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A Valentine for the Widow of Rock and Roll

by Rene Diedrich

 

 

On the phone she sounded like she had a carton a day habit. “Old semen throat” is what my father used to call those bar bitches with that harsh bark for a voice he knew from the honky-tonks. An occupational hazard for bar maids, whores and other hard luck harpies who were well past the expiration date stamped on womankind. The voice did not belong to her photo, which was of a smiling blond woman, stunning and sophisticated, decidedly hip beneath a sweep of long bangs, black leather collar flipped up just so. Rock and roll’s widow called just as I was headed out of Long Beach to let me know she’d overslept. It was two, the time I told her I’d probably hit town. I am a punctual person because simply put, I hate to wait for others, and I see tardiness as a passive-aggressive slight when it is chronic, but have gotten slick enough to anticipate rather than react to people who are flakey. I adapt to accommodate myself and them, and the widow was relieved to hear I was just hitting the 405 when she was rolling out of bed. “We are a lot alike,” she noted, and I wondered how true that was as I drifted up the lull of the 101 on a Saturday afternoon. The lush green hills rolled beneath a rain scrubbed sky, so blue, so bright, it was blindingly beautiful behind my vintage tortoise shell shades, a thrift store score like my clunky red Mary Janes, which eased the gas pedal from an impulse to speed because everyone else was. Open highways are so tempting, but there was no hurry. The widow needed time to pull herself together and so did I.

 

 

I had all but unraveled by the time I hit the quaint coastal town she now lives in.

I called the number on my cell phone to ask how to get to the Vagabond where she said I should stay. The now softer voice on the other end babbled incoherently, offering too much information when all I needed was the name of a street. She was openly exasperated when I admitted I had no sense of direction and no idea what was east or west unless I could see the ocean or a freeway sign designating my destination.

“I don’t understand people who have no sense of direction!” she croaked over the crackling cell phone line. An unrepentant pot head, I knew some of my most basic motor skills were somewhat compromised by my wake and bake rituals, but all the landmarks and anecdotal digressions were confounding my quest, so I interjected something about needing no more than the street’s name.

To my horror, the widow began to spew a profane rant.

Suddenly, my serene demeanor shifted into an instinctive vigilance. Shit, what had I gotten myself into? A powerful craving for blackberry brandy seized my being, and I extracted myself from the conversation by assuring her I knew the way now.

 

And, as it turned out, I did find the place, which was nestled beside the sea and a freeway ramp along a quaint strip of little liquor stores, cafes, tidy motels and modest tract housing. I smoked a clove in the truck, shoving assorted shit into my big canvas Siddhartha bag and touching up my war paint in the rearview. Checking into a motel alone always makes me feel conspicuous, like some refugee on America’s Most Wanted or an AWOL housewife.

Of course motel clerks probably don’t think about the guests that go in and out of their daily grind the way I would.

It was, however, Valentine’s weekend, the plain Jane clerk explained when she quoted $110 for the evening and I gasped, head shaking as I made a grab for my card. I had the disposable cash to spare thanks to my tax refund, but it was an extravagance I could not indulge after my recent trip to the dispensary for compassionate care that came in pungent plastic containers labeled with names like Gorilla Kush and Twisted Sister, a high end hybrid I had along for this ride. The girl behind the counter banged the keyboard and said, “Have the Deluxe suite for $80.”

I surrendered my card, thinking of the dark drive home after a long night with the widow of Rock and Roll, who alluded to her living conditions as a source of stress but offered few details in our e-mail exchanges. I had a pretty good idea what the trouble was,

“My boyfriend broke up with me today,” the Vagabond clerk confessed as she did the paperwork. Her demeanor was flat. I looked at her clean, lightly freckled face, which was full, wholesome like a girl carrying pails of milk across a field in an old painting I saw once.

An ex of mine had sent flowers that morning, a lovely collection of yellow, red and peach roses, and he knew better. He knew if he was going to send me a gift to ease his guilty conscious I preferred something more practical. All my exes send flowers before and after the do hard time as my boyfriend . They feel obligated, but it just hit me how much this holiday meant to most women.

 

This girl didn’t expect much. But she surely did not expect she’d be dumped. She didn’t seem high maintenance to me. She did not even give herself the luxury of emoting . I did so for her: “That insensitive bastard,” I blurted out before I could consider the rhetorical ramifications of cursing in the sanitized office of a seaside motel in front of this plump, pale picture of pastoral womanhood. She was about half my age, and I felt a deep pang of empathy because I knew of this ploy.

A guy breaks it off with a girl just before Valentine’s Day because he is desperate to avoid the inherent perils of how he handles the celebration, which women, of course, tend to read as a declaration of the depths of their romance. It betrays how easy it is to misunderstand sex and friendship especially in the context of a consumer driven culture.

The girl’s blue eyes were not yet clouded by the stormy and sorted side of the fairy tales she probably grew up on, but she was sure of it when she said, “I am through with him and and lov,” her chin defiantly gestured to a garland of gory pink and red hearts adorning the lobby windows.

“It is,” I assured her, “more trouble than it’s worth.”

This blue collar kid was grounded in an oddly astute yet elusive reality a woman like the widow could never quite comprehend.

 

She loved her rock god for several dizzy, debauchery driven and degrading decades before he died, leaving her little more than the dubious fame of being his girlfriend back in the day. He was an obscure footnote in the Rock and Roll hall of fame when she became his wife. Broke and broken, he beat he, she says, r when he drank, which was all the time, for much of the life they had as husband and wife. Now years after it ended with his death, she was blue because she didn’t get to say goodbye. Love plays dirty tricks on the dirty girl.

The Vagabond’s desk clerk gave me keys to a room next to the office, which may have been a random thing or policy for women checking in alone or the gods whispering what was best for me. Maybe she knew I wasn’t going to get any this weekend either, so it didn’t matter that so many people were passing through this intersection beside the stairs.

There was an ice maker and coke machine near the door, I noticed as I thanked her for the discount, knowing she’d fall again. We all do, even when we know better.

 

Part 2

The widow herself was flawless. Her face like a doll’s, her thick blonde main shining and thick as it fell perfectly along those tiny shoulders along her ample bosom. Silicon bulges and purple veins betrayed what most assumed. Sixty year old women do not defy gravity. Not with tits like this. Tiny women rarely come with tits like this, but I did not argue as she defended the D-cup marvels. Maybe she was the real deal. Who knew? Who cared?

Her little hut in the tweaker compound was a sad, windowless cave with cardboard boxes full of crap scattered and stacked in some surreal configuration only she could comprehend. It was far from the worst dump I’d been in. I’d grown up in much worse when I was fortunate enough to have shelter. Nevertheless, even in the Valentine’s day drizzle that wept when dusk began a slow descent, I could smell the stench of the large scroungy mutts lounging outside.

The timber wolf emerged from the dark cluttered bed room on long uncertain legs. It sniffed in my general direction and followed it’s snout. It collapsed at my feet like a rescued hostage. The widow began to cuss the poor beast out. It looked up with weary gold flickering in it’s eyes. It’s expression seemed more human than any I’d seen before. I’d spent a little over an hour with the widow. I had a fairly sound grasp of what the wolf suffered. I felt rather trapped myself as she made Kahlua and coffee in chipped mugs stained with fuchsia lipstick in the dark dirty kitchen. I wanted to go but forced myself to stay. And stay. I was not sure what for or why. I just needed to see what happened.

She was bitching about her living conditions. About her rock and roll crap shoot. A book her late mate penned except for a lucid forward she believed would be a nice final score, the millions she needed to get through the next decade or two looking like a wax figure of herself 30 years before. As usual He blew it. I had been hopeful about ghostwriting.

But this wench made Norma Desmond hack duty look like a cakewalk. I couldn’t imagine being married to her, but Killer managed to survive a long time in her clutches. . The big hapless oaf even had a few final joyous moments because he just wanted the band to play together again and they had. When they did it was big televised show, too.

After meeting the widow, I was certain ARTHUR aka Killer Kane was luckier than anyone knew. “Dumb fucker! Died broke. ” She spoke this monologue as if he were listening. The wolf’s eyes bore into my soul. I think it was trying to tell me something. I spoke to it in whispers. These were secret subtle gestures I recalled from girlhood when I ran through the trailer parks barefoot, every mutt in the hood happily trailing after me. In college I had a hybrid. A shy lone wolf I called Los, who had a weakness for Nick Cave songs. Dogs can be pounced, bounced and trounced. Wolves need to be wooed.

