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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.

Smoke: A Memoir in Ten Puffs

by Dennis Vannatta


            Don’t believe it when they tell you that, as you get older, your short-term memory goes but your long-term memory grows sharper, the distant past set before you bright as a reality series on a plasma TV.  Trust me, nothing gets sharper as you age.  That’s why, nearing my three-score years and ten, I’m always pleased when something I’d thought lost in the past does come back to me, for then I’m given my life back, at least a small part of it, at least for a little while before it begins to fade again.  It happened again recently, and I’m grateful for the gift, even if it was mostly smoke.

Puff One

            My wife and I were staying in what was billed as a “rustic cabin” in a state park an hour’s drive from our home in Little Rock.  That night I built a fire in the fireplace, and sat back in a wooden rocker with a glass of wine, prepared to enjoy the atmosphere.  Strangely enough, though, for a moment it wasn’t the burning oak faggots I smelled but a different odor:  pipe smoke.  And then I was gone, a little boy again standing beside my father on a cold gray winter’s day in a depot agent’s office in Appleton City, Missouri.  A pot-bellied iron stove was in one corner of the room, burning coal, no doubt, although I don’t remember that, or even the pipe itself, only the musty, pungent odor of pipe smoke emanating from the agent’s wool slacks and sweater.  I think I was holding my father’s hand.  I’m not positive about that, but I think I was because when I was little I’d walk with him, my tiny hand in his huge, gentle one.

            It’s a good memory.  My wife and I had treated ourselves to a couple of nights in the rustic cabin on Valentine’s Day weekend, and I’d like to think that that moment retrieved from my childhood was a gift from Aphrodite’s pal, Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory.  Strange that it would involve smoking, though, because I’ve never been a smoker.  Wait, though.  Now that I think about it . . .

Puff Two

            When I was a boy, many men smoked pipes.  In my family, however, although there were a few cigarette smokers, only my grandfather, John Vannatta, smoked a pipe.

            I was a late child, my father in his forties when I was born, and even as a young boy I thought of my grandfather as an old man.  He was shorter than his sons and slightly stooped, but he had broad shoulders and even as an old man incredibly strong hands.  I vividly recall my cousin Johnny—seven years my senior, star athlete—hand-wrestling with the old guy (each grasping the other’s right hand and squeezing), his eyes growing wide in amazement and then face crumpling in pain as his hand was crushed in the hard-callused, farmer’s hand of our grandfather.

            Grandpa was rumored to have been quite the lad in his younger days, hell on the ladies (I’ll tell no tales) and a sometime drinker—hard for me to imagine in that strict Baptist family. 

            Smoking was also frowned upon by Baptists.  Grandpa smoked pipes, against which wickedness the puny efforts of his local preacher were of no avail.  The tent revivalists who came through periodically were another story.  Those guys were real pros.  They could entertain and put the fear of God in you at the same time.  They’d put the fear of God in Grandpa, too, who’d return from a revival meeting, grab his pipe, run out of the house, and hurl the pipe as far as he could into the pasture.  As soon as the revival folded its tents, though, he’d have his sons out there in the pasture with him looking for it.  “Find that son of a bitch!”

            That was from a time before my time.  In my earliest memories, he was already retired from farming and living in a little house in Windsor, Missouri.  He’d given up trying to give up the pipe.  I remember the smell of pipe smoke on him, those flat rectangular Prince Albert tins, remember vividly his drawing on the pipe and then pushing his index finger into the bowl, tamping the tobacco down, I suppose.  I couldn’t understand how he could do it without burning his fingertip, but his hands were still hard-callused even though he no longer farmed.

            He had several pipes and kept them in his bedroom in a wooden rack which, decades later, I had one much like.  I was fascinated by the various pipes lined up in the rack, and every visit I’d go into the cold dark bedroom to look at them.

            Grandma would be in there, too.  She’d had a stroke and sat in a wheelchair.  She couldn’t talk although she’d try and would make a grunting, whining sound I couldn’t understand.  When we came for a visit, she’d be sitting in her wheelchair in the living room.  We grandchildren would dutifully file by the wheelchair and give her a kiss, and she’d make that sound.  Then Grandpa would wheel her into the back bedroom and close the door on her.  We’d have dinner, and afterwards the adults would visit or play cards while we children played outside or whatever.  At some point before we left, I’d go into the bedroom and look at the rack of pipes.  I’d try not to look at Grandma.

            Like I said, he had hard hands.

Puff Three

            Grandpa was the only pipe smoker in the Vannatta side of the family that I recall.  Uncle Dud (Durward) smoke cigarettes despite the Dud Vannatta branch of the family being especially religious.  From this half-century distance, I’m not sure whether I actually witnessed or only heard about cousin Johnny getting down on his knees and begging his father to stop smoking.  Whether Uncle Dud’s smoking affected the condition of his soul is between him and his God, but I don’t think it affected his health much.  He had stomach trouble as did my father, probably from the same cause:  stress.  (Both were school-district superintendents.)  Smoking didn’t have anything to do with his death:  he and Aunt Anna were killed in a car wreck when I was in basic training in the Army, spending a part of each day policing up cigarette butts.

            My father wasn’t a defiant smoker like Uncle Dud but a sneak smoker.  If you want to talk about strict Baptists, you’re just playing games until you get to my mother.  No drinking, no smoking, no cussin’.  I’m not certain how she managed to conceive three children.  Add to the religious prohibition the fact that my father had his first of three heart attacks when I was six, and you can see why smoking for him was forbidden.

            My mother watched him for signs of smoking like Hera watched Zeus for signs of philandering, and she enlisted me as one of her spies.  It was a game for me, trying to find his latest hiding place for a pack of Camels, but it was serious business for those two, locked in perpetual marital combat, smoking just one among many battlegrounds.  I didn’t realize how serious it was for him until one day I found a pack of cigarettes hidden somewhere in the house and gleefully flashed it to him as I was about to run with it to my mother.  “If you take those to your mother, I won’t play catch with you anymore,” he said.  I think I must have been about eight at the time.

            Let’s move on.  And quickly.

Puff Four

            My experience of smoking was not entirely vicarious, even at a young age.

            I suppose that all children . . . . No, wait.  I was about to say something silly.  What I think of “all children” doing probably vanished about the same time that people in small towns stopped letting their children roam all over in search of relatively innocuous adventures and started locking their doors night and day.  (My family would not lock the doors even when we went on vacations.)

            One of those things I was going to suggest all children indulged in was smoking reeds, dry hollow stems of some weed or flower (I don’t recall exactly) about the diameter of a pencil, broken off in cigarette lengths.  Light up, puff puff puff.  Well, two puffs at most.  They wouldn’t stay lit like a cigarette, and you wouldn’t want them to anyway because they tasted awful, and you certainly didn’t want to take a big puff and draw fire into your tender young imbecilic mouth.  Still, this allowed you to pretend you were smoking the real thing, which is what we thought adults were supposed to do.  We were assailed by commercials and ads for cigarettes on radio, television, billboards, signs on screen doors of cafés announcing, “It’s Kool inside.”  The women in these ads were beautiful and the men handsome, confident, and tough, qualities we did not possess.  If we had to choose just one, though, it would definitely be tough.  We watched Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden in the movies; they were all tough, and they all smoked.

            It’s not easy for a young boy to be tough, but you could attempt to look the part by dangling a cigarette out of the corner of your mouth.  The effect, alas, was diminished somewhat by dangling a smoldering hollow reed out of the corner of your mouth, so my friend Jerry and I graduated to cigarettes.  Once in awhile we’d steal a cigarette out of our fathers’ packs, but it was dangerous to do that too often.  It’s tough to look tough when your dad is blistering your bottom.  Mostly we picked up butts off the street.  Sanitary?  Ha.  To even raise the issue shows that you’re not tough, Nancy boy.

Puff Five

            Instead of progressing from smoking butts picked up off the street to buying packs, I gave up smoking before I reached junior high. 

            My high school friends and I would have described ourselves as scholars and athletes; others would probably have described us as nerds.  Whatever, only one of my half-dozen closest friends smoked then or thereafter.

            I speak of cigarettes.  I never developed a habit for cigarettes for the most basic of reasons:  I didn’t enjoy smoking them.  Cigarette smoke seemed like sucking in hot air to me, vapid, virtually tasteless.  Pipes and cigars were another story, and while I avoided the temptation in high school, there was a time in my undergrad college years that I smoked a fair amount.

            Cigars were my favorite.  No smoke beats a good cigar.  I use “good cigar” primarily in a theoretical sense, having almost nothing to do with them myself.  Back in my undergrad days, even Dutch Masters and El Producto were too rich for my blood.  White Owls, Roi-Tans—those were more my speed.  Swisher Sweets and Mississippi River Crooks (wavy-shaped cigars with a sweetened end, pack of five two bits).  I liked those Crooks.  I smoked a thing called Erics, I believe it was, cigarette-sized cigars with a filter tip. Ghastly.  I looked good with one hanging out of the corner of my mouth, though—or thought I did.

            That, in fact, was the problem with the full-sized cigars, the best smokes:  they didn’t look cool.  A nineteen-year-old college student with a cigar in his puss looks less like Warren Beatty than a Chicago ward-boss trainee.  What chick would go for that?  It was the chicks I was really interested in, of course.

            If not cigars, what about pipes?  A college man with a pipe is a chick magnet.  Not.  At least not me.  While they didn’t help me with the ladies, though, I liked everything about smoking pipes:  the pipes themselves and all the wonderful sizes, shapes, and colors they came in; my really neat wooden rack with the built-in humidor; sampling different tobaccos; tamping the tobacco into the pipe; the process of lighting the pipe (drawing the flame down into the bowl, then shooting it back up with that distinctive little pop); smelling the smoke (nothing beats Cherry Blend, my friend, especially when you’re poor); even cleaning the damn things.

            I’ve never understood why pipes smell so wonderful and cigars so atrocious and yet pipes can’t come close to cigars for taste.  Not that they don’t beat the hell out of cigarettes.  It helps to buy a better quality tobacco, for which I did not have the wherewithal.  Still, I would have kept on smoking pipes but for one drawback:  they gave me a sore throat.  I’ve always battled allergies and spend most of the spring and fall with a raspy voice as it is.  After smoking pipes for awhile, my throat would be raw, and I, never more than a step away from full-blown hypochondria at any time, would imagine an army of cancer cells marshalling the troops.  That pipe rack with the humidor and six cheap but still pretty cool pipes went into the top of my closet, and never came down again.

Puff Six

            This is not to say that my experience of smoking ended in my undergrad years.  One could not serve in the United States army, in my day at least (1969-1971), and escape all experience of smoking.  Indeed, the Army encouraged us to smoke.  A little packet of two cigarettes came in every carton of C-rations.  Cigarettes could be purchased dirt-cheap in the PX.  Virtually every formation—unless the sergeant in charge had a case of the ass at us for something—would include a break where we were invited to “smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.”  Most had ‘em and smoked ‘em, and those of us who didn’t could look forward to the pleasure of policing up the butts.  In basic training and MP school, one of our daily rituals was to line up and slowly traverse some area looking for butts.  “Hey, you missed one back here!” some horse’s ass sergeant would inevitably call out without indicating exactly where the “here” was, and back we’d go across the grounds looking for that renegade butt.  I enjoyed that a lot.

            We didn’t do much policing after our training was over with, but the smoking continued, blue clouds of the stuff in the barracks, EM clubs—wherever there were GI’s.  Some of it was even tobacco smoke.

            When I was stationed in Germany, there was a guy who would drive his VW van with the hidden compartment under the floorboard down to Spain and once even to North Africa and come back with slabs of hashish big as a dictionary.  My company was divided between the hash-smokers and the juicers.  I was a juicer but not from any moral or legal scruples.  I tried hash a couple of times, but all it did for me was put me to sleep and leave me with the same sore throat as pipe tobacco. 

            Almost all my friends there were hash-heads, though.  They were a mellow bunch.  I never saw a hash-head get in a fight or get violent in any way.  I can’t say the same for my fellow juicers.  (There was a lot of drug-taking:  LSD, mescaline, and toward the end of my tour a new group of guys who were into heroin.  The most disturbing thing I saw involving any sort of mind-altering agent was a sergeant whose wife and small son lived off-post with him.  He was a juicer to beat all juicers, kept two hollow plastic pistols filled with vodka in holsters on his belt.  To entertain us, he’d hand one of the pistols to his son, I’d guess around eight; the boy knew what to do with it.  He’d take out the stopper, put the barrel in his mouth, and drink.  Most of the guys laughed, thought ol’ sarge was a great guy.  Me, not so much.)

Puff Seven

            I got out of the Army in 1971 and enrolled in graduate school.  The hash smokers were now pot smokers.  I knew a lot of them and would take a hit now and then, but weed didn’t do any more for me than hashish, so I don’t have much to say about it (except you could buy a lid for ten dollars if you knew the right guy; eat your hearts out, twenty-first-century tokers).

            One more thing from grad school, 1971.  I met a tall blond girl from Queens, New York, who smoked cigarettes.  I didn’t like the smell of it on her clothes or the taste when we kissed, but I put up with it because, well, tall, blond, kiss.  Eventually, she gave up smoking for me, along with her parents’ dream of her returning to New York to marry the kind of doctor who actually made money, not some doctoral candidate in English.  Today our children are astounded at the idea of their health-conscious mother ever smoking, but I think back on those tobacco-tasting kisses as magic time, violins floating in the honey-sweet air, angels eatin’ pie.

Puff Eight

            In the nearly four decades since I got my PhD, my experience of smoking has waned almost to the nonexistent.  Of course, it’s a different world today.  Not so long ago one dined in restaurants surrounded by smokers.  We watched movies in theaters thick with smoke and flew in airliners where non-smokers were banished to the last four rows, next to the toilets; but even there the stuff would reach us, clog our noses, foul our hair, impregnate our clothes.  The halls of every public building were lined with sand-topped canisters for cigarette ash and butts—although simply dropping a butt on the floor and giving it a quick stomp was common practice.  (I think we do have an ashtray, tacky faux-gilded aluminum thing, in a drawer somewhere even now.  We’ve lived in our present house since 1985; to the best of my recollection, no one has ever smoked a cigarette in it.)

            In the almost two-score years since grad school, I have smoked a few times, pipes and cigars, never cigarettes.  When our children were little, to save money on our trips from Arkansas to New York to visit my wife’s family, we’d drive straight through, twenty-four hours, and I’d try anything to keep myself awake behind the wheel at night, including smoking a pipe.  Fiddling with the damn thing with one hand on the wheel, trying to fill it, light it, keep it lit helped me stay alert—or so the theory went.  It was the only time I ever smoked around the kids with my wife’s consent, a little second-hand pipe smoke being preferable to my missing a curve in the Tennessee mountains.

            I was never one of those pipe-smoking college professors, even if I did still have my pipes from my undergrad days, plus the de rigueur corduroy jacket with elbow patches.  Many of my colleagues smoked pipes, and I did think pipes lent one an air of intellectual gravity.  (No, one never becomes oblivious to image.)  Problem was I still had that sensitive throat.  My God, risk having to miss a day or two of school because of a throat too sore for lecturing?  Leave my students bereft of my astounding command of the best that’s been thought and said?  Mais non!

            I do fondly recall two episodes of cigar-smoking from my professor days.  The first was thirty years ago probably.  My wife and I along with several other couples had dinner at my friend and colleague Ralph’s house, and afterward the men repaired to the front porch.  It was a soft spring evening.  Ralph opened a box of cigars, and we smoked and passed around a bottle of bourbon.  A pleasant night to look back on, especially poignant for me because all those friends, save one, are now scattered across the country, all alive and well, I hope, although in truth for me they live only in memory, wreathed in pipe smoke.

            The only one of those friends still here is Dave.  A number of years ago, another warm evening, our wives off somewhere, we old buddies sat on lawn chairs on the back deck of my house, smoking cigars and sipping cognac from tiny snifters that had come with a Courvoisier gift set.  We enjoyed ourselves so much I smoked a second cigar and was suddenly so dizzy that when I got up and went into the house I walked straight into a wall.  Wretched as I felt at the time, by now, twenty years later, it, too, is a good memory.  If I’m not mistaken, it was the last time I ever smoked anything.

Puff Nine

            Not all smoking memories are pleasant ones.  Smoking does kill.

            My father was superintendent of a small rural school district, and when I was a boy his janitor was a fellow by the name of Harvey, a smoker.  My father was quite fond of him.  It was winter, a cold starless night in my memory, and we were sitting in the car somewhere, perhaps ready to drive home after a basketball game, when my father turned to my mother and said that Harvey had lung cancer.  I wasn’t old enough to know precisely what that meant; nevertheless, the darkness, the cold, the dampness, not the sound but the weight of my father’s voice pressing down on me, told me that Harvey was done for.  He didn’t last long.  My father would visit him at the hospital and come back looking like something had grabbed him by the throat.  Like he couldn’t breathe.

            My wife grew up close, geographically and emotionally, to her Uncle Bob, Aunt Pat, and their children, almost another set of parents and siblings to her.  Uncle Bob had been a career man in the Navy before going into the insurance business, and in photographs in his uniform he looked like a more robust Ray Milland.  But he’d been a heavy smoker, and by the time I knew him he was yellow and haggard, coughed continually and sounded like he was drawing through a water pipe when he tried to breathe.  Emphysema.  He was a proficient amateur photographer, and at my brother-in-law’s wedding, he was to take photos of the ceremony and reception.  On the morning of the wedding, he took me off to the side and said, “Dennis, I’m not sure I can hold the camera steady enough.  Will you take over for me?”  Of course I did although my expertise with cameras ended with putting a new flash cube on the Instamatic.  All those dials and meters on his fancy camera flummoxed me, and the results were disastrous.  Uncle Bob died not long afterward, and a few years later his wife, Aunt Pat, until then a vigorous, healthy non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer.  I don’t know what part years of breathing second-hand smoke played, but it couldn’t have helped.  I remember her final Christmas, more than a dozen of us sitting in my in-laws’ big living room, dazzling Christmas tree in the corner, presents being passed out, glasses of wine and beer in hand, hors d’ouerves consumed, laughter, good times.  In the midst of it Aunt Pat, once the life of any party, sat in her chair looking down, communing silently with something inside her.  Something not good.

            My older sister, Delores, died of congestive heart failure on top of years of suffering from emphysema.  She smoked up until the very end.  Before deteriorating health forced her to quit, she worked in a deli, where she wasn’t allowed to smoke.  One day she slipped behind the counter, fell and broke her ankle.  The deli owner called an ambulance.  Delores, in terrible pain, beseeched him, “Oh please, won’t you let me smoke just one cigarette?  You know they’ll never let me smoke in the ambulance.”

Puff Ten

            My daughter was a smoker.  I’m not sure when she started, but she smoked a lot and for enough years that my wife and I worried about her health.  Our nagging no doubt only exacerbated the problem.  She finally kicked the habit a few years ago.  I think it was when she broke up with a boyfriend, who was a smoker.  Bad breakups can turn out well in some respects, evidently.

            My son never smoked cigarettes or, as far as I know, cigars or pipes.  At least with any regularity.  Like all young men, no doubt he tried this or that a time or two.  The only time I know for sure he smoked something was in high school, an all-boys Catholic school run by a notoriously strict monsignor who, if he caught a boy smoking, would sit him in a chair before the entire student body assembled in the gymnasium and make him smoke cigars until he vomited.  On their very last day of school, though, the monsignor would let the seniors light up a cigar.  Matthew bought a big one, and if he smoked the whole thing, he was probably sick as a dog.

            He gave me the last cigar, the last smoke of any kind, I’ve had.  It was the occasion of his first son’s birth, my first grandchild.  (I was the one who reminded him that he had to pass out cigars to commemorate the occasion.  I didn’t want him to ignore the tradition and deprive me of my first stogie since Dave and I smoked ourselves dizzy many years before.)

            Matthew is a true Dutchman, throws nickels around like manhole covers, and I’d been expecting something cheap but got a real shock:  the cigars were Bubble Gum!  I admit I felt a little cheated, but at least this way I have a souvenir, the gum cigar still in its IT’S A BOY! wrapper in my chest of drawers.  I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation of a real cigar.  Too, the literature professor in me appreciates the symmetry provided by that cigar, for my first experience of smoking wasn’t those butts Jerry and I picked up off the streets of Sedalia, or even the dry-reed “cigarettes” we lads smoked, but the cartons of candy cigarettes I’d get occasionally instead of a Baby Ruth or Butterfinger.  So in a sense you could say my smoking life has come full circle—candy to, well, something close to candy.

            Isn’t it pretty to think so, anyway?  The sobering truth is that life doesn’t come full or any other kind of circle.  The years roll by, not back.  Nothing returns.  All we have of the past is what we remember of it.  The marvelous thing is that, when you reach a certain age, all memories are good, even the bad ones.  Think not?  Just wait.  It’s forgetting that’s death; remembering is resurrection.

            Proust told us that long ago, of course, his rebirth through a tea-soaked Madeleine.  For me, a whiff of pipe tobacco will do.  Make mine Cherry Blend.


BIO

Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories and essays published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton ReviewBoulevard, and Antioch Review.  His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.

Fasting

by Cliff Morton


My mother is Muslim and my father is a seldom practicing Catholic. As a kid, I viewed my parents as people who followed religion but they weren’t going to go out of their way to practice it. It was kinda like any sitcom that was wedged between Friends and Seinfeld on Thursday nights. You wouldn’t change the channel, but now, twenty-something years later, you’re not endlessly searching Netflix for old episodes of Suddenly Susan. My parents were the same way; they’d put up a Christmas tree, we’d visit my grandmother’s house for Eid, we’d go out to brunch on Easter morning, and we’d fast and abstain from all Haram food during Ramadan.

Ramadan always felt like the playoffs for a Muslim. You waited your whole season for this moment to shine and waver between feeling habitually hungry and then overfed. Starting at point guard, number 11, Muhammed, at shooting guard, number 2, Mohammed, at small forward, number 25, Abdul, at power forward, number 33, Muhammad. Lots of variations of Muhammed growing up. And me, Cliff, the whitest looking Muslim in the Ramadan starting lineup.

Whereas other people prepared mentally for the many days of fasting ahead, I prepared physically. I knew that in the thirty days, I would crave nothing more than what I was not allowed to eat. That meant Jamaican patties, hamburgers, burritos, pretty much anything meat related that was ethnically different from the Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine that would make up my menu over the next month. I ate all of it. I shoved all of that Haram deliciousness into my mouth, savoring every last bit of sinful goodness.

When it came time to actually fast, I felt doomed from the start. My days of gorging on carbohydrate and fat laden foods did not prepare me for the Ramadan playoffs. If I didn’t take it seriously, I was going to be bounced within the first week. I first started fasting when I was eight years old. In the previous two years, I would fast for half the day, eventually progressing to full days on the weekends, but when I was allowed to do a full day fast, the first of thirty days in a row of eating and drinking only before sunrise and after sundown, I felt like I was being called up to the big leagues. My grandmother fasted, my mother fasted, my aunts and uncles fasted, my older cousins fasted, and now I was on their level.

Within the first five minutes of sitting at the lunch table on the first day of Ramadan, I begged to be demoted. My friends were all eating, because, of course I was the only Muslim kid growing up in a town in Connecticut. The usual suspects were tantalizing; hot lunch, which happened to be spaghetti and meatballs, sat across from me at the table, my friend, Sean, shoveling it in, bite after bite, barely allowing the steam to escape from the top of the tray before he moved onto the garlic bread. Sure, its consistency could have been cardboard, but the smell of buttery garlic was overpowering. I turned my gaze towards my friend Pete’s lunch. He brought lunch, and based on his history, I was expecting peanut butter and jelly or a sad looking bologna sandwich with Kraft singles American cheese on white bread. Even at my weakest and most vulnerable stage of hunger, I could resist those temptations.

Instead, he reached into his bag and pulled out something wrapped in tinfoil. What the hell was in that thing? He opened it up and there was half a hoagie roll, with tomato sauce pouring out of the side, with some kind of indistinguishable filling. Two ravioli looking things rested against the side of the bread. Are you fucking kidding me? I knew Pete since I moved into Trumbull, I went over to his house a bunch of times, and the one thing that was certain was that no one in his family cooked. They were a Stouffer’s or take out kind of family. Snacks at his house consisted of Fruit Roll Ups or bags of chips, that’s it.

“What is that?” I asked, conscious of holding the drool back from my mouth.

“Oh, it’s called Golabki and pierogi!” he said excitedly, “We went over to my gammy’s house for dinner last night. It’s so good. Do you want to try it?”

Damn you Pete! Damn you and your hospitable nature!

“No, I’m good,” I said sheepishly, my arms crossing my chest to muffle the sounds that echoed from the walls of my empty stomach.

“You sure? Did you forget your lunch?” he asked, genuinely concerned. Pete was a good friend, but I would have much preferred a tact similar to Sean’s Lord of the Flies, survive at all costs, at the moment.

