They’re the ones who can’t plunk down $350 a night for a hotel room, while the fortunate complain, as one man did on Nextdoor, that an overabundance of caution precipitated the mandatory evacuation notice and, not only does he want to be reimbursed for his $350 nightly expense, he bemoans he can’t be relaxing on his outdoor hammock. The unlucky ones cannot buy air mattresses.

The unlucky ones are the housekeepers, gardeners, and day workers who haven’t been notified by their employers and, for fear of losing their job, go to work anyway, the ones who can’t afford a day without pay.

U is for united, as in firefighters united in a singular cause. They come from everywhere – even tiny Coronado, home of the famed hotel, sent a battalion. Even prisoners, excepting the convicted arsonists, can volunteer in exchange for a few dollars a day and the possibility of better accommodations or a reduced sentence. It’s dangerous, sure, but sometimes less dangerous than the stuff inside the prison, one inmate said. I like being outside, another remarked.

Just think – if our government could work together like the firefighters and fight a common cause rather than each other. Doesn’t the “United” States mean just that?

G is for gossamer, which Merriam-Webster defines as “light, delicate, tenuous,” like goose down or cobwebs. It’s contemporary life, our network connected by fine, sometimes invisible, electronic threads. Is Constance in Borneo or has she really cut our sisterly string? It’s our cobweb, easily blown by a strong Santa Ana, hopefully without us on it, leaving us with the herculean task of remaking yet another delicate and destructible web. It’s our luck, whether we sleep on goose down or cobweb, the commonality being that neither has a solid foundation.

U is for uncertainty. I used to give little thought to the risk of fire, but now uncertainty has become a chronic condition, like hypertension or arthritis. It’s not so bad, I think, sleeping on the air mattress, eating microwave food, watching the news on my phone. I like this urban living, where we share common walls, a parking garage, a cramped elevator. I can listen to my neighbors’ music, their sneezes, their arguments and their rapprochement afterwards. My one friend regrets selling her house in the flats, saying she never had to experience this type of fear. As for unloading her current house in the hills, she says, “I actually don’t have much to miss.” My other more adventuresome friend says I cannot compare my home to “geriatric health metrics.” Life is all uncertainty; only in death do we find certainty.

E is for ending and elucidation: the moment I walk in the door, I know I am home. This is where my beloved closet is, one that can be recreated elsewhere but one that I don’t want to recreate anywhere else. I feel alive here, amidst the green and blue of the outside and the memories inside. Even as the air is shrouded in smoky particulate fog, there is clarity now where the fugue once smoldered.


BIO

Teresa Yang is a dentist in Los Angeles. Besides dental articles, her work has appeared in HerStry, Mutha Magazine, As It Ought to Be Magazine, Potato Soup Journal, and Little Old Lady Humor. She is currently working on a dental memoir about the secret life of a lady dentist.

Rejuvenation in Fragments

by Jennifer Worrell


Seven years ago, I left a job I thought would be a perfect fit. I turned down an opportunity to work in a grueling catering position—one that could further my burgeoning career as a pastry cook—to work in publishing.

A great deal less taxing physically, working as an assistant cookbook editor not only combined my love of food and books, but provided a chance to sit on my duff at a desk instead of massaging my sore knees every night. Once at the mercy of a fluctuating schedule, my new status as a nine-to-fiver meant designated writing time on nights and weekends.

Though ultimately not the dream job I envisioned, I found contentment in editing copy and testing recipes. The prospect of increased authority, selecting and organizing content, and development of a project from start to finish sparked my ambition toward promotion. Unfortunately, this was another dream about to burst: After a few years of satisfactory routine, my situation changed from pleasant to blandly tolerable to appalling.

Accustomed to working on a dozen or more projects in various stages, I was assigned increasingly fewer until I was down to one or two. Co-workers refused to look in my direction when I passed and ignored me when I said hello. I admit my share of faults: frequently tardy to meetings; often too focused on line edits and not enough on the bigger picture; easily the most introverted person in the department. Dozens of moving parts and my reliably lousy memory assured I’d slip up on a detail here and there. I assumed these flaws caused the change in attitude towards me, yet my reviews ranked positive every year, with only minor suggestions for improvement.

Within four years, Mr. Kennedy*, our editor-in-chief, promoted me to editor. But the head-scratching derision continued. Side-eye glances and stifled snickers followed me through the halls. Clearly some teammates did not agree with my elevated position.

In my first new project meeting as editor, I brought an older book from the warehouse as a sample, but accidentally chose one with one-inch larger dimensions than indicated on the client’s spec sheet. An embarrassing mistake to be sure, compounded by the project manager overtaking the meeting, erasing my voice from the room.

As the common denominator in this equation, I started to believe I deserved all the negativity and questioned Mr. Kennedy’s decision. Still I received no official reprimands, no one-on-one meetings, no specialized training, no demotion.

I dug in my heels, refusing to quit. One day everything would click. Experience would culminate in success. I refused to believe anything less.

The company downsized over the last year of my tenure, repeatedly decimating every department. One afternoon, my cube neighbor slammed a box on her desk and started packing. Another victim of layoffs, she was further infuriated by my obliviousness: While Mr. Kennedy cut her loose, the CEO convened everyone else in his boardroom to disclose the news. All, that is, except me.

I inferred only one meaning to this ostracism: my imminent demise. Why else would they have excluded the person who sat six feet away from their latest victim? I stormed into Kennedy’s office and demanded that if I were next, I’d prefer he get it over with. Instead of hearing the words I both feared and welcomed, I received a look of shock. He insisted my head was never on the chopping block. A beloved member of the team was let go, and again I was spared, with one less advocate on my side.

A more confusing, defeating situation I could not imagine. Why retain an employee they treated as sub-par? If they recognized some potential, why allow me to linger on the cusp of mediocrity? Such bizarre behavior felt like gaslighting.

Unsettled and directionless, my motivation tanked. Pulling into the parking lot, dragging myself up four steps and wending my way through cubicle town, felt like a heavier burden every day. My passion to write fizzled until I rarely picked up a pen.

Though I was safe for the moment, I knew it wouldn’t last. I submitted my resume to any company that fit. A few weeks and interviews later, I accepted an offer while sitting in my car in that same parking lot.

#

Quitting jump-started my motivation to write again, with more than a few pieces finding their way into print. But it took six years to write the manuscript I’m querying now, squeezing in words on lunch breaks and weekends. When I think of how I could have completed a manuscript while I passively waited for my situation to improve, instead of squandering time on Facebook, I still feel a little sick.

Driving back from a research gig for my second novel, I noticed a fence around the old publishing house. The company had moved to a neighboring ’burb a few years ago and the property had been vacant since. A simple brick shoebox, it could have been transformed into any number of businesses. Instead, it was in tatters.

I whipped into a side street and left the car running in the parking lot next door. I tried to get closer through the secret staircase between the two lots, but that too was destroyed. It didn’t stop me from ducking between and under the construction fences to get a better look, my breath halting as if I stood in icy water.