While I prefer cats, who are drawn to me but not necessarily under my influence, I have had an odd intuitive rapport with most dogs for as long as I can recall. A police dog bit me when I was very small. One of my first memories It was tied up in the sun and mad, barking and barking. After the ER, I slipped out again, bandaged up, and fearlessly approached the dog again, only more slowly until it finally sunk gratefully into my lap as I stroked it and softly sang Nancy Sinatra songs with my own lyrics. “You keep trying to bite off my fingers, but confess . .”

 

Once a St. Bernard caught a whiff of strange mutt on me in someone’s back yard. It was a child’s party, and sweltering hot when it lurched for my small form suddenly. I recall the eyes. Red with rage as it opened it’s great mouth to devour me. I found myself at the top of a tree in the next second. Bleeding a little where it’s ghastly fangs caught my slim brown arm, I felt happy I wasn’t mauled until everyone below began to freak out. There were angry voices, arguments. Finally there was common sense. Someone said the dog should be put down since it was 100 degrees and the poor old creature was wearing three mink coats and delirious enough to go after a little girl less than half it’s size.

“This is the right thing.” The wise old granny declared.

But I protested.

“Humane,” the granny explained. “Sometimes life just ain’t worth suffering.”

I would not protest now. I learned eventually what she meant but never grasped it more completely than I did knowing I could not deliver the mercy of death to the widow’s wolf. I peered into the feral face of this wild thing kept in crippling small spaces with a lunatic. I longed to take him to the beach. To let him run himself to death, but this would mean consoling the widow.

I arched my eyebrows as if the wolf actually understood my all but articulated thoughts.

This was asking a bit much. An image of the widow weeping into my shoulder sent a shudder through my spine. I am not up to an Exorcism right now I told myself then the wolf, who was getting pushy, I thought. The widow kept talking and I kept making affirmative noises so she thought I cared what she was saying.

 

I sunk out of my chair, laid my body lightly across the long scary skin, bones and fur. I listened to the steady strong beat of it’s feral heart. No, it was not going to happen anytime soon.it looked up at me in misery. I tried to figure out how to kill it and make a get-away.

I would text Gonzo Girl to call me so I could escape before the creature succumbed to sweet eternal slumber. He liked the sound of that. There seemed to be hope in its eyes as I desperately dug into my big purse in search of some kind of painless cure for life. Vicodin? Muscle relaxers? Midol? Chocolate? All of my mercy was back at the Vagabond. I felt sure the wolf was exasperated by me. It sighed and dropped it’s body to the floor. “Sorry,” I whispered, feeling guilty.

It got up, weaved in a few ritualistic circles and fell in front of the kitchen entry just as the widow was finally delivering our libations. Her tiny high heeled boots were surprisingly deft and she nimbly hopped over the length of the wolf which had to be at least five feet. She was unnerved by this. A fall could be catastrophe at her age and with so many accessories sewn in.

 

She said over and over she wasn’t crazy.

“The wolf is passive aggressive! ”She insisted.

I thought suicidal was more likely.

“Fuck you. Son of bitch! Did yah see that? This motherfucker is trying to kill me!”

I tried to defend the wolf lamely, but I was pretty sure he was trying to kill her or at least maim her and I didn’t blame him. Afraid she was going to beat the poor thing, I urged her to sit down, toasted to her literary success and begged her to tell me about ARTHUR

When I spoke the name, the wolf seemed to look up in response.

“He’s here,” she announced as she pulled a Kool from a case covered in pink rhinestones, struggled to get fire from a mutilated Bic. She would swear until I tossed her my lighter. Even I was relieved as she exhaled the calming breath of nicotine smoke.

The wolf and I cowered beneath the heavy clouds of it. It was toxic like the sound of her voice as she nagged him. “He’s here!”

“Who?” I asked just to be sure.

I looked toward the door, expecting one of the tweakers to appear. “Arthur !” she said, the fag dangling from her heavy gloss as she squinted and puffed. I took a pull from the cup. I was pretty sure Arthur was there and had been all along. He didn’t want to be. None of us did.

But we had no choice. “He is tied to me,” the widow answered my thoughts. “Mormons are like wolves. They mate for life.”

I grabbed the book ARTHUR penned before a brief but successful comeback that made his sudden death somehow less severe. Except for the widow.

She didn’t love him exactly, but he owed her. ARTHUR owed her and he knew it. It seemed that her late husband was much like the wolf. Transparent, teetering weakly between realms and bound to this ferocious blond creature. The wolf was far less forgiving than Arthur, who blamed himself for being such a boozer and for turning her out on the streets to bring in some money when the band broke up. He had called her a whore, but he admitted he made her into one.

She was busy texting someone as I read Arthur’s occasionally self indulgent memoir. He rarely alluded to his wife. He had great loathing and affection for his band though. His life revolved around the few frenzied years they came up to crash and burn like some apocalyptic comet.

None of them became musicians until it was all over, except ARTHUR , who was a naturally gifted if not ungainly bassist in drag. This was part of their genius, but Arthur didn’t have this sort of insight or a sense of humor. His friends forgave him for this, for his addictions and for being unbearable.

His wife was not so generous. Nor as forgivable. It seemed to me that as the wolf watched intently, Arthur read over my shoulder, the light and shadows dancing towards darkness across the filthy walls. I gulped my drink as I sat, finishing the slim paperback in 45 minutes or so.

I had questions for the widow but no buzz. I began another desperate quest through my bag. I was sure I had some bomb ass twisted sister squirrelled away for the interview. I could smell the sweet pungent stank.

Then I realized that was grass not grass. The wolf farted. I felt the wind rise up and travel across my cheeks. It was a dry dead stench. Nice. I was mad dogging a sick timber wolf and thinking: Hey man, I can’t just murder you. That bitch is crazy.

 

Dear God, I wanted to bellow, just let me throttle the misery from it’s wise old eyes. Let me liberate it with a pillow or a bullet at close range. I had never killed anything on purpose, and my accidental death toll was limited to road kill: Kamikaze pigeons, toad invasions I had to drive through. And to my everlasting shame, I killed a canary when I let it fraternize happily with wild lice ridden sparrows.

He was never that yellow and he never sang like that until he had his lowly companions outside the cage. I lingered on the last few pages long after the book lost my interest. I scribbled maniacally in a note book. How the fuck did I coax this crazy bitch out of this cave? Before I became totally delusional.

“I got a killer stash of Kush at the motel,” I mentioned. A few times. I did not want to be on this tweaker compound when night fell. I didn’t want to go all- tell-tale- heart on that timber wolf either.

“Were they making meth,” I asked the widow. Maybe the fumes. . . The widow said, “probably” and sprung from her chair. She spent the next half hour in scattered activity.

“You gonna wear that?” she eyed me with scorn. I wore a well cut pair of jeans, a turtleneck and my deep red Mary Janes with chunky heels. To appease her, I grabbed my makeup bag and began to paint more layers onto my face. All I had besides were a torn up tee shirt and some cut offs I was going to wear the next day.

“Christ ,” she said to Arthur who was trying to disappear beneath the lamp. “Remember, back in the day bitches when used to get all dolled up and so did their men?”

I was still a lump of adolescent tomboy when Arthur and his band made punk rock new in the 70s. The drummer did himself in with a hot shot of heroin. The singer, a leathery low life Mick Jagger wanna be became a novelty act with a stupid song and a few small embarrassing comic cameos in bad movies. I could barely stand the sight of him. The guitarist, who the widow clearly still carried a torch for, had enjoyed some success with his bands and the debauchery of the performances. I’d seen him perform at a little club in Long Beach many moons before. I remember being about 20 years old and feeling somehow offended by his orgiastic excess with some 14 year old groupie he paddled on stage. My date was in ecstasy until the heavily mascaraed punk nodded out and the little goth girl began to steal the show by turning his paddle on him. I did not mention this as I tried to push the widow to the door. It was almost dark. I felt desperate. Like the undead were soon going to rise to drink blood, crave brains and undermine Democracy. I kept bragging about the weed. It was that good. I knew my weed. But what I needed was a stiff belt of blackberry brandy. This I did mention at least once as I licked the rim of her cup after sucking up the toddy she barely bothered to taste. It only made my contact high more contentious.