I hadn’t completely thought out the whole Muslim thing yet. I was nervous about telling people that I was fasting because I didn’t want to come across as weird. I was already the only brown kid in the school, and I didn’t need any other non-cool distinguishing features to make me stand out. “No, my stomach was feeling kinda sick this morning, so I didn’t bring lunch today.”

“Got it,” he said, as I breathed a sigh of relief. He took a bite out of the sandwich and its juiciness poured out onto the tinfoil below. “The… only bad thing… it’s kinda messy… in a sandwich,” he said in between bites. He swallowed the entirety of his bite before adding, “Normally you just eat it with a fork without the bread, but my gammy makes it into sandwiches for us for lunch.”

Alright, alright, with the Polish food lesson and stories about your gammy, Pete. I’m starving to death over here and I’ve still got a few more hours to go until sundown. I looked at the clock, 12:05. I did the math in my head. It wasn’t dark until around six o’clock each night. I had six more hours to go of this torture! Noooooo!

* * *

Eventually, I got over lusting after other people’s food, but when I had my first basketball game during the day, I nearly lost my shit over the fact that I couldn’t drink water.

“Remember, you can’t drink any water during the game, so load up now,” my mom advised me as we ate together in the wee hours of the morning. The worst part about eating so early in the morning was that I wasn’t truly hungry because I should’ve been sleeping, but I also knew that I had a full day ahead of me without food, so I better find a way to shovel in the food.

I took a bite of my egg and cheese sandwich on an English muffin, a meal that I thoroughly enjoyed during normal daytime breakfast, but found to be an arduous task at four thirty in the morning. My brain started to turn itself on and I began to process what my mom had just said, “Wait, what?” I asked, confused.

“You can’t eat or drink anything while you’re fasting. You know that,” she said, a little too chipper for my liking.

“Umm…” I began to say, trying to temper my annoyance, “But I have a game today.”

“And?” she asked.

“I’m gonna be thirsty! How am I supposed to play a game without drinking water?” my voice raised with each word, but the glare of my mother began to tamp down my volume by the time I reached my second question.

“You know, Hakeem Olajuwon is Muslim. He fasts during games,” my dad said, emerging from out of nowhere. Where did he even come from? I didn’t even think he was awake.

“What?” I asked, confused less about my dad’s information and more about his sudden appearance in the kitchen.

“Yup. Houston Rockets. He fasts during the games. There was an article about it in Sports Illustrated,” he said.

Nice. Real nice, dad. Use sports and one of my favorite magazines against me. My mom nodded towards me, encouragingly, “See?”

I quickly finished my breakfast and began guzzling water in preparation for the day ahead. As I walked out of the room, I said, “You know, I’m gonna play like crap now.”

“Watch your mouth!” my parents yelled in unison.

* * *

Years later, at a family barbecue, I was playing basketball with my cousins. A seldom seen relative who was visiting from Toronto chimed in from afar, “You know that Hakeem Olajuwon is Muslim, right? He even fasts during Ramadan! During the games!”

Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets had defeated my beloved Knicks in the NBA Finals a few years prior, “I hate that fasting sonofabitch,” I muttered underneath my breath.

* * *

By the time I entered college, I was already on the fence about fasting. I couldn’t imagine trying to work around my class schedule, my work study job, and absolutely necessary extracurricular activities, such as pickup basketball games and hanging out with the girls from the other end of our dorm.

The year prior, I learned about the newest downfall to fasting that was previously unbeknownst to me; no sexual relations during the daytime hours. No kissing… nothing. I tried explaining the concept to my girlfriend at the time and she gave me an odd look as if to say, “We can’t make out in this empty house because you’re fasting?” The devilish character on my shoulder was dressed ironically in an all white suit like he was in a Jagged Edge music video, while my moral compass was standing around in khakis and a polo shirt. It certainly seemed like the Jagged Edge version had better plans for the afternoon.

Fast forward a year, and I was about a month and a half away from Ramadan, with my mind still undecided about whether or not I would fast during the month. My friends wanted to go to a pizza place on Charles Street, a place for higher end fare that would be out of the price range of most college students, but we had a friend who waitressed there and she said that she could hook us up with a deal.

We ordered a couple of pizzas to share for the table. They all looked delicious, but there was one in particular that caught my eye. It had a thin crust, with pink strips crisscrossing the top of the oblong pie with a layer of thick, brown sauce underneath. It looked unlike any pizza that I’d ever had, especially considering that the full gamut of pizza flavors that my parents ordered ranged from cheese to, well, cheese.

I took a bite and there was an explosion of flavor in my mouth. I hate rats, but the scene in Ratatouille, where Remy describes the combination of flavors, with fireworks shooting through the air, intertwined with food, explained my feelings completely. The saltiness from the unknown pink substance combined with the sweet sauce, mixed with the bitterness from the arugula, and the creamy but sharp cheese made for the most delightful bite of food that I had ever eaten.

“What is this?” I asked, turning to one of my friends.

“Prusciutto fig pie,” he answered as he savored a bite as well, “It’s so good, right?”

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” I said, but I was still perplexed, “But what’s that?”

“Prusciutto? Oh, it’s like Italian bacon, but better,” he answered.

Bacon? My mind raced. I’d never eaten pork, and now that I had, I pretty much traded in my Muslim card. I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to ask, just in case, “So it’s pork?”

“Yup,” he said, nonchalantly.

I stared down at the pizza and pondered my choices, but in reality, there was no turning back. I took another bite and basked in the bliss of delicious swine.


BIO

Cliff Morton is a small business owner who lives in Connecticut with his wife and three children. His poetry has been featured in Alexandria Quarterly. When he’s not chasing after two dachshunds and seven ducks, he is known to dabble in woodworking, baking, and sneaking away to the quiet confines of his home to write.

Sozzled

by Hannah Green

When I came to the U.S., I was pleased to see that Americans drink just like Africans. They get just as drunk, do the same stupid shit, and find any excuse to crack open a cold one. However, I also found a distinct lack of vocabulary for talking about being drunk, and, as every writer knows, a good vocabulary is indispensable for telling a tale. A single well-chosen word can say so much more than a bland paragraph, it can describe a moment, a scene, a mood.

There’s a whole scale of drunkenness to talk about, a gradation of ways of feeling and acting under the influence. From the general tipsy to the all-out three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk where the drinker’s ship has sailed and it’s not clear when their binge will end. It’s not just a case of being drunk or sober. You can be the everyday buzzed, blitzed, or pissed. Cockeyed or shitfaced. Pickled or wrecked. You can tell someone is sloshed when they walk about as well as their drink stays in its cup. You can be loquacious as a lord, or as legless as a pirate after six months at sea. I’m sure we’ve all steered a dancing friend or two home from the bar when they’re those-aren’t-strobe-lights-they’re-headlights drunk. Then there’s befuddled and befucked where it really doesn’t matter what you call it there’s no coming back until the drinker has sufficiently emptied the content of their stomach in a bush or trashcan, but preferably in the nearest toilet bowl if you can drag them there in time. And, to be avoided at all costs, my all-time personal favorite: snot-flying-drunk. Which is exactly what it sounds like.

While I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, my favorite spot is the comfortable sozzled which lies somewhere between buzzed and sloshed. Sozzled is how champagne must feel if it got drunk: bright and bubbly, light and festive, just drunk enough to make you think you’re witty and have others agree. But it’s been a while since I’ve been there.

No one ever told me I had to learn how to drink. When I was young, it seemed so easy. You were either drunk or you weren’t. But when I started drinking, I found a whole world of drunkenness to explore, a landscape of stories to write about. I launched my fearless exploration of this territory when I was fourteen with a sip of Castle Larger stolen from a can my uncle left in the fridge. I discretely cracked the tab just enough to get some out, but not all the way. When he visited again a few months later, the beer had gone bad and he wasn’t sure why. Next came a few sips from the brandy my mom kept for baking, gulps of the liqueurs my parents took nips of on extra special occasions. Soon I seized endless opportunities to chug, slurp, and swig any drink that came my way.

It was easy to get drunk when you were underage in South Africa in the ‘90s. The legal drinking age is still eighteen but back then few shop owners enforced the law. This let me try ales, lagers, ciders, wines, coolers, mixers, and shots (Jell-O and otherwise), pretty much any type of alcohol my friends and I had access too. We were indiscriminate drinkers. I also tested a few sayings I’d heard in my childhood. Whiskey indeed makes you frisky, and gin sure helps you sin. I eventually discovered that while what you drink is important, when you drink isn’t. I’ve partied all night and watched the sunrise from the hood of a car. I’ve started a New Year’s Eve celebration with so much gusto that I passed out by nine and woke alone at two in the morning to find my friends had all gone clubbing.

There was also one very festive morning at a local restaurant that started with Kahlua in my coffee and ended with shots of Jägermeister. I developed a particular fondness for that cough-syrupy brown liquor that, when interspersed with plenty of water, was guaranteed to get me drunk and keep me buzzing for hours. I have a vague recollection of the morning in question, of celebrating an insignificant event with my friend Suzie. It might have been the end of a college semester or payday, maybe it was just because it was a Tuesday. I remember a couple of hazy moments where I fell off my chair and dropped my cigarette in her beer. But the day is mostly a blur, except for two details. First, I know I got home sometime after lunch. Second, I woke up in the early evening and found an extensive array of pony- and butterfly-shaped temporary tattoos covering my arms, legs, and torso. You see, as a writer, I find one of the wonderful aspects of drinking is that, whether you remember what happened or not, you’re always left with a story to tell.

I don’t drink anymore. Not really. I’ve lost my taste for wine and beer. I’ve developed a peculiar allergic reaction to tequila—one whiff and my stomach heaves. I avoid shots too because they tend to make me sad or angry drunk, although I can still always be tempted if Jäger comes my way. In social situations, I occasionally go with a single moderately priced cider or a fruity cocktail. A Screwdriver or Sex on the Beach, if only so I can crack lame jokes about the name. I nurse this drink for hours, letting the ice melt and dilute the alcohol, if only to avoid others asking why I’m not drinking.

I always tell people I stopped drinking after I drove home from a night out and couldn’t remember how I got there. I remember leaving the parking lot of the Keg and Baron pub, I remember pulling into my driveway, but the half an hour it took to get from A to B are gone. Not hazy, not black, just gone. The arrogance and invincibility that comes with one’s early twenties convinced me it didn’t matter. But the ‘what ifs’ multiplied as my drunken recklessness continued. What if the cops had pulled me over? What if I lost time again and woke up somewhere with someone I didn’t know? Or what if I wrecked my car as nearly happened one night as I raced my friend home in our respective vehicles. With inches to spare, I noticed my headlights reflecting off the black car parked on the side of an unlit road and managed to slam on breaks and swerve behind my friend, narrowly missing her back bumper. The weight of these actions wavered though, and I kept drinking well through my mid-twenties, although the nights slowly became less enjoyable after my friend was hit by two rat-arsed drunk drivers. The first knocked him off his motorcycle into oncoming traffic. The second drove over his waist, all but crushing his pelvis. After three uncertain weeks in the hospital, it finally looked like he’d make long but full recovery. But then he got pneumonia and died a few days later.

The real reason I don’t drink anymore is that it doesn’t mix well with my epilepsy medication. It’s petit mal temporal lobe epilepsy, so I don’t have grand mal seizures, I don’t lose consciousness and my body doesn’t spasm. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to deal with as the simple partial seizures come with sensory and psychic symptoms that affect my hearing, vision, and emotions. This can linger for days after a nightlong binge. When I drink on my medication, I experience cases of sad drunk or grumpy drunk. Instead of dulling my stress and anxieties as alcohol should, they come rushing at me and I tend to dwell on stories. Stories I’m not good enough to write. Stories I want to tell but I don’t have courage to. Stories I wish I’d written. Stories I’ve written that I wish I hadn’t. Stories I wish I could forget. The pharmacological interactions also make me tired, slow my thought process, turn me into suck-the-life-out-of-the-party drunk. There aren’t really a lot of words to describe that kind of drunk, I guess because people don’t like to talk about it. And I don’t like to talk about my epilepsy, because people get a weird, slightly fearful look. It’s as if they expect me drop to the floor at any moment and they’d be stuck trying to shove a spoon between my teeth so I don’t bite my tongue or they’d have to perform some other epilepsy-related TV trope.

Regardless of the cause of sad or angry drunk, it’s always a little awkward and there’s never really a good time to bring it up when you see someone that way. I generally take it as a sign that they’re wrestling with unpleasant thoughts and I don’t want to intrude. And, while it seems like they’d fare better drinking on their own than dampening everyone else’s alcohol primed party, I never advise anyone to drink alone. That’s taboo, hinting at signs of alcoholism, of potentially unresolvable problems. No good ever comes from drinking alone. I’ve always preferred not to drink by myself, because sometimes alcohol amplifies the thoughts I’d rather not think.

In a way, I guess it’s strange that I don’t drink anymore, because, frankly, I’m actually quite fond of getting trashed. My confidence increases, I become quite hilarious, I discover hidden talents, like my ability to bust a move and my Emmy worthy renditions of Janis Joplin and Elvis. And one thing I’ve always wanted to try is getting absolutely shitfaced and trying to write. I imagine it’s quite liberating, that the alcohol will drown out the insecure editor in my head, that somehow the floodgates of literary greatness will open, and pure gold will fall from my fingers. After all, it seemed effective for several of the literary greats. But, every time I contemplate doing it, I get scared, because… what if it works?

Occasionally, I still get tipsy, maybe even a little liquored up. Mostly I seldom drink enough to even register on the spectrum, just enough to take the edge of my social anxiety. Of course, I would never tell another writer not to drink. After all, no one ever convinced Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, or Tennessee Williams not to drink. Or Capote or Highsmith or Poe. Or Kerouac. Sexton. Hemmingway.

Writers should know all too well the consequences of drunkenness, not to mention the suffering of sobriety. Hell, it feels good to pour yourself a drink after a long day, it helps you detach from all the bullshit that comes with teaching and studying and students. As a teacher, there’s no doubt that a drink or two sure helps with grading. And, when you get to week thirteen and half your students suddenly realize that there is this thing called a grade and that it does in fact matter and that yes the answers were in the twenty-page syllabus all along, taking the time to step away from your email and have a drink may very well save your career. Honestly, I’m overdue for another night of dedicated drinking, another binge to purge my mind for a few hours and my wallet for the rest of the month. Eighteen months ago was the last time I was downright twatted—a wedding, a free bar, a story for another night.

BIO

H.R. Green, born in South Africa, now lives and writes in the Midwest with work appearing in publications such as Pank, The Rumpus, and McSweeney’s

Painters and Poets: A Final Farewell to My Mother

by John C. Krieg

Painters and poets are the odd and tragic lot of human kind. This I always suspected, but it was unequivocally verified when I picked up a copy of Break Blow Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of The World’s Best Poems. None of mine were included among them. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because the most revealing thing about the book is the short yet harrowing biographies that appear in brief one paragraph form in the back.

Sylvia Plath and Percy Bysshe Shelly both died at thirty. She committed suicide in the belly of her kitchen’s oven. He drowned while sailing, but not before scandalously leaving his wife, who committed suicide, and taking up with Mary Goodwin who wrote Frankenstein. Poets, you see, are monsters of their own making.

Paul Blackburn, George Herbert, and Frank O’ Hara didn’t make it out of their forties. Blackburn was abandoned in youth when his mother won the Yale Younger Poets series when he was three. A classic example of life imitates art if there ever was one. Herbert toiled in  anonymity before releasing The Temple, a collection of 160 religious poems from his death bed when dying of tuberculosis. Predictably, his work became popular and profitable posthumously. O’Hara was swash-bucking, handsome, and gay with the height of his career occurring during the late fifties and early sixties, paradoxically the worst decade and the best decade in which to live an alternative life style.

Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Theodore Roethke, and William Shakespeare all checked out before their sixtieth birthdays. Dickinson and Marvell lived their lives unpublished, their collected works not brought to the light of a printing press until they were in their graves. Over 1000 of Dickinson’s poems were found in a locked box after her demise, perhaps the ultimate case of the ravages that the fear of failure can wreak upon a psyche.

William Shakespeare received notoriety as a poet late in life when 154 of his sonnets were published seven years before he died. He is, of course, probably the most recognized historic literary figure in textbooks today.

Of those who lived, or are still living into their sixties, two: Langston Huges and Wallace Stevens got the credit they deserved for their talent while still living. Hughes is recognized as a leader in the Harlem Renaissance while Stevens received critical acclaim for his Collected Poems one year prior to his death. Robert Lowell was clinically treated for ongoing manic depression, a condition no doubt exacerbated by being jailed during World War II as a dissident conscientious objector, and his avid protests of the war in Vietnam. Joni Mitchell is considered a great poet by Paglia and myself, and I frequently refer to her as the poet laureate of my generation.

Of the 20 poets cited in Paglia’s book, eight lived into their seventies. William Butler Yeats is the most famous having won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 and so inspiring the afore- mentioned Sylvia Plath that she rented the home that he died in when she was in London, which subsequently became the home she died in. Life imitates life.

Age 80 was a milestone for two of the 20 poets and one that wasn’t exceeded. Both William Carlos Williams and William Wordsworth died at the doorstep of their eighth decade of life. Wordsworth, it should be noted, met Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he was twenty-five and Coleridge was seventy-three. They co-wrote Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Coleridge, definitely the grand old man of the poetry world, enjoyed its critical acclaim for 39 more years until his death at the age of 112! Coleridge lives in infamy for being afflicted throughout his life with severe bouts of depression, which he combated with massive dosages of opium. At least, he didn’t commit suicide.

Paglia deserves the reputation she’s earned as an intellect and critic. She’s one of the very few I can stomach. She can dissect eight lines by Rochelle Kraut or twelve by William Carlos Williams and write two or three pages about their meaning, all the while, making perfect sense. You see, poetry is completely logical, as well as emotional, if one is sensitive and intellectually attuned enough to simply read between the lines.

As wild and wacky as the poets have been, they pale in comparison to the painters. Oftentimes, a phenomenally talented individual is both. Ralph Pomeroy (1926-99) was accomplished enough to be an exhibiting artist in New York City the town that chews up artists and spits them out. Joni Mitchell has always viewed herself as a painter first and song writer/poet second. That the public may feel differently is of little consequence to her as she identifies herself and her preference in “A Case of You” off the “Blue” album when she sings, I am a painter, I live in a box of paints.1 It kind of lets everyone know where she stands in no uncertain terms. John Mellencamp has also succeeded in this genre. I, of course, have wallowed in obscurity in both disciplines leading me to wonder whether I have any talent at all, or should I just up and die in order to get discovered?

Considering the painters, there are two artistic periods that mean anything at all to me, those being the Renaissance of 15th century Italy, and the Impressionist period of 19th century France. The former represents the birth of classical art while the later freed itself from convention and tradition and lived on its own merits.

Titan, Leonardo de Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael represent the height of the Renaissance while Rembrandt, primarily because of his remarkable ability at portraiture, is mentioned with this group although he came along a century-and-half later during the High Renaissance. Without advances in the manufacturing of pigments and their suspension in oils there may never have been an artistic Renaissance. This is because paint could now be applied to canvas and while it doesn’t seem like a very big deal to us in modern times, at the time, it was huge. The artists of this period were exacting in proportions and color rendition. Subjects were primarily of Roman Catholic religious origin and the reigning nobility. Some fine work was done, but it transcended the reach of the common man making him even more insignificant then he already was. Art was for the rich, and the rich literally patronized artists.

Post High Renaissance, the Baroque period slipped in which was basically more of the same except the paintings got darker, drearier, droller, and more pompass. As a backlash to this 17th century glitch, the 18th century art world returned to the Renaissance period and this movement is referred to as the Neoclassicism period. The paints lightened up, and the painters loosened up but they still concentrated on the same lame subject matter. One great thing had happened however, an ism was born, and isms birth other isms faster than rabbits. The events of the nineteenth century, particularly those in France, were about to turn the art world on its bourgeoisie ear. The country that had just waded through the bloodiest internal revolution in history was rife for artistic and social upheaval. During a rare period in history these upheavals were one and the same. Neoclassicism was followed in rapid succession by romanticism, realism, naturalism, impressionism, symbolism, post-impressionism, and neo-impressionism. In the eighteen hundreds, every time the art world experienced a schism it invented an ism but the only one of any real importance was impressionism.

Impressionism was based on changing light and color which, by necessity, brought the artists outdoors where conditions were under a constant state of change. The term impressionism came about from a painting by Claude Monet. His “Impressio: Sunrise” (1872), a view of the port of LeHarre set in the early morning mist caught the attention of hostile critic Louis Leroy who wrote, “Since I am impressed it must contain some sort of an impression.”

Impressionist paintings capture moments in time and how the light at that moment affected (above all else) color. Easels were set up outdoors where transitory light conditions forced the painter to attack the canvas fast, furiously, and with a passion that spoke to form and mood as opposed to object and exact representation. Brush strokes were quick, decisive, and heavily laden with paint, which could now be squeezed from a tube lending swiftness to a genre based on speed which was an absolute necessity in capturing a moment in time before it passed. Bold, often broken brush strokes, lent a feeling of air and light to impressionist paintings and gave pictures what they here-to-fore had never possessed – life.

Subjects were slices of everyday life on the streets, in the fields, or at the bars and brothels. Christianity took a back seat to the artist’s desire to depict and capture the truth of who they really were and how they really lived.

The earliest members of the movement were Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro, and Alfred Sisley. All were represented by the official French Solas gallery which categorically rejected their work and let it be known among critics that these artists had officially gone mad. The artists banded together and displayed their work at the studio of the photographer Nadar which they dubbed the Salon des Refus΄es in the spring of 1874. They continued to defy the conventional entrenched art establishment for a decade. Henri de Toulouse – Lautres, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin and even isolationist loner Paul C’eranne displayed pieces at subsequent showings. No one was more alone than Vincent Van Gogh who revolved around the periphery of the movement, perhaps as distantly as Pluto revolves around the sun. At the time no one, least of all himself, knew what Van Gogh was all about.

Early on, all of the impressionist painters were starving as the art world turned a cold shoulder to their efforts at breaking away from its shackles. His brother Theo, who could barely afford to support himself as a curator of a Paris art gallery, supported Van Gogh. Theo believed in his brother’s talent and must have felt unrelenting rage and frustration at seeing Vincent’s work repeatedly criticized and passed over by people who didn’t know which end of the brush to apply paint to. Vincent Van Gogh wallowed in obscurity while his bouts with an incurable disease that was driving him to madness increased in frequency and lengths of duration. Theo brought his brother to Paris in 1880 with mixed results. Vincent Van Gogh did meet all the impressionists in vogue at the time which inspired him to more deeply commit to his calling which was a plus, but city life just made him more unpredictably volatile and deeply depressed.

After a two-year period in Paris in which Vincent painted over 200 pictures, Theo sought to isolate him so that he could concentrate on his work without the distractions of urban life. Theo sent him to the small rural town of Arles in the south of France where he took a studio in a building that came to be known as the yellow house. Theo also represented Paul Gauguin and twisted his arm to join his brother in Arles. It was a match made in hell. Some biographers suggest that Gauguin was secretly jealous of Van Gogh’s talent, but in fairness to Gauguin, Jesus of Nazareth would have had difficulty living with Van Gogh at this point in time. After announcing that he was returning to Paris, Gauguin was followed about Arles one evening by Van Gogh who wielded a straight razor in a threatening manner. Gauguin slipped away and spent the evening in a hotel while Van Gogh slipped the razor across his earlobe – thus the famed self-portrait of his bandaged head.

He then voluntarily entered an insane asylum in the St. –R’emg-de-Provence  and spent a year there trying to regain confidence and mental stability. The violent mental attacks continued. The impressionists stuck together, and on the advice of Camille Pissarro, Van Gogh went to Arles-sur-Oise where a doctor Gachet volunteered to look after him. He entered an extremely prolific period cranking out painting after painting in rapid-fire succession. He may have survived for years at Arles – except for an ill-fated visit to Theo in Paris where he discovered what a financial burden he was upon his brother. The mental anguish he felt caused the madness to return with a vengeance. He went back to Arles, and out to paint in the fields just like he always did only this time he took along a gun and shot himself in the chest. Initially, like all the other times in his life, it appeared he would survive the incident relatively unscathed, but something had changed. Vincent Van Gogh hadn’t sold a painting during his entire life. His record remained intact as on July 29th, 1890 he died. Dead at 37. I mention this, not because he is frequently cited by those expert enough at such things to do so, as the world’s greatest artist, but because he was my mother’s favorite artist. You see, my mother was a painter and a poet – or so I was told. So this one’s for you mom. It’s about time I got this off my chest.