The canopy over the front door hung in rags. Part of the roof had caved in. Pipes jutted out of the remaining walls, and twisted wires dangled motionless despite the breeze. The few remaining windows were reduced to jagged shards. A single plastic blind hung in an empty frame and snapped against the metal.

I peeked into what used to be a rather spectacular vestibule. A gaping hole replaced the tropical fish tank. A pile of rubble filled the waiting area, a pristine porcelain sink from the lobby bathroom upended like a hat. And hanging above it all, the crystal chandelier, perfectly intact.

I haven’t met a ghost and don’t intend to seek one out, but I felt a presence in this grave-still, dusty lot. The fences were tall enough to keep noise out and me from being seen from the street, yet I had the sense of being watched. From the surrounding condos, I wondered if anyone noticed me from their second-story windows. Or was I as invisible as I was six years ago?

Though the outer walls were depleted, I could make out where the art design room used to be. My “office” was on the other side and one cube row north; I could still walk it in my memory. I felt a strong urge to touch the column that separated my file cabinets. Witness my space stripped down to a bare cement floor. Breathe in the absence.

I wanted to smash the remaining windows until the parking lot glittered like diamonds.

Asbestos remediation warnings kept me from venturing closer, as did the uncertain stability of the roof. The last thing I needed was a rusty nail jamming into my sandal or a scrap of metal slicing my calf.

Like an absurd joke, bricks propped open the side entrance. I wanted to reach up and gently close it. The building might be half down, but it would be me who shut the door for the last time. 

I settled for hovering around the site, soaking in the scene, leaving no proof I was ever there.

#

Seven years have passed since I gave myself permission to breathe. I’m at home in my new surroundings at a university library, respected and valued by colleagues. I’ve earned a seat at the table on a team where everyone’s voice matters.

Co-workers nudge me about my manuscript, update me on calls for submissions, and include me in conversations about the writing life, even if our respective genres have no connection. Work is no longer synonymous with torture; the common denominator re-defined.

The publishing house lives on at its new location. That part of my past only dimly enters my mind; less a significant detail than a narrative blip.

But seeing the old workplace on its last legs, bones poking through the mangled flesh, is the way I want to remember it: nothing more than a foundation and a handful of stories.


BIO

Jennifer Worrell got hooked on writing stories in kindergarten using mimeographed prompts. Her supplier, Mrs. Davenport, kept a stash of the Purple Monster handy for a quick fix. Though she kicked the habit for a short time, Jenny’s writing problem has spiraled out of control. But don’t worry. She can quit whenever she wants to. 

Primarily a fiction author, she’s working on two novels and a stream of short pieces in multiple genres. You can find out more at JenniferWorrellWrites.com or on Twitter or Facebook @JWorrellWrites.

Judith Skillman Interview by Janée J. Baugher


Janée J. Baugher: As an undergraduate in the 1970s, you had a rich introduction to poets and politics.

Judith Skillman: Yes, as a student at University of Maryland, I studied with Rod Jellema, Ann Darr, Reed Whittemore, and others. The visiting poets at that time included Galway Kinnell, Tess Gallagher, Stanley Kunitz, and others. Because UM didn’t yet have an MFA program, I studied English Literature with an emphasis on creative writing. Supportive criticism was not in vogue then. Peers in workshops would make statements like, “This poem is shit.” Whether or not someone’s poem is crap, it takes a thick skin to continue to write after feeling eviscerated by your peers.

Richard Brautigan came to Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) when I was an undergraduate. His anti-war poems were so resounding at that time. I was politically active when I was young, joining campaign groups, manning the phones, wearing buttons, and handing out fliers. Working at campaign headquarters in proximity to Washington DC was exciting. When my daughter Lisa was born and only a few months old my mom and I went, all dressed in white, to the Women’s Rights March at the Washington Monument. I was a feminist then, and a member of NOW, for which I did freelance work.

As a child who had to go down into the bomb shelter during the Cuban missile crisis, I have been aware that the world could go nuclear since I was nine. I won’t forget the trauma of walking down to the underground cafeteria carrying my blanket and lunch. One can barely watch three seconds of news before being reminded of the brutality of mankind.

Since moving to the Seattle-area, I’ve had the privilege of taking workshops from Beth Bentley, Patiann Rogers, William Stafford, Madeline DeFrees, David Wagoner, Jana Harris, Marvin Bell, David Wojahn, and Andrei Codrescu, to name a few. At Port Townsend Writer’s Conference in 1995 I met the illustrious Jack Gilbert. We kept up a modest correspondence for a few years. He taught me that when you revise your poems, it’s good to be aware of the difference between fancy and imagination, particularly with associative material. Fancy is contrived, whereas the imagination is defined as the “mind’s eye.” Fancy fits under imagination, and not vice versa. Although it’s employed under the verb, fancy is a “faculty of the imagination.” We want leaps that follow a subconscious thread. We don’t want to impress the reader (s/he doesn’t exist when we’re writing, anyway) with ostentation, showiness, or flamboyance. Keep it understated—that’s a good measuring stick with which to judge images that run rampant. Prune adjectives—another way to resist the ornate. Write from feeling, not from intellectualizing or over-thinking. Pay attention to your dreams and the songs that get stuck in your head.

JB: In our digital age, I wonder if “letter to a young poet” correspondence relationships are still happening. How much did you gain as a writer, for example, with your epistle relationship with Jack Gilbert?

JS: I learned so much from Jack. He was single-minded in his passion for writing, and lived a monkish life, rarely leaving the cottage at Centrum where I was his neighbor for a month. After I gathered up the courage, I showed him a poem, which was, I think, about deer—there were many deer in Port Townsend—he pointed to a few lines in the middle of the piece and asked me pointblank “Is this fancy or imagination?” I remember being both puzzled and fascinated by the question. So we talked about the quality of fancy and how it differs from the imagination. He took it upon himself to teach me this lesson, which has become extremely important as years go by. Fancy is contrived. Jack had an eye and an ear for whatever is fake, forced, strained, artificial, affected, or put on.

While I was under his informal mentorship, Jack spent not a small amount of time discouraging me from continuing to write poetry. He said that there was no point in it, as so few poets would get a job even at the community college level. Yet he continued to support me in my work, as we exchanged letters over the course of ten years or so. I have saved these for their truthfulness. I learned something of his “métier”—to write a poem a week while enjoying the “meanwhile.” For him, the idol of so many poets and non poets alike, the act of writing was one of communication with a wide audience while living a solitary, frugal life.

I recall, when I saw his kitchen table, that there was a letter from The New Yorker soliciting his work. I asked incredulously “Aren’t you going to send them something?” To my surprise, he replied with a shrug. This was not an act. It was the gift of a great poet bestowed upon someone struggling for recognition—a gesture that said everything I needed to know and to remember. The writing is what Gilbert was after. Sitting with his feelings and letting them percolate and finding out what was in there that had resonance; what could become a surprise or the hidden meaning in a broken relationship. It was not the acquisition of a reputation, fame, or fortune. This despite the Yale Younger Poets Award, and the fact that he told stories of walking around with Pound in Italy. He spoke much of his wife Michiko, whom he mourned with an altar on his dresser in each place he landed. This self-imposed reclusion despite having been nominated for the Pulitzer at the same time as William Carlos Williams made him truly unique.