“I need something to take the edge off,” I heard myself pleading.

The widow understood this if not me. “Just like Arthur,” she said as if she knew something I didn’t.

It did strike me as strange he also drank the thick sweet nectar as every pint I ever picked up in a liquor store was thick with dust and the clerk blinked at me, got Black Label and ultimately let me find the deep purple curves of my old friend Hiram Walker. The pints sat so long they were still marked under Ten bucks. Of course, discriminating wastes of skin prefer cheap elixirs that are strong, quick and deceptively easy to pull. And the widow would drive most people to strong drink. Or worse.

I finally had her out the door, where she kicked at the fat lazy hounds letting flies eat their ears. They scattered in different directions. The wolf watched with disinterest as we left. I wished it well. I wished it death. If I came back, I promised myself I’d have something to help it get free of its mortal coil. Arthur was no longer with us, I thought, closing the door. And the widow in her spooky way seemed to hear what I was thinking.

“Arthur,” the widow explained, “is a homebody.”

“Me too,” I told her and myself catching the evening chill. We passed several small stucco shacks like hers. It was rocky, uneven ground with weeds sprouting up and no light except for a glowering full moon behind some clouds. Her sharp little heels made walking an act of incredible balance. She was a true party girl. She trudged ahead, cussing and all but blind as I followed in my heavy heels, hair wild, and face unbearably ordinary because all I had was cheap drugstore cosmetics. The widow was old enough to be my mother, but I was dowdy, sexless. She actually mentioned a daughter she gave up when she was quite young. The woman was adamant she wanted nothing to do with the widow. My math skills were not much to brag about, but her only child was indeed around my age.

“How old are you?” the widow demanded as if she heard my thoughts again as they were weaving around in my head.

I told her my age.

“You seem younger.” she noted this, an apt enough observation, but it was not a compliment. I was a pudgy middle aged wreck beside her brassy beauty.

“My pretty face went to HELL,” I said suddenly as clairvoyant as she was.

“You know Iggy?” she was gushing. I didn’t know Iggy really. He had pushed me on stage and ordered roadies to put me on a huge speaker at a show once in the ’80s. I was being trampled when Iggy spotted me and sung down like Tarzan: “Keep her safe,” his big eyes ordered.

It wasn’t always so so heroic, but it was still cool another time at the Whiskey when he noted me alone among leaping gnomes at the stage, serene for a rare moment in life as the music throbbed through my body. He was so perplexed by how others kept a full foot away from me when he performed he thought about bashing me upside the head with a mic stand. He lifted it to threaten me. I smiled, sure he would miss if he was on one. I felt giddy because I seemed to spook him. I had little witchy tricks. It was peppermint oil. It kept me cool and seared the eyes of pale white punks. They wilted beside me.

I did meet him once. In the 90s I reviewed Little Caesar an album that was far better than much of what was on college playlists. Inside the notes, Iggy invited fans to drop him a note. I scribbled something stupid, crammed the note and the newspaper clipping in an envelope and could not believe he promptly responded, inviting me to interview him when he performed in Denver where I spent the grunge years. He had an entire section at the stage just for me, and grinded his crotch in my face through the first half of the show. The interview was sober and terse as his China girl kept close watch over us. Iggy was very sophisticated, polite and well spoken. He talked about being an anthropologist at some point, but my questions bored him. I am not so good at flirting, but I am not sure this was the problem. I started to tell the widow about Iggy and me when her curses flew.

A beer guy in a stained wife beater stood outside a crumbling garage. A hillbilly, I reasoned between his beard and the bare feet. As we got closer, I saw he was in need of a shower, his eyes wet and mad with amphetamine courage. He probably had a vat of felonies behind the ragged curtain that served as a door. I sniffed the sweet scent of rain. Her voice bounced off the night, full of foul fury. I felt myself flinch reflexively as the man smiled and spoke: ” You batshit crazy bitch, you won’t even let the dead rest!” The widow stomped past him, a verbal assault ringing through the quiet oceanside town.

“You gonna ride with her?” he was laughing as he saw my face fall. I had been so eager to leave I followed her without thinking. I rushed up to her banged up Mustang as she struggled to start it, catching a mouthful of pebbles and dust when she gunned it to life. It was a loud roar of sick pistons and screeching belts.

She looked at me and spat, “Get in.”

The hillbilly was shaking his head as he went back into the garage.

“Umm, where we going? My truck…”

She pushed the door open roughly and said the magic words: “Liquor Store.”

My ass was in the seat but the door swung out wide as she whipped the car in a circle that sent pebbles and dirt in all directions. She peeled out as I got my foot in, and the door slammed shut. I swallowed as she weaved at an ungodly speed through the alley behind the compound. She fiddled with the stereo and loud obnoxious hard rock Arthur would have loathed assaulted my being. She got lost a few times before we found the place a few blocks up the road. A homeless man greeted me as I rushed in to get the brandy, rolling papers and a huge bottle of water to fend off the hangover I saw in my not so distant future. The widow, added peanuts and a Pepsi to my order. I paid without complaint. Her friends from the Silicon Valley or wherever it was were waiting for us at the motel, she told me on the way back to the compound. There was a garage in front with a tidy cottage nestled behind it and a large white frame house in disrepair. Both looked vaguely respectable from the street and the huts were hidden deftly by walls and trees . No one was really out. I noted the same tweaker was in the same car fixing the same thing he was when I arrived a life time before. He was an Native American, serene despite his bloated pupils. He did not like the widow. But he was too kind to attack her in front of me if at all. When she asked him to look at my banged up pick up, he gave me a very fair quote for body work.

“It’s not a priority,” I kept telling her.

“She’s not about cosmetic,” the widow quipped.

This was true enough. The tweaker smiled at me and said the truck was a good one. Another man, small and whiskered had joined us as the florescent light from inside the shop flickered. ” Damn things get two maybe even three hundred thousand miles if you change the oil.”

I assured them I did this religiously every three months. And we talked about nothing while the widow texted with her tiny pink cell phone. The little guy looked over at her with disdain. He and the Native American were very cordial, careful to speak without cursing until I let loose with an life-giving “motherfucker.” They were impressed by the fact that I was a writer, though I tried to impress upon them with how obscure and freelance my efforts were.

“Naw, she showed us. You are a poet. And a college professor.”

“Sort of, ” I agreed.

ADJUNCT instructor turned urban high school teacher seemed rather mundane as the little man gushed about the book I was working on. I didn’t want to contradict the widow, but I didn’t want to pretend I was more than another knucklehead hoping to be more than nobody. My modesty made me more endearing, and a third man, wiry and compact came from the house behind the shop. This was the John who beat the widow. He was coiled up, dangerous, and owned the place. You could tell by the way the other two stood aside to let him take front and center. The widow watched as she punched her tiny keys— she was wary. He looked like any blue collar businessman. His eyes were bright, he was clean shaven, not quite handsome, at most a very fit fifty. He shook my hand, asked if the blue pick up belonged to me and made small talk until I began to fidget. I had to pee. I was not sure if DEA agents were lurking close by ready to raid this haven of tweakers and mangy old dogs. If Ashton Kutcher was punking me, it was going to be difficult to explain to the school board. I started to leave, irreverently asking the John to tell the widow to meet me at the Vagabond. Annoyance filled his small features. The Native American slid back to the deeper corners of the garage and the little fellow licked his lips. The owner joined the widow in the darkening shadows. She cowered a little, but their voices were too quiet to hear. She stumbled a little, offering to kiss his cheek. He recoiled and she waved, “I will meet you there.”

I jumped in the pick up, it started and I worked its wide unwieldy ass out of the spot and took off. The lights glimmering off the wet black asphalt were intoxicating. I wanted to keep driving up the 101 until I was too weary to go on. I wanted to sleep in some motel for days then drive back like I was another person. Instead I went the mile or so there was, eased the truck into a nice spot just outside my room and gathered my bags, my bottles, my wits and went inside the cool comforts of my seaside digs. I sat at the table, opened the bottle of brandy and took a sip. It was stiff and off or old batch. I took a longer pull then rolled a fat joint, enjoying the busy fingers that tugged at sticky green leaves as the buds grew fragrant. I stopped shaking as I fondled and tore. I smoked about half but felt little relief. I had done a line of speed that morning. It was not something I did often anymore. An acquaintance showed up as I was going and offered. It was a fine buzz while tempered by Kush and solitude. But much too intense for tweaker compounds, wolves, widows, and Arthur’s tortured ghost.