During the brief periods of my life that I spent with my mother I also spent time with the work of Vincent Van Gogh. His 1887 “Self Portrait” hung in our living room. 1888’s “Sunflowers” (her favorite) hung over the kitchen table. 1889’s “Irises” were displayed in the bath while “The Stormy Night” hung above her bed. Mom was sure into Van Gogh, which was a mystery to me because everyone said she was one terrific artist, and if that was so, why would she like these amateurish paintings obviously done by someone in the eighth grade? It would remain a mystery as we permanently parted company when I was ten. In my entire life I would not read a single word she had written or gaze upon a single brush stroke laid down by her hand. For the better part of my life I viewed this as some sort of tragedy because she was a terrific painter and poet – or so everyone said.

She was born Mary Ellen Lundquist on March 28th, 1928; crazy eights for the most part. The fortunes of women in America in general were on the rise in the roaring 20’s as the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution enacted August 18th, 1920 granted them the right to vote. So it can be said that my mother was born into a period of an unprecedented female renaissance. That would only be fitting.

She was also born during the height of prohibition, which causes me to wonder why alcohol came to play such a pivotal and destructive role in her life. Prohibition was instituted January 16th, 1919 as the 18th Amendment to the constitution. While the religious right in America sought to drive the country back to its puritanical roots, the whole plan backfired and birthed bootlegging, speak easies, looser morals, and the entrenchment of organized crime. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The Lundquist’s were furniture makers from Sweden who came through Ellis Island in the late eighteen hundreds. From 1895 to 1924 twelve million immigrants flooded into America, the home of the free, the land of the brave. Grandfather Lundquist was born on American soil in Jamestown, New York in 1898. He fought in World War I as a fighter pilot in aircraft less than two decades in existence. He loved to tell stories of control columns, and later, steering wheels coming off of planes during battles. He spoke with reverence of the legend of Manfred von Richthofe, Germany’s top gun, the renowned Red Baron, and although they never squared off in battle, grandfather Lundquist was sure that he would have given the ace a run for his money. Grandfather Lundquist was fearless, driven, and destined to be financially successful.. He married my grandmother, an English beauty and precursor to what we now call a trophy wife, upon returning home from the war in 1919. The stock market crash of October 29th, 1929 did little to dampen his enthusiasm as he founded Lundquist Hardware in a three-story building in downtown Jamestown. It stood until the 70’s as the tallest building in town. So while the rest of the country was thrown into destitution almost overnight, my mother lived a life of relative prosperity while her mother sought to see that she became educated and cultured. Daily she painted canvasses resembling the works of the impressionists. She studied the post impressionistic work of Matisse which evolved into fauvism. Fauvism championed less detail but more color which she was definitely for. Before the genre made a splash the art world shifted gears and rallied around Pablo Picasso and cubism. Mother felt cubism too rigid and fell back to impressionism. She didn’t feel any other ism was worth much of her time until Jackson Pollock came along and lead the abstract expressionism movement or as mom told her art friends, “anything goesism.”

Mother, by all accounts, was a voracious reader, and while grandmother pushed Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and James Joyce, mother invariably went for Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and Faulkner. And while grandmother rolled her eyes at young Mary Ellen’s literary selections, it must be pointed out, that the later two did walk off with the Nobel Prize. Mom must have known something. It wasn’t long before she leaned towards radical political poetry especially the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a free-spirited, rebellious beauty who lived life on her own terms, took many lovers, and died before reaching sixty. Mom loved The Harp Weaver and other Poems and Make Bright the Arrows. Both works illustrate Millay’s increasing involvement with social issues and disillusionment with human mortality. Not-to-surprisingly mom became rebellious, disillusioned, free-spirited, hard drinking, and wild which completely explains why she was so attractive to my father.

My father was born into a completely different and more familiar set of circumstances. The Krieg’s suffered mightily during the great depression. In fact, if you were to ask my grandfather, there was never a time within the reaches of his memory that the Krieg’s didn’t suffer. He was four when his father and mother fled the potato famine in Germany, crossed the Atlantic, and came through Ellis Island in 1898, an experience he could recall in vivid detail. My grandmother, Monica McLaughlin, left Ireland with her parents again fleeing a potato famine, and came through Ellis Island in 1904. Both families settled in Saint Mary’s, Pennsylvania, a town that was once recorded as having more bars per capita than any town in America. Needless to say, they were hard drinkers and prohibition didn’t much slow them down. In their youth, the German and the Irish school children walked to separate Catholic schools on opposite sides of Main Street throwing out taunts and insults in fall and spring, and well aimed snowballs in winter. He lusted after her from afar and welcomed high school graduation, which was an event that apparently ushered in a thawing in the cold cultural war and allowed the two nationalities to intermingle. He summoned up the courage to ask her out, and eventually, to marry him. She traveled with him from small town to whistle stop as he embarked on his initial career as a minor league baseball player the zenith of which was when he was called up for two weeks in 1917 to pitch for the Cleveland Indians.

When the US entered World War I in 1918 he was not called up. They must have been remarkably adept at the rhythm method for birth control, which was considered taboo and evil at that time, and was discouraged by staunch Christians. For example, Margaret Sanger, an ex-nurse was twice sued in 1916 for perpetrating the hideous crime of distributing pamphlets describing birth control techniques. The charge, of course, was obscenity. Better to have six to ten kids that you couldn’t feed than to be immoral. He gave up on his professional baseball aspirations at age 26 and settled in Bradford, Pennsylvania where he worked on the railroads when my father, their first born, came along in 1925.

My father inherited grandfather’s athletic ability and starred in baseball and basketball during his foreboding high school years. Young men in high school during the late thirty’s and early forties kept a watchful eye on Europe as Hitler waged his Blitz Krieg and western European countries fell like dominoes. My father was 15 and a freshman in high school when Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term as president primarily on a platform of continued economic recovery from the great depression (his New Deal) and the commitment to keep America out of the war across the Atlantic. Dad and his jock buddies were already suffering from acute “war jitters” when Roosevelt’s hand was forced not to the east but to the west in the Pacific Ocean when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The following day President Roosevelt petitioned Congress to declare war on Japan calling December 7th, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” Hitler, never one to pass on ill-gotten opportunity and feeling that America couldn’t fight a war on two fronts, declared war against us on December 11th. Greed, more than anything else (including fanatical hatred) is what did Hitler in for history would unfold to reveal that it was he who couldn’t fight a war on two fronts. Dad and his buddies lived in tenuous and turbulent times which they responded to with acts of great courage and there is no argument from me when they are referred to as, “the greatest generation.” He led the region in scoring during the basketball season of his senior year in 1944, and immediately enlisted in the Air force after graduation. That athletic skill was put to good use, and he became an airplane pilot and was part of a special unit known as the “ski troopers.” Off to Western Europe he went jumping out of airplanes, skiing into enemy territory, conducting secret reconnaissance missions. Who knew what he saw and experienced. Who knew what a toll it took on him. What a toll it took on all of them for that matter. American casualties at the end of the European and Japanese conflicts totaled just under 300,000. With all nations counted 20,000,000 military personnel and 6,000,000 civilians were killed. What mental damage could carnage such as this do to the human psyche? War correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by Japanese sniper fire near the end of the war. In his pocket was found the last report he intended to file.

There are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedges throughout the world.
Dead men by mass production – in one country after another – month after month and year after year.
Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.
Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.
Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them. 2

Most of the combatants who came home from World War II came home with emotional scars. Germany surrendered on May 7th, 1945 and Japan followed suit on August 10th, 1945. Dad came back from Europe in early 1946 ready to blow off steam. He never got flying out of his system. In order to keep up his love affair with aviation he then flew jets for the National Guard.

An avid trout fisherman and sail boat captain he lived to be out on the water. Lake Chautauqua was the largest lake in the area and Jamestown lie at its southern end. Grandfather Lundquist, now one of the wealthiest men in town, had a house on the shore. Dad was sailing there with friends one fine summer day in ’46 when he met mom. Sparks flew. Love at first sight. Neither of them ever did anything half-assed. When they went for something they were all in. On that fateful day they went for each other.

Straight-laced grandmother Lundquist nearly had a coronary when she first set eyes upon my father. My mother was about to enter her second year of art school at Rochester Institute of Technology and was showing great promise. She was even contemplating running for sophomore class president which, in the forties, was unheard for a woman in a mixed sex school. Mom went against convention at every turn, and I like to think she would have won. Grandmother Lundquist was certain her daughter would marry well and set up a cultured household with someone of a similar, or hopefully, better station in life. Then along came dad. Rugged, brawny, tanned, handsome, confident, and unafraid of anything, least of all the disparaging glances and remarks of Lillian Lundquist. It was hate at first sight. She loathed this lower-middle-class fly boy who drank whiskey by the gallon, caroused all night, sailed and fished all day, and stole her daughter’s heart within seconds of meeting her. He didn’t much care for Lillian either, but rather than bad-mouth her he opted to avoid her.

Mom immediately dropped out of college. My parents married quickly and had their first child within a year. Then in assembly line, baby boomer fashion, they pumped kids out like clockwork every two years. I came along in 1951. Their marriage was on the rocks by then. Their different socio-economic backgrounds, their temperaments, their drinking, and dad’s infidelity drove a wedge between them. Dad split for the first time shortly after my ass was slapped in the delivery room. He went missing for months on end. Grandfather Lundquist took up the economic slack in mom’s household. The Krieg’s assumed their son was on some secret government mission such was the status of his noble pursuits. It was believable because in the town where he grew up my father was a bonified grade A hero. Nobody ever suspected that he would do something so ignominious as abandoning his wife and kids; so imagine the surprise of one of my distant (and disliked) uncles, who when on vacation to Las Vegas, Nevada ran across my father working in a casino as a shill. Dad could sell snow cones to the Eskimos. He could woo women and delight men. He could easily make naive casino patrons believe that the luck was in the room. He had a new life in a town given to always creating the new, the unbelievable, the illusion that the unattainable could easily be achieved. He was living a fairy tale life in fantasy land so imagine his disappointment at being brought down to earth.

Grandfather Krieg had this distant (and disliked) uncle drive out there and shame him into coming back. After that their marriage went from bad to worse, but it didn’t deter them from pumping out three more kids. One, a brother four years younger than I, died of pneumonia. I have vague distant memories of him. If the truth be known, I have very few memories of my life up until age six. That’s when we moved to Lake Skaneateles, New York. Dad had a sea scowl sail boat. Wider than more traditional boats with a larger main sail and no jib sail, it was built for straight away assaults and was perfect for dad’s temperament. Those other boats dug into the turns quicker during races but he reeled them in and passed them on the open stretches of the course. He was a dare-devil and wouldn’t back down from anyone. He would cut them off or ram their sterns if they tried to keep him from getting to the front. He was the most disliked sailor on the lake and he could have cared less. I have memories of family outings where we would sail from Skaneateles, at the base of the lake eleven miles north, to the end of the lake. Dad would invariably get in a race with someone. He was overloaded with all of us and another couple one day when a racing adversary who was sailing alone challenged him. Dad said he would accept when the odds were better. The other guy laughed. Mom didn’t like it and told dad, “You’re not going to let this guy go home and tell his wife he beat a sea scowl.” The race was on. We kids bent deep in the hull. Mom and the other couple laid down on the bow. Dad was a madman. Dad was dad. Dad never lost.

In spring there would often be trout he had caught swimming in the kitchen sink. I marveled at their beauty and dad’s skill as an angler. He took me skiing with him in the winter of ’57 and left me on the bunny slope. I stayed out there all day freezing my ass off. I didn’t want him to come back and find me in the lodge. Not that there was anything to worry about because when he hit the slopes he wouldn’t come in until sundown. When he came in it was dark. He took me into the lodge and bought me a hot chocolate with one marshmallow. I nursed it for a half-hour. I never forgot that marshmallow. Whenever I have coco this memory comes back to me. My father and I in a ski lodge laughing; him asking me if I was ever going to eat that marshmallow. The problem with this memory is the one that immediately follows it. As much as I’d like to forget it, I never can.

When we got home mom was mad about something. Probably being stuck in the house all day without a car to get to the liquor store. She went ballistic, breaking glasses and dishes in the kitchen, shouting obscenities, charging at him with a knife. He wrestled it away from her and walked out. I never saw him again. I never liked skiing after that. I hated to go on the slopes. I avoided the sport of skiing like the plague. No one knew where he was, or if they did, they didn’t see any necessity to tell me. I wondered about him. I missed him. Not many memories of my father have I. I mostly remember that he was always gone. Never home. Never around. I hadn’t seen him in over two years. Then something happened. Something I’ll never forget.

The small town’s people of Skaneateles were coming to our house in droves, and bringing plates of food, mostly baked goods, along with them. There were hushed conversations in the living room, which we children were excluded from. Everything was very secretive, very adult, and very serious. Later in the day, when everyone had left, I found out what the fuss was about. There on the black and white TV screen were pictures of destroyers at sea with those old fashioned monochromatic letters flashing the message, “Airman lost at sea.” They pulled up a picture of my father and I turned up the volume. They were talking about dad alright. His plane went down in the Atlantic off Long Island. He and it were never found.

Why couldn’t you have told me mother? I was almost eight. When you couldn’t find the words, why didn’t you turn to your writing skills and simply jot down a few lines? A quick clean little poem explaining that troubled times had come to our troubled lives. Unrhymed and unmetered free verse would have sufficed. You could have employed iambic pentameter and hissed the words across the page. Perhaps a little sing-song onomatopoeia would have gotten the message across. You never said anything, even after it was obvious we all knew. Perhaps you were still mourning the premature death of Jackson Pollock. I guess you were lost in some deep-seeded artist’s pain that I could never be expected to understand. Either that or you were smashed. You really went over the deep end after that. For three months I hardly ever saw you. I don’t know how we survived. I stopped going to school entirely. I just wandered around Skaneateles checking the boat docks for dad’s sea scowl thinking that perhaps he could miraculously sail home.

Ours’ was a family that never talked about any real issues. Everything was hunky-dory and full-steam-ahead. When it wasn’t, we sat idle in our moorings and did nothing. Dirty little secrets spawned dirty little lies, which would be taken to the grave before suffering the horror and truth of being exposed to the light of day. Finally, in my late thirties, I guess when they thought I was old enough to know, they sent me an article about it. Yellowing paper in clear laminate with dad’s clean-shaven heroic face smiling out at me from a lifetime away. It was the internal trade paper of Brown and Bigelow called “The Page” that was published on Thursdays by The Hudson Star Observer newspaper. B&B was a lumber yard out of Syracuse and the article read:

Thursday, March 19t, 1959
B&B Salesman Lost On
Air Guard Training flight
A new Brown & Bigelow salesman, father of five and a National Guard jet pilot, was lost over the Atlantic on a return flight to his base at Syracuse, N.Y. last week.
Air-sea rescue operations failed to locate the plane or the pilot, First Lt. William J. Krieg, 34, who joined the Brown & Bigelow Syracuse district February 16. Krieg and his wife, Mary, and their five youngsters ranging in ages from 3 to 12 live at Skaneateles near Syracuse.
Krieg presumably was lost at sea on the return flight of a F-86 jet fighter from Myrtle Beach, S.C. to Syracuse. He was on the last leg of his journey Monday, March 9 when he checked in by radio at 3:20 p.m. He was over Atlantic City and was to have landed on Long Island a few minutes later, his last stop before heading home.
There was no indication by radio of trouble or possible ditching because of weather which was favorable at the time. He was believed to have been at about 30,000 feet when he last radioed and his route to Long Island was mostly over water.
Krieg was a World War II Air Force veteran.3

The article was typical of the repressive fifties. It was not indicative of any in-depth reporting. On the surface, it appeared that dad was a real up-and-comer, and that this was a human tragedy of epic proportions. A few more of the base facts of the gossip-driven back-story, which older family members refuse to verify or deny, even to this day, were left out. There was no mention, for instance, of his other family, the one he lived with in Auburn, which lay at the tip of Lake Cayuga, the middle finger of the major Finger Lakes. Lake Skaneateles was the little finger and much smaller. So dad had better water to sail on and more trout to catch less than thirty miles away. He had a better woman and a better family, which were hardly things he made any concentrated effort at hiding from us. Cayuga represented the middle finger alright – the one he shoved in our faces. There was no formal funeral, or if there was, I wasn’t allowed to go to it. Shortly after the search was called off three uniformed service men were standing on our front porch. They handed mom a triangularly folded American flag, stepped off the porch, and fired seven shots each into the air. A twenty-one gun salute, and a flag in exchange for a father. Big fucking deal. Mom really tied one on that day.

I was sent off to live with my aunt and uncle in Olean, New York, which is an occurrence I’m convinced saved my life. Mom and my older brother went down to Tampa, Florida to stay with her parents and regroup.

Growing up I heard the rumors, the sordid details, but sons are tied to their fathers, especially those made more noble in death. I worked the whole scenario out in my head. Dad couldn’t live with mom. I mean, who could? He wanted to make sure that we were taken care of and was probably so morally responsible that he looked after the needs of his other family as well. Ergo, I surmised, he headed out over the Atlantic, ditched the plane seconds after activating his ejection seat, and landed just mere yards from where a pre-arranged life boat was waiting. We, his primary family by marriage, would receive Veterans Administration assistance while his secondary family most likely cashed in on a lucrative life insurance policy. Selfless dad took care of everyone in one dramatic fell swoop and probably headed off to Africa or South America to collect precious gems and/or hunt big game with Ernest Hemmingway. I fully expected that he would reappear during my adult life to explain how complicated it all was back then. How severely divorce was frowned upon. How this was his only option at a free and happy life so he exercised it – no hard feelings.

During the initial ten months that I stayed with my aunt and uncle, I communed with nature, forged some lasting friendships at Saint Mary’s of the Angels Parochial School, and frequently wondered what mom was painting and writing about down there in Florida now that she was free from the stress of raising us and dealing with dad’s demise. With her art career back on track, it wouldn’t be long before she would send for me and my sisters, and we could all be one big happy family again.

At last she did send for me, and when I arrived in Florida things were somewhat different than I had imagined. Grandfather Lundquist had set her up in the guest house on his property which was quaint and clean if somewhat cramped. There were the Van Gogh’s occupying their usual positions on the walls. Mom was gone. There were no signs of artist’s easels. No paint smears by the kitchen sink. No notebooks of poetry lay lingering on the dining room table. It looked as if she barely lived there. Come to find out, she didn’t. Mom had taken up with a fellow who lived over by the beach who had a one room apartment, three sons, and a million pet cockroaches. A real go-getter, he mowed lawns for a living on those days when he wasn’t too hung-over to get to them. Within two weeks we were all moving out of the guest house and out of his apartment and loading ourselves into the bed of a pickup truck that looked like it wouldn’t make Tallahassee much less the state of Michigan, our final destination. Mom was ecstatic as alcoholics frequently are when in the throes of a relocation. Grandmother Lundquist, always and somewhat deservedly portrayed as the ice queen, blew the whistle on our ill-conceived, ill-planned, ill-fated get-away, and the car from child protective services roared up and blocked the truck from leaving. The police arrived next. There was a heated argument, and mom was carted off to jail acting for all the world like a noble political prisoner being repressed by a totalitarian government.

By nightfall, my older brother and I were in a three bedroom foster home with eleven other kids. Foster parenting in Florida at that time was a profit-laden cottage industry on the rise. Castro had recently sent over his first wave of boat people and those hardened Cuban children were being shuffled off to anyone who would take them for a price. There were two such children in this home. I got my first inkling that this was a house without love when our foster father burst into our room, pinned my brother’s neck to the wall, and viciously swiped a leather belt across his face. The crime, of course, was for talking after curfew, and after that I hardly talked at all. Needless to say, our foster home experience was one of sheer trepidation and terror, and I prayed daily to be delivered from the place immediately after it was consumed in flames, and the last of my foster father’s tormented shrieks were heard.

On weekends we were hauled off to the beach or the public swimming pool as the season dictated with twenty-five cents in our pocket, and the helpful reminder to spend it wisely as we were going to be there all day. I begged not to go to the pool on Christmas day because my mother had told me that she was coming to pick us up and there would be presents – lots and lots of presents. Even my older brother didn’t believe it and he left with the others. I waited by the mail box all day not wanting to go into the house and hear the jeers and disparaging remarks of my foster “parents.” My heart leaped at the sight of each approaching car and fell with a thud as they passed. I was out by the mail box still waiting when the crew came home and can attest to the saying that, “children can be cruel.” My brother was the worst, and this was the day that marked the fact that I truly and totally hated him.

So where were you mother? Were you overcome with literary passion reading Keats, or Yeats, or Shelly, or Shakespeare? Did the light streaming through the window of your cheap hotel room onto a spent wine bottle give off such a radiance that you just started painting and lost track of the time? Was there a special on “Old Crow” whiskey that necessitated spending the Christmas money and you just couldn’t bring yourself to see the disappointment in my eyes? I waited for you for the entirety of Christmas day, and when you didn’t show up, I decided at the ripe old age of nine, that I would never wait for you again.

Well at least mom stayed true to her aspiring full-time lawn mowing boyfriend. Passion consumed the two of them one evening or perhaps they had moved up to “Canadian Club.” They decided then and there to get married and eloped across state lines to consummate the sacred union. They were unexpectedly and unceremoniously pulled over for drunk driving and sent off to jail. Undeterred, oblivious to her surroundings, mom petitioned the warden to smile upon their good intentions, marriage at that time perhaps being the most sacred institution in the south save for gator wrestling and stock car racing.

I have to hand it to you mother. You knew how to attract attention. You got married from a jail cell in Georgia dressed in a white bathing suit. The pictures run in the papers. “Look! That’s my mom!”

Less than a year later it was over, mom. The day is etched in my mind like a wood burning. Ended on the front lawn of the block house grandfather Lundquist had bought you so that you could get us out of the foster home. You wanted to leave. I guess one hand-out check or another had just arrived. He didn’t want you to go out drinking. At least not without him. He opened the hood of your car and removed the coil wire from the distributor cap, and dangled it in your face as if to say, “What are you going to do now?” Big mistake. No one ever got between you and your drinking; least of all your kids. You picked up a bicycle tire pump lying on the lawn and swung it at him. The thin open tubular metal handle hit him on the side of the eye socket. It gouged out a huge gapping piece of flesh. Blood spurted like a geyser. His eye was half-in half-out of its socket. I couldn’t decide which was more ugly; what you did, or how he looked. It sickened me to the core. Ten years old and the worst violent act I had witnessed up to that point. You held the pump threateningly in your hands ready to swing again if he came back at you. He didn’t. He just slouched down on the lawn, put his head in his hands, and sobbed. Broken. You sure could break people. I knew, if given the chance, you would break me. I turned and walked away. You didn’t notice. You watched him like a hawk fully expecting retaliation, which didn’t come. I heard later that like me, he finally left. People were always leaving you mom. And you hated them for it. I’ll never know if you died hating me. I broke into a trot, and then a full sprint. I ran until I thought my lungs were going to burst out of my chest. Then I slowed to a lost disoriented gait. Sometimes, in my worst moments, I still walk like that. One foot in front of the other, aimlessly moving forward while not knowing where to go yet knowing I can’t stay.

Eventually, I happened upon a drinking friend of yours who lived in a rundown hovel of an apartment at the beach. Darkness had fallen. Loneliness hung with the humidity in the air. There were a dozen men in her front room. She would come out of the bedroom with one and go back with another. Between trips she told me I had to go home. I refused. Finally, she said she had called you, and I left. I figured out years later that she was a prostitute. She sure was a whore that night. Sending a ten year old kid out into the darkness knowing he was lost, alone, abandoned.

There are angels in this world mother. You must have called the one you always did. Grandfather Lundquist finally found me after searching every shore-side dive and honky-tonk you frequented. I was on the Clearwater Bridge. Jumping seemed less of an option and more of a solution. I didn’t think I could take it anymore but it’s amazing what you can take when you have to. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get in his Cadillac. I think that he sensed it. He drove slowly alongside me gently calling my name out the window. “Chris, Chris, Chris, Christopher.” I hated that name. I hated the sound of it, the reminder of where it came from. Family continued to use it, but with everyone else I was John C. Krieg after that. He coaxed me in, and I collapsed wailing in his arms. I cried every tear I had in me and thought I had cried you out of me. Of course, I was wrong. Mother’s have a hold on their sons. The umbilical cord is invisible but always present. It tugs at me from your grave.

I told him, “If you take me back, I’ll just run away again. I’m never ever going back.” And I didn’t. So how would you paint that scene mother? What colors would complete the canvas? A little red for blood lost literally and figuratively? Some cold foreboding blackish-blue for the water I wanted to jump into? A salty translucent yellow for tears? Being an impressionist what impression would you have imparted upon this scene? If you could have pulled this one off of the raw edge of life Van Gogh would have looked up to you.