JB: How does a person leap from being a student of poetry to having published eighteen poetry collections?

JS: When I had my first child, my mom was very supportive. She said, “Babies sleep a lot. Why don’t you enroll in law school?” So, after I attended one semester, I turned to poetry, which people are wont to do. Anyhow, shortly after I quit school and began writing, I made a decision. “I’m a poet,” I began telling people. I turned to magic realism, the fiction of Borges, and lapped-up the language of Mark Twain. I wrote poems and was, therefore, a poet. Simple as that.

JB: Is poem-making for you like creating sand mandalas? Normally, I wouldn’t mention obsession, but, given how prolific you’ve been throughout your life, what would you say about the compulsion to writing thousands of poems?

JS: Making is the thing. Poets write the same poem over and over, similar to mandalas. What lasts? Why do we do the things that we do? This isn’t something one needs to overthink, nor should one. The War of Art is a book that, for me, explains the necessity of overcoming one’s resistance to succumbing to one’s innate passions. Why do we have so much resistance? It seems that the “maker” in each writer does have a war to fight, against her/his own inner critic.

As humans we are especially self-critical. The internal voice demands to know why on earth the “I”—that is, the ego—would expend itself to serve the self. There has to be some gain, right? Some recognition for all the work that goes into creating a unique package of words—a poem, a novel, a memoir, or a screenplay. A piece of visual art, or sculpture—even an entrepreneurial endeavor. What is the pay off? I learned a lot when Tibetan monks visited my son’s college (Reed College, Portland, Oregon). They spent a number of days creating beautiful mandalas of sand. My son played pool with one of the monks each evening. Parents came on the day these works of art were to be thrown in the river that flows through the campus. There they would turn to milk, all color gone, nothing left to identify any one of the particular, unique pieces.

Poem-making is the same process. We bring the inner beauty and magnitude of our thoughts out on paper. The exquisite moments of that are personal to the extreme. Will anything come of this act? Will the endeavor last? This is not for the maker to decide, nor to concern him or herself with. It is an act of relinquishment.

Obsession plays a part, as in, possibly, OC syndrome—in that a writer may not feel grounded unless they are playing and replaying some incident in thought, and mimicking this by repetitive behavior. For me, the act of writing poems (and I have dabbled in fiction and essay writing, and written reviews as well) is a welcome respite from the daily grind. Simply sitting still within one’s writing place, whether it is a corner carved out of another room or a room of one’s own, stills habitual thought patterns. Reading and mulling over events become a kind of practice that yields, at times, unexpected results. Sometimes I find myself sitting very still and a strong feeling wells up. It may be uncomfortable. Life is full of grief, for instance, though we prefer to talk about the weather. There are the numerous transitions our children go through, aging parents, financial problems—you name it.

So the compulsion to write poems, while it resembles other repetitive acts, is completely different. In the act of feeling and subsequently writing down what comes to mind without censoring that material, some seed appears. Perhaps the would-be poem remains a fragment. That’s fine. Fragments can be pieced together or lead to sequences. If the internal censor can be vanquished from the room, the act of piecing words together based on either a form or free verse or associations (I prefer the latter) can lead in surprising directions. Connections may not be clear at the time. It’s a form of day dreaming, or, perhaps, in the best case, of dreaming awake.

JB: Some writers have spent a lifetime writing about the mundane, but you’ve found artistic fodder in the subject of trauma. Robert Frost reminds us, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Is it trauma’s dramatic occasion, its personal significance, or its intrinsic tension that interests you?

JS: My personal traumatic experiences go as far back as I can remember. My childhood tonsillectomy, for example. Instead of getting ice cream I vomited three bedpans of blood, and had to stay overnight in the hospital alone. Parents did not stay with children in the sixties! I had hallucinations of spiders; climbed out of my metal crib and wandered down the hallways only to be stiffly reprimanded by a nurse. As a writer writing of tragedies, it’s curious to me how and why I remember these sorts of details so vividly. I barely remember my graduations from high school and university, but those imagined spiders from my childhood still haunt me…

So your question is salient. I would say all three of these come into play—the dramatic occasion that lingers or malingers in the mind, the personal significance, and the tension and/or angst provided by the memory. It demands to be exorcised. I am not sure why my happier memories aren’t stronger. Somehow it’s the wounds that want to come out of the closet when I write. I have tried to change this. Public readings about unpleasant events—these poems are not leavened by humor in the slightest—leave me feeling the audience is not only getting depressed, but I am too. Of course there are exceptions. But by and large, perhaps because of expectations that may have set me up for an easier path through life, my attraction to the trauma has not diminished with the years.

JB: While writing-through-trauma isn’t new, the current zeitgeist is making the mode even more relevant and necessary. While we usually don’t think about the biographical elements of Robert Frost’s poetry, the fact remains that he was a man long traumatized by his loved ones’ diseases, mental illnesses, and sudden deaths. “Home Burial” is a remarkable illustration of that gulf that exists between people caught between the dead and the living. Do you feel as though you’re a poet who writes through tragedies and trauma?

JS: Yes, and there’s so much to unpack. I’ve tackled topics from childhood illnesses to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Rimbaud was right when he wrote, “Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.” I think artists of every discipline, compared to the average person, have more acute sensory awareness. Often this manifests in a heightened sensitivity of the body. For example, Wordsworth has a poem about chronic insomnia; it’s his third night without sleep and he invokes God. Sleeplessness erodes confidence. Insomnia is both humbling and insistent, as is chronic pain. One feels one can’t trust the body, its impulses when young, and its ongoing ever-increasing sensibilities and foibles as we age.

JB: Your treatment of writing-through-trauma is resolute and understated, and the mystery is palpable. You span subjects such as illnesses, disease, depression. W.H. Auden was precise when he wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong.” In your Journal of American Medical Association poems, there’s surprise in the juxtaposition of beauty and pain. There’s something ethereal beyond or somewhere within the imagery of tragedy, trauma, suffering.

JS: The fact that MFA writing programs may be offering a new track, writing-through-trauma, is interesting. One of the first “trauma” poems I wrote was “Written on Learning of Arrhythmia in the Unborn Child”. The title describes exactly when this was written—after an ultrasound late in the first trimester of pregnancy, when my then unborn third child had an arrhythmic heart beat. The uneven heartbeat became just the tip of the iceberg, as a subsequent ultrasound revealed that she only had one working kidney. The title “Written On Learning of….” might be an inherent preface for each poem written out of a traumatic experience.

I believe the authenticity of the work depends upon a sliver of disengagement from actual events—an ability to detach, even if just momentarily, from the object or subject of one’s shock. After shock comes fear, and that seems more ordinary. Perhaps by ordinary I mean that fear in the context of daily necessities can become uncomfortable, but subject to avoidance. Daily routine presses onward, and any space one might have for contemplation is lost. By its nature, shock includes a surreal element, but this can make it easier and, in fact, feel safer, to look away from the abnormality of the experience—to discount strong emotions and move on with problem solving. Of course, at the time, I was in a state of shock, as prior to this I had two healthy children by natural childbirth. That is not to say they didn’t have any problems, but the early illnesses they experienced were garden variety compared to this set of issues.