I sent Gonzo Girl another text: Dear God, this woman is mad. She lives with some John on a tweaker compound with a suicidal wolf and Arthur’s ghost. It is later in NYC and she was clubbing with friends when she gets the message. “OMG, she sent back.

She wanted all the details, but was distracted.

“So I am interviewing a 60 year old Domo who thinks shoving stilettos up an old pervs’s ass is therapeutic. Makes sense.”

GG gushed in drunken misspelled words, “I totally luv you!

I felt this way for her as well, but there was not enough Brandy to make me say it much less text it.

“Ditto.”I tapped out on my Blackberry. I took a second long pull and lit up the joint again. The herb was outstanding, but one stops getting stoned at some point. It is the taste, the smoke I loved . I was going to miss weed when I died. I was not sure the widow was coming. Part of me hoped she didn’t, most of me knew better. Her John may have decided to kick her ass or fuck her. He was calling the shots. But she would manipulate me into her melodrama if I didn’t watch out. Her John was half Arthur’s size, but it was obvious Arthur was harmless until his wife drove him to jump out windows or beat her off to keep from suffocating. Her story was never clear or consistent, but one caught on to who she and Arthur were quickly. She was probably the reason he soared as well as the reason he fell out with his band. I was scribbling barely legible thoughts into a notebook I would never look at again when she called to say she was on her way. It would take a half hour for her to get there I figured. I sighed as I did some last minute search on my laptop. Was Joey dead? I could not remember and I could not find much with google. I texted GG. She was appalled I did not know this vital fact before visiting the widow.

I felt otherwise, believing it best to be more than a groupie. Arthur fascinated me, but not as some Girly boy in a band that played shit one needed to hear live and at under 30 to fully appreciate. The loser who knew city bus lines, lived on a pauper’s income and makes no sense now that he’s humble and sober seems to be Autistic, perhaps confounded by Nerves that can’t quite serve his body. He is intelligent, articulate, deep and innocent. He is awkward and shy, unattractive. He takes himself too seriously. Yet there is a painful nobility in his naked interviews with some inspired fan, not even born yet when Arthur was storming NYC dives with his peculiar band. The fan films him for a documentary. He is the least flamboyant, he is not charismatic or photographic except in drag at angles his girlfriend, wife, ex and widow no doubt made him up for, found then posed just so. Ultimately she created killer Vain, who could perform in drag, all 7 feet of him poured into sequins, tights, torn lingerie and all that warpaint.

“The widow,” I texted GG, “is like Dr. Frankenstein. killer is her creature.”

“Yep,” she replied. “It took real talent to make Arthur into killer Kane.”

“True, that.” I answered.

Then picked up the lag: “She’s hitting on me. Trying to get me to rent a place up here. I wanted to live in Ventura but not with the widow in my house or hair.”

“She’s hot, right?” GG was especially charming when she was wasted.

Well, I have never met GG, but we have texted on assignment which we like lubricated with intimacy in these circumstances. She was my best friend.

“Are you out with Serenade?”asked, knowing GG had a hard on for her. I

I admired her candor, her sense of adventure.

“Yeah. We are dancing with Jimmies from New Jersey. Why?”

I pull one of her moves, which she assumes I don’t notice.

“The widow is hot like a porno star with a bit of class.” I explain. “She has none, though.”

“Would you do her?” GG pushes.

“If you mean kill her. Yes.”

It was as if I could hear GG erupt in girlish giggles as I did.

“Are you stoned? Are you drunk? So? Would ya do da widow?”

“I wouldn’t fuck that skank with your dick.” I chuckled again.

This really worked wonders on my edge. Apparently my texts were a big hit wherever Gonzo Girl was getting gonzo, but she and I agreed to part as her roll dogs pull her to another club and the widow begins to pound on my door a full ten minutes later than I predicted. My room reeks of dank excess, which the widow inhales like a true aficionado I feel a little softer towards her as she savors the roach beneath lush clouds. It is weird, she is like another person. Soft spoken, vaguely interested in what I am saying. She says she is educated, from a good family, and interested in psychology and the spirit. I attempt to take her lucid state wherever it leads. She occasionally rants when she talks about Joey Torrential.

“Is he dead?” I want to fucking know but dare not ask as neither answer bodes well. She is sure he would have made her a star. She never explains why he doesn’t. She slips into the present. Her predicament is pretty dire, I am liquored up enough to empathize with this. The guy is beating her down. She’s banged up beneath all the pancake. Such a tiny wisp of woman. It is hard to imagine her accepting such abuse. She is not used to it. She’s an abuser. But I saw her admiration for the John. I change the subject when she mentions me moving to Ventura and taking care of her. No stranger to such primitive ploys, she tells me she likes women. Is this what she thinks I am there for?

“Me too,” I concede, “but I don’t sleep with them.”

“You remind me of Arthur,” she says.

I am a little offended for some reason, but whatever it is she recognises in me reminds her of why she loved him at least for a little while.

“How do you pay for upkeep?” I ask referring to her weave, the airbrushed makeup, her Botox and so on.

“I have a lot of clients from the Internet. That’s why the asshole took away my netbook. But they still call me” her manicured fingers stroke the scuffed pink cell. She tells me how much she enjoys hurting these frail old men and assorted freaks. She is swooning in a skunk haze. Sixty and hot enough for men to pay her hundreds of dollars an hour to slap, poke, belittle, sodomise and humiliate them. There is a tap on my door.

“That’s Megan, ” squealed the widow, hopping up like some sorority sister jacked up on root beer floats at a slumber party. Megan is a tall, very thin blonde with eyes that float around in her head. She is my age, a spoiled suburban soccer mom and slurring her words. She keeps looking me over. Whatever kind of goggles she is wearing they have made my proletariat ass doable. The pair scoot off into the bathroom where soccer mom claims her undergarments are undone just as the widow mentions her latest black and blue souvenirs from Johnny Lovehate. Soccer Mom invites the widow to her split level in bum fuck domesticated. I am not sure where this or many places are. I have been there, but I can’t tell you much about them because they are gentrified, sterile and redundant. One is just like another.

I offer soccer mom the brandy before taking another desperate pull.

The widow intercepts the bottle before the long greedy fingers can grasp it.

“She doesn’t drink.”

I arched an eyebrow because clearly she did something. She was getting loopy and incoherent as it seemed to kick in.

“Hey,” I said,” I am not one to judge. I just want some.”

I was only half joking. But whatever soccer mom was imbibing I was not going to indulge with these two and soccer mom’s Ward Cleaver down the hall.

“You want some?” The soccer mom was suddenly belligerent.

On second thought. . .

Reluctantly I follow them back to soccer mom’s room. I understand why the widow suggests such a pricey motel. Dives up the street had to go for half what the Vagabond charged, if that. A bland, friendly fellow let’s us in, opens a beer for me and makes small talk while widow and soccer mom fall all over the bed, giggling. He ignores them and so do I as we pretend his job at the utility company is interesting. The only thing I remember is he was drug tested and going without weed to be sure since soccer mom lost her job at one of those firms behind the devastating unethical loans that left my hood in foreclosure. It startled me that he was so shameless about this, even annoyed because his wife is no longer bringing in her earnings at the expense of poor working slobs who could not afford the American Dream. I soon find myself following the giddy girls back to my room for more Kush. The widow is maternal and sisterly to soccer mom. When I ask soccer mom about homelenders.com, she waves off the insinuation that she is complicit in crimes. I am diplomatic. Not like me.

“Bullshit!” she shouts. “They know what they’re signing up for. Mofferpuckers begging me for ARM loans.”

Begging? Well, they may be,” I cannot believe I hear myself say, after bemoaning bank policy that only lends money to those who don’t really need it. “But you know it’s unethical to give it them.”

“Efffics?” soccer mom retorts trying to stay focused.