By the grace of God I was sent back to Olean, New York. My aunt and uncle tried, but she would never let them adopt me. She would never do anything that hinted at disrupting the flow of cash into her coffers. Mom was an accomplished double-dipper utilizing welfare checks and Veterans Administration checks to assure that the whiskey tap flowed uninterrupted. She had a master’s degree in bounced checkology. Before I finally left, she had even developed other less lucrative yet always dependable profit centers by rifling my Christmas, Easter, and birthday cards. I initially thought my aunt and uncle had forgotten me and then thought it cruel that she couldn’t have at least left the cards in the mailbox. That she couldn’t have made some half-hearted attempt to reseal the envelope, but she didn’t. Perhaps she was jealous, but most likely her alcohol-addled brain felt she needed to dispose of incriminating evidence. That was my mother though. No matter how wrong the things she did were, she was never wrong. There was always someone else to blame for her dire set of circumstances. Life had dealt her a shitty deck of cards but she would stoically play them. Good for you mother. And right you are too. Keep a stiff upper lip mom.

We basically lost contact with each other while I waited around for my father’s athletic, and her artistic genealogies to kick in. Life in Olean, New York brought one rude awakening after another.

There was nothing evident in my youth to remotely suggest that I was the son of a painter and a poet. Art teachers saw nothing special in me. I saw nothing special in myself. I briefly embarked on a flurry of short story writing, even enjoyed the work, but was inevitably told I wasn’t very good at it. I put down the pen in disillusionment and disgust. Perhaps genealogy had skipped a generation, or perhaps they had switched babies at the hospital.

In athletic endeavors, I didn’t rise to the stature and legend of my father which was a bitter disappointment in that eighty percent of the girls in Olean aspired to the lofty stature of a varsity cheerleader, and failing that, at least to the station in life that one occupies as girlfriend of a star jock.

My astounding inability to be very good at anything marred my high school experience, and by my senior year I couldn’t wait to leave it and Olean, New York behind. I began thinking of my mother again as graduation day, and the terror of leaving the womb it entailed, began to approach.

I was going off to college, not to appease the pull of academic longing, but to avoid the war in Vietnam. It played out in our living room on TV every night in living color that depicted death, destruction, and despair. For shock value, no television show writer could have written a better script. My uncle, the World War II veteran, thought that enlisting would make a man out of me. I, on the other hand, wanted to live long enough to become a man. I sensed that I would learn and accomplish a great many things if my life weren’t cut short defending whatever it was that we were supposed to be defending half a planet away. Then a friend from another school that I played summer league basketball with came home from Vietnam in a body bag. He was a good guy, three years older, fun to be around, full of life, full of potential. Now he was dead. No, that just wasn’t for me. Somewhere within the deepest reaches of my psyche, or perhaps contained in the blood coursing through my veins, I wanted to create, express myself, and above all else, live to see my potential, that only I felt I had.

Was it like that for you, mother? Did you sense you had potential? Or was it a foregone conclusion by your senior year in high school that you had transcended potential and gone straight to talented. Having achieved that lofty rung on the ladder, were you now expected to drive on into accomplished? Potential unrealized is a waste, but talent unutilized is a curse. Once you’re labeled as good you’re expected to be good all the time, or worse yet, to constantly get better. Is that why you turned your back on your craft mom? Is that what did you in? Expectations ran too high, did they? No matter how well you did everyone knew you could do better. Everyone, that is, but you. Did you sit in terror in front of your mediums afraid to get started knowing that when you finished it wouldn’t be good enough? Is that what happened? Did the weight of their expectations, which soon become demands, press down upon you and eventually suffocate you? Well let me tell you mother, it’s not so great on the other side of the fence either where nothing is expected, where no one sees talent in you, and you’re free to fail, and no one’s surprised when you do.

In junior college I stumbled across landscape architecture, more by accident than design. I wrote some articles for a counter-culture newspaper which garnered no critical acclaim. I expressed creativity in acquiring girlfriends and surviving for months without any money. I acquired an associate’s degree in horticulture and would have settled for it only Vietnam forced me to press onwards towards a bachelors degree. Upon entering a four-year program in landscape architecture, it was quickly determined, by condemning evidence, that I was the worst in the class. Since I couldn’t drop out, there was nowhere to go but up.

You see, that’s the thing mother. That’s what separates you and I. That’s the chasm that exists between us. Not physical. Not intellectual.  But potential. I struggled mightily just to be good. You were already great. Where was there for you to go but down? Why did you allow it? Artists are misunderstood. Misunderstanding breeds persecution and persecution breeds contempt. Why did you give them the satisfaction of seeing you fail? Were you too preoccupied with grief, overcome by the death of Pablo Picasso to care?

I limped out of college, vacillated in odd job mediocrity, and coughed and sputtered my way into my professional career. Here I found the rungs on the ladder to be well defined, and the pay scale commensurate with the climb. Everything I did was studied and measured, accepted or rejected, assigned a score, compared against the work of contemporaries, and more often than not, found severely lacking. I don’t know how I improved. I stopped drinking entirely thinking it wise to at least give myself a fighting chance at success. It seemed like I struggled for years on end just to tread water and hold on to a job. But I must have improved for I eventually became registered which is the bench mark for a minimum level of proficiency in my trade. I climbed one rung on the ladder and held on for dear life.

I thought about you then mother. About how you never much placed any importance on something as mundane as an everyday job. That would have choked the artistic tendencies right out of you. Did you suspect somewhere in the furthest reaches of your mind that you would return to your work? Did you think that you would paint and write poetry again, and that when you did, that everything would turn out fine? Why didn’t you then? What was the hold up? Why can’t artists just be artists? Why does criticism, self-loathing, self-doubt, and self-destructiveness get in the way? Why are the truly great required to pay for their position in life with misery and pain?

I struck out on my own, hung out my shingle, learned how much I didn’t know by having it shoved in my face. Always struggling. Always one step behind the eight ball. Always robbing Peter to pay Paul. Never enough. Designers routinely demonstrate their lack of self-worth in their fee proposals. I repeatedly slit my own throat. I was low bidder. I got the job. I battled my way through the job against clients, cities, contractors, and critics. I could well have been the most hired and fired landscape architect in all of Phoenix. My life was a revolving door of commissions and dismissals. Eventually it dawned on me that something was wrong. I came to realize that there was always tension. Tension seemed to follow me all of my years. It seemed as though I should be able to get rid of it since I was the one who created it in the first place. Then it occurred to me that I liked to be tense. Unfortunately for those around me, this was my comfort zone. John Mellencamp once stated that he was comfortable with his anger. I’m glad that someone was honest enough to admit it. And so it is with me, and the tension that permeates my life. Without tension nothing gets done. And, above all, I was a doer.

I could burn lead and push ink and always make a deadline. A client called me, “the fastest gun in the west,” and speed became important to me. It also pigeon-holed me in my career. Half-a-decade into my professional practice I started to hate what I was doing. I was timid, never a good thing for anyone who wants to get ahead. I was cautious and afraid. I started contemplating a parallel career in real estate development not being willing to wing too far from the nest.

The more things I failed at the more I resented all the things you failed at. I tried to forget about you mother. I Prayed to God to help me forget. When any relatives asked about you or had something they wanted to tell me, I said I didn’t want to know, and I meant that I did not want to know. I found out though. That’s what sisters are for.

That’s when you died mom. Basically, your liver just gave out. Jill called unexpectedly one night to say you were nearing the end, and by morning you were gone. Didn’t quite go out in the blaze of glory that everyone expected you to, did you mom? Van Gogh shot himself at 37 and hung on for two days before expiring. He’s buried in Arles not far from where he did himself in. You’re buried somewhere in Florida. I don’t even know where. Nor do I really want to know. I’ll place no flowers on your headstone. I’ll shed no tears on the ground that covers your casket. I cried for the last time the day you died. I wailed at God about how meaningless and empty your life appeared to me. About how I was denied the opportunity to reconcile with and forgive you as if my or anyone else’s forgiveness would have meant a damned thing to you. But, deep down inside I always intended to make the effort. That’s the similarly between you and I mother; our good intentions that we just couldn’t seem to act on. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Actually, I waited too long. I wanted to make a grand entrance and impress upon you how accomplished and successful I was. Trying to impress someone is the reverse osmosis of envy and it’s just as ugly. Your death taught me a lesson. Never wait to tell someone you love them. So I’ll admit that I love you mother, for all the good it does either of us now. You were gone before I got my chance to mend fences. Dead at 56. For a belated eulogy I’ve chosen a passage by e.e. cummings:

Little Effie’s Head:

here is little Effie’s head
whose brains are made of gingerbread
when the judgment day comes
God will find six crumbs

stooping by the coffin lid
waiting for something to rise
as the other somethings did-
you imagine His surprise

bellowing through the general noise
Where is Effie who was dead?
-to god in a tiny voice,
I am may the first crumb said

whereupon its fellow five
crumbs chuckled as if they were alive
and number two took up the song,
might I’m called and did no wrong

cried the third crumb, i am should
and this is my little sister could
with our big brother who is would
don’t punish us for we were good;

and the last crumb with some shame
whispered unto God, my name
is must and with the others i’ve
been Effie who isn’t alive. 4

You could have picked up the brush or the pen again at any time in your adult life mother, but you didn’t. You could have, should have, would have, but you didn’t. What might have happened if you had?

Another half-decade ground on. My passion for my craft waned. There were times I hated to sit at the drafting board. Times I dreaded the thought of doing this for another day. And times I didn’t. I got so fed up with my mediocrity that I tried to become a painter. I bought huge canvasses thinking that proportion could mask a lack of ability. I painted the mountains I hiked in Phoenix, romantic naïve by-gone images of the west, and a portrait of my mother. I tried to sell my paintings in my own art gallery but no one was interested. I eventually sold, at drastically reduced prices, or gave away all but one of my paintings, and threw the portrait of my mother out. Then I recommitted to my career and headed off to California, the cradle of landscape architecture.

I wrote a book on landscape architecture, which proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, just how little I knew about the subject. I wrote books on the environment, which demonstrated unequivocally, that I’m a terrible environmentalist. I wrote an autobiography, which begins at my high school graduation, proving I wasn’t ready to deal with my youth. And now I’m sitting here and writing this because I have to. I have to lay this beast that torments me to rest and move on.

Do you hear me mother? I’m breaking free of these shackles of the memory of you. I’m sorry that you had to go through whatever it was that caused you to live (and die) the way you did. You chose to wallow in it, and it sucked you under and suffocated you. I’m moving on. I want more. I want to live and breathe during the years I have left. I’ll say goodbye mother. Once and for all. Goodbye and good riddance. I’m sorry for the things you endured and that you couldn’t rise above them. And I’ll thank you for your legacy. I write poetry every now and then and have even started painting again, but not for you – for me. I’ll give credit where credit is due mom. This didn’t come from just anywhere. If came from you. So thank you.

As I spin through the mental roll-a-dex of things I could have been I come to realize exactly why I wasn’t any of those things. My life, to some extent was predetermined, before the day I was born. As the son of a painter and a poet, I was bound to experience misery. I seemed to seek it out, and if misery is what you’re after then painting and poetry are the perfect mechanisms for finding it. Stevie Wonder said it in “Songs in the Key of Life”:

Sometimes I know you get in trouble
That makes you wish that you
Were born in a different time and place
But I’ll bet you this
And that it’s double
That God knew exactly
Where he wanted you to be placed.5

So, if what I’m doing with my life is God’s will, I embrace it. Late in life everything makes sense. This was meant to be.

Goodbye mother. Rest well. I wish you would have left a body of work behind you that I could proudly point to. Look, see, that’s my mom. That’s where it comes from. But you didn’t. You lived the life but avoided the work. Not me. Bring it on.

Thank you mother. God bless you mom. Good-bye.

BIO

John C. Krieg is a retired landscape architect and land planner who formerly practiced in Arizona, California, and Nevada. He is also retired as an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist and currently holds seven active categories of California state contracting licenses, including the highest category of Class A General Engineering. He has written a college textbook entitled Desert Landscape Architecture (1999, CRC Press). John has had pieces published in A Gathering of the TribesAlternating CurrentBlue Mountain Review, Clark Street Review, Conceit, Homestead Review, Oddball Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Pegasus, Saint Ann’s Review, and Wilderness House Literary Review.

Works Quoted:

1). Joni Mitchell. “A Case of You” – “Blue” – Reprise Records 1972

2). Ernie Pyle. Article intended for a “Victory Day” column. Circa 1945

3). Anonymous reporter. “The Hudson Star Observer”by The Brown and Bigelow Public Relations Department. March 19, 1959

4). e.e. cummings. Selected Poems. “Little Effie’s Head” New York. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-87140-154-1

5). Stevie Wonder. “Songs in the Key of Life.” Portrait EMI Records 1976

Head of the Ulna

By Tessa Vroom

The brown-grey weathered bone lay within my palm. I had been searching for fossils within the shade under sweeping tree branches overhanging the gentle creek, but instead found a bone. Staring at my discovery, I reconciled two facts: the animal that owned this was dead for sure, and there was no way my mama would let me bring it home.

#

Bones are the framework of the body, defining the unique shape of a body. Bones are much like snowflakes: no two people have the same jaw, the same ribs, the same arms. Two bones make up the forearm: the ulna and the radius. The ulna stretches from the hand to the humerus, brushing against the carpal bones by the thumb and settling gently in the crook of the arm to form the elbow joint.

#

The first time someone besides my mama told me I was attractive I bloomed. She told me I looked like a twelve-year-old boy a week later. I asked her why she loved me then, and she shrugged. I forgave her quickly. I never told her that after, when I looked in the mirror, I could no longer find the beauty within my round cheeks, crooked eyebrows, and short hair.

#

Ulna means “elbow.” Ulna involves brushing the tongue against the back of the teeth and snapping it down to make “l” and “n” and ends in an open “ah,” a breath of relief. It’s a beautiful, round word, full of curves. The bone, by contrast, is long with awkward ends full of bumps and bits that don’t seem to fit. When you squint, the ulna can look like a budding iris.

#

I stare every morning at the slight bend at the bridge of my nose, the high rise of my forehead, the red patches by each jaw: a permanent blush attempting to flee from the confines of my face. I have to reintroduce myself daily to the stranger in the mirror. I raise my hand to wave, and see my wrist. My peaked wrist bone, that is mine. I know it, I know the little freckle at the base of the hill, I know the dark hairs that grow like dry grass. I touch the pronounced triangle of bone under my skin, feel real. My peaked wrist bone, that is mine, but my face and body belong to a stranger.

#

Forearm fractures account for more than 40% of all childhood fractures. Forearm fractures often occur on a playground, or during sports.

#

My older sister says her wrist talks to her, likes to remind her it exists. I remember when she broke her wrist; I was jealous of the cast, the reason to pay attention to her body that had nothing to do with her bruised knees, the width of her hips and shoulders. I never thought about the pain that came with falling hard enough to crack bone. I learned about that pain thrice over as retribution for my jealousy: my nose, my right shoulder, and my cheek (the zygomatic arch). My cheek talks to me sometimes when the weather is cold. I do my best to ignore it. I’m mad at it for being swollen, for pressuring my right eye, for making my face crooked.

#

At birth, the ends of the ulna are cartilaginous. After about the fourth year, the head and styloid process form, but it takes another fourteen to sixteenyears for the ulna to finish ossifying.

#

I don’t tell my mama I hate my body. I don’t tell her I can’t find it within myself to love the shape I’ve been given. That ever since I started puberty, before my ulna was finished turning to bone, I could not fit comfortably within the confines of my skeleton. That I spend time every morning picking out an outfit to hide all the worst parts of myself from view. Only my wrists survive the suffocation of cloth. I don’t tell her I hate my body, but I think she knows.

#

Near the wrist, the ulna has two parts; the larger is rounded, termed “the head of the ulna.” The narrower end, which stretches up the side of the wrist beside the hump of the head of the ulna, is the styloid process. The styloid process looks like a canine.

#

I wrap my middle finger and thumb around my wrist, measure the distance around, feel my bones moving. There’s one part of the ulna, in particular, that fascinates me. It juts out of the landscape of my skin, a small hill marring the smooth topography. My right wrist has a peak taller than my left, but I seem to be the only one who can tell. I spend many hours climbing the hill with my nail.

#

I dream of my skin melting off as I stare in the mirror, leaving red-stained bones behind. I raise my hand, recognize the bump at my wrist, and greet myself.

BIO

Tessa Vroom is Dutch-American and grew up biking over Dutch polders and hiking the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. She is a creative writing major at Western Washington University, and spends the majority of her time wandering through Bellingham listening to podcasts. She works as an audio assistant for a podcast production company.

Temporary Cat Lady

by Caitlin Sellnow

My new foster, a little black cat named Gallagher, spent most of our early acquaintance under my bed. On his third night in my apartment though, he emerged without being coaxed. He settled onto the back of the olive-green microfiber loveseat in my living room. I had bought the loveseat hastily, right after I moved into my Evanston apartment. My dad took me to a second-hand furniture store to find something to replace the camping chairs I had set up in front of the TV. I hadn’t intended to keep it at the center of my apartment for six years, but I’d never found a reason to get rid of it. That night, I was happy it was helping Gallagher feel at home. He settled his face on the back cushion and draped his paws over the front. His eyes almost disappeared into his face, except for the thin rings of gold around his pupils. He leaned into my knuckles as I rubbed them under his chin. I figured we could both start to relax. By then, I really should have known better.

I went into the kitchen to microwave my dinner. Gallagher was out of my sight for about five minutes. I came back to the living room with a bowl of stew and glass of wine in hand, ready to catch up on the Great British Bake Off. When I rounded the corner and saw Gallagher again, I froze.

“Oh, God!” I gasped.

Gallagher was still on the loveseat, blinking calmly at me. But now, there was a stream of blood coming from his left eye – bright red against his glossy fur. I grabbed a paper towel and tried to clean him up. Up close, I saw that it wasn’t his eye, but his eyelid that was bleeding. A few years ago, I probably would have reacted with less composure. But at that point, Gallagher’s gothic horror show was only the latest in a series of diseases, disorders and quirks that had padded through my home on little cat feet.

Gallagher was the sixth cat that stayed in my apartment. That’s admittedly a lot of cats for one one-bedroom. In the context of the city’s entire feline population though, it’s almost nothing. According to the Tree House Humane Society, there are at least 700,000 owned cats in Chicago today, and 500,000 un-owned cats living on the streets. The ones that come to me are somewhere between being owned, unowned and owned again.

When I started fostering these animals, I was trying to avoid making a home here in the city. I made sure that everything in my apartment was only here “for now.” When I had to move, I figured, I would just leave my loveseat on a street corner and buy a new one for another $60 somewhere else. But I could not communicate this to the cats. They made themselves at home in spite of me. And eventually, they helped me figure out that “home” and “for now” are not mutually exclusive.

I did not know what the future held for Gallagher as I scrubbed his blood off my loveseat. But I did know that, at that moment, he was in the right place.

Shayla

I began down this path over five years ago, when a stranger showed me a blurry picture of a cat on her phone. The stranger was Shannon. We met for the first and only time at a dinner with some mutual friends. The cat, which was grey with toffee-colored stripes and green eyes, was Shayla. Shannon explained that Shayla belonged to Chicago Cat Rescue. The founders of the organization met as volunteers for the Tree House Humane Society – Chicago’s largest cat adoption agency. They bonded over their distaste for keeping adoptable cats in shelters. They believed the cats would be better off staying in people’s homes. The cats would be more comfortable and more willing to show their true personalities to potential adopters. So, the volunteers branched off and founded their own, smaller cat-fostering agency. Shannon had been Shayla’s foster mother until Shannon’s landlord had discovered the cat and evicted it. Now, Shannon was trying to find Shayla a new, temporary home.

I was intrigued. I had thought about getting a cat. I didn’t feel lonely, exactly, in my apartment, but I didn’t like how still it was. I constantly had Big Bang Theory reruns on my TV, just for some sound and movement. I’d had pets growing up, and I missed their unobtrusive warmth. At a recent New Year’s Eve party, the host’s cat had hopped on my lap. I did not move for the next 90 minutes.

Still, I didn’t feel ready to adopt – partly because I wasn’t sure if I could handle the stress of caring for another living creature. I’d tried adopting a Ficus in an early attempt to add some life to my apartment. After a couple of months, it started slowly, pathetically withering. Every hour or two, another leaf hit the floor with a soft tick. I heard the tree whispering, “you’d make a terrible mother.” Mostly though, I was wary of the commitment. I knew that in my current apartment, with my current job, at the current moment, I could take care of a cat. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in this moment.

 A month after I moved to the area, my father had died suddenly of a heart attack. I went back to my childhood home in Minnesota for a week. All the doors of our suburban house were unlocked, and all the people we loved osmosed in and out, bearing condolences, stories, and crock-pots full of meat. When I came back to Chicago, the city felt even further away from my family than it had before. A year later, when I met Shannon, it still didn’t really feel like home. The idea of doing anything that might make it more difficult to move away made me feel claustrophobic.

I told an abbreviated version of my concerns to Shannon. She explained that, if I became Shayla’s next foster parent, I wouldn’t have to pay for any vet costs or make any big decisions about Shayla’s wellbeing. Most importantly, I would be free to return her to Chicago Cat Rescue if I ever needed to. It seemed like a way I could play house without actually making a home.

A few weeks later, Cindy, a representative from Chicago Cat Rescue arrived at my apartment with a large scratching post, a paper bag full of cat toys and a cat-carrier. She was a wiry, middle-aged woman with a frizzy knot of hair at the back of her neck. I took the bag and the post from her and let her set down the carrier in my entryway. Both of us crouched down to look in the grate. A pair of green eyes stared at me, unblinking. “Hi Shayla,” I said.  Cindy unlatched the grate. Slowly, Shayla emerged, stretching her back legs. Her tail curved over onto her back instead of standing straight up, making a shape like a shark’s fin.

As Shayla slunk around the perimeter of my living room, Cindy told me everything she knew about Shayla’s troubled past. This would be Shayla’s fourth foster home. Cindy said that Shayla seemed pretty resilient but, “You know.” She tilted her head and suddenly sounded sad, “Every move is harder than the last.”

Actually, I didn’t know. I didn’t think it was possible to gauge a cat’s emotional wellbeing. To me, it seemed like their “feelings” were mostly limited to shades of “hungry,” “irritated,” and “asleep”. But I didn’t say that to Cindy. I just tilted my head at the same sad angle and nodded.

Cindy was probably referring to the fact that place is important to cats. In 2011, researchers at the University of Illinois ran a study of 42 outdoor cats – both feral and non-feral. Each cat they studied had a territory that it patrolled, systematically. Every day, the cats visited all the places they already knew. Different cats crossed paths and got into squabbles sometimes, but mostly they just let each other wander their separate, overlapping territories. Where they went was more important to them than the company they kept.

I had no idea where Shayla’s past routes took her, but I knew that she hadn’t really left those places behind. On her third night in my apartment, she coughed up a tapeworm. That was just one, tangible example of the baggage she carried with her from the street. Her other quirks suggested traumas I could only guess at. She had a weary, husky voice that I called her “smoker’s meow.” It evoked an image of her in the shadow of a dumpster, with a tiny cigarette hanging under her whiskers. When I handled plastic bags, she jetted out of the room like I’d sounded a raid siren. With most guests she was perfectly charming. But when my six-year-old cousin Lily came to visit, she disappeared under the bed for three days.

Every once in a while, I got an email from Cindy about someone interested in adopting Shayla. First, there was a mother with a nine-year-old son. She never emailed me back. Then, there was a Russian couple that wrote to ask me if Shayla liked to be “picked and petted.” I responded in the affirmative, but they found a cat they liked at another shelter. Each time this happened, I was surprised by my indignation on Shayla’s behalf. Sure, she had her quirks, but she was also pretty and affectionate and playful, without being too needy. I told some friends about how the Russian couple didn’t want to meet Shayla after all. “She’s a good cat.” I looked down at the floor, embarrassed that my eyes were welling up, “She deserves a good home.”

And yet, I was not willing to provide Shayla’s forever home. I had a hard time articulating why. The truth was, I was carrying baggage from past routes with me too. From age zero to 18, I lived in the same two-story house on the curve of a quiet horseshoe-shaped street in Rochester, Minnesota. It was occupied by my mom, dad, sister and brother. We had a backyard and a mini-van and two rhubarb plants that sprouted in the backyard every spring. We also had a gray tabby cat named Phoebe and a sixteen-pound Shih Tzu named Marshmallow. He had an underbite, feet that splayed out to the sides, and a thyroid condition that caused him to lose much of his hair. And he was my best friend.

I did not necessarily want rhubarb plants or a minivan or a quiet suburban street in my future. If I did, I wouldn’t have moved to the city. Still, those things were in the picture that appeared in my head when I thought of “home.” It was the place where my family was a complete and humming circuit. So whatever place I was carving out in Chicago had to be something else. It was not forever, not a place for family or a permanent pet, not home. Shayla was an animal that matched my situation: A temporary city cat for my temporary city life. We had our separate histories and kept our separate patrols.

Finally, after about nine months, Cindy connected me with Bryn – a young graduate student with an asymmetrical haircut and a sweet, dorky demeanor. We made a date for her to come and meet Shayla. Bryn sat on the floor of my apartment, petting Shayla and looking at her the same way a mother in a baby lotion commercial looks at her infant child. It was a look that, I was fairly certain, I had never given to Shayla myself. Within an hour after she left, Bryn called Cindy and told her that she wanted to adopt Shayla.