JB: So, while that poem, “Written On Learning of Arrhythmia,” published by Poetry over 30 years ago was your first trauma-related poem, it certainly wasn’t your last. Is it true that for the last 25 years you’ve had over 25 poems published in the Journal of American Medical Association?

JS: Yes. It was at the time of my third child’s major surgery, which required an eight-day stay at Children’s hospital in Seattle, and she came home with tubes in her kidneys and bladder, that I wrote “The Body Especial,”—my first poem published in JAMA’s Poetry and Medicine column. The subjects of my JAMA poems have included, diagnoses such as Hashimoto’s disease, Epstein-Barr, post vitreous detachment, tinnitus, spasmodic torticollis, traumatic brain injury, shingles, serum sickness, and diagnostic procedures such as mammograms, echocardiograms, and biopsies.

While I have had personal resonance with this list of subjects, my first concern is honoring the energy of the moment in which I write. When various maladies are diagnosed, words get involved and that becomes exciting. There is the challenge to discover not only what the word holds, but what the body is holding onto. Our bodies know more than we do about how events in our ever-changing environment influence our lives. I found the term “Spasmodic Torticollis” very funny even as I experienced the pain of a wrenched neck. It does sound like an Italian dish, so the poem’s first line was a found line.

JB: As a poet who battles chronic pain, you’ve mentioned to me the importance of having read Sarah Anne Shockley’s book, The Pain Companion. Will you discuss the correlation between intellectualizing and managing your pain with writing about it imaginatively?

JS: Well, there is a depth of fury and rage when one’s body doesn’t function normally. Often this anger turns inward, towards oneself. That is unproductive and exacerbates the condition. You have to choose how you want to relate to your pain. I can’t trust the body, and have rarely felt comfortable in my own skin.

Writing, however, helps establish a foundation for trust in reality. There is a tremendous amount of release available when one can take to a private place such as a poem with one’s feelings—the heartache engendered by trauma. It isn’t a panacea by any means, but writing holds the moment in place. By anchoring an event with words, the experience becomes externalized, and makes shock more bearable.

So while I feel rather like a magnet for trauma, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to express these events of varying kinds and proportions in the form of verse. While there is little to recommend about trauma, except perhaps the ability to empathize with others who experience it, we all live through deeply distressing experiences. Just being born is a critical condition for the human infant, who relies on his or her parents to meet each and every need for a full year, as compared to other mammals, who are born and learn to fend for themselves in a relatively short time.

JB: Writing-through-trauma seems like a method by which a writer can actually claim an event that she herself couldn’t control. By writing a script in which beauty collides with trauma, a writer can orchestrate a slowing down, a way of regaining command of a life that’s vast and unpredictable. In that spirit, talk to me about the poem, “You’ll Never Heal.”

JS: I have been inspired to write by new traumatic events that seem to spring up continually and leave scars. “You’ll Never Heal” was written after one of my children had a serious car accident. It speaks of the sensibility of a shock experience from mother to daughter. I know for myself healing doesn’t necessarily happen in the actual world. In the ideal, of course, we want and expect that restoration and exactitude: that our loved one will emerge unmarred, unscarred. The thing about poems is that verse, at least for me, can capture the moment better than autobiographical prose can.

Though they say it could have been worse,
give you ice and pills, nothing bandages
the millisecond you can’t remember

or the afterwards, a shock wave traveling
in slow motion through your knee,
your back, neck and stomach.

Though they say the limp will disappear,
you feel as if cottonwood fell to the curb
to be collected by the accident
and packed into the ball and socket.

This kind of snow never melts.
Through glass you watch the great hulk of mountain,
that part you can see, its summit clipped
by cloud, frame, pall.

(Preprinted with permission from Came Home to Winter, Deerbrook Editions 2019)

JB: My favorite Anne Sexton quote concerns her label as a confessional poet: “I often confess to things that never happened.” I wonder if “Writing through Trauma” is just the 21st century term for “Confessional” writing? What’s your take on the mode of writing-through-trauma? Do you consider your writing about trauma to be confessional? Is trauma a matter for art? While there’s an inherent autobiographical nature to writing-through-trauma, my question to you is how can writers ensure that their work doesn’t succumb to self-indulgence?

JS: I would say stick with the experience, stay true to the details, and keep yourself present to what happened. Also, follow the mood, if and when that develops. Think of a mood as a guide forward into the material that needs to be accessed and brought back into the light in order to be examined under a microscope. Use your senses, all five, and the sixth sense if it can be accessed, to avoid self-pity. Know that you are not alone—trauma is experienced every day by everyone, even if it is present as the affront of a wooden table to a toddler who is learning how to navigate a living room. When the pity and confession begin, allow yourself to feel that, but don’t engage overlong. The smallest child moves forward with mercurial changeability from crying to laughing, and in a split second is on to the next thing. That’s a good lesson.

JB: So, is that to say that your primary concern in poem-making is image development versus writing on the facts of a certain situation? Writing-through-trauma for you isn’t a means of catharsis?

JS: I think it goes both ways. The first impetus is “Let’s get this thing that feels like being slimed out of my body…let’s make it into words, because it is too awful to retain inside.” The facts are the facts and they are important. This experience happened. It was shocking and surprising. It made me feel angry, upset, hurt; it caused pain and suffering. I am still here, however, and looking out at a world that doesn’t seem to care that this happened. In fact, people can distance themselves from their loved ones who suffer—this occurs much more often than one might like to think. Pain and suffering are scary and uncomfortable. They remind others of their own pain. Clearly PTSD and its attendant emotions can become a toxic and isolating concoction.

So what in nature does this feeling-experience resemble? That’s where image development comes in. There’s an organic part to being human. We try to pretend that our animal qualities don’t exist. We have our cities, our high rises, concrete, pavement—we’ve covered civilization with a flat veneer of ‘enlightenment’. Despite this, if, when wounded by our own bodies, we turn back to the natural world, there are abundant examples of scarred trees, burnt vistas, branchings, tramplings, floods, and randomness. Many images are available to translate our feelings into words. The correspondence of image to situation may or may not ease the current situation. It is not something to be done for the purpose of catharsis. That may backfire, because any purpose can become pat, forced, studied, and artificial—again, can be fancy.

JB: Speaking of the autobiographical elements in your writing, you’ve had physical injuries, hereditary maladies, social trauma, and chronic pain, all of which have been given voice in your poetry. Will you discuss the struggles inherent to using personal pain as a subject for poetry?

JS: I’ve always had a sensitive constitution. Acute sensory awareness, sympathetic pains, feeling deeply about things, people. A propensity for worry. I’ve felt shame, guilt (some milieu-induced and some society-specific) about my chronic pain, but that never prevented me from writing about it. Trauma is omnipresent and omnipotent, which is to say that no one’s immune. I’ve done research on PTSD, and still I cannot figure out why some people are consumed by it and some people seen to be inoculated from it.