“Uh, yeah, you know,” I offer stupidly, “Doing the right thing? The greater good?”

“So what’s that got to do with business?”

“Clearly not much,” I snap, grateful I don’t have to defer to her because I wasn’t a trick. Or even some closet sex freak.

“Are you religious?” the widow asks as if guessing a riddle.

“God. No.” I reply.

Soccer mom climbs into the widow’s lap. She is tall, her legs are spindly, clinging to her like a spider money. I can see her spine beneath the Lycra top she wears. I decide soccer mom is more obnoxious than the widow. I am impressed by how patient and indulgent the widow is. And again, I think of the daughter she gave up. We say good night when soccer mom lasciviously gropes me or at me, unable to stand up. She can walk. Suddenly she begins to weep. Not for the first time in a very very long night. It comes out that she is swiping her daughter’s Oxycontin. The teenager from another union has cancer and it sounds bad, but not really. It’s awful, but I don’t care about some spoiled white brat in the burbs. I take great pains to look weary, sorry to see them go. We agree to meet for breakfast in the morning. There is a diner next to the motel. I am fond of diners, realizing I have had only meth, coffee, liquor, weed, cloves and weirdness all day long.I look at my Timex. It is not even midnight. I felt sure it was four AM when soccer mom’s unintelligible cheers bounced across the concrete. The freeway just behind the Vagabond boomeranged silence as I peered from behind the drapes. A mist was settling over Ventura with morning. The lights fizzled off at the diner. The ocean roared not too far off but, I wouldn’t make it there this time. No diner I decided, afraid I may run into Mr. Cleaver over his oatmeal while I nursed my bloody Mary and eggs.

I decided to take PCH back on Sunday morning, put on Velvet Underground, maybe some Lenny Cohen. I was half done with a half pint and stark raving sober. I really wanted to be on the road, to be home. But a headlight was out. I had been drinking. Indulging in psychoactive substances. I was night blind too. Fuck. I was telepathic with ancient timber wolves and seeing the ghost of a rock and roll savant. GG was probably still falling about on the electric streets of the Big Apple. I texted.

“Wait ’til I tell you about the soccer mom.”

“Oh you undercover Kerouac,” she seemed to coo in a misguided symbols.

“I am more disturbed,” I confess, “than anything.”

“Even Better.” Her phone dies.

Then mine does as if finalizing the end of another broadcasting day.

I crawl on the ugly bed spread, curl up and stare into the darkness until my mind finds peace.

 

Part 3

It seems like minutes later that I wake, amped-up like the speed has come back for an encore. I throw my shit together and dash out into a bright sparkling morning. By the time I hit a gas station it is almost 8 am. I send the widow an apologetic text. I have to get home . An emergency. My sitter, as it so happens calls no sooner than I hit send to ask that I come home soon as he does indeed have an appointment. I don’t ask. I assure him I will make it in time.

Heathcliff and Oliver have been up all night playing video games. My protege is burnt out as my son and I are catching our second wind. It dawns on me as I pull in that Heathcliff has evaded his girlfriend and Valentine’s day. I fixed him up with this great girl de Thalia Minerve Aster de Gallo. Everyone affectionately deferred to Gibby.

We bonded because I read her name the first day of class and blurted out, “OMG, you are named after a Butthole Surfer.”

“Is that like Bunnymen?” she grinned.

“Well, some would argue way cooler, but Echo and Gibby’s bands are like apples and oranges.”

“Cool.”

I was miffed by the time I parked the beast, a challenge on Sunday morning. I wanted to catch Heathcliff before he bailed. Thanks to the PS2 a ten year old boy with a gonzo mom and natural curiosity could be relatively safe on his own for half an hour. Of course the giddy freak that greeted me with maniacal laughter as I swung open the door to have a word with Heathcliff was another issue.

My look texted, “WTF?”

“Sorry,” he offered. “I was the flying sugarland express myself.” He look troubled. He had this brooding beauty that was complimented perversely by Gibby’s goofy charms She’d been good for him, but I was having concerns for her. Heathcliff was prone to dark deeds and secrets.

“Look,” I began as I caught a glimpse of the flowers my ex sent me (that baboon! I don’t want no stinking flowers; however, cash is useful).

“We both know this holiday is a sham and so does Gibby, but teenage girls are gloriously fickle beings.”

“I didn’t realize it was Valentine’s day until I was crashing last night after three Monster energy drinks, and I dunno. I dunno. But I gotta go find Gibbs and make it up to her.”

I dug into my Jean pocket pulled a dub out of the crumpled bills I had left.

“Take these,” I said shoving the money , bouquet and vase into his arms.

“For your mom,” I explained. I pulled a perfect purple daisy from the arrangement. I poked him with it, “for your girl.”

Always polite he pretended he was interested in where I was, what I was doing, “So, how was your thing?”

“Sixty year old Domo, incredible preservation, tweaker compound, sexually depraved soccer mom on Hillbilly Heroin, Timber Wolf and shy glam rocker ‘s ghost … Kind of dull in all honesty.”

Oliver has wild blue eyes and he cannot stop laughing.

“He is gonna crash hard.” Heathcliff notes, dashing off.

We all do.

 

 

 

 

 

BIO

Rene Diedrich lives in the lost coast with her teenage son Nick. She works as a poet, painter and writer.

I Was the Dean of Futures Studies

by Barbara J. Campbell

April 20, 2008

Greenfield Community College
English Department
One College Drive
Greenfield, MA 01301

Dear Search Committee Members:

I am writing to apply for the Full-Time Lecturer English Composition position, reference code FAC 91540 start date August 28, 2008, advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Given the qualifications and responsibilities of the position, I think that my six years of teaching experience in developmental reading and writing, advanced composition, and American literature at the University of Connecticut fit your job description well.

My success as a teacher is best demonstrated by my educational philosophy, the numerous teaching opportunities extended to me by the University of Connecticut’s English Department, and my student evaluations. I integrate the Socratic Method and traditional lecture in order to accommodate particular learning styles. As of May of 2008, I have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn, most of them writing intensive.

I have worked with a variety of student writers throughout my career as an instructor: low-income and first-generation college students enrolled in the federally funded TRIO program, undergraduates preparing for nursing and business careers, English majors, non-native speakers of English, transfer students, international students, and continuing education students. All of my courses, whether Basic Writing, Freshman Composition, or American Literature, include readings from women, people of color, proletariat and working-class writers, LGBT authors, and writers with disabilities. The attached student evaluations corroborate my commitment to multicultural and diverse curricula that draws from students’ experiences to challenge them academically. My average “Student Evaluation of Teaching” is an 8.93 on a 10.0 scale, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” (8.0-10.0). My highest scores (9.7 in American Literature, 8.8 in Basic Writing, 8.7 in Literature and Composition) have well exceeded department averages. Due to my success in our program, the department allowed me to teach advanced courses such as American Literature, an opportunity granted only to advanced Ph.D. students.

Although I have not taught at a community college previously, working with students from varied academic experiences has shown me that I can best put my skills to use in an open admissions institution.

Many of the economically disadvantaged students I have taught needed to balance the demands of full-time employment while attending school. In several cases, the student had family responsibilities, such as a single-parent raising children or an international student attending college with the goal of obtaining a good job so his family could join him to live in the United States. Instead of relegating the potential stressors of work and family experiences to the margins, though, and viewing them as obstacles to student accomplishment, I devised innovative writing assignments that invite students to reflect and incorporate their experiences from outside the classroom.

I am seeking a position at Greenfield Community College because the institution provides an exceptional education to a diverse student population, many of who may initially find state universities and private liberal-arts schools financially out of their reach. I began my teaching career as many in our profession do: tutoring students individually in all aspects of academic reading and writing. The experience I gained tutoring in writing centers serves as the basis for my teaching philosophy as an English instructor. My teaching style works to cultivate the student’s own voice through a rich, inner dialogue with a variety of textual forms.