Rudy

After Shayla, there was Gunnar and then Dempsey in quick succession. Gunnar was big and gray and built like a bodybuilder, with a big head stacked on a short neck, and broad shoulders that tapered to a narrow waist. Only his high-pitched, squeaky meow undermined his tough-guy image. He had only been with me a few months when I introduced him to my friend Christa. She was visiting from Madison with her boyfriend. They had recently moved in together and were talking about adopting a cat. We sat in my apartment, and I offered them drinks and snacks and Gunnar’s favorite toy – A plastic wand with a ribbon of felt attached. I asked Christa how she liked her new place and how work was going, but the conversation kept veering back towards Gunnar. She and CP wanted to know all about Gunnar’s likes (wet food, snuggling, a pristine and roomy litter box) and dislikes (dry food, crowds, being brushed for 2.5 seconds too long). The day after they left, Christa e-mailed me: “We haven’t stopped talking about Gunnar…we want to adopt him.”

Dempsey was a brown tabby who wasn’t even one year old. He was all legs and eyes. Cindy would have liked to put him in a foster home with another cat to play with, but she didn’t have any available at the time. Dempsey tore around my apartment, scaling my window screens and chewing holes in my blinds. After two or three months, Cindy proposed a foster-home swap. Dempsey clearly needed a playmate, and Cindy knew of another cat who had turned out to be afraid of the other cats in his foster home. The scaredy-cat’s name, she told me, was Rudy.

Rudy was a small orange tabby with a chirpy meow. His rescuer, Kelly, delivered him to my apartment. Kelly found him near her house in the city, so malnourished that he could barely lift his head. She would have adopted him if he hadn’t been so terrified of her other cats. He wasn’t shy around people though. As soon as she left, Rudy crawled up onto my lap and reached his paws around my neck. My insides thawed a little. I thought, my friends are going to want to see this, and took out my phone.

I had sort of been waiting, since I signed the foster cat-parent forms, for the thing that would trigger my descent into full on cat-lady madness. I had never gotten overexcited about cats before, but I thought things might spiral out of control once I started spending so much alone time with them. I wondered if I would wake up one day, surrounded by portraits of my fosters dressed as various celebrities and historical figures (Alexander Ham-Meowl-ton perhaps, or Cleo-paw-tra). As I snapped my first cat selfie, I thought, I guess it’s starting now. It turned out Rudy did drive me to a new level of mania. But it didn’t have anything to do with how cute he looked in pictures. 

Over Christmas, I went home to Minnesota. Rudy stayed at my apartment, in the care of some Chicago Cat Rescue volunteers. The evening I got back to Evanston, my apartment had the same strange, stagnant feeling it always did when I came back to it after spending time in a full house with my family – like a museum exhibit where someone else had tried to make it look like it did when I used to live there. There weren’t enough pictures on the walls or light coming through the windows. This time though, there was a little movement.

Rudy stood on his hind legs and reached his paws up my thigh. I picked him up and let him put his arms around my neck. When I put him down, he went to the litter box. I unpacked and put on my pajamas, and I heard him go to the litter box again. Then again.  I stopped what I was doing and followed him to the box. It seemed like he was trying to pee but could only get a few drops out.

I pulled out my computer. I had traveled the dark paths of online pet-health research before. VetWeb had previously convinced me that my foster cats’ excessive meowing was a sign of liver damage; that their staring at the walls indicated brain damage; and that I might have hookworms. This was the first time though, that it informed me that my cat needed to see a vet IMMEDIATELY. Shaking, I looked at a few more sources, and they agreed: If Rudy had a urinary blockage, he could be poisoned from the inside within a matter of hours.

Fat snowflakes had begun to fall outside. When Cindy didn’t answer her phone, I called my friend Tracey. “Rudy is sick,” I told her in a quavering voice. I flashed back to the last time I called her in tears to ask her for a ride, the morning after my dad died. “I think he needs to see a vet right now.” She told me she’d be right there.

The closer of the two CCR-approved animal emergency rooms was about a half hour’s drive south, in the city. That night, as Tracey drove through a thickening layer of slush, it took longer. The three of us, including Rudy, rode most of the way in silence. The clinic was hard to make out through the snow, but the sign was easy to see – lit up on a pole at the corner of the near-empty parking lot.

 Tracey and I sat down in the vet’s exam room on a couple of chairs facing a metal table. On the wall to my left, there was a poster of a baby animal that could have been a cat or a dog or a seal. It had a white, pompom-shaped head and two big, unreflecting black eyes.

The vet seemed nice. I don’t remember her as well as the ink-eyed creature on her wall. After a brief exam, she told me that Rudy had cystitis. It was a condition that might lead to a blockage or an infection but hadn’t yet. For some reason – probably stress – his bladder had inflamed, making him feel like it was full all the time. There was no way to really treat it. I would have to wait for it to go away on its own. She gave me a handful of skinny syringes with individual doses of a painkiller and sent me home.

Humans have a long history of letting cats into their lives, and then letting them take over. Early explorers took them on their ships to help with rodent control and spread them across the globe. For some reason, Vikings preferred orange cats – there tend to be more of them along their plundering routes. Unfortunately, cats are an extremely invasive species. They have no natural predators and a high “kill drive.” Every year, cats kill billions of birds and mammals. They’ve wiped out at least 33 entire species. More recently, in 1949, a group of researchers imported five cats to their sub-arctic station on Marion Island. By 1979, there were over 3,000 cats roaming the island, spreading seabird carnage everywhere. Wherever they go, they dominate the environment.

That midnight trip to the vet’s office turned out to be the beginning of Rudy’s takeover of my life. Over the next few months, I ceded more and more territory to him. His cystitis became a chronically recurring condition. He had an episode every three to five weeks. I became terrified he would develop a urinary blockage, and I wouldn’t notice until it was too late. I lost my appetite. When I tried to sleep, impressions of VetWeb warnings flashed on the backs of my eyelids. When coworkers asked, “how are you?” I knew that the correct answer was, “fine, and you?” What I found myself saying was, “Not great. My cat has inflammation of the bladder and the sound of his scratching in the litter box has infiltrated my nightmares.”

Every time Rudy relapsed, Cindy consulted with the regular Chicago Cat Rescue vet and gave me a new remedy to try. She sent Kelly to my apartment to give him IV fluids. I helped hold him on the bathroom floor and listened to him whimper as she pumped the electrolyte solution between his shoulders. I dosed him with painkillers and antibiotics. I brought home probiotic powders and bottled tonics (recommended by a cat homeopath in California) and pheromone mists and laid them at his feet – like an ancient Egyptian at the temple of Bastet.

My mom encouraged me to ask Cindy to find another placement for Rudy. I understand now that it was not unreasonable for her to prioritize the health of her human daughter over the health of a foster animal. It did not seem reasonable to me then. I told her I couldn’t turn him out now. When he came into my home, I became responsible for his care. The irony – that neither one of us recognized – was that she was the one who taught me that rule.

My mother was not a pet person. She only tolerated the animals in her home for her family’s sake. Yet, when the animals needed her care, she always gave it. My sister had a hamster named Tiger who once bit my mom so hard that, when she lifted her hand, Tiger dangled from the pad of her thumb by his tiny jaw. After that, she kept cleaning his cage – but she wore gardening gloves when she took him out. She cleaned up after Marshmallow in his old age, when he turned senile and started pooping behind the rocking chair in the living room. I was in college when my parents finally decided to put him to sleep. My mom called to tell me the news. “It’s OK to cry if you want,” she said, “I cried a little and I didn’t even think I liked him.” She and my dad both stood with him while the vet put him under.

These were extensions of the same courtesies my parents gave to their human children – Mom and Dad kept us well-fed and up to date on our shots too. They taught me that this is what you do for all the creatures, great and small, under your roof. You are in charge of keeping them well. Even though my place in Chicago didn’t resemble my Minnesota home in any other way, I felt the weight of that responsibility. And since there weren’t any other humans living with me, it all collapsed in on me and one little orange tabby.

Eventually, Rudy went on a prescription diet that seemed to work. I went out of the country for two weeks in the summer and when I got back, he was still using the litter box normally. Shortly after that, Cindy connected me with a young couple interested in adopting him. They seemed un-phased by Rudy’s health history when I told them about it. I gave the woman a laser pointer and told her to turn it on. As soon as she did, Rudy let out a desperate squeak. He raced across the room and Parkoured an arc up the wall to try to catch it. The woman yelped with joy, as though she had just watched a close-up magician reveal that the entire deck was now made up of queens of diamonds.

By now, I knew what was going to happen next.

Paploo

When Cindy took Rudy to his new forever home, she left me with Paploo. He was a barrel-shaped tabby with a round face that always seemed to say, “Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it.” Our first night together, I crouched down and ran my fingers through the soft fur on his belly. Without warning, he reared back and swiped me across the knee, leaving three white, stinging marks. Beads of blood appeared. “Hey!” I said. I stood up and looked him in the eye. He looked back with his neck short and his pupils so wide his eyes looked black. Then he scratched me again.

Paploo wasn’t totally wild. He rubbed up against my legs when he was hungry, followed me from room to room, and sometimes rested his head on my thigh. He must have belonged to somebody at some point. Cats that aren’t socialized within the first six months of their lives can almost never learn to trust humans. But he wasn’t totally tame either. He never pretended that I made the rules for him. If I rested my hand on him for too long, he would twist around and scratch me. He pooped nonchalantly, then exited the litter box without covering it. Most cats bury their waste to keep predators from tracking them. Paploo, clearly, was not worried about becoming anyone’s prey.

Once a week, I had a few people over for dinner. Paploo liked to hop up on the table and slink between the serving dishes, plates and empty water glasses as though they were prairie grasses. When my friend Matthew caught him on the table, he would yell, “Hey! No! Get down! Caitlin?” while waving his hands in a frantic shooing motion. Paploo would blink at him, and then go back to rubbing his face on the top of the wine bottle.

Cats haven’t evolved much since they first wandered into human civilization, 20,000 years ago. It’s another way they’re different from dogs. Over the course of many generations, people have bred most of the wild out of “man’s best friend.” (Consider Pugs exhibit A. They seem like they’d have trouble digesting unfiltered tap water, let alone hunting through forests or dumpsters.) Cats are different. They found their way into human company on their own. The theory is that they stumbled upon ancient Mesopotamia and stayed – not because they liked people, but because they liked all the grains, garbage and rodents people left in their wake. They have shadowed us, on their own terms, ever since.

Since they haven’t changed much to be with us, they can still survive without us. Housecats that wind up on the street are often able to adapt. Their lives will be shorter and harder outdoors, but they know what they need to do to get by. I had a difficult time picturing some of my cats in the urban wild, but not Paploo. I could see him so clearly, prowling around Chicago’s alleys. I couldn’t imagine him getting into a fight he couldn’t win.

I appreciated that about him, because I liked thinking about the other lives I could have lived too. From the outside, it probably looked like I was settling into Chicago. More furniture filled in the space around the olive-green loveseat in my apartment. I now had an Ikea bookshelf, a waxy antique dining room table, and a full-sized mattress. I knew dozens of routes through my neighborhood by heart – to work, to the clean Aldi, to the lakefront bike path, to the coffee place where they still had Pumpkin Spice Syrup in July, and more. I was wearing ruts deeper and deeper into the city. And yet, on the inside, I did not feel settled.

By this point, it wasn’t just because my Chicago life didn’t match the Minnesota standard. It was also because the standard itself didn’t exist anymore. My brother, my sister and the minivan had all moved on from my childhood home. The Shih Tzu and my father were gone forever. Now, where home had been, there was just a house – occupied by my mother and a second generation of pets that me and my siblings left her to begrudgingly take care of.

I did not know how to orient myself anymore. I daydreamed about teaching English in Cambodia, or getting a cooking apprenticeship in Germany, or just packing a few essentials in a van, listing everything else on Craigslist, and moving to some other apartment in some other city. Then, I would think about the tedious logistics of moving and the daydream would evaporate. And I would just be left with the vague feeling that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. But I was beginning to think that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere. Maybe there were only places I might wind up. So, I enjoyed sharing space with another creature who didn’t seem like he was supposed to be in my living room either. Both of us could have wound up somewhere else. We were making do just fine though, on the loveseat we happened to share.

When I first met potential adopter Yiran, I didn’t think she would like Paploo. She was a slight woman with big eyes and long, wavy black hair. She had just begun dual PhD programs in Mathematics and Philosophy. I got anxious, watching her stroke the fur on his belly. Every time Paploo moved, I scooted closer to the edge of the loveseat. I felt a responsibility to warn Yiran about him. I told her that he wasn’t a snuggler, and I couldn’t get him to do anything he didn’t want to. Trimming his nails would be a two-person job. And yet, even as I told her all this, I saw her give Paploo that baby lotion commercial, close-up magician, warm and fuzzy look.

Cindy emailed me the next day to tell me that Yiran wanted to adopt Paploo. I told Cindy I was kind of surprised that Yiran was so taken with him. Cindy thought maybe Yiran wanted a tough, rebellious cat because she liked to think of herself that way. I said I supposed that was possible. I thought to myself, the things people project onto cats…

When it was time for him to leave, I was worried about how Cindy and I would get him into his carrier. But we sprinkled a couple of treats in the back of it, and he walked right in. We closed the grate and he turned around. Now, his expression seemed to say, “Oh well. I’ll be fine, wherever I go.” Or maybe, that was just what I wanted to believe about both of us.

Gallagher

Cindy emailed me Gallagher’s sad story while I was still preparing to say goodbye to Paploo. He had been adopted, but when his new owner brought him to the vet, he tested positive for the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus: The Feline version of HIV. So, his forever mom gave him back to CCR. Cindy explained that FIV works differently in cats than it does in humans, and that he wouldn’t need any special care from me. I would just have to keep an eye out for secondary infections. I consulted with my mom. She, remembering Rudy, strongly advised against taking Gallagher in.

“Caitlin, I know how much you’ll worry.”

I said, “Mom, I already know it’s a bad idea and I already know I’m going to say yes.”

As it turned out, the FIV and the bleeding eye were only the beginning of Gallagher’s health problems. After several vet visits and weeks of trial and error, we figured out that the wound on his eye was a skin infection that had been caused by a food allergy. We put him on a very expensive diet of rabbit and pea pate. Then, Cindy noticed that his eyes weren’t tracking moving objects. While we were trying to figure out why, he stopped eating. After he was taken to Chicago’s dedicated pet-eye specialist, he tested positive for a rare, deadly fungus that is usually only found in the Mississippi river basin. It had caused him to go almost completely blind. He was given anti-fungal pills, an anti-inflammatory medicine to counteract the anti-fungal’s side effects, and two different kinds of eye drops. Then, he also stopped eating his rabbit food for no apparent reason. So, I cooked him a tilapia fillet in the microwave twice a day.

He padded around the apartment tentatively, like the sickly cousin in a gothic novel – meowing at a pitch that reminded me of the sound a car makes when you open the door while the headlights are still on. Still, I didn’t worry about him the way I worried about Rudy. It was partly due to different nuances in his condition, but it was also partly due to the fact I understood my cat caretaker role differently by then. I didn’t feel responsible for keeping these cats alive, so much as I was responsible for giving them space to live – only as long as they need it.

This is the kind of home I made, while I was trying not to make a home. It hangs, tentatively, at the center of a web of connections I have made to the city. Like a cat might bring a sparrow back to its threshold, I bring all kinds of treats and treasures back here: stacks of library books and bags of vegetables from the farmer’s market and playbills and dresses I don’t need from thrift stores. And I leave my door open for other creatures wandering the sidewalks, scavenging, looking for a nest. I welcome in here, and I take care. But my place still isn’t permanent. Even after six years, it feels like it would be easy to lift myself up and go. I’ve realized though, that is part of its draw – especially for the cats. They come here when they need a haven the most. I give it to them, and in return, they make my little one-bedroom feel important in this sprawling metropolis. That will be true as long as I keep welcoming them in and keep sending them out.

Shayla was the first foster cat I said goodbye to. As soon as Cindy arrived to take her to her new forever home, Shayla disappeared. We found her under the bed for the first time in months. Cindy had to grab her by the scruff of her neck and stuff her into the carrier, hind legs first. Shayla desperately rubbed her face on the front grate. “It’s OK,” Cindy told her, “I promise this is the last time.”

For once, I knew exactly what Shayla was thinking: She wanted to stay in the space she knew. For a minute, I wanted to tell her that she could. I had more perspective than she did though. I knew the move would be hard at first, but better for Shayla in the long run. She deserved to live with someone who looked at her like she was the only cat in the world – who could build a home around her. I couldn’t give her a home like that. My place had to be available for the next cat ready to come in off the street.

Cindy and Shayla left through the front door. I closed it behind them then went to the window to watch them leave. As the two of them crossed the street, Shayla’s mournful meow carried all the way up to my second story apartment. Cindy had asked if I would host another cat right away, but I said I wasn’t ready. I told her to ask me about the next one though. As my empty apartment creaked and settled, I hoped it would be soon. My door was open temporarily, indefinitely.

BIO

Caitlin Sellnow currently lives in Evanston, Illinois, but she will always be a Minnesotan at heart. Her book reviews have appeared on the TriQuarterly Review website, and she has contributed to Living Lutheran magazine. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Northwestern University. By day, she works in nonprofit marketing. By night, she tells stories about city streets, the creatures who live there, and the communities they make. She also collects choral sheet music, potluck recipes and increasingly pathetic foster cats.  

My Most Constant Lover

by Miriam Edelson

 

 

I am never truly alone in this place.

Toc-toc-toc. Bleary-eyed I crawl out of bed. Toc-toc-toc. Shuffle to the washroom. Toc-toc-toc.  A downy woodpecker has staked a claim in the mixed forest outside my door. The day comes alive to the rhythmic sound of its search for bugs and beetles in the bark.

Later the loons call, plaintive and insistent. It is said the same loons return to the lake year after year and that they mate for life. I admire their constancy.

My own story is different, of course. Loves lost and found, a myriad of stories like threads woven to textured cloth. And in this colourful fabric is my centre, this land, my most constant lover.

Shoreline dappled with craggy rock. In the shadow of the trees, maple, pine and cedar, a canopy emerges. White birch trees pop against the green and brown canvas. The green belies the dust on the road that accompanies me, a gravel and stone plume trailing my arrival to this place.

I come alone now, seeking the refuge that I can only find here. A serenity beyond the noisy highway to a lakeside cabin that bears my touch. Children playing in a lifetime of photographs, paintings and sculpture adorn the knotted pine walls. In this place I am quiet, mistress to a trunk load of books chosen carefully for company during the long summer nights. Their tattered covers explode with stories to transport me and yet, I always return here.

Breakfast of coffee and yogurt with berries picked by nearby farmwives. I write until one p.m. and then walk for an hour through the woods to the gate that greets the main road. A light lunch and then, on a good day, the sun is on the dock below. I take my pocket radio and a towel and listen to CBC radio in the afternoon while sun tanning for an hour or so. I am never alone here.

As a young woman, many years before a shelter graced the property, I sat and watched by the sunlit rock, astride a still-watered lake. Covered with soft green moss, the rock anchors cedar trees with their majestic crowns. A fresh, almost citrus odor wafts from the cedar fronds, reaching me below.

Sitting on the rock, in the indented space I claim as my own, I am sunbaked and naked. I chase away the odd fisherman in my brazen nudity. As I feel the mossy texture beneath me, the water now churns amid the fishing boat’s wake. In the distance, a small island beckons. It sports one lone, spindly pine. The island is always named for the youngest visitor to the lake. To give the power of place to the children and gather hope in their outstretched hands.

 

As always, this place offers up the quiet for reflective practice, for writing. Two decades ago, I charged my laptop on a marine battery, red and black cables spilling akimbo, to create a memoir about my son’s short and difficult life. Now, having harnessed solar energy, I am able to write night and day. Power and light now accompany even the most blustery, sodden days of late autumn.

In the early years of my daughter’s life, I nursed us back to health here at this land after the breakup of my marriage. Folded together on an Adirondack chair, we read stories overlooking the lake at dusk. It was a sad time but also, a time of renewal and the sun, shade and wind helped us both to heal. After all, I had chosen the separation. But for my young daughter, abandonment reared its worrisome head. Fortunately, those fears never unfurled and this land helped to nourish her enormous strength and resilience.

Now, late afternoon, time to think about an evening meal. The rustic pine table is big enough to sit eight comfortably. It sprawls in the area once a screened-in porch, now rebuilt into a room with windows that open onto the lake and forest. The table is covered with blue and green woven placemats that set off its honey-golden hue. Sometimes it’s just me, while often we’re two or three and, on occasion, several more gathering around. There is something in its sturdiness that encourages the sharing of pleasure, of friendship. The cast of characters changes with each passing week; the table, in its constancy, endures as witness.

Lying on the dock again in the early evening. Summer sun readies to set. As if a stage prepared by professionals, the western sky turns golden, then amber-orange and finally, to pale rose. An evening grosbeak sings from his perch on the large cedar branch overhanging the dock. As the sky colours fade and darkness gathers, the temperature falls slightly. A lone canoeist on the lake seeks shelter in a cove across the way. It is evening and we all must take heed.

Night falls. It has been a productive day, I’ve fashioned a few new lines for my piece. I prepare for bed, taking my little radio with me for company. I am never alone here. The loons pierce the darkness, making their presence felt and I am content in the knowledge that we share this remarkable place.

 

 

BIO

Miriam Edelson is a social activist, writer and mother living in Toronto, Canada. Her literary non-fiction, personal essays and commentaries have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and CBC Radio. Her first book, “My Journey with Jake: A Memoir of Parenting and Disability” was published in April 2000. “Battle Cries: Justice for Kids with Special Needs appeared in late 2005”. She has completed a doctorate at University of Toronto focused upon Mental Health in the Workplace and is currently at work on a collection of essays.

 

 

 

 

“I’m No More Rabid than Usual”

by Catherine Moscatt

 

 

When people find out you like to hurt yourself, they look at you in a different way, like clouds of pity are dotting their irises accompanied by flecks of fear. They regard you as alien, dangerous, to a certain degree, even radioactive. You have become unfamiliar. Being psychotic is like that stupid saying about boiling frogs in water to the point they don’t know they are dying.

The voices layer on thick like some evil choir in my head. Before I realized things were not okay, I’d scribbled nonsense all over my favorite notebook, screamed at a few people and tried to commit suicide in my dorm room. And then?

The frog panics but it’s far too late for either of you. Even in the safety in a hospital, disaster can happen. I had asked the medication window for my as needed anxiety medication but it did not work and suddenly I was much more aware than any frog could ever be. I found my whole body doused in sweat which dripped down under my arms like a thick glaze. I went to my room because the chorus had started to sing. Pillow pressed against my ears but when there is a speaker in all four corners of your brain there is no way of blocking it out unless your make your noise so I started screaming.

I hate the sound of my screams like I’m some wounded animal abandoned by God on the side of the road. I hate how my screams make me sound helpless like there is nothing I can do. Let’s face the truth. No I can’t. I’ll only scream louder. The voices were not just indistinguishable mumbles. They liked to give me clear instructions. That’s why I let that blade dance across my wrists in the first place.

But there are no blades in a psych ward. I felt desperate. I must obey the voices but I couldn’t. I could hear the doctors telling me to stop but I couldn’t. I used the quickest tool available and started smashing my head against the wall. I was disappointed when I saw no blood. I guess that blood means different things for crazy people. In some way sick way blood would mean I had succeeded.

The doctors and nurses sprang into action, pulling me away from the wall. The sweat had spread across my entire body, sacs of air trapped beneath it, forming painful bubbles along my skin, cracks appeared where myself control fought my dangerous brain. Body weak, limp I let them bring me to the quiet room. It was padded. Still. I collapsed onto the mattress.

My psychiatrist was in the doorway talking a low voice about getting me a stronger medication. What if it never goes away? The urge to hurt myself? What if it’s like this the rest of my life?  Tears rolled onto the mattress as I fought to hang onto hope, it was so small. I tried to cup it with desperate hands. Please.

One nurse with a kind face knelt down beside me. Some time had passed.

“Are you okay, Catherine? How do you feel?”

Like all my emotions had been vacuumed out of my head. Like my body had been through a shipwreck. Like I had, trapped between two clammy hands, the only spore of hope to ever see the inside of this room.

“I’m no more rabid than usual”

 

 

Note: “I am no  more rabid than usual” can be attributed to Dian Fossey, a primatologist in a letter to her mentor.

 

BIO

Catherine Moscatt is a 22 year old counseling and humanities student who enjoys working at the local library. She plays volleyball, listens to loud music and drinks a lot of lattes. She is passionate about mental health awareness and helping those who suffer from mental illness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historic(!) Rugby

by Tim Miller

 

“Everybody loves a story.” —William Zinsser in “Writing To Learn”

 

Gather around friends and let me tell you a tale, the tale of historic Rugby, TN. It all starts with an Englishman named Thomas Hughes born in 1822 somewhere in England that ends in -shire. Thomas, known in this story hencewith as The Tomster, goes to this prominent, progressive school called the Rugby School, in Rugby—somewhere different in England that also ends in -shire.