JB: In your poem, “Biopsy,” which ends with the words, “She couldn’t feel / more like a hostage / were she to don / the bee’s jacketed stripes, / the garb of the jail,” there’s a curious string of associations from needle to sting to bee to imprisonment. Do these associations come easily for you in the creative process, or do you made these conscious links during revision?

JS: They simply arrived, in this case. The associative process was working—all I had to do was get out of the way. Of course this doesn’t always happen. I think in this case the links were  internalized from having been stung by wasps, bees, and hornets some twenty times while growing up in Maryland. Physicians and/or nurses often use the phrase “This will feel like a bee sting”…again the process is dipping into what’s already there, waiting to be found.

JB: When I substitute taught your Richard Hugo House class, “Generating Associative Verse,” I puzzled over who were my favorite associative poets. In that class I realized that your poetic associative moves are the ones I most admire. One of my favorites is your punctuation-free poem, “Tiny Animals,” which has that bullet train feeling:

in blown glass on shelves
Wedgewood plates
stacked on the buffet
for company
quilted place mats
salt and pepper shaker
from Tahiti
horns of ivory
rhinoceros don’t you dare
touch else the host
will bellow
you’ll become the child
who ran into winter
jumped the fence
to fall on concrete
where a shard
entered your palm
look at the cicatrix
like a tattoo
a little leg
pulled from flesh

(Previously published in Hamilton Stone Review No. 35)

JS: It’s the subconscious that knows best, so the question then becomes how to access that part of our minds when we go to write. Sensation seems to be the driving force for a poem, especially one of an associative nature. “Tiny Animals” is one of my personal favorite associative poems also. It’s impossible to explicate why, except perhaps that when I look at it now there are concrete images and explicit warnings. The injury experienced by the ‘you’—“you’ll become the child” is a splinter from one of those “Tiny Animal(s)”—but how does the piece move from beginning to end without knowing consciously that there would be a convergence? Because it (the unconscious/subconscious part) is the best tool available to any writer.

JB: Will you talk about the image-and thread-driven nuances of associative writing?

JS: In writing associatively, it’s the subconscious that knows best what material is of the utmost importance for addressing—or for feeling our way—through a specific subject matter. So the question becomes how to access that part of our minds when we sit down to write. Dreams are poem-like; associative poems can be dream like, and are compared to Hieronymus Bosch by Richard Hugo: “When you see a painting by Hieronymus Bosch your immediate impression may be that he was a weirdo. A wise man once told me he thought Bosch had been a cynic, and the longer I thought about this the truer it seemed… Had Bosch concerned himself with the relative moral or aesthetic values of the various details, we would see more struggle and less composure in the paintings themselves. The details may clash with each other, but they do not clash with Bosch. Bosch concerned himself with executing the painting—he must have—and that freed his imagination, left him unguarded…One way of getting into the world of the imagination is to focus on the play rather than the value of words…” (from The Triggering Town)

JB: Besides the propulsion of associations through your poems, will you enlighten me about the irreducible relationship between your titles and your first lines. There’s so much happening in that white space! The poetic leaps don’t feel like leaps at all; they feel more like scaling a German wall. Here are some of my favorite title/first line combinations from your selected, The Phoenix, 2007-2013: Wind—Like pain it came and left by halves; House of Burnt Cherry—Here the martyr and the porcupine; Extinction’s Cousin—I came back for scraps; and November Moon, Past Full—Pours its dead, mimetic light.

JS: In that white space, the poems take-off, so to speak. I think that exists because of the need strongly felt in the body to write the poem. It’s more of a mood or a feeling than an idea. Ideas are the enemy of associative writing; the goal is to allow ourselves access to what’s frozen, or invisible, below the tip of the iceberg. The feeling that drives the poem’s initial impulse and its title come almost in tandem, then a huge feeling that must come out (William Stafford: “writing a poem is like getting traction on ice”). The first line may be the easiest part, because the rest of the poem is figuring out the relationship between the first line and the feeling. You have to wade through self-doubt and confusion. As David Wagoner has said, you have to become a mad person when you write, to see where the mood and the music leads you.

JB: Your poems are a rapid-fire in that I don’t ever know exactly how I got to the end of each poem and when I do get there I want to reread the thing immediately. In a 2008 interview in the Centrum Foundation newsletter (Port Townsend, Washington), you said, “The best poems are those that go through you like a bullet train.” Is that to say that good poetry reverberates? Good poetry is blurry? Will you explain what you mean?

JS: I learned this from Beth Bentley, when I studied from her at the UW. She wanted emotion in poems. She didn’t want philosophy, or even, necessarily, a lot of narrative, though she herself is a master of the narrative voice. Good poetry moves quickly. It contains images that build upon one another—the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Too many ideas spoil a poem—that’s what I came to see from bringing poems in to Bentley’s workshop. The idea contains seeds or germs; this is what needs to be developed. So yes, I would say that good poetry does reverberate in that it calls upon the senses. If there is any blurriness, that would arise from connotations that differ somewhat from person to person, but it’s a straight shot from start to finish, and when you are done reading a good poem, you feel electricity. There is then the aftermath of watching that current pass through you.

Perhaps the poems feel fast because they are not rational, and not puzzled out in logical imagery. I’m more comfortable when I’m in that trance zone—when an unusual or unique feeling leads me to where a poem is headed. These are poems that I don’t really revise. I’m comfortable with the unknown, a gut feeling that I’m an explorer, an adventurer—perhaps the luckiest gift of being raised as the child of two scientists. I love letting thought follow some half-wrought lines anywhere they wish to lead. While composing verse, I myself am suspending disbelief.


BIO

Janée J. Baugher is the author of the poetry collections Coördinates of Yes and The Body’s Physics, as well as the forthcoming academic book, The Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction (McFarland, 2020). She teaches Creative Writing in Seattle.

Pre-sale orders: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/The-Ekphrastic-Writer/

Save Me and I Will Be Saved

by Riley Winchester


It was late in the morning on a day in late December of 2010. I was in a waiting room with my mom at The Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatrics Center. One of the walls of the waiting room was made entirely of windows, and natural light lit up the room. Outside was the scene of a normal Baltimore winter: mounds of muddy snow pushed up against walls and corners; the wind was whipping and could be heard through the windows.

I was scanning through the most recent edition of Sports Illustrated Kids and I remember thinking two things. The first was I wished the magazine was the regular Sports Illustrated, not the kid’s edition, because I was thirteen years old and had been reading the regular editionfor over four years now. The second thought was of back home. I wondered if I would have been playing in a basketball game later that day if I was home, 660 miles back home in Michigan.  

A nurse called my name and I stood up to walk into the back rooms where I was to have blood work done and tests run to see if I was right for what I was getting into. It was when I stood up and made my way toward the nurse that I saw what had been around me. It was like I was in a painting, but not a Matisse or a Monet. There were kids—all younger than me—in wheelchairs, with breathing tubes, with IVs hooked into their arms. I saw heads with the fuzz of peaches, smooth heads with no hair, skinny arms and legs, bony faces, and jaundiced eyes.