I hope to share my enthusiasm and my dedication to my work with the students at Greenfield Community College. I have included a copy of my curriculum vitae and references. My teaching philosophy, excerpts from student evaluations, and course syllabi are enclosed. Should you require a teaching portfolio or any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at barbara.campbell@uconn.edu or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

Barbara J. Campbell

Barbara J. Campbell, Ph.D. Candidate in English, UConn
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

May 1, 2008

Mystic Seaport Museum,
The Museum of America and The Sea
P.O. Box 6000
Mystic, CT 06355

Dear Human Resources:

I am writing to apply for the historical reenactor position Miss L.E. Ackerman for Mystic Seaport’s nineteenth-century living history maritime museum advertised in the Norwich Bulletin. Given the sketch of Miss Ackerman’s character, I think that my six years of teaching experience, research in nineteenth-and-twentieth century American women writers, and affection for intramural baseball fit your job description well.

My success as a teacher is attributable to my educational philosophy which combines the Socratic Method with traditional lecture. These approaches are transferable and ideally suited to the reenactor’s art of first-person interpretation required at Mystic’s nineteenth-century replica of a New England Coastal Village. As of May of 2008, I have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn, all of them highly interactive.

My work with a variety of American literary and cultural texts would create an authentic portrayal of Miss Ackerman. Imagine a composite character based on different protagonists found in nineteenth-century American women’s novels: Jo and Beth March from Little Women (1868), Ellen Montgomery and Alice Humphreys from The Wide, Wide World (1850), even the statue of the Korl Woman from Life in the Iron Mills (1861) could serve as an inspiration. Many of these women, whether angels, orphans, or invalids, tested the boundaries of the traditional domestic roles of marriage and motherhood when granted greater access to higher education, including even those consumptive British Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. In fact, my recent experience with whooping cough coupled with my own economic struggles would only enhance my portrait of Miss Ackerman: I can die from lack of oxygen and exhaustion on the job with verisimilitude. My average “Student Evaluation of Teaching” is an 8.93 on a 10.0 scale, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” (8.0-10.0). Therefore, I would excel at playing Miss Ackerman in Mystic’s Performance Outreach Program for K-12 students.

Although some years have passed since I’ve played America’s favorite pastime, I welcome the chance to hone my athletic skills with Mystic Village’s all-female Blue Stockings baseball club.

According to Mystic’s website, The Blue Stockings were “inspired by a photograph of the 1876 Vassar Resolutes,” one of two teams Vassar College created in 1866 to play baseball on campus. It just so happens that I’ve completed extensive research about women and higher education at the Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections as part of my dissertation. This makes me intimately familiar with the college culture in which the Resolutes played. While not adept at recreating 1860s baseball games, especially when uniformed in a dress and crinolette, I could enrich other reenactors characters by researching primary sources in the archives.

I am seeking a position as historical reenactor Miss L.E. Ackerman because Mystic Seaport’s Living History Museum provides an informative and entertaining experience to all members of the public. If hired as a reenactor I hope my performance would prove invaluable beyond the summer season. Due to financial constraints, I am pursuing an alternative career path instead of returning to my graduate program in the Fall. My teaching style would work to cultivate visitors’ knowledge of nineteenth-century American women and maritime history through a rich dialogue on a variety of subjects.

I hope to share my enthusiasm and my dedication to my work with Mystic Seaport’s visitors. I have included a copy of my resume and references. In addition, my teaching portfolio includes exercises for the reenactment course at Mystic that I hope to teach: “I Would Go Back In Time: An Introduction to Roleplaying.” Should you require any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at campbell332002@yahoo.com or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

Barbara J. Campbell

Barbara J. Campbell, Master of Arts, English
UConn
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360


 

 

June 20, 2008

Press Services
International Headquarters
8400 2nd Avenue
Montreal, Qc H1Z 4M6
Canada

 

Dear Mr. Laliberté and Mr. Gauthier,

I am writing to apply for the position of Giovanni the Clown (CAS03136) in your touring show Dralion advertised on Cirque Du Soleil’s website. Given the description of the show and the role of Giovanni, I think that my many years of busking, study of Eastern philosophy, and dislocation skills fit the preferred qualifications of the job.

Although I have over fifteen years of formal training in voice, my success as a singing street performer is best demonstrated by the nickels and dimes left in my guitar case and the rave reviews elicited from passing strangers. By September of 1995, my folk trio and I sung over 50 songs in 10 venues across the East Coast ranging from Portland’s Monument Square to Boston’s Faneuil Hall. I have performed in front of a variety of audiences in my career as a busker: skateboard punks, snot-nosed children who lacked adult supervision, the downtown lunch crowd of CPAs and insurance agents, soccer moms, yuppie summer tourists, drunken sailors on shore leave, the homeless, the elderly, and finally, the toughest crowd of all—Mormons. My set-list of songs reflects my sensitivity to and understanding of a diverse audience; all of my songs include selections from women, people of color, proletariat and working-class musicians, LBGT lyricists, and even musically challenged Canadian singers such as Céline Dion. The attached summary of scores corroborates my commitment to a multicultural and diverse playlist that draws on and challenges the audience’s experiences using innovative arrangements and instruments including the kazoo, slide whistle, and the wholly underrated thumb-piano. My average “Audience Evaluation of Performance” is $8.00 out of $10.00 per hour, ranking my performance within the range of “Outstanding” ($8-$10 per hour). My highest scores ($9.00 and one transfer ticket for the city bus from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young covers, $8.00 from a capella barbershop and blues-jazz classics, $8.75 from Christmas carols and madrigals) have well exceeded city averages. Due to the trio’s consistent success, we landed the opportunity to perform at the much coveted lawn in front of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Portland, Maine, a favorite pitch claimed only by advanced buskers.

While I have not worked as a clown in the entertainment world of circus arts previously, my history performing in front of demanding audiences makes me an exceptional choice for any of Cirque’s touring shows. Since all of my previous work has entailed speaking and singing parts, including Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Joanne in Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, I would welcome the opportunity to broaden my kinesthetic skills with the role of Giovanni the Clown, who, according to Cirque’s description, is a “small timid man who does not like to be left alone on stage.” Having developed an acute form of monophobia from routinely being left alone as a child, I think I am well-suited to this role. Moreover, my undergraduate study of Eastern thought and religions dovetails nicely with Dralion’s theme of Eastern philosophy, quoted on Cirque’s website as the “never-ending quest for harmony between nature and humans.” A substantial period of my college years were spent reading the Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching, listening to the East Indian inspired Mahavishnu Orchestra, and smoking copious amounts of marijuana in my parent’s basement.

Lastly, Cirque’s application guidelines ask job seekers to comment on whether or not one is an autodidact with any special talents to bring to the troupe. I am double-jointed in my thumbs. Given Cirque’s call for performers with dislocation skills I hope to contribute to Dralion or any other Cirque show with this unique talent. Currently I am honing my dislocation abilities by engaging in a rigorous practice schedule of my own design. I should emphasize that I have never received any formal training in thumb dislocation—I am entirely self-taught. The experience I gained busking serves as the basis for my performance philosophy. My performance style combines my childhood love and affinity for mime icon Marcel Marceau with the avant-garde style and intelligence of the Blue Man Group.

I am seeking a position as Giovanni in the show Dralion because Cirque provides exceptional performances to diverse audiences, many of who have determined that it would be beneath their social station to attend circuses by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey or the Shriners. I have included a copy of my curriculum vitae, references, and two photos (one headshot, one of dislocated thumb). I hope to prove myself an invaluable addition to your troupe for Dralion and possibly a full-time member for other shows. I will be available to work in the Fall since I am unable to return to my graduate program due to financial constraints. However, I am ready for this career change. Should you require any more information about my work, please don’t hesitate to contact me via e-mail at campbell332002@yahoo.com or, by phone, at 860-892-4537. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my application.

 

Barbara J. Campbell

 

Barbara J. Campbell,
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

 

 

July 3, 2008

An Den Dekan der Philosopphischen
Fakultät der RWTH Aachen
Professor Paul Hügel
Templergraben 55
D-52062
Aachen, Germany

 

Herr Prof. Paul Hügel:

Guten Tag! Erlauben Sie mir bitte, sich vorzustellen. Mein Name ist Barbara Campbell. Obgleich mein Deutsch ausreichend ist, hoffe ich Sie don’ t-Verstand, dass ich den Rest dieses Buchstaben auf englisch geschrieben habe, um meine Qualifikationen zu übermitteln.