Then in 1857 the Tomster writes this book about his experience called Tom Brown’s School Days which becomes something of a classic, ushers in an entire British school genre, becomes a big textbook in Japan, and even inspires the Harry Potter series, if you can believe it. The book, in a nutshell, “espouses the ideals of Christian socialism.” It’s all about what the Tomster feels is the ideal way to develop boys into men that will make for a good society for all— a real page-turner.

A big influence on the Tomster was his headmaster at Rugby, one Dr. Thomas Arnold. This guy, henceforth known as Dr. T-Bone, was a religious zealot that based his educational system on Classical languages. One interesting thing about Dr. T-Bone is that he pulled the plug on physical science and wrote, basically, that he would rather his son think that the sun goes round the Earth and that the stars are a bunch of spangles as long as he is straight on Christian moral and political philosophy. Dr. T-Bone had three primary objectives, in this presumably very rigid order: 1) cure of the soul 2) moral development and 3) intellectual development. It’s fair to say that 3) is probably something of a distant third.

So Dr. T-Bone had this big influence on education all over England, resulting in a bunch of schools adopting his structure and ideals. He may have had a lot to do with sport, like cricket, becoming a big part of schools, but this part is a tad ambiguous.

Anyway, the Tomster is clearly a big fan of Dr. T-Bone and really buys into his whole philosophy regarding Christian values and morals, and latches on to this idea of cooperative ownership of community businesses.

As the 1860’s get underway, the Tomster is a world famous author and English gentleman and has a bunch of author writer friends. One of which is this poet James Russell Lowell, henceforwithal known as Lowball. Lowball is a Harvard grad, a Romantic poet, and part of a group of New England Poets called the Fireside Poets. These bards earned this name, presumably, because you can read their poems to your family right at the—you guessed it—fireside. (This group managed to set itself apart from the other poetry and groups of poets of the era: the higher-quality and longer-lasting, but ultimately more costly poetry of the Beeswaxcandleside Poets; the cheaper, quicker, and unpleasant smelling Animalfatcandleside Poets—often read near mirrors to double their weak and loose meanings; the portable, racy, and erotic bedroom-reading specialists known as The Chamberstickside Poets; and the bourgeois, snooty, and ornate poems of the Candelabraside Poets.)

So Lowball is kind of a big deal. Beyond abolitionist poetry, he earns a law degree from Harvard, becomes a critic, an editor, and even a diplomat to Spain. Lowball writes a lot of satire of critics, including something called The Biglow Papers, which depicted the Yankee dialect and maybe was the first time that a writer actually wrote like people talked, which influenced Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. So yeah, kind of a big deal.

The Tomster goes to Boston in 1870 to visit Lowball and they start talking. The Tomster tells Lowball about this system in England called primogeniture. Lowball says, “primo-what?” And the Tomster says “Exactly.” So they have a good laugh but then the Tomster gets going in earnest about primo-what, which he explains is this tradition of the oldest son inheriting everything, and the second, third and so on getting nada, zilch, squat, diddly or however you say nothing in 1870’s slang. These second and third sons, the Tomster goes on to explain, end up jobless and idle and sort of like a blight on society— the exact opposite of what Dr. T-Bone envisioned for young men. Their very souls are in trouble, the Tomster says.

So long before Joseph Heller came along, the Tomster likely struggled for the right words to explain the catch 22 situation: the second and third sons are too proud to do the low-paying but honest jobs that are available, and their simply aren’t enough of the bourgeois, high-paying jobs that aren’t beneath them, in their own estimation. And meanwhile the first son gets everything and lives high and mighty over it all, for a while anyway. The economy, the Tomster confides, isn’t helping either. In fact, it’s as much a source of the problem as is the primo-what. It’s just a mess, the Tomster says to Lowball over some chowda.

Well, Lowball asks the Tomster if he has heard of the Boston-based Board of Aid to Land Ownership, which helps unemployed urban craftsman relocate to rural areas. No, the Tomster confesses, he has not heard of this program, but immediately you can imagine his Dr. T-Bone inspired gears get a-grinding.

So the Tomster goes back to England and writes this in response to criticism that Tom Brown’s School Days is too preachy:

“Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching! When a man comes to my time of life and has his bread to make, and very little time to spare, is it likely that he will spend almost the whole of his yearly vacation in writing a story just to amuse people? I think not. At any rate, I wouldn’t do so myself.”
— Thomas Hughes, Preface to the sixth edition

(It should be noted that the Tomster wrote a sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford, in 1861 that basically flopped.)

Then in 1878 the Board of Aid President Franklin Webster Smith, hencewithforthcoming known as Smitty, travels to the Cumberland Plateau with an agent from the Cincinnati Southern Railway Co., Cyrus Clarke, a.k.a Clarkels. They are impressed with its “virgin forests, clear air, and scenic gorges.”

So Smitty goes back to Boston, but the conditions there are better: a lot of the urban craftsman don’t need relocating. So Smitty calls Lowball who calls the Tomster and voila the Tomster buys the land the Board of Aid offers near the Cumberland Plateau and calls it Rugby, fittingly, after his sentimental and halcyon school days.

Here’s where it gets all rubber-meets-the-road social science experiment. The Tomster starts recruiting these primo-what drunk degenerate second and third sons to come to this pristine Tennessee forest. Smitty lays out the town, choosing an area that looks like a resort even though it’s seven miles from the nearest railroad stop.

The first wave of settlers come out to Rugby around the late 1870’s; they start erecting structures like the three-story Tabard Inn which is straight out of a Capote or F.Scott Fitzgerald novel: very aristocratic and ghostly with lawns for croquet and tennis— right in the middle of the Tennessee wilderness.

They have a grand opening of the town in October of 1880 and the Tomster himself comes all the way from England. (It’s interesting to speculate here exactly how long it took this wave of immigrants and the Tomster to travel, but I would estimate it was at least two weeks and maybe as long as a month. From what I can tell, it seems like with a steel ship and steam engine they were able to cross the Atlantic in something like seven days by the 1880’s. And the railways were getting faster, too, but it still maybe took a week to get all the way out to the wilderness in between Nashville and Knoxville, even if you traveled, as I assume the Tomster did, first class.)

So the Tomster arrives and lays out his plans for an anti-materialistic, utopian Rugby in what must have been, for lack of a better term, a doozy of a speech.

I like to imagine him getting up to speak on a fresh October morn, resplendent with the beauty of changing leaves, crisp air, mild, pleasant breezes, and the overall magic autumnal wonder that dazzles with golden warmth. When I close my eyes, I can picture it:

The Tomster steps up in the bright sunshine and impossibly bright blue sky and tells the settlers that everyone will have to pay $5, like a tax, to be part of the public commissary, “thus ensuring public ownership.” He then goes on (and on) about guaranteed personal liberty and some real savory Dr. T-Bonian moralistic and political nuggets. A real sort of rah-rah, pep-rally, together-we-stand, divided-we-fall, all-for-one kind of speech, loaded like a baked potato with lots of Christian and moral preachy stuff, which he had at least a month to revise and tinker with on the trip that he makes without his wife or any of his nine children. (His wife basically wanted NOTHING, like zip, to do with Rugby.) He tells the mostly secular, alcoholic immigrants about the Episcopal Church and stresses that the church they will be too hungover to attend can be used for any denomination.

I can picture the settlers, too. A crowd of second and third sons basically on something akin to a vacation in a resort-like pristine wilderness, nodding politely through it all. I see them smiling and winking right through the parts about self-betterment, the Christian servant and productive gentleman of society, the arts and sports and library, except at the end of the speech, which hits them like a frying pan, when the Tomster says, very clearly and in no way mincing words, “No. Booze.”

I reckon he lost them then and there. Superficially he probably lost them pretty early on with his preaching, but they were willing to grin and bear it for form’s sake because they could go back to sipping moonshine at the Gentleman’s Swimming Hole once this author guy finally shuts his trap, but at this last moralistic jab, he surely lost them FOR GOOD.

So this English Victorian village social experiment is now growing right in the heart of post Civil War wilderness Dixie. All these newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Harper’s are following it, probably somewhat skeptically. In London, too, there is lots of interest and coverage from the media. After all the Tomster is not just a famous author but also a lawyer, a member of Parliament, and a judge.

And so how does it do? What happens? At first, thanks to the beauty and resort-like surroundings, pretty well.

“By 1884, the colony boasted over 400 residents (including the Tomster’s mom), 65 frame public buildings and houses, a tennis team, a social club, and a literary and dramatic society. In 1885, Rugby established a university, Arnold School, named for Rugby School headmaster Thomas Arnold.”

Another interesting thing about the Tomster is that he establishes this library that still stands today. They built it in 1882 and arranged for some Boston bookseller, maybe someone Lowball knew or something, to provide the books— some 7,000. (When you visit the library, you are not allowed to touch the books, some of them dating back to the 17th century, so it has this sad, frozen-in-time quality, interesting and worth preserving but also tragic in the sense that the words and knowledge are forever trapped inside and doomed to the darkness of their own closed covers. Not a place that any living author would aspire to be. Sort of like in the movie Good Will Hunting, when Will tells Sean about his friends Shakespeare and Nietche, Sean responds, “Well that’s great. They’re all dead.” I imagine him saying the same thing visiting this stuffy old dusty one room library where they don’t even open the windows. “That’s great, Rugby. But these books are all dead.”)

Early on, the Tomster’s experiment is going well. The degenerate English guys have escaped a Dickensian industrial 1880’s urban jobless catch 22 misery for these rugged woods and serene streams and beautiful mountains. They’re stoked.

And then life happens. First, an “epidemic” of typhoid hits the town, claiming seven people including the editor of Rugby’s newspaper, the Rugbeian. Though only seven people die, the press and the media are the real killer as the whole reason to visit Rugby was it’s resort-like qualities and who exactly wants to visit a place with typhoid in the headlines?

The Tabard Inn has to close and there’s no one but ghosts of upper class tourists playing croquet on the overgrown grasses. So tourism takes a hit, but also the Tomster over across the pond isn’t exactly scrutinizing the details of his experiment.

Mainly, the Appalachian natives didn’t trust this Ohio railway agent Clarkels, not a surprise there, with all his options on land. So a bunch of these Appalachian folks, probably safe to say not big readers (despite the library), refuse to sell or file lawsuits and it all drags on and basically becomes one big headache for the regular old Winston Berkshire the Third, just trying to buy a little land and maybe have a cabin of his own to pass out in.

Besides the whole Clarkels land ownership debacle, there’s also a very real and T-Bone scorned physical science fact of the poor soil that Smitty chose to build Rugby on, because of it’s resort-like nature that no one will visit because of the typhoid headlines and the Rugbeian can’t even defend their own tourism because the editor himself succumbed.

But the real downfall, the nail in the coffin if you will, is that these English gent/colonists are not what you would call workers. They are in fact the opposite: lazy drinkers. And the Tomster, visiting once for about a month, probably in summer and staying in the Kingstone Lisle or the Newbury House, nice digs indeed, isn’t exactly motivating them with his speeches that included strict adherence to Christian morals and basically sober living.

So people starve and the town struggles and basically declines. In 1884 the Tabard Inn, veering into Faulkner short story territory, burns to the ground. In 1887 the Tomster’s mom dies and is buried in Rugby. The Rugbeian ceases publication. After his mom passes, the Tomster never returns to Rugby. (One can probably infer here that Tomster’s mom and his wife were not very close. In fact, it’s interesting to speculate why the Tomster’s mom chose to move to Rugby at the age of 83, away from all of her grandchildren?) By the end of 1887, all of the original colonists were gone.

Five years later one of the Tomster’s lawyers and partners named Sir Henry, hencewith known as Sir Hank comes and reorganizes the Board of Aid and tries to harvest the areas natural resources, essentially the antithesis of the anti-materialistic vision of the Tomster, but Sir Hank doesn’t fare much better with the lack of a workforce with any sort of appetite for actual work.

The entire story of Rugby would be lost along with the ashes of the Tabard Inn if it wasn’t for the son of Robert Walton, forthhencewith known as Little Bobby. His dad, Robert Walton (aka Big Bob) was the Cincinnati engineer that the Tomster and his Brit lawyer buddies put in charge of the colony in 1882, right when it started going a little south after the media-labeled epidemic of seven typhoid deaths. Big Bob does his darndest, like trying to open a tomato cannery operation, which fails once again because of the poor soil/work ethic of the colonists.

So Little Bobby basically is a child of the dying town. Once he grows up he makes it his life mission to preserve its history. He protects and maintains some of the buildings, like the library and the church and the Newbury house until the 1940’s, when the timber companies start to really devour the virgin forests in earnest and the federal government steps in to help preserve a slice of history.

In the 1960’s they form the non-profit group Historic Rugby so that, just as my dad, sister, uncle and I did one Sunday, you too can take a drive out to the country and, as the website claims, find “both exciting AND relaxing things to do!”

The Video. Begin your visit with the short twenty-two minute national award winning historical video The Power of A Dream (free of charge!) in the “comfortable” Johnson Theatre. (The name of the award is not clear.)

The Tour. For $7 ($6 for seniors over sixty, students k-12 $4, and preschoolers free) each, you can take the very same tour we did that leads through the Thomas Hughes Free Public Library (over 7,000 untouchable volumes), the 1884 Kingston Lisle Founder’s Home (including an old stove, furniture, and a piano that you can sit down and play), the one room schoolhouse (built in 1906 after a fire destroyed the original building), and the 1887 Christ Church Episcopal (with its original furnishings, light fixtures, and rosewood organ), which still has services on Sundays.

Free to Roam. After the church, if you spent any time at all sitting in the pews, you’ll want to stretch your legs and ease that pain in your lower back by heading down to the Rugby Printing Press. With it’s original equipment and machinery, a volunteer will print your name on a bookmark that readers and possessive children under eleven will really relish. Then, like us, why not head over and grab some Shepard’s Pie at the Harrow Road Café (built in 1980)? It’s a bit heavy, so after you’ll want to walk down to the Gentleman’s Swimming Hole, where so many emigrants avoided back-breaking manual labor. You’ll walk right past a cluster of trees and bushes where the Tabard Inn once stood. After wading in the cool waters of the Gentlemen’s Swimming Pool (be sure to check for ticks, my dad found two after visiting), you can head to the old cemetery and, unlike her inconsiderate, ungrateful daughter-in-law, you can pay your respects to the Tomster’s mom, who was buried in 1887.

Much of the area surrounding Rugby, which originally attracted Clarkels and Smitty and the Tomster himself, is now State Forest, National Park, and Recreation Areas. If you still have the energy, you can take a hike and contemplate the buildings and croquet ghosts and scattered hardy residents that have preserved a life that lives, on and on, through the years, like the books, untouched by time or tourist. If you can whistle, I recommend Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.

Because life goes on, except in Rugby.

BIO

Tim Miller would like to be considered an emerging writer, but alas, he is afraid of swamps. His writing has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Aethlon: Journal of Sports Literature, and You & Me Medical Magazine. He lives in San Marcos, CA with his wife and three daughters. To the dismay of plumbers everywhere, he shares his leaky thoughts at https://thefaucetblog.com/

Cochina de Mierda

by Jennifer Jordán Schaller

 

 

British Red Coat was my mother’s favorite—Loreal’s version of fire hydrant red.  I used to watch her slide lacquer over her bright red claws, razor-sharp spoons. Growing, filing and painting her nails were my mother’s only feminine rituals.  My mother, Ezra, didn’t wear make-up and rarely ever wore dresses; she had a mop of wavy hair she blow-dried straight.

My mother used to say she could tell a woman’s secrets by the state of her nails.

                        Only old women wear brown.

                        Pink is for little girls.

                        Short, dark nails means she wants things she can’t have. 

                        French manicures are classy, like Jackie O.

I remember her thumbing through a Vogue magazine when I was about seven.  A model stood in a photo wearing jeans and a white button up shirt.  My mother seemed to be admiring the picture until I heard her smack her teeth in disgust and say Cochina de Mierda!

Literally translated, this term means pig of shit. I asked my mother what was wrong, and she pointed at the woman’s white nail bed creep out from underneath red nail polish.

That is so tacky.

Walking around with raggedy nails was an indication of other grotesque habits.  My mother could assume so many things about the type of woman with chipped nail polish—she doesn’t like to cook and most likely doesn’t floss, the only time she cleans her house is when her mother-in-law comes over; in fact, the only time she cleans her coffeemaker is when a layer of green scum forms over old, bitter coffee.  The bit about the scum, that is all me.

My mother’s rule was nails had to be a certain length before paint was applied.  A woman with short, dark polish wants things she cannot have.  But I couldn’t grow mine out.  As soon as my nails were long enough to paint, I tore into them with my teeth.  The perfect chomping length—not so long that I resembled a dog gnawing a rib bone, not so short that biting them left my fingers a bloody cuticle salad.  I left my nail beds in shreds.  When my mother caught me plucking meaty bits of finger between my front teeth, she’d say, Oye, no friegues, Cochina de Mierda!

Now I have a daughter of my own.  When she was a baby, I would clip her soft, ten-month-old fingernails to the quick.  She’d scratched herself before—under her eye, on her nose, down her cheek.  I waited until she slept to snip because she moved constantly.  I held her soft baby hands in mine and snipped away. As little white slips of moon scattered in her crib, I brushed them away, trying not to wake her.

I’m the kind of person who brushes most scraps to the floor, leaving specks on my tile and carpet.  I never notice the dirt my house until I notice people noticing my floor.

One afternoon, when Ella was a baby, I saw my mother tense up as Ella traversed toys, pebbles and cat fur.  She scurried under her bouncer and spotted a goodie—a floor-Cheerio.  Floor-Cheerios are better than high-chair Cheerios because Ella could eat them while crawling.  My mother reached for Ella’s hand as she raised the Cheerio to her lips.  I took my mother’s hand in mine and let Ella bite down on her discovery.  She gnawed that O between her four front teeth, obliterating it.  She opened her mouth once to laugh wildly, revealing half an O, a crescent of oats.

 

 

BIO

Jennifer Jordán Schaller is a writer and teacher from Albuquerque. She is currently working on a creative nonfiction manuscript, and she blogs about her writing and publishing process at jenniferjordanschaller.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @jenniferschall2.

 

 

 

 

 

Who Is Jackie Brown?

by Rachel Scott

 

 

It was Christmastime, four years ago, and we were going through some of grandma’s things. She had been gone for over a decade so my sister and I were delighted that our father let us rustle through her papers for the first time. Round robin of a few pictures of her young and beautiful and then I lifted the cover of a manuscript box.

Tishomingo Blues
By: Elmore Leonard

“What’s this?”

“Elmore Leonard sent your gram that. They were pen pals.”

I fingered the corners of the box, delicately, almost reverentially. Did I deserve to lift the first page?

“How?”

I obviously had not seen the Tarantino film that shared my grandma’s name, Jackie Brown, nor read Rum Punch, the novel by Leonard that Tarantino adapted for the film. I’ve since read that he didn’t even have to change the dialogue, it was that good. My dad told me this, but beyond correlation, I was still unsure of how a letter from a very famous suspense writer ended up in the mailbox of my grandma in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The moment when you realize that the adults around you have a life that exists beyond loving and tending to you, regardless of when that moment takes place, never fails to throw you off-balance. I had always thought of my grandma as the person who nurtured my literary sensibilities; she taught me to write shorthand then engaged me in abundant correspondence, ordered me a subscription to Stone Soup, a literary magazine written and illustrated by children, and awed me with the astonishing pace in which she would tear through a book, one a day at least, one cigarette butt after another crushed into a nearby ashtray. She was the one adult who, I felt, thought of me as an individual, a person with my own tastes and desires and treated me as such. I had always sensed she was brilliant and possessed a depth unlike other ‘old people’ I knew and witnessed a slew of neuroses only now, as an adult, I can begin to understand. But as a child, I couldn’t think much beyond finding it peculiar that she refused to go in the upstairs of our home or would lock herself in our powder room for half a day.

So even at 24, to imagine that my grandma was close to people beyond our family, albeit famous ones, was incredible to me, if not a little disorienting. Like many details of her life, this fascinating tidbit stayed shrouded in mystery until I decided to take a deep dive into the life of a woman who left me when I was 12. I would attempt to peel back the layers to the answer of the question, “Who is Jackie Brown?”

 

 

White Man on Indian Land

My grandma and her family were one of the few families in the United States who didn’t feel the effects of the Great Depression. For the first 13 years of her life, Jackie and her three sisters were some of the only white faces in their hometown of Moenkopi, a Hopi village community surrounded by Navajo land in Tuba City, Arizona. After her sister Shirley and before Lila Pat, Gloria Jacqueline Barnes was born on July 15, 1925 in St. George, Utah while John and Olive Barnes were stationed as Schivwetts as educators for the Indian Service of the Department of the Interior. They were the sole white people on the Piute reservation.

Both Olive and John were born to families of homesteaders in Nebraska. John was one of 24 children, the youngest being Tad Lucas. She was the only one to have any interest in riding and became pretty good at it: she is the most famous female rodeo queen of all time, having ridden a bull in New York’s Madison Square Garden and the only person honored by all three Rodeo Halls of Fame (Lonn 87). You can buy a couple of different children’s books inspired by her life on Amazon.

John, however, chose a different path, taking his young bride Olive with him on service to Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, and Oklahoma before settling in Tuba City as the key educator for the region. Life on the reservation was as unique as the land that it clung to. “Harsh to the untrained eye,” and “isolated from city and suburb and noteworthy for its erratic precipitation and ubiquitous wind,” the Hopi land was as stark and dramatic as the struggles the community faced (Iverson 67). Entirely surrounded by Navajo land, the two groups were in a near constant antagonistic dispute over government allocation of land and its imposing educational system. In addition to his duties as principal of the Navajo Boarding School, John maintained the balance between pushing the government’s policies and fulfilling the needs of the Hopi community, despite their resistance to forceful changes. Jackie and her sisters attended the school where John and Olive taught adults and children, amidst classmates “clothed in little more than rags. Some were nude” (Jacobs 43).

Jackie and her sisters spent a lot of time alone. Several tiny pots that a young Jackie had dug out of the hard earth sit in our home today, relics of her time trying to connect to a land in which she was not necessarily welcome. The family was close and while relatives offered me many details of a warm and loving Olive, not much is said about John. Though he was alcoholic later in life that died before my dad was born, it’s unclear if those problems began on the reservation. It becomes the first fact of the family that I may never unearth.

Daily life on the Hopi reservation was extraordinarily simple for bright, young Jackie while the rest of the country reeled through the Great Depression. The Barnes family remained insulated from the struggles of the era thanks to a steady government check that never left them wanting for food or shelter. A sturdy brick home may have left them better off than their Hopi neighbors, but the three sisters had trouble understanding people’s attitudes about the Depression. The inability to connect to the world outside of the harshness of the barren reservation had taken root in each of their psyches and would have profound effects on the rest of their lives.

 

Role Playing

In 1938 the Barnes family traded one bleak landscape for another and relocated to Rolla, North Dakota where the Barnes girls attended high school as most Americans knew it then. A slight beauty with dark hair and a dazzling smile, Jackie made an excellent cheerleader, an idyllic all-American girl, when she wasn’t absorbed in books. It’s also there in Rolla that she began her lifelong habit of chain-smoking, another ubiquitous feature of American living in vogue.

After graduating, Jackie left Rolla and headed to California to attend the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse. “She always loved acting and being on her own, experimenting,” my dad, Paul Sult III, tells me over several phone conversations that served as part of my research for this piece. Pasadena, however, proves problematic. My dad, his cousin Ron, even the archives of the Playhouse struggle to find a Jackie Barnes in their records. We all know she got married for the first time while attending acting courses at the alma mater of Dustin Hoffman, Gene Kelly, and Diane Keaton, to name a few, but to whom is the answer to a question still that remains out there in the ether, a faceless and nameless fellow that did little more than to drive her out of Cali and to Forth Worth, Texas. To mark such an intriguing time in her life, I begrudgingly scribble Jackie Somebody into my notes.

It’s the 1940’s and my grandma was assembling guns and bombs. The real world moved in fast around Jackie and her sister Shirley, where days were spent at the civil defense plant in Fort Worth and nights in the home of their famous Aunt Tad. It wasn’t long until Shirley met a handsome military man called Elmer Flickinger from Bern, Indiana. For a family constantly scattered, Flickinger quickly proved to be a most stable force. Like moths to a flame, all of the sisters and their mother gravitated to Indiana where they all settled in Forth Wayne and looked to Flickinger for light.