Through this painting I walked, and I walked with all of my health. I had my hair, a full head of it. I had tissue and flesh covering my bones. I had no machines fixed into me, nothing external needed to provide me with life. I walked; I wasn’t rolled around by someone else’s push. My body was healthy, but I was scourged with guilt.

———

Over the course of forty years Edvard Munch painted six different renditions of The Sick Child. Each time, the content of the picture remained the same but the style changed. The picture is of a young girl, propped up on a white pillow, on her death bed. She is staring at a dark curtain. The curtain, it’s believed, is a symbol of death. By the young girl’s side is a woman, presumably the girl’s mother, who is so distraught and grief-stricken that she can’t bear to look at her dying child, so her head is down, looking at the floor.

The original version was painted with mostly whites, grays, and greens—giving it a dark hue and a somber tone. When Munch debuted the painting at the 1886 Autumn Exhibition in Christiana, critics and spectators dismissed it. They said it looked unfinished and disparaged Munch’s abandonment of line. The hands of the grieving woman, according to critics, lacked discernible details and looked like blobs. In his defense, Munch said, “I don’t paint what I see but what I saw.”

What Munch saw, and what inspired The Sick Child, was the death of his fifteen-year-old sister Johanne, who was only one year older than Munch at the time of her death in 1877. She died from tuberculosis in the Munch family home, and the memory of his sister perniciously losing her health, and ultimately her life, stayed with Edvard Munch.

Munch became obsessed with the picture, and he continued to rework its aesthetic for most of his life. He abandoned Impressionism for Expressionism, and every successive version became brighter. Munch never explained the change in brightness, but he said Expressionism allowed him to express what really stirred his mind. When writing about The Sick Child late in his life, Munch said, “It was a breakthrough in my art. Most of what I have done since had its birth in this picture.”

———

I was at Johns Hopkins to donate, not to be treated. My dad was suffering from Paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH) and had been for as long as I could remember. PNH is a rare disease found in the red blood cells that causes hemolytic anemia in its sufferers. Hemolytic anemia is when red blood cells are destroyed at a rate much faster than they are produced. Over time this is deadly, and the average life expectancy after a PNH diagnosis is only ten years. My dad’s ten years were approaching. But his ten years were approaching at an auspicious time.

My dad had been on the bone marrow donor registry for over four years and couldn’t find a full-match donor. Fortunately, however, haploidentical bone marrow transplants were gradually becoming more accepted in the medical field. In haploidentical transplants, the bone marrow of a half-matched donor is used. Because of developments at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, half-match donations were now safe and came with very few side effects. The Johns Hopkins Hospital was the first American hospital to perform haploidentical transplants, and at the time it was the only American hospital to perform them.

The half-match in a haploidentical transplant is typically a family member of the bone marrow recipient. For my dad, this meant he would be receiving bone marrow from either his mom, his dad, his brother, one of his two daughters, or me—his only son. In the fall of 2010, the other potential donors and I were tested to see whose DNA closest matched my dad’s. Our blood was drawn in an outpatient lab at a Spectrum Health Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was then shipped to another lab to be examined. I remember thinking the whole process felt very casual and almost mundane. We filled a vial, no bigger than the size of a fat crayon, with blood, and that was it. A life was at stake and one of us would be responsible for it. But it didn’t feel like it.

The tests came back and I was the closest match. Years later, I learned I was always going to be the match and the tests were done only to ensure my DNA wasn’t an anomaly and somehow severely different from my dad’s. In haploidentical transplants, the ideal half-match is young and healthy, as the recipient should receive the healthiest bone marrow possible. This eliminated my dad’s parents and his brother. Also, the donor should be the same sex as the recipient, otherwise hormonal issues can arise. It’s possible to do cross-sex transplants, but they’re avoided if they can be. This eliminated my sisters, leaving only me left. Yet I didn’t know any of this at the time, so I was surprised when I learned I would be the donor. In the end, however, it was always going be me and it was always going to be at Johns Hopkins.

———

On my way to the nurse, a young girl in a wheelchair stole my attention. She was maybe five years old, and she wore nothing to cover her bald head. She had on a little purple dress, and in her hand was a stuffed monkey, which she held closely. A doctor was talking to her and her parents, who were standing beside her. The doctor knelt down and asked the girl if it would be okay if she came back on Christmas Eve for more testing. She didn’t hesitate. She said, Yes! And she was happy to come back whenever, she said, because all her friends were there. Her parents didn’t object, and an appointment on Christmas Eve was settled. As I approached the nurse, she greeted me. I followed her through a set of doors, leaving the waiting room behind, and down a hallway.

After a standard checkup of my height, weight, and blood pressure, I was sent into another waiting room where I was to wait until the doctors were ready to run blood tests on me. This new waiting room was designed specifically for kids. There were Rubbermaid tubs filled with Legos and other toys, small tables—with the tops brightly graffitied and etched into—that had coloring books and colored pencils on them, puzzles, picture books, and a TV with an Xbox 360 plugged into it. I turned on the Xbox and the TV as I waited for my name to be called again. I hadn’t yet started playing a game when a boy, around seven or eight years old, walked into the room. He wore a hand-knitted hat on his head and had a bandage on his cheek.

Before him or I said anything, he picked up an extra controller that had been on one of the small tables. I asked him if he wanted to play with me, and he shook his head yes, but he remained silent. It was a hockey video game, and I set it up to where we would play each other. In the game the puck dropped, and we started playing. No goals were scored, and very little time in the game had passed, when a new nurse came in and called my name. I paused the game and stood up to leave. The boy finally spoke, and he asked me if I was leaving. The question halted me. I wasn’t prepared; all my mind could think of was the truth. I could make no excuse or give no palliative answer. I told him, plainly, I was sorry and that I had to leave.

———

Bone marrow is spongy tissue found inside the bones that produces hematopoietic stem cells. Red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets develop out of these stem cells. Sometimes, hematopoietic stem cells turn cancerous or defective, slowing down or completely stopping the life-providing function of bone marrow. A bone marrow transplant is then needed to replace the bad bone marrow. It wasn’t until 1956 that a bone marrow transplant was successful. Doctors had been attempting transplants since the early 1900s, but Dr. E. Donnall Thomas was the first to perform the operation successfully. He extracted bone marrow from a healthy boy and gave it to the boy’s twin, who was suffering from leukemia.

The process hasn’t changed much since Thomas’s successful transplant in 1956: Bone marrow is extracted from the donor’s hip bone using bone marrow harvest needles—which closer resemble a drill bit than a needle—and then transplanted into the recipient’s bloodstream. It’s a safe process for the donor. Health concerns usually only arise in the recipient after the procedure, when their body is adjusting to the new bone marrow. 