I am writing to apply for the position of Dean of Futures Studies at Rwthaachen University, start date August 13, 2009, advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the job description, you seek a colleague with “didactic competence” and a “scholar with profound experience in the methodology and in the practical application of futures research.” Given the qualifications and responsibilities of the position, I think that my years of teaching experience in developmental reading and writing, advanced composition, and literature at the University of Connecticut fit your job description well.

My success in didactic competence is best demonstrated by the numerous teaching opportunities extended to me by the University of Connecticut’s English Department and my student evaluations. By May of 2008, I will have designed and taught 17 sections of 6 different courses at UConn. Moreover, I have worked with students from several disciplines throughout my career as an instructor, including engineering, chemistry, and business. Given this experience, I am well-prepared to undertake the responsibility of “conceptualizing and teaching…relevant modules for students of all faculties.”

The only problem, Herr Professor Hügel, is that I am not entirely sure what “conceptualizing and teaching…relevant modules for students of all faculties” really means. Perhaps “module” is synonymous with “course?”   Are you describing the German version of curriculum development?

Your advertisement emphasizes that the Dean of Futures Studies must possess considerable knowledge of the natural sciences. While my formal academic training is in American Literature and composition, medicine and biology are additional research areas of interest. I’m an avid reader of The Journal of Infectious Diseases, American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and The Journal of the American Medical Association. Furthermore, Rwthaachen University’s successful candidate will also “conduct basic research at the interface between technical and political social developments.” One such interface at which I would conduct research is in the revolutionary technological field of nanomedicine. I am particularly interested in nanobots’ potential for drug delivery and nerve cell regeneration. In fact, if such a research study was in progress at Rwthaachen University, I would happily volunteer as a subject-participant.

You see, I’ve been ill, Herr Professor, most recently with whooping cough, or Keuchhusten. As I write this letter, the violent coughing, the spasms, and burning in my throat have receded, but the pain from my chronic illnesses, my preexisting conditions, has increased with a vengeance. Maybe I’m just experiencing side effects from the antibiotics and Tylenol with codeine but I’m worried. Whooping cough kept me flat in bed for three weeks and I remain too sick to work as my professor’s research assistant, at the journal, or teach in the summer program as I normally do. A professor took pity on me and gave me some typing to complete for money at home in between coughing fits, but the paltry income I expected to claim this summer has been cut by over half. So, I’ve been a dedicated job-seeker, Herr Professor. I don’t know how it works in Germany, but here in America we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, overcome our obstacles, and beat the odds. When I consulted The Chronicle of Higher Education there were pages devoted to administrative, dean, and executive positions but not many full-time, tenure-track positions in English. I applied for some jobs that I know are outside of the realm of my expertise, but I’ve been engaged in significant professional development which I think increases my employability. For instance, as a graduate student worker, I’ve learned how to mix and match one shirt and a scarf with four pairs of Goodwill pants to create several presentable job-interview outfits. Thus, I applied for Chair of Fibers at Savannah College of Art and Design. As Chair of Fibers, I could caress folds of cashmere, soft as lamb’s ear, wrap myself in 1000 thread count cotton samples, listlessly stroke silks with my fingertips while informing my assistants, “This is beautiful, but entirely the wrong shade of blue—it should be a keener, midnight quality…” Or, when the swatches seem cheap and coarse, I would stamp my foot and yell, “they call this tweed?”

Although I do not currently have my Ph.D., my anticipated dissertation defense date is December 10, 2008; therefore, I will have my Ph.D. in hand by the start date of the appointment for Dean of Futures Studies by next August.

In truth, Professor Hügel, I definitely won’t have my dissertation completed by December of this year. I won’t be finished because I’ve been teaching two (sometimes three) sections of writing intensive courses every semester, helping professors with their research projects, and assisting at a journal. I’d probably be finished writing my second book by now if you were my advisor Herr Professor! You do speak English, don’t you Professor Hügel? (I’m sure you’ve already deduced that I don’t speak or write German. I sing quite a bit in German, though; at least, enough to notice that BableFish may not have translated my opening remarks accurately). I confess that I have been preoccupied recently. The graduate school will not renew my teaching assistantship funding for the Fall saying my time to degree is up. No contract, no health insurance, no paycheck, mounds of student debt and maybe I won’t even get my degree. What will I do without health insurance? I want to complete, but the only thing I’ve made progress on this summer is my codeine addiction. We have a saying here in America, Professor Hügel: ABD stands for “all but dissertation,” but really means “all but dead.”

My friend Katie got a job. I ran into her one morning on campus in May, a couple of weeks after she got the news. After giving a final exam I had stopped at Student Health Services for what they thought must be bronchitis or pneumonia. I trudged up the path that ran between the university’s botanical garden and the decaying hand-built stone wall that bordered the old cemetery on my way to the hilltop parking lot. Abundant with bright, blue larkspur, lush wild grasses, and fiery poppies, the garden was a quiet place to stroll or rest, rich with the earthy comfort-smell of fertile loam. Katie sat alone on the bench underneath the garden’s spring centerpiece; a stunning pink-and-ivory magnolia tree, its curved branches her canopy from the sun. She had defended her dissertation and landed a position. After months of grueling job applications, she was finally at peace. She had time to linger underneath the magnolia, its petals cupped by a soft wind as they slipped to ground clustering in a medallion underneath her feet. She had time to let her mind wander while the magnolia’s warm and honey-drenched scent doused the worries of tomorrow, next week, and the years to come. She seemed so contemplative that I didn’t want to disturb her, but she saw me. We chatted briefly, but I couldn’t stay with so many exams to grade. I wish I could have stayed. Herr Professor. Breathless and tired, though, I said goodbye and marched up the hill, my shoulders aching from my flimsy overflowing knapsack, the tablueau vivant of Katie underneath the magnolia affixed in my mind.

I am glad that Katie got a job, not just because she is my friend, but because she deserves it. She’s intelligent, performs interesting research, works hard, and is a great teacher. Katie and her partner Amy had a goodbye cookout and yard sale before they left. After the celebratory toasts and goodbye tears from friends, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Amy had been adjuncting for less than ten-thousand dollars per year and no health insurance.

Have you read the recent statistics from the American Association of University Professors Herr Professor Hügel? Seventy-four percent of faculty in higher education work in non-tenure track appointments and, overall, more than half are employed only part-time. Chastise me if you must for choosing this profession Herr Hügel, but how was I supposed to predict this? How was I supposed to know that there were no full-time jobs? Don’t tell me I should have known better. For seven years I was schooled like the way you’d train a Greyhound for racing. “Don’t worry,” my advisors said, “You’ll get a job.” I am thirty-nine years old Herr Professor and not as pliable as I used to be. Please don’t advise me to return to school yet again for a degree in higher education administration, human resources, or criminal justice. Don’t tell me to embark on yet another reinvention of myself.

I saw the future once. I would finish my dissertation. I would land a full-time, tenure-track job teaching composition and literature. I would write a book. I would garner a mediocre salary and decent health insurance. I would work no more than sixty hours a week. I would pay off my enormous student loan. I would marry my boyfriend, own a good used car, an old house, and take care of a few pets. I would be beautifully average.

But now I’m running out of time and all the years of hard work are wasted. Oh, mein freund, I feel the heel of the boots pressing on my head, shoving me back down into Jack London’s social pit for the poor, the concrete habitat from which I originally emerged. I applied for waitressing at the Norwichtown Rehabilitation Facility yesterday. My sixteen-year-old body performed service industry work with ease, but this older, broken one will not fare very well. Although some time has passed since I have worked in food service, the employment experience I gained during high school as a chef’s assistant, waitress, and dishwasher, fit the job description well.

In this version of the future, Herr Professor, I work my body down to the ground waiting tables, peeling potatoes, and mopping the floor. It won’t matter how many hours I work; I will never make enough money. The rent will go unpaid and the oil tank will be empty. My boyfriend and I will huddle in the kitchen keeping the oven open for heat. I will haunt the streets, Professor Paul, rummaging through trash cans for returnables as I did in my youth while all my teeth rot out of my mouth.

I will come full circle.

So much for our American meritocracy, eh Professor Paul? You see, I went to college and graduate school because I was good at reading, writing, research, and communication. I loved teaching, especially those first-year students who struggled, often because they came from poverty, worked manual labor jobs, and only had their wits and the occasional whims of others’ kindness on which to rely.

I liked teaching those students because I used to be one of them.