 

A light is red for 60 seconds at an intersection in Fort Wayne; another city under boundless sky, flat like the Hopi mesa tops. While most people sit and stare, maybe curse, Jackie scribbled lines of poetry. Despite her talents as a writer, voracious reader and skilled artist, the culture of the times did its best to discount her gifts. “She was the most brilliant person I knew. If she had been born in the 90s or even the 70s, she would have been something,” my cousin Ron Flickinger notes. Relegated to a menial job like the majority of mid-century women who were permitted to work, Jackie was simply a secretary yet a proficient typist for an interior design firm (National Organization for Women 108). She was soon to be demoted to that of a housewife in 1953 upon marrying Paul Sult II.

Paul was Jackie’s opposite in every way, a charismatic and successful insurance man prone to martini lunches, heavy drinking, and womanizing. He never picked up a book. Once my father was born in 1954, the family lived in Indianapolis and Pennsylvania before settling into a beautiful Chicago apartment. As a boy, cousin Ron would visit, enthralled by the lifestyle that was so different from the funeral home in which he lived. “They were so sophisticated, their apartment always contemporary. Paul had this zest for life and Jackie often seemed irritated by it.” Whether she was hosting one of Paul’s many parties or merely attending, after a drink and a hello she could always be found alone in some bedroom with her feet curled beneath her and a book in her lap.

Life proved challenging for Jackie Sult. My dad remembers a woman prone to depression, especially when her husband was gone on one of his many business trips. Lifelong bouts of vertigo soon coupled with intense anxiety- fears of heights, thunderstorms, and food- to control the life of a woman who couldn’t understand why happiness was so elusive and anger and sadness so prevailing. Christmastime was especially hard. Often my dad was alone, holding a baseball glove or some present in the living room, having learned by now to mute his excitement, while Jackie sobbed in a bedroom or under the kitchen table, dismayed by her own tears and hating it all.

 

Despite her obvious suffering, the era’s ignorance and stigmatization of mental health inhibited any chance that Jackie could learn to cope with a life she had trouble living.  In the 1950’s “consulting psychiatrists enjoyed little public endorsement with few people knowing anyone who had consulted a psychiatrist” (Phelan, Link, Stueve, Pescosolido 189). Her sisters suffered too in abject silence: Shirley from what we now know as post-partum depression and both she and Lila Pat from emotional issues that none of my sources could elucidate. Jackie did receive counseling during the eventual break-down of her 16 year marriage, but neither her anxiety, depression, nor eating disorder were discussed in counseling or at home. Instead, Jackie “used reading to escape. Your grandpa never understood it, though he tried to,” my dad told me. “I’m sorry I don’t know more.” I add the pathology of her suffering underneath her first marriage on the list of things I’ll never get to understand.

 

A Literary Life

Between Jackie’s divorce from Paul in 1969 and her marriage to Don Brown in 1972 stands young Pauls’ favorite stretch of time. They lived in a peaceful home along the bank of the St. Mary’s river, surrounded by animals and nature. The house, built in a flood zone, no longer stands but my dad’s memories of its walls and that time remain sharp. Eventually, Don Brown moved in- a brilliant biologist that Jackie often called the love of her life. Finally, Jackie found her bookish and eccentric match and together they poured over their own studies, Don choosing Shakespeare for downtime while Jackie loved the classics, suspense, and the New Yorker. I often pluck the newest issue out of my mailbox and wonder what she would make of its contents as a lifelong liberal.

Don, also a heavy smoker, never saw the decade close. Having refused to enroll in a life insurance policy because he couldn’t be bothered, Don died from lung cancer and left Jackie with nothing, save a few books. She was never to remarry. Jackie resumed work as a secretary once my dad was grown. Her employer was a lawyer and though she could type up his work incredibly fast, she was a skilled paralegal and my father, Ron, and my mother acknowledge that she advised him on many of his cases.

 

Cigarettes and endless cups of black coffee punctuated by a half-eaten dish off the kid’s menu, a raspy laugh, eyes wide in animated expression- this is how I remember my grandma as a small child in the 90’s. When she doesn’t come to see us, she sends us things, mostly books to read and letters. From July 1999, alongside a copy of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King she wrote to me: “Gram has never cared for horror stories, and usually doesn’t care about the life of a writer unless she cares very much about what he or she has written. Then, the writer becomes very important because he (or she) will now always be a special friend.”

Retired, Jackie was free for creativity. She was still gobbling down books, creating beautiful chalk portraits, and making silly yet smart collages. My favorites are the ones of my dad in a marathon: a real photograph of his head atop a sketched runners body. Somehow she managed to come visit us in North Carolina despite an extreme fear of flying. She spent time with her sisters, her mother passing in the 1980s, though time spent with Lila Pat was over the phone. Lila Pat lived across town but refused to leave her own house. Jackie hadn’t seen her in 25 years.

My favorite way to connect to my grandma is through her letters, a medium in which her voice comes through naturally. I read a few and the condolence I’d been holding in my chest folds underneath her dry wit, excellent turn of phrase and acute understanding of character. From Elmore Leonard in December 15, 1999 to my grandma: What do you mean you’re not a writer? I can hear your voice in your writing; you use irony like a pro.”

It isn’t merely irony that connected my Jackie Brown to Leonard. She also didn’t have much in common with the money-smuggling Jackie Burke from Rum Punch, besides a slew of husbands and a suppressed status as women: Burke a flight attendant, Brown a secretary, for example. It was, in fact, a movie review of Jackie Brown, written by Jackie Brown in January, 1998 in the Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana that makes the connection, where she noted that “Hollywood seldom does justice to Leonard’s spare, terse style,” but “Tarantino comes closer than most.” How Leonard found the review remains to be seen, but it’s fact that a letter from Leonard turned up in Jackie’s mail.

 

Witnessing the details of your grandmother’s cancer through correspondence with a stranger is surreal. I knew she had breast cancer and then bladder cancer, a surprising yet common correlation to a smoking habit. In 1999 she tells Leonard about her mastectomy which was “easily corrected by the artful placement of a wadded Kleenex” against her “85 pounds of skin and bones.” She also details the squamous mass found in her bladder, “surely the ugliest word in the English language … appropriately used to describe the ugliest kind of invasion,” that eventually leads to its removal and use of a colostomy bag for urine that she rightfully despised. My shock gives way to jealousy when Leonard calls her a “bag lady” in a subsequent letter. But of course she wouldn’t talk that way to me, I was only 10 in 2000.

My grandma’s last few years are spent in a nursing home. My dad makes many frequent trips up North. Shirley is there at the same time and she remembers my dad despite her dementia, which is nice, even though my dad notes that she doesn’t seem to remember Jackie. Her death, three months after Shirley’s at the end of 2002, was bittersweet for my dad. “She had everything she needed but it was all too arduous, emotionally. She wasn’t happy in this world.”

She didn’t want a funeral. Instead my dad took her ashes to that river St. Mary’s where their happy times once stood. He spread them out slowly and alone.

 

 

 

BIO

Rachel Scott is a writer, model, and student in New York City where she has lived for the past decade. She loves to read and travel the world, especially to favorite places like London and Tokyo. This is her first published piece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Iverson, Peter. “Knowing the Land, Leaving the Land: Navajos, Hopis, and Relocation in

the American West.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, vol. 38, no. 1,

1988, pp. 67-70.

 

Jacobs, M.D. “A Battle for the Children: American Indian Child Removal in Arizona in

the Era of Assimilation.” The Journal of Arizona History, vol. 45, no. 1, 2004, pp.

 31-62.

 

National Organization for Women. “Statement of Purpose.” The Movements of the New

 Left 1950-1975,  edited by Van Gosse, Bedford/St. Martin’s, pp. 107-109.

 

Phelan, J.C., Link, B.G., Stueve, A, & Pescosolido, B.A. “Public Conception of Mental

Illness in 1950 and 1996: What is Mental Illness and is it to be Feared?” Journal

            of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 41, no. 2, 2000, pp. 188-207.

 

Taylor, Lonn. “The Cowgirl Way.” Texas Monthly, vol. 43, no. 9, pp. 86-88.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listening to the Voice

by Eve Dobbins

 

I can draw her portrait without looking at her picture: slight of build, ethereal with a wide smile and enormous dreamy eyes.  She was the type of friend you wanted when you read Nancy Drew mysteries.  An idealist with everything to look forward to and of the same fiber you recognized that you possessed but somehow you managed to escape whole entering adulthood and she didn’t.  Right now, she should be in University studying medical science or forensics.  That is how you see her but that is not how her future played out.

How both of you grew up is different:  she was surrounded by an urban environment living on the outskirts in suburbia which is supposed to be “safe” protecting her from what happened.  You grew up in an agrarian area where your nearest neighbor was 2 miles away located up the big hill on your way to Youngsville.  Gladys Connelly, who used to spy on you and your unusual family, relocating from New York City to the Catskills, Your small “ville” was once part of a makeover on a reality TV show because of its quaintness and a step back in time.  Her suburb, Brandon, just outside of the enormous metropolitan area connected to Tampa is often referred to on America’s Most Wanted and other odd incidents that happen.  Many tourists and snowbirds visit this area.  Gladys Connelly and the others who made up your small community may have kept you safe with their gossip held carefully and listened to as the telephone game was played in your small community, “Have you heard….” or “Did you notice…” Maybe it was your sixth sense as you grew older which kept you safe as your Irish mom believed.

Remember that time with the French Club on tour in Montreal and you were alone when a strange man approached and tried to befriend you.  You were 19 but your sense of something not right took over and you moved away eager to join up with the other French club members.  She was 17 years old and attacked outside of the Bloomingdale Library in quiet suburbia.  It was dusk and I often imagine the conversation she might have been having with herself when she may have noticed him.  A strange young man in his late teens sitting outside on the library bench watching her.  So, she calls her friend with her cell phone and proceeds to chat easily while dropping her library books in the book drop.  The library is set off from the road in a wooded area and it is a Sunday, but she can see the road from a distance and she hears traffic.  She feels very safe and I imagine, she wants to complete #2 o her list:  return her library books.  Those library books, fiction or non-fiction, did she imagine that one day her story would be included in the news.  So, she leaves her car running and the door open with the keys in the ignition.  It is the end of her junior year and summer vacation has arrived.  She is thinking of next year:  college applications and the road to her future.  I imagine she feels very safe and invincible but he is watching and her intuition has no voice.  Or maybe it does, but she disregards it.

The drop box is right there but as she reaches it, he rushes toward her and proceeds to hit her violently beating her until she is worn down.  Her friend on the phone hears the screams and the phone drops.  She repeats her friend’s name and there is no answer.  Desperately, she calls out her name again and then rushes toward the door with her car keys only to remember she has no idea where her friend is calling from.  Eventually, they will find her battered body badly damaged.  She will require surgery and will never be the same.  Senior year, college, career will be put on hold but the young man who attacked her is caught.  Both lived in same neighborhood and most likely attended the same schools but the schools and classes are very big in this suburb, so it is likely that they did not meet one another.  The lawyer’s defense is that his client is mentally handicapped and has no idea of what he did while she lays in a coma in a hospital bed, her pretty face marred and the doctors uncertain whether she is brain damaged.  His attorney states his client never had a chance and reminds the jury that the glass was always “half-full” for him growing up with a single mom and an abusive father.  But the jury sees the same truth portrayed by the TV stations, media, etc.  They convict him and he is sentenced to prison for many years while her friends and family rally around her encouraging her.  Progress is very slow as her body and mind are damaged. The attack left her unable to walk, talk, see or eat on her own. She had limited movement. It was a very brutal crime. Maybe he should stay in jail until she walks again.  He was scheduled for 65 years in prison for two attacks.

There are very bad things out there.  What can we tell our children to help them emerge from childhood to adulthood? We can share with them that sometimes the power of fear and the intuition is a tool.  We can tell them to listen to their intuition … that sometimes the glass is not full for others … sometimes it takes years of living, time and experience to know when to heed your intuition or listen to your instincts.  We can’t put away all the bad things out there but we can make them realize that we want our children to reach adulthood and no, we are not overreacting.  Walk away if something makes you feel bad.  Ignore that to do list. Listen to your gut.

 

 

BIO

Eve Dobbins was born in New York City and raised in a small town located in the Catskill Mountains where everyone knew your name. After graduating from Stony Brook University with an English degree, she spent several years working in Manhattan in the garment industry; as a real estate property appraiser with the city of New York and a girl Friday for local radio talk show host, Barry Farber, as well as a stint in the United States Navy. Her favorite authors are Lee Child, Lisa Unger, and Ann Rule.  Her favorite quote for inspiration is “Everyone has two eyes but no one has the same view” (Wael Harakeh). Her husband is her co-conspirator in writing and baking which paved the way for Cupcake Cache, a gourmet cupcakerie which closed in 2015. Mrs. Dobbins has a MA in TESOL and has lived and worked in Asia and the Middle East. Presently, she makes a living as an English teacher. She was named in August 2017 “Poet of the Month” by “The Horror Zine.”

 

 

 

How to Change Your Name

By Jayelle Seeley

 

  1. Get Engaged
    • Go to the court with your fiancé the day before your wedding.
      • Fill out the marriage license application.
        • Get to the line where you are asked what last name you’d like to take.
        • Freeze.
        • Say, “I’ve never even written my first name next to yours. I haven’t even said the combination out loud.”
        • He says, “You don’t have to take my last name if you don’t want. Or you can hyphenate.”
        • “I always planned to change my last name when I got married, so I guess I’ll just take yours.”
        • Cry.
          • Ask yourself, “What is wrong with me?”
    • Get married.
      • Get harassed for the next six months because your voicemail and Facebook still say, “Jayelle Marie Seeley.”
        • Change your last name on Facebook.
        • Re-record your voicemail so that it just says, “Jayelle.”
    • Complain to your new husband.
      • I’ll have to take an entire day off.
      • I’ll have to go to the Social Security office which means driving downtown which I HATE.
      • I’ll have to park on the street which I HATE.
      • I’ll have to go to the DMV and get a new license which I HATE.
      • I’ll have to change my name on everything I own which I will HATE.
    • Quit your job, the one you hate.
      • Drive downtown.
        • Park in the lot.
        • Walk toward the building.
          • Entrance closed.
          • Walk around to the side.
        • Sit and wait.
        • “Congratulations, Mrs. Johnson.”
      • Spend an hour on your makeup before you go to the DMV.
        • The man at the door sees you holding an envelope in your left hand which hosts a big sparkly ring.
          • “Name change?”
          • “How did you know?”
          • “Congratulations.”
          • Smile demurely, “Thank you.”
        • Take the best damn license photo of your entire life.

 

  1. Leave Your Husband.
    • Use your middle name as your last name on all your social media.
    • Two years later, the divorce decree arrives.
      • Don’t read it.
        • Too painful.
    • Every time you’re asked for your legal last name:
      • Say it in a low tone.
      • Mumble it like a child who was just forced to apologize.
    • Wait another two years.
      • Maybe I’ll just change my last name to Marie!
      • Maybe I’ll make it Jayelle 2.0!
      • Maybe I’ll be Jayelle The Magnificent!
      • Maybe I’ll use a last name from a random generator!
    • Get a job at a school where all the students need to call you “Ms. Johnson.”
      • Lose that job.
    • Get accepted into a master’s degree program.
      • “He has nothing to do with me earning my master’s. I have to ditch his last name.”
      • No other brilliant ideas come your way
      • Decide to take back your maiden name.
    • Hear all the horror stories about expensive name changes.
    • Assume there was nothing in your divorce paperwork that would allow you to resume your prior name.
    • Print out a document using online software to change your name with The Supreme Court.
      • Fee of $210
      • Alerting the papers.
        • This seems extreme.
    • Call your lawyer friend.
      • “Just go down to City Hall with your divorce decree!”
      • “I didn’t think the divorce included that.”
      • “It’s a standard provision.”
      • Finally read your decree.
        • “Oh.”
    • Drive downtown on a Monday morning.
      • Find street parking near City Hall.
        • Line up the side mirror with the other car’s side mirror.
        • Cut it hard.
        • Mirror lines up with bumper.
        • Start turning the wheel back.
          • Hit the curb.
            • “Fuck.”
      • Find a different spot.
        • Feed the meter for two hours.
      • Walk to City Hall.
        • “I don’t know if I’m in the right place but I need to change my name because of divorce.”
          • “You’re in the wrong place, go to the court.”
      • Walk to the Court Building.
        • Get through security.
        • No one asks where you are going.
        • Look blankly at a sign.
        • Do a lap around the first floor.
        • Climb the staircase to the clerk’s office.
          • “You already have it written into your decree. All you have to do is go to the social security office.”
        • You could walk to the federal building but you’re sure your parking time will expire before you’re done there.
        • Walk back to your car an hour early.
      • Park by Café Kubal on Water Street because you remember that was right next to the lot where you parked for the federal building.
        • Pay for two hours.
      • Remember the entrance is not at the front.
        • Walk to the side.
          • Entrance closed.
          • Follow the signs.
          • Go around back.
          • Follow more signs.
          • Entrance here.
            • Look over and notice your parked car.
              • Realize that you did a lap around the entire building.
      • Check in with Security.
        • “What are you here for?”
        • “Social security.”
        • “It’s going to be a long wait.”
        • “Well, I’m here.”
        • Take a number.
        • Wonder if you will run out of parking time.
      • C435
        • “I need your divorce decree.”
        • “This is from April?”
        • “Yes, April of 2016.”
        • “I was being indecisive.”
        • “I’ve never been in that situation before so I don’t judge.”
      • “Here you are MIZZ SeeleyYou’ll get your new card in two weeks.”
        • “That’s it?”
        • “That’s it!”
      • Look down at the receipt
        • Jayelle Marie Seeley.
          • Notice that it has been over four years since a new piece of paper has been handed to you with that name.
            • Feel unexpectedly elated.
    • Realize you have another hour before your parking time expires.
    • Every time you pass someone:
      • Smile broadly.
      • “Good morning!”
    • Get a scoop of vanilla raspberry swirl ice cream topped with hot fudge.
      • Take off your sandals.
      • Roll up your pants.
      • Stick your bare feet into the fountain at Clinton Square.
      • Kick your feet back and forth with childish glee, splashing water.
    • Wait at the DMV for two hours.
      • “Sign here.”
      • “1 2 3”
      • “You look pretty.”
      • $12.50
        • “That’s it?”
        • “That’s it!”

 

 

 

BIO

Jayelle Seeley has called Syracuse, NY, home for the past 8 years. She is currently studying for her master’s degree mental health counseling. This is her first published piece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Eye

by Deborah Morris

 

 

In June of 1984, after my divorce became final, I moved from Connecticut to the North Carolina coast with my two children to live near my parents, who owned the Columbus Motel on Cape Fear Boulevard in Carolina Beach. I was fortunate to find a job as a physician assistant at an urgent care in nearby Wilmington. Susan, seven and mature for her age, and Jonny, a very rambunctious almost two, lived with me for the first few months in one of the larger motel rooms, an efficiency with three beds and a small kitchen. I had made a successful offer on a three bedroom ranch house near the elementary school in August and expected to close in mid-September.

Mom and Dad lived in a two story house at the back of the large motel lot. Built in the late nineteenth century, it had survived several hurricanes, including Hurricane Hazel in 1954, a Category 4 storm that had washed much the small town right off the beach. Lore had it that the storm surge from Hazel came up to the front steps of the house.

For the previous eleven years they’d run the business, each wearing many hats. Mom was accountant and bookkeeper, general manager, housekeeper, laundress, and daytime clerk, and Dad served as night clerk, maintenance man, pool boy, and social director.  Mom was brilliant but so shy as a young woman that she’d dropped out of teacher’s college rather than face student teaching. She worked as a secretary after she thought we kids were old enough. Dad was a retired chemical engineer who loved people and enjoyed talking. They made a great team, though I never understood exactly why they had decided on this late career path.

The motel was busy from April, when the azaleas bloomed and the weather warmed, until October when the fish were running and the water had cooled too much to swim. The town was caught in a 1950s time warp, with its concrete boardwalk that ran along the wide sandy beach, and near antique attractions that included a tacky fun house, bumper cars that hit hard enough to cause whiplash, and a shooting gallery with duck targets wobbling along, and bandits and assorted animals randomly popping up. Grandma Buchecker, nearly blind but even more sociable than her son, spent most evenings playing at one of the bingo parlors near the arcades, redneck bars, and boardwalk souvenir shops. Sometimes I’d walk down with the kids after dinner and find her bent over, nose almost touching the cards, as she listened to the calls.

There’d been some real-estate development ─ condos and larger beachfront homes on the edge of town ─ but there were still hundreds of tiny frame cottages, several rooming houses, and dozens of small motels like ours.  Active in the Hotel and Motel Association, the local Chamber of Commerce, and the Planning and Zoning Commission, Dad was passionate about keeping the pace of development, especially along the beach, controlled and rational. He hated what was happening in Florida at the time, out of control development with ugly high-rises for miles along the beach.

In early September, my favorite time of year in Carolina Beach, when the tourists were mostly gone, the fishermen hadn’t yet arrived, and the weather was glorious, the kids and I went to the beach almost every day after work to swim or play in the sand, or to the state park to dig clams, catch crabs, or fish. Susan was settling into her new school and I had found a great home day-care for Jonny. After the previous two drama-filled years with my ex-husband, I found the slow southern pace and peaceful setting idyllic.

One day, a Saturday I think, the kids and I walked along the beach picking up shells.  Jonny pointed at the horizon where an oddly intense blue sky met the indigo water.  “Blue, Mommy. Look.”

“Yes. Blue,” I repeated, struck by the unusual sight.

That evening we sat together in the living room watching CNN, which played night and day in my parents’ house. “The tropical depression that developed in the Bahamas last week has developed tropical storm force winds. Diana is moving to the west and may impact the east coast of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas in the coming week.” I mentioned the oddly blue sky and wondered aloud if the storm would come our way. During the years that my parents lived in North Carolina, several tropical storms and hurricanes had threatened, but none came ashore or caused damage in Carolina Beach. Some of the older folks, Grandma’s friends, recalled Hazel, but most people were nonchalant about storms.

“It’ll veer back off the coast like they all do and fizzle when it hits cold water,” said Dad, pooh-poohing my concerns.

As the storm moved closer to the coast, I found myself switching to the Weather Channel when Dad wasn’t in the living room. After passing, and not striking, Cape Canaveral, the storm looked like it might come ashore in South Carolina. Diana seemed to be changing course hourly, and the Weather Service kept updating the watches and warnings, but the winds were strengthening and, by September 10, she appeared to be heading towards the North Carolina coast.

Dad continued to ignore the storm warnings. “Pah,” he said, as we cleaned the pool, me in my swimming suit scrubbing the tiles from the water and Dad emptying the leaves and bugs from the traps along the pools edge, “We’ve had warnings before. Nothing to worry about.”

Meanwhile, Susan went to school, I went to work, Mom engaged in deep cleaning the newly empty motel rooms, and Dad continued his routine of staying up until the early morning, watching CNN and C-Span, and sleeping during the day.

Sitting around Grandma’s old oak dining room table Monday night, we talked about whether we should evacuate if the storm was going to hit. Mom said, “I guess we could close and spend a couple of days in the mountains.”

Dad put down his fork and said, “Well, I’m not going anywhere.  Someone needs to keep an eye on the place.”

With a wrinkled forehead mom replied, “If you’re not leaving, I’m not.” Mom had never gotten a driver’s license.

Grandma Buchecker, always an adventurous soul, grinned and said “I’ve never been in a hurricane.” Mom frowned. She had almost been hit by a falling tree when she was twenty, during the 1938 hurricane that devastated New England.

“Hmm,” I said, “If you’re staying I guess we will.” I imagined the misery of evacuating to a high school gym in Wilmington with the kids. I had some misgivings, but I’d always liked storms. And I felt like I needed to be there to help Mom and Dad, though I didn’t know exactly how.

“Well,” said Dad, hitting the table with his hand, “That’s settled, then. But don’t worry about it. They always put up warnings.”

Meanwhile the hurricane had stalled off the coast, moving in a circle as if it was trying to decide where to go next.

Wednesday morning I drove into Wilmington for work.  The sky was gray and wind was gusting enough to rattle the palm leaves and bend the pines. The on-again-off-again hurricane warning for our area was on again. After the first couple of patients were treated and left, the clinic waiting room was empty. Petra, the lab tech, had called in. Everyone was preparing for the storm. Mom called around eleven to tell me that school would let out early and the wind was picking up. I asked Dr. Joslin if I could leave; he decided to close the clinic and let everyone go home.

When I got to the motel, Mom was dragging an upholstered chaise lounge into the shed. I helped her with the Adirondack chairs and took down the volleyball net in the side yard. She went to wake up Dad as I pulled the wooden benches and chairs along the front of the motel into the rooms. Wind gusts were pushing at me and slamming the room doors hard if I didn’t prop them open. And the shed was out of space with nowhere to put the plastic and aluminum chairs, chaise lounges, heavy round tables, and multicolored metal umbrellas set up around the pool.