Despite knowing the safety and efficacy of the procedure—doctors from Michigan to Johns Hopkins had all informed me of it—I had feelings of trepidation when I saw the needles that would be stuck into me, that would be driven into my hip bone, and that would suck the healthy marrow from me. But I was already at Johns Hopkins, I reminded myself; there was no going back now. And I had seen and been surrounded by so many hurting people, hurting kids, whose bodies were determined on destroying themselves from the inside out. It wasn’t fair to them. I had to do my part at Johns Hopkins.

———

The bone marrow transplant happened in early January 2011, and it was a success. After the transplant, when the anesthesia wore off, I woke up miserable and confused. My vision was sandy, it felt like a steel band was wrapped tightly around my head, and my mouth was so dry and coarse that I wondered if a small rodent had crawled into my mouth and died while I was unconscious. There were thick, bone white sheets hanging from the ceiling, separating me from the others who were also recovering in the same room.

The first thing I heard was the voice of a young boy who was talking to his dad. From the sound and timing of his voice, I could tell he was in the bed next to mine, to the right. He told his dad he wanted pancakes and he asked him when they would be able to eat them next. The dad promised that as soon as the boy recovered and was ready to leave the hospital, the first thing they would do is go out and eat pancakes. Shortly after he said this, the dad made the promise again, to make sure the boy knew.

I was supposed to lie in the hospital bed and recover for only two hours, but I stayed for over six. The surgery was harder on my body than I anticipated, than even the doctors anticipated. My body was weak, and every time I tried to stand and walk—walking was the true test to see if I was ready to leave, I was told—my legs gave out and I had to be caught by a nurse. To use the bathroom, I had to wrap my arms around a nurse and my mom and be guided to the toilet. At the toilet, I had to be held up by my mom because my legs couldn’t support my body.

As the hours went by, a new nurse was assigned to me—the original nurse’s shift had ended—my stomach started accepting food, things in my head became clearer, and my legs felt strong again. Finally I was able to walk on my own, and the nurses said I was okay to leave. I held onto a four-legged walker and shuffled, my mom beside me to catch me if my legs failed again. When I left, I could still hear the boy talking to his dad, but he was no longer talking about pancakes.

———

I spent many hours in The Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatrics Center. I watched kids go into rooms to receive treatment, have their bodies prodded with needles and filled with radiation, swallow prescribed pills at calculated intervals throughout the day. During these times, I often found my mind stuck on a passage from a book I had read shortly before I left for Johns Hopkins: The Catcher in the Rye. The passage is from when Holden tells his sister Phoebe about a recurring dream he’s been having.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

I wanted to be the catcher in the rye at Johns Hopkins. I wanted to stop all the sick kids before they went to receive treatment. I wanted to tell them they didn’t need it because I could help them. I wanted to give my kidneys to the kids with Wilms tumors. I wanted to give my liver to the kid with hepatoblastoma. I wanted to give all my bone marrow to the kids with leukemia. I wanted to give my eyes to the kids with retinoblastoma. I wanted to give my brain to the kid with brain tumors. I wanted to give my heart to the kid with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. I wanted to give myself to every sick kid until there was nothing left of me—until there was nothing left of me but there was all of them.

And with every kid I would say, Take it, take this! You can do more with it; you will do more with it! But I couldn’t. Like Holden, all I could do was think about it. All I could do was think and not do. 

———

I left The Johns Hopkins Hospital and was pushed through Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on a wheelchair, because I still couldn’t walk at full speed or for long periods of time. I left with my grandparents who had also been staying at Johns Hopkins. Our seats were upgraded to first class because of me. One of the airline workers saw me, a young teenager in a wheelchair, with two elderly people and she kindly told us our seats were now in first class. I was able to walk onto the plane, so I walked through the corridor that connected the terminal and the plane and found my seat in first class.

For a strange reason that I cannot explain, it felt good, at the time, to leave Johns Hopkins having experienced some pain and discomfort. Perhaps it was a combination of guilt for being healthy and feeling that I had done nothing for the kids, that I had even abandoned some, who I had so badly wanted to do something for. Of course, I couldn’t have done anything for them, but even at thirteen—an age where I should have known this, and I think I did know this but still told myself differently—I felt that there was something I could have done, even if I didn’t know what it was.

But I had done something at Johns Hopkins, and it was the reason for my pain and weak legs and fatigued body. I donated bone marrow to my dad; his PNH was cured and he was healthy. My grandparents still had their son, my mom still had her husband, and my sisters and I still had our dad. None of that would have been so if it weren’t for what I had done, but I wasn’t thinking about that.

———

Abraham Jacobi was born to impoverished parents in a small town in central Germany in 1830. Jacobi was a sick child from birth. In fact, he was so sick and his parents were so poor that they were advised by a doctor to not spend any money on treating the infant Jacobi, because there was little chance he would survive into adolescence. His parents listened to the doctor, but Jacobi survived. In his early twenties, Jacobi earned his Doctor of Medicine but shortly after was arrested for his radical political beliefs. After two years in a Cologne prison, he escaped and immigrated to New York, where he set up an affordable pediatric clinic.

Jacobi found success in America. His clinic was visited by many and he gained popularity in the medical field as both a physician and a pioneer in the field of pediatrics. In 1859, he published Midwifery and Diseases of Women and Children—the first medical text to take an earnest interest in treating sick children. Jacobi was one of the first physicians to understand the importance of treating sick children differently than sick adults, stating, “They are not merely small adults.” He was also the first physician to emphasize bedside pediatrics. Before Jacobi, the treatment of children was often emotionally distant due to high mortality rates among sick children and an overall vein of pessimism in pediatrics—losing multiple patients a week was normal for a pediatrician in the nineteenth century.

By the end of his life, Jacobi had written over 4,000 pages, collected in eight volumes, on pediatrics. He wrote on the etiology of diseases in children, the treatment of children, the philosophy of the pediatrician, and the necessity of pediatrics. In addition, he opened pediatric wards in hospitals across New York, and he served as the first Chair of the Section of Pediatrics of the American Medical Association. Today, Jacobi is known as the Father of American Pediatrics.

But even the Father of American Pediatrics could only do so much for his patients. The first pediatric disease Jacobi became interested in was diphtheria—a bacterial infection in the nose and throat—and he’s credited with inventing the indirect laryngoscope to examine children for the presence of diphtheritic membrane. Jacobi was considered an expert on the disease by his medical contemporaries. But at the age of eight, Jacobi’s only son, Ernst, contracted diphtheria. And, for Jacobi, there would be no saving Ernst. By the time the disease had been discovered in him, it was too late. Ernst Jacobi, the son of Abraham Jacobi, died at eight years old.

———

We landed in Grand Rapids and I was wheeled through Gerald R. Ford International Airport in one of their provided wheelchairs. Every time I caught someone’s attention and they looked at me for longer than a second with a stare of sympathy, I wanted to stand up. I wanted to stand up and tell them I was fine and I didn’t need them to feel bad for me and that there are kids all over who you should feel bad for but I’m not one of them. There are kids who you should feel bad for and I was with some of them but I couldn’t do anything for them.

I was wheeled up to the doors of the airport where there was an area to drop off the airport’s wheelchairs. I found a spot for my wheelchair and left it there; I was eager to abandon it. It was early in the morning, around 4 a.m., and outside everything was bright and lit up by streetlights and headlights from cars and buses. My grandma offered to help me walk as we looked for the car. I told her I was fine and I could do it on my own.

In the car, going south out of Grand Rapids, I started to feel different. It’s a source of stress and physical exhaustion to be in an environment like I was in, and now that I had been out of it for some time, I could feel myself recovering. I didn’t think I left Johns Hopkins a victim of any kind or that I had been unfairly exposed to something I shouldn’t have. I thought I had seen something, something unpleasant, and there were things that could come of it. What they were, I didn’t know, but I knew they were somewhere.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have known what those things were. That no matter what you do, you’ll always wish you had done more or think you could have done more, so it’s best to find pride in the things you have done and be kind to yourself. That hurt isn’t transferred like currency, and you being hurt won’t abate anybody else’s hurt. That you can’t make the world better all on your own, but you can start small, do what you can, and hope it makes your part of the world better. That when you sit and try to think about the big, profound things, your mind will get hung up on the little things like a stuffed monkey or a hand-knitted hat or pancakes, and then you’ll realize those were the big things all along. And a lot of what you learn will sound familiar, and that’s because it is; it’s not new, they’re old platitudes. But until you find something real to attach them to, they’ll never make any sense.

———

On the way home, we stopped at a McDonald’s drive-thru because we hadn’t eaten since we left Baltimore and no other restaurants were open. We waited a long time for our food, very long for being the only customers. It was quiet in the car—there was no radio playing and we were too tired for small talk. When our food finally came out, my order was wrong, and my grandpa said his coffee was cold. But none of these things seemed important or worth talking about, not now.


BIO

Riley Winchester lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He recently graduated from Grand Valley State University, where he earned a B.A. in History. His work is forthcoming in Waymark.

A Survival Guide to Christian College

by Rachel Belth



Dear Meredith,

I hear you are thinking about attending my alma mater, a staunchly Baptist university in the plains of central Ohio. There are a few things I didn’t tell you during our conversation yesterday. For example, what you may not realize now is that eventually, you’ll crack, some small or large or medium-sized part of you. The place is a little bubble of Christian perfection. You can only take so much of girls with clear skin and name-brand shoes and perfectly curled hair even coming in out of the wind. You can only take so much of polite boys with trimmed scruff and pomaded haircuts who hold doors open for girls. Sure, for a lot of them it’s a façade, and sure, there are some awkward, frizzy people like me—I’m just talking about how it feels. How it felt to me.

You can only take so much of required Chapel—every student band perfectly mixed without a single missed note, the worship leader reading an applicable Bible passage while a guitar or keyboard plays emotionally in the background. Not to mention university-mandated room checks (when your RA goes through your room once a week while you’re away, to check for illicit substances, which for Baptists includes alcohol). It really does a number on your faith.

Of course, I must remember who I’m talking to. You’re pretty, big eyes and soft hair, always so gracefully dressed from your flats to your loose scarf. You’re generous of spirit to everyone you talk to, and you speak so earnestly of your love for your parents, your sisters, your God. You seem fearlessly innocent, as if anything dirty in the world would bounce off you without leaving a mark. I try to be surprised by nothing, but I sincerely can’t but believe you’ll be fine.

So, let me re-phrase: what I didn’t realize when I was your age was that eventually, I’d crack (in a small-to-medium-sized way). It was a philosophy professor with a beard and a baritone so epic that everything he said carried the finality of absolute truth, and it was J.L. Schellenberg’s argument of divine hiddenness that collapsed my faith finally like the last brick of a Jenga tower.

I’m sure your faith is stronger than mine was. But if you do crack, here’s what you need to know. What you can get away with:

  • You can cut off the middle finger of your winter gloves. Like those fingerless gloves with the pullover mitten tops, but just for the middle finger.
  • Similarly, you can paint your fingernails lime green except for the middle one, painted red. It will totally go over everyone’s heads. People will even compliment you (“I love your nails!”). You can choose to point it out (“You realize which finger is painted red, right?”) or smile smugly and say, “Thanks.”
  • You can brew kvass in an old coffee syrup jar. Nobody will notice even though it smells distinctly yeasty. You can keep vodka in a travel-size Jack Daniels bottle in a box under your bed. You can probably keep a whole liquor cabinet under your bed, but I wasn’t brave enough—you can get expelled for that.
  • You can scrawl Russian swear words on your arm with a Sharpie, a temporary tattoo. Maybe дерьмо (that is, bitch). Not so much because you believe yourself to be one, although you do, but because you can flaunt a word that everyone would be shocked to see in English.
  • You can keep the handful of Band-Aid wrappers in the trash, right on top. You can keep on your dresser—right there sitting on your perfume bottle—the Bic razor you so tenaciously wrested from its plastic casing, wedging it between the laundry room laminate and the heel of your stoutest pair of pumps, between the carpet and the back leg of your desk chair, leaving tufts of blue between the blades. You can slice the skin on your lower left abdomen where no one will see and worry. (You can cut your arm and most people won’t notice, but those who do will get hysterical when you tell them not to worry, it’s not that big of a deal, so it’s best to keep that stuff hidden. Except, of course, for the razor blade, which you can keep in plain sight.)

What you cannot get away with: throwing your converse against the cinderblock wall, again and again until all the frustration is out and all the swear words have been muttered. Your RA, a peppy girl who flatirons her blonde hair and wears a lot of pink, will hear and come to the door concerned, and she will not believe you when you say everything’s fine.

Or maybe it will be your friend across the hall who hears you, who knows pain better than you do, and she’ll sit on your roommate’s chair and wait for you, even though she doesn’t know what’s going on because you can’t find the words yet.

Maybe, in the thick of this, you will try to write a poem, and you will send it to a friend for feedback, but instead of commenting on its cadence, he’ll ask what’s going on because he knows you’re not OK and that’s more important. And you’ll tell him what you can, even though you still haven’t found the words. You’ll wait for them to stack in the air between you and they still won’t come. And he’ll say things to help that won’t. And he’ll hug you as long as you need him to, which will not make everything better but will begin to help and will comfort you even years later, after you have begun to find the words.

Whatever university you choose to go to, may you find friends like that.

It seems horrendously inappropriate to be telling you this, Meredith, so innocent. To think, my story, benign as it is, may be the first block in your Jenga tower. That is not what I want for you, and I don’t want that responsibility—please let this story bounce off you. But if your faith does crack or crash altogether, I hope you’ll find peace in the rubble. I hope you rebuild, if that’s what you want, or burn it, or learn to carry the mess along with you. Any of those can be beautiful options too. And if you find any new ways of flipping people off or cursing them without them knowing, please tell me; I still enjoy doing that.

Stay strong.

Best,
Rachel

# # #


BIO

Rachel Belth is an instructional designer, creative nonfiction writer, and poet. Her work has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, Crack the Spine, and The Critical Flame, among other places, and she volunteers as a copyeditor at the literary website Identity Theory. She holds a B.A. in Technical and Professional Communication. She writes from an east-facing window in Columbus, Ohio.

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