Dad came outside, sleepy, unshaven and grumpy. We stood in the gusty rain next to the pool, watching the wind flex the ten foot wide umbrellas and talking about what to do. We decided to push everything into the pool, but we had to fight the wind gusts to keep from losing control of the huge and heavy umbrellas as we pulled them out of pipes set in concrete and toppled them into the water. We could hear sirens and Mom came out to the pool to tell us that the local news reported that the beaches were being evacuated.  “Maybe we need to leave,” she said.

“Nah, they’ll come tell us. They just mean the folks along the beach. See, the store is still open,” said Dad. The Columbus Motel was set back a block and a half from the boardwalk, across from the A&P, catty-corner to the small town library and the water tower that stood next to it ─ really a perfect place for Mom, non-driver and voracious reader.  She headed over to the store, wearing her rain coat and leaning into the wind, to pick up a few things. She came back with the last package of D cells, a box of Saltines, peanut butter, English muffins, and canned soup ─ no bread or milk left. We rummaged through drawers, closets, and the attic to retrieve batteries, flashlights, candles, matches, propane lantern, and the camp stove.

Dad and I used up several rolls of masking tape making x’s on the picture windows along the front of the motel and the house. I wondered what good tape would do, but it was too late to board up the windows. Dad said he didn’t know, either, but that’s what the other business owners did.

As afternoon turned into evening, the weather got steadily worse ─ windier, rainier. We had spaghetti for dinner and then settled into the living room to watch CNN alternating with the Weather Channel. The kids and I cuddled on the couch while Mom, Dad and Grandma all settled into their recliners. Horizontal sheets of rain and nearly continuous flashes of lightning raged outside the living room picture window.

Glued to the TV, we watched the radar and satellite images as the spirals of clouds moved over land. At 7:00 Mom answered the phone. The owners of Cole’s Motel, on the next street over behind the A&P, had decided to leave while they could still get across the bridge and wanted to let someone know. Mom and Dad had almost bought Cole’s years before, but thought that the Columbus was in better condition, if a little smaller, and they loved the old wooden house. Cole’s had an owner’s apartment in one of the parallel, long, rectangular, concrete block buildings.

Dad turned on his police scanner and we alternated between the TV and the radio whenever the squawks and cop-speak became intelligible. By 10:30 Grandma was snoring in her recliner; Jonny was asleep on a pallet of blankets but Susan was wide awake. The wind howled and the old house creaked on its century-old twelve by twelve heart pine timbers. We heard thumps and bangs as unidentified objects hit the house, but were comfortable and felt prepared, safe. The police patrols on the radio announced that conditions were worsening, and finally that they were returning to the station.

Susan, Mom, Dad, and I heard the CNN reporter say, “As many as a hundred and fifty people are thought to be trapped on Pleasure Island near Wilmington.” Susan turned to me. “Oh, Mom, that’s terrible,” and Mom and I exchanged looks, knowing they were talking about us. She hated the Chamber’s name for the barrier island, saying it made her think of the cursed amusement park in Disney’s Pinocchio.

Then a flash brighter than daylight and a roar of sound, an explosion. The TV and lights blinked off and then on again. The motel sign, which had been lit, was now dark, and a ball of light blazed just outside the living room window, almost hitting the house as it blinked out. Jonny cried out and Grandma Buchecker snorted awake. For a few seconds I was blinded.

The house smelled of burning insulation. Mom said she’d seen lightening strike the sign. Dad got up to go look at the fuse-box and feel the walls in the motel office near the sign’s switch. I comforted Susan who wanted to know what had happened, and patted Jonny’s back as he went back to sleep in his nest of blankets and pillows. Somehow, the electricity continued to work, and our hearts and breathing slowed down. After a while we settled back into our seats, still watching our story on CNN.  “The eye wall of the hurricane is about to come on shore at Cape Fear and with winds at seventy to eighty miles an hour.” The meteorologist explained that Diana was now a category 2 hurricane, not the category 3 and 4 it had been just a day or two before out at sea.

That sounded reassuring, but I no longer felt safe. I imagined an electrical fire between the walls and nowhere to go. The wind blew against the front door and we could no longer open it. We could open the back door but there’d be no way to close it. Then what?  Flying debris, shingles, and trash crashed outside and littered the roads. Driving would be impossible. We really were trapped.

It became hard to hear anything over the wind’s roar. Sounds like human screaming from wind whistling through the kitchen window AC unit made Susan sandwich her head between pillows. A window on the seaward side of the house shattered, glass and rain and debris blowing into the dining room.  Jonny slept through everything, but Grandma was restless and woke when the window broke.

And then, over perhaps five or ten minutes, the wind and the rain died down and I knew we were in the eye. Dad and I stepped outside and looked up. We could see stars.  It was warm and peaceful. I looked at my calm, rational father and wondered what the hell we were doing here, surrounded by a vortex of chaos and danger.

We walked back inside. The police radio was alive again. We heard a discussion of the need to turn off power to the island. No-one had thought to do that before and there were live power lines down all over town. We saw a cop car drive slowly past on the street, then heard over the scanner, “I’m out here on Cape Fear by the water tower. Wait, where’s the water tower? Can’t see it.  Whoa, it’s gone!”

Susan, who still hadn’t fallen asleep, though it was after one, said, “Oh no! Grandma, what about the goat?” Mom and Susan regularly walked over to see the goat that grazed inside the fence surrounding the town’s water supply behind the library. Mom told her that she was sure that the goat was somewhere inside and just fine. I wasn’t so sure.

Then the power went off, and the TV went blank, though the police radio still squeaked and squawked. Mom and I lit candles, checked flashlights. The phone rang, I jumped, and Dad answered. Grandma was back to snoring in her recliner. Dad spoke calmly into the phone, “Yes, it’s been pretty bad but we’re in the eye right now. The wind is starting to gust, so I think it’s about to start up again. No, we haven’t had much damage.”  He chatted away, calm as always.

The wind now blew steadily. Mom and I wondered who he was talking to, one of my brothers? A relative in Pennsylvania? “Hello, hello? Are you there?” He hung up the phone.  The wind had to be back up to sixty miles per hours, over just a couple of minutes.

“Who was that?” asked Mom.

“A radio station in Pittsburgh,” said Dad. “They said they were calling numbers from the phonebook to talk about the storm. But the phone just made a crackling noise and died. Bet they think we got blown away,” he chuckled.

The wind noise was different now.  Thumps came from the other side of the house, less frequent because that side was shielded by the two story motel. The whistling from the bedroom AC unit was higher pitched but less disturbing.  There was rain again, horizontal and intense, and lightning flashed continuously, illuminating the dark living room in random pulses. Susan had fallen asleep on the couch. Mom was dozing in a recliner and Dad was still sitting in an armchair, ears bent close to the police scanner with the volume turned low. I lay down on the floor next to Jonny and slept in brief interrupted moments, sometimes awakening from disturbed dreams into the noisy storm. I went to the bathroom to pee. When I flushed, there was a strange gurgling sound in the pipes.

The last time I awoke, diffuse light filled the living room. Steady near-vertical rain fell from a gray sky. The palms had no fronds left. Grandma and the kids slept soundly. I smelled coffee and found Mom and Dad sitting in the kitchen, with the propane camp stove and an old aluminum percolator on the counter, coffee made with the distilled water she’d found in the utility room. Dad offered to get some buckets of water from the pool for flushing.

Grandma and Susan wandered into the kitchen together, and I gave them cereal with still cool milk from the fridge. It was dim in the house, and we decided to take our coffee out to the front porch.  Mom, Grandma Buchecker, Susan, and I went out through the front door. The pool was full to the top and the street was flooded with several inches of water, rain still falling. I could see the furniture had settled into the deep end of the pool and wondered how the hell we were going to get those damn umbrellas out.

We were silent as we looked at the mess ─ shingles, branches, palm fronds, twisted metal, broken plastic, clumps of pink and yellow insulation everywhere, some with attached foil and paper. I noticed something huge in the A&P parking lot, twisted and folded and mostly white.  “What the, what’s that?” I asked. Mom peered through the rain, opening her mouth as I realized what we were seeing. “It’s Cole’s. Look, the roofs.  Cole’s lost both its roofs.  Oh my God.  What if they hadn’t left?” But I was thinking, What if that was us? What if you bought that motel instead of this one? What if whatever tore those roofs off and knocked down the water tower had come to this side of the street? What if the storm had come in on a rising tide instead of a receding one? I pulled Susan close to my side.

An SUV came driving slowly down the street towards the boardwalk and the beach.  It had to navigate around various obstructions but moved steadily. The front passenger window was open and there was something sticking out of it, covered in shiny black cloth, pointing at the four of us, four generations of women, standing on the porch. We stood there silently, watching, wondering, when Mom said, “That’s a video camera. Must be the news.” She looked at me, and we started laughing. Grandma joined in. Susan said, “What’s so funny?” but she giggled too. We all stood there laughing out loud as the car rolled by.

We, watchers of the news, were the news. We’d survived, but news isn’t about survival. It’s about death and destruction. Later, I saw footage of our street, taken from a moving vehicle. We saw the twisted wreckage of the water tower and of Cole’s Motel over and over, from every possible angle and direction. We saw Carolina Beach and all the wreckage and mess. But we never saw ourselves standing on the porch laughing, though that’s the image that should have, but never did, make it into the story.

 

 

 

BIO

Deborah Morris is an Associate Professor at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC, teaching physician assistant students. She uses art and literature to assist in teaching the art of medicine, and encourages reflective writing in her students. She writes primarily memoir and creative nonfiction and has published pieces in The Examined Life, Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, GreenPrints, The Journal of Physician Assistant Education, and Clinical Advisor. When not teaching and writing she plays with her grandchildren, pulls weeds, pets her dogs and goats, cooks, and generally has fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Uncommon Hero

by Jeffrey James Higgins

 

Mohammed Habib is a hero.

Mohammed retired last year after valiantly serving his country for 35 years. For over three decades, he displayed physical courage when threatened, moral courage when offered bribes, and uncommon courage putting his values into practice. Mohammad’s actions saved the lives of many children and made the world a better place. Mohammad was not a famous politician. He was not a decorated combat veteran. He was not a police officer capturing criminals or a firefighter running into burning buildings.

Mohammed was a security guard at the BBC International School in Cairo.

The girl was an eight-year-old student at the school where Mohammed kept order, earning a meager security guard’s wages. The girl’s father was a wealthy and politically powerful man with a sociopathic personality. The father divorced the girl’s mother and tried many times to abduct the girl. He stalked and hunted the girl and her family around the city, forcing them to flee time after time. She evaded him, but school was the one place this evil man knew he could find her.

One day, the girl’s father arrived at the school ready to take what he knew was rightly his to take. The girl was his property to possess, humiliate, and torture. He walked up the school entrance and was stopped by Mohammed. The girl’s father demanded that Mohammed bring the girl to him. The girl’s father was famous and very influential. He got whatever he wanted. He stared into Mohammed’s eyes, his posture and bearing signaling his superior intelligence, wealth, and social standing. In a place where justice is earned by the contents of a wallet and political influence is the difference between life and death, the girl’s father held all the cards. He hovered over Mohammed commanding Mohammed to bring the girl out of the school.

“She does not attend this school,” Mohammed responded flatly. The lie was obvious and hung in the air between them.

Unable to comprehend Mohammed’s defiance, the girl’s father repeated his command. “Bring me my daughter.”

“She is not here,” Mohammed replied. His gaze slowly rose up until he stared directly into the man eyes. “Perhaps I should call the police now,” Mohammed said. It was an empty bluff. The police were corrupt and both Mohammed and the man knew the police would do the man’s bidding. The problem was that the father wasn’t dealing with the police. He was facing Mohammed, who stood before him, filled with the unrelenting moral courage of a man willing to die to protect the children under his care.

When the girl’s mother first brought her to school, she told the administrators about the horrible violence the girl’s father had wrought upon them. The administrators passed the responsibility to Mohammed, the lowest paid employee at the school. Mohammed accepted this responsibility knowing the nature of the hard thing he agreed to do. He met the girl and told her, “As long as I am alive and you are inside the walls of this school, no one will ever hurt you.”

The girl found peace, safety, and security inside that school, thanks only to Mohammed. The girl’s father returned many times to steal his daughter from the safety of her sanctuary, only to encounter Mohammed staring back at him in front of the school’s entrance. Every time. Mohammed was impervious to threats and unreceptive to bribes. For the first time in her life, the girl knew she would not have to look over her shoulder. The unthinkable, sadistic fantasies of her sociopathic father would not be realized under the protection of Mohammed. She was safe.

Mohammed risked his life, but he didn’t do it for glory, riches, or gratitude. In all the years Mohammed protected the girl, he never once told her about it. He never mentioned it as he stood beside her on the steps of the school every afternoon, waiting for her mother to pick her up. The girl only learned what Mohammed had done from others who witnessed the confrontations with her father. Mohammed never told the girl’s mother about it, in the hopes of receiving a reward. He never asked for thanks or respect. He never bragged to his coworkers about his courage.

He protected the girl, because it was his job, his responsibility. He did it because he gave his word to protect all of the children at the school. Mostly, Mohammed did it because it was the right thing to do.

Mohammed is an example of a man living a virtuous life. He took pride in working to sustain himself, instead of living off the charity of others. When parents tried to give him gifts of thanks, he refused to accept them. He did his job because it was his to do. Mohammed expressed the meaning of honor with every action he took in that school. He took pride in being responsible for the safety of the children and pride in fulfilling his promise. Words like honor and courage represent great virtues, but they are only promises of what can be. Mohammed honored them every day with his actions.

Mohammed protected all of the children in that school for decades. Some required more care than others, but every child lived under the shield of Mohammed’s unyielding integrity. Thanks to him, thousands of children were educated and grew up without a worry for their safety. For many children, like the girl, this was the only time they felt safe. It’s impossible to know many children went on to live productive and happy lives because of Mohammed. The ripple effect from Mohammed’s courage and virtue can never be calculated.

Last year, Mohammed quietly informed his employers that he would retire. There were no grand celebrations or any celebratory parades. Those honors are reserved for politicians, actors, and others who show their worth on the public stage. Those accolades are not for men who express their virtue, dedication, responsibility, and courage during the quiet anonymity of their everyday lives. Mohammed was comfortable with that. His reward was the pride of knowing he did his job well. Knowing he lived a just life.

Word of Mohammed’s retirement quickly spread from student to student, in person. One student started a fund raising drive on the school’s Facebook page and over 5,000 former students responded sharing stories of what Mohammed meant to them. Notes of thanks and expressions of love poured into the site. An informal collection was set up to buy Mohammed a retirement gift. The people formerly under his care, many of who were living in poverty, sent in donations. They quickly raised over 10,000 Egyptian pounds.

Seeing the outpouring of affection, the school created a fund to recognize employees who made a difference in students lives, so they could have financial help when they were ill or when tragedy struck. The students bought a trophy for Mohammed and presented it to him. He wept when he received it, overcome with emotion. The children knew what Mohammed had done for them and now, Mohammed knew it too.

On the girl’s last day of school, she stood on the front steps of the building and saw Mohammed standing there. She walked up to him and looked into his eyes. “I love you Mr. Mohammed,” she told him. They hugged for a long time, then the girl, like thousands of students before and after her, walked away from school and began the rest of her life. Mohammed watched her go then took his place at the front door.

 

 

 

BIO

Jeffrey James Higgins is a former reporter and a retired supervisory special agent, who now writes creative nonfiction, essays, and novels. He recently completed The Narco-Terrorist, a nonfiction book about the first narco-terrorism investigation. Jeffrey is represented by Inkwell Management and is currently writing his first thriller. Jeffrey has appeared on CNN Newsroom, Discovery ID, CNN Declassified, and other television programs, radio shows, and podcasts. He has been published in the Adelaide Literary Journal, American Conservative, Trail Runner Magazine, The Washington Times, American Thinker, Police Magazine, and other publications. His recent articles and media appearances can be found at JeffreyJamesHiggins.com.

 

 

 

 

 

A Turkish Coffee Reader

by Ana Vidosavljevic

 

 

Grandma Lela was an elderly Serbian lady. She lived in the small town Vlasotince and was a famous Turkish coffee reader. People from all around Serbia and some foreigners came to her house every day and waited in line for her famous coffee reading and to tell them what they could expect in the future. People in Vlasotince said she was a master of interpreting symbols, coffee figures, revealing the dark secrets, predicting the future and giving advices. Rumor had it that she could even put a black magic on those who deserved this kind of ominous spell.

My mother was a good friend of Grandma Lela and she regularly drank coffee with her. Then, after drinking this famous drink in Serbia, Grandma Lela read her coffee cup, actually, interpreted the symbols found in the coffee sediment as well as those on the saucer. My mother loved this coffee reading rituals. And she was pretty good in this herself. That was what I honestly believed.

Children were not allowed to come to Grandma Lela’s sacred room for coffee reading, but seeing my curiosity for this unique skill, my mother took on the challenge of reading my coffee cup and teaching me how to do that. These daily rituals were interrupted only by my school hours and her working schedule. But somehow, we managed to drink our coffee almost every day. Mine was full of milk and sweet and her black and strong.

Soon enough, I learned what dogs, mice, rabbits, trees, flowers represented and I allowed my imagination to deviate from the interpretations established by Grandma Lela and my mother. If I saw a dog on the bottom of my coffee cup or on its walls I believed it meant I would find a puppy on the way to school and bring it home. At other times, if I saw a bunch of flowers made of coffee sediment, I thought it meant I should buy flowers for my mum and grandma that day. My mum often laughed to my interpretations and obviously loved them except the ones of adopting animals that I found on streets. But I managed to get few pets. A parrot that she agreed to buy me and which we named Charlie, a beautiful black puppy that I found and we adopted after hours of my whining and begging her, and two little kittens that someone had thrown on the public waste depot.

Later, when I grew up a bit I continued adopting animals without finding an excuse in the coffee cup signs and at one point our house resembled a small zoo. My mother always complained about all those animals but as long as I kept them outside (except the parrot and a fish tank) she didn’t really mind. However, I can blame the coffee cup reading for starting the animal adoption adventure.

And back to Grandma Lela…she was pretty famous by the time I became a teenager. And it was my big Wish, one day, Grandma Lena to read my coffee cup. And only when I was old enough to drink pure black coffee (according to her standards it was at the age of fifteen), she agreed to read my coffee cup. Well, I can’t say I was thrilled with her coffee cup reading but I do remember very well my first time. And I must admit it was intimidating.

One Monday morning, during the summer school holiday, while my mother was at work and Grandma Lela was not as busy as she usually was, since Monday morning felt like the time when people had better things to do than to visit the Turkish coffee reader, I went to Grandma Lela’s house. My mother had told me, the previous night, that Grandma Lela had invited me to come the very next morning. I opened the tall wooden gate of her house and continued to the ground floor, following the small cobble stone path. Once I was in front of the door of her house, I knocked timidly since there was no bell I could ring. Silence was strange and unusual for this place that usually swarmed with people. Therefore, Grandma Lela asked me to come in. She didn’t open the door, she just yelled loudly: “Come in!” The room where she accepted guests was not very spacious, and the air was stale. I could smell something rancid, some strange smell of moth balls mixed with lavender fragrance. It indicated that this room was old and not very well maintained. Grandma Lela had never got married. She didn’t have children. She didn’t have a maid to help her clean the house. She lived alone.

When I entered the room, I saw her sitting in the chair at the small table with the glass vase and few wilted, dying flowers in it. She had a scarf around her head. It covered her forehead and was tied off in the lower back of her head, the way Gypsy women used to wear it, even though Grandma Lela was not a Gypsy. Her hair was white and face wrinkled, but her eyes were watery blue and clear like those of babies. They seemed the friendliest part of her face and they invited me to come closer and sit in a chair opposite her. I obeyed.

She had already prepared two cups of black Turkish coffee, but there was no steam coming out of the cups, so I guessed they might have been prepared much earlier and were getting cold. I touched my cup and I was right. The cup was not hot. It was still warm though.

Grandma Lela gestured me to drink coffee as if rushing me into finishing fast my part of the role in this play called Turkish Coffee Cup Reading. There was something scary and unpleasant in her way of communicating with me and in her attitude of speeding up the process of drinking coffee which was usually and naturally done with no rush but with slow pleasure instead. I followed compliantly her instructions and drank my very sweet and mild coffee almost in one gulp. Then, I followed Grandma Lela’s example and placed the saucer over the cup (face on) and covered it. Soon after, I made few horizontal circles clockwise with the intention to move the sediment around the cup and evenly spread it around the inside of the cup. Then, I turned the coffee cup upside down with a quick movement and passed it to Grandma Lela. She didn’t take it immediately. Instead, she let it there on the table in front of her for five minutes and made a small talk with me. She asked me about school, friends and other, for me, not very relevant things. After five minutes of our small talk, she overturned my cup and held it upright. And she started reading it, interpreting the symbols she saw and making the whole story of my past, present and future. Since she knew me very well and my family in general, it was not hard for her to tell my past events as well as those of the present. They didn’t bother me or made me feel uncomfortable. But the ones from the future seemed terrifying.

Among other things, she told me that I would finish high school and enroll the university which I would probably never finish. I would get married and have two children but my marriage would end up in divorce. I would meet some other man, after the divorce, who would be the real love of my life and with whom I would spend the rest of my life. Grandma Lela didn’t mention what would happen with my children and if they would live with me or their biological father. However, after finishing the story, or better the prediction of my love life, she focused on my health. I was already pretty sad with what I had heard by then and was not happy to proceed listening to what type of bad illness would fall upon me, but I couldn’t stop her. She told me that until my thirties, I would be pretty healthy. But then, I would have some awkward leg injury that would lead to dry gangrene and I would have two operations. Doctors would save my leg but I would always have problems walking and I would be obliged to use a walking cane until the rest of my life.

After hearing all these things, I was so desperate and terrified that I almost started crying. I couldn’t listen anymore but I remained sitting in the chair my eyes fixed on the black spot in the wall. These were not those naïve coffee cup readings with my mum. I didn’t smile and I didn’t laugh. My mother and I enjoyed our lighthearted and funny interpretations of the coffee sediment symbols which never got very serious. Grandma Lela’s coffee cup reading resembled the dark ominous and menacing scenes from horror movies that suggested that something even worse and scarier would happen with every new scene. I didn’t enjoy and didn’t like it. Quite the opposite, it was repulsive and intimidating and left the bad taste in my mouth.

Grandma Lela didn’t have a pricelist for her coffee cup reading services, and people usually left as much or as little money as they wanted. That day, after she finished reading my coffee cup, I forgot to leave her some money. I know it was rude but I was so shocked and dismayed by what I had heard from her that I just left her house without even saying “thank you”. I’m sure my mother later gave her some money but it was pretty rude to leave just like that without even saying a word.

When my mother came back from work and asked me how the coffee reading was, I just mumbled “fine” and avoided the topic. No matter how much I wanted to tell my mother about everything and take comfort in her hugs and words “oh, don’t worry. That is just a stupid future telling that has nothing to do with the reality”, I didn’t want her to get upset, or angry with Grandma Lela and to lose her own interest in the coffee cup reading. But I hoped all those things Grandma Lela had told me were incorrect. Honestly, I was a bit worried and scared. But after some days I stopped thinking about my unfortunate future. Anyway, that was the only time Grandma Lela read my coffee cup.

Of course, years went by and Grandma Lela’s predictions proved wrong. Thanks to my lucky stars! But the whole event remained in my memory. I always avoided talking about her with my mother and I started abhorring all the coffee cup readers, fortune tellers, palm readers, dream interpreters, phrenologists and numerologists. I didn’t want to hear what would happen in the future and I, especially, didn’t want to hear bad news. Of course, once I became an adult I didn’t believe in things those kind of prophets said but I also didn’t want them to provoke some unpleasant thoughts. I didn’t want some strange sinister thoughts to ramble around my brain because those thoughts were dangerous. “What we think we become.” Buddha said. And I can’t agree more.

However, my mother and I continued our funny coffee reading rituals and even though we don’t see each other that often nowadays, often, when we meet and drink coffee, we read and interpret those symbols we find in the coffee sediment. I adore these Turkish coffee cup reading rituals. And I must admit my mother is the best Turkish coffee cup reader in the whole world. She will make you not only smile and laugh but she will inspire you to find the bright side of every situation and to be more positive about the future.

 

 

BIO

Ana Vidosavljevic from Serbia currently living in Indonesia. She has her work published or forthcoming in Down in the Dirt (Scar Publications), Literary Yard, RYL (Refresh Your Life), The Caterpillar, The Curlew, Eskimo Pie, ColdnoonPerspectives, Indiana Voice Journal, The Raven Chronicles, Setu Bilingual Journal, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, Madcap Review, The Bookends Review, Gimmick Press, (mac)ro(mic), Scarlet Leaf Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, A New Ulster. She worked on a GIEE 2011 project: Gender and Interdisciplinary Education for Engineers 2011 as a member of the Institute Mihailo Pupin team. She also attended the International Conference “Bullying and Abuse of Power” in November, 2010, in Prague, Czech Republic, where she presented her paper: “Cultural intolerance”.

 

 

 

 

 

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