So what does it mean for one to have worked so long and hard, studied for so many years, committed one’s time, skills, and compassion to serving others only to end up worse off than when one began? Does it mean I am a sucker?

I tutored Roberto extra hours every week to help him improve his English. I spent my time off last summer designing a research project for a short story class filled with students who hated reading. I commented on thirty-six freshman composition papers per week last semester. I located an audiobook for one of my dyslexic students so she could understand the material better. I imagined a better future for those students.

I know now we have all been duped, Professor Paul, so I propose a radical vision for the future, one in which waitressing at the Norwichtown Rehabilitation Facility, assembling Styrofoam at the Softlite factory, and teaching students to read and think critically all deserve a living wage, health insurance, a voice on the job, and respect.

It’s a long-shot, but it’s worth imagining.

I think it is obvious, Herr Professor Hügel, that I do not have the necessary credentials for the position of Dean of Futures Studies.

I am so sorry to have wasted your time.

 

Sincerely,

Barbara J. Campbell

 

Barbara J. Campbell
49 Second St.
Norwich, CT 06360

 

 

Elysian Fields University
English Department
One Heavenly Drive
Cloudville, Big Sky

3.14                                                                                                                                                                                               ????

Note to Self:

I’m reading the newspaper again today and I don’t see any positions I can apply for.

I could do the crossword or jumble instead.

 

 

HOROSCOPE

                                                            by Holiday Mathis

                                                (for entertainment purposes only)

Aquarius: Most humans at some point in their lives have a spiritual experience. You’ve always felt you were a spirit having a human experience, and you’re right. Today’s events reinforce this belief.

FORECLOSURE                            FORECLOSURE                               FORECLOSURE

I may never sit peacefully underneath the magnolia tree,

LOST CAT

but mein leiber freund, I was the Dean of Futures Studies.

 

 

 

BIO

Barbara J. Campbell completed her Ph.D. in English from the University of Connecticut where she taught Freshman Composition and nineteenth- and twentieth-century American Literature. She is currently a full-time lecturer at Butler University where she is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing. Her essay “The First Girl to Land on the Moon” is published in Illness in the Academy: A Collection of Pathographies by Academics (Purdue UP, 2007). She is working on an illness memoir called “The Survival Guide” and a group of short stories tentatively titled “The Dream Stenographer.”

 

Photography by Christian Willey

 

We’ve Got Sweaters

by Anthony J. Mohr

 

 

One night in May 1963, Chuck, Joe, Bobby, Larry and I left a banquet at Maison Gerard, an elegant French restaurant, and walked south on Beverly Drive. We wore identical sweaters, blue with an ornamental white S sewn in at chest level. The sweaters were thick enough, and my slacks from Carroll & Company were tailored well enough, that I didn’t look heavier than the others, although I was. It was bracing to be among them — model students who laughed a lot and had studied together since kindergarten. Despite the chill of the marine layer that covers the Los Angeles basin in the spring, I felt warm.

I saw them first, catty corner from us at the intersection of Beverly Drive and Charleville. Five boys in black jackets standing under the red and white awning of Wil Wright’s Ice Cream Parlor. We took our dates there after school dances. I enjoyed the vanilla ice cream they served in stainless steel cups with long stems as well as the macaroon they put on the saucer.

These boys didn’t fit in Beverly Hills. Their ducktail haircuts looked greasy; their jeans, worn. They belonged outside a bar on the ground floor of a dirty New York City apartment house like the building across the street from where my divorced mother and I had lived five years earlier. One of those places with no doorman, a fire escape above the front entrance, and a hallway that smelled.

Looking at those brutes made me so giddy that I called out, “We’ve got sweaters; you don’t.”

They crossed the street against the light and surrounded us. I was too scared to say anything. They had the build and the mean mouths of pugilists, with acne on their pale faces, and the most understandable part of their speech consisted of four letter words.

I stayed quiet through the exchange that followed, Chuck’s refined voice against their threats and bad syntax, his tenor against their bass, his complete sentences against their fragments. Chuck said that we belonged to “the Squires, an honor service club of freshmen and sophomores at Beverly Hills High School” that required high grades and the vote of the members to join. They answered with words like “asshole” and “beat the shit out of you.” I held my breath as Chuck explained again who we were, and this time he added apologies for my words.

Something made them leave without hurting us. Maybe Chuck convinced them to go. Maybe they feared the Beverly Hills Police, an organization that did not treat outsiders gently. Or, just perhaps, they had simply wanted us to know that my remark had been hurtful.

The first thing I said, after exhaling, was thank you to Chuck, but I said nothing more when he and the rest of my friends demanded to know why, for God’s sake why, I had taunted those boys. I didn’t, couldn’t, answer their question other than to promise not to do anything like that again.

We walked on in silence through the quiet neighborhood, and our group shrank as Joe, Chuck, Bobby, and finally Larry turned down their respective streets, toward their houses. Mine was farthest from the incident, and I passed the last two blocks alone, too shaken to think clearly.

***

The event became legend among us, which it remains today, decades on, and of course everyone laughs when the story is retold. I smile too, even though I now know the answer to the question my friends put to me.

During 1958, alone in New York with my mother, I wondered whether she would ever remarry or whether her Bells Palsy would come back. I was afraid that the little money she had would run out, a possibility she voiced more than once, through her tears. It would not have taken much to remove us from our tidy apartment and shove us across Lexington Avenue into that place where loudmouths loitered and where, one night from my fourth floor bedroom, I watched two of them beat each other senseless in the middle of the street.

My mother stayed healthy and met a good man from California. He moved us there, and by May 1963, I felt safe among the well-behaved boys of the Squires, a joyful type of safe, the giddy relief of being over the border and away.

 

BIO

Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, Common Ground Review, Compose Journal, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Front Porch Journal, The MacGuffin, Prick of the Spindle, Word Riot, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013) and is upcoming in Golden State 2017. His work has received four Pushcart Prize nominations. He is a reader for Hippocampus Magazine and an associate editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.

 

 

 

I’m Not Afraid Anymore

by Mira Martin-Parker

 

 

Occasionally I receive painful emails from my family about my writing. Usually they come in the form of a rant, and the rant is essentially the same: My stories are hurtful, inaccurate, and the feelings I express in them are just plain wrong. I have no right to publish such things, and I am a bad, bad very mean person.

I first shared these stories about my family when I was in a fiction workshop at San Francisco State University. I wasn’t sure what sort of reception they would receive—I suppose naively I thought people would find them funny. However, instead of laughing, most of my classmates found the material disturbing. “Who are these people?” one woman asked. “Why are they so narcissistic? What’s wrong with them? Why doesn’t this girl say or do anything? Why is she so passive?”

The seriousness of some of their comments made me wonder. While my father’s irresponsible nature and flagrantly bad parenting had always been openly discussed in my mother’s family, my mother’s highly unusual behavior as a parent was never mentioned. I remember being repeatedly warned by one of my aunts not to smoke pot with my hippie father, but apparently drinking, smoking, and going to punk gigs with my mother was okay; not one of my five aunts ever said a word to me when I started doing these things with her at the age of fourteen.

I received the first flaming email from my mother not long after my stories began appearing in online literary journals. In her email she accused me of lying about and distorting the past, of enjoying being a victim, and of (ironically) abusing her. She then threatened to get an attorney if I got to “defamatory.” “Why don’t you wait until everyone’s dead to publish your work, like other writers do,” she concluded.

I also received a series of similar emails from my brother. And the most recent angry outburst came in the form of an attempted comment on my blog by one of my aunts.

I understand why my family finds my writing upsetting. But what I don’t understand is why they direct their anger at me. I have never made any attempt to share my stories with them; they found them because they sought them out online. I am also careful to classify my work as fiction, even though it is heavily based on personal experience. My stories are the product of a creative process, and I have never claimed them to be journalistically accurate depictions of my childhood. In many I have freely played with time and place, and imagined feelings I might have had at the time.

However, in no way did I deliberately distort the characters of those involved, merely to demonize their real-life counterparts. Nor did I make anything up—all of the events I wrote about actually did occur.

No one should be expected to remain silent about their childhood, simply because certain revelations will embarrass or upset others. Requiring an adult to adhere to a code of silence with regard to their underage experiences is to sentence that person to a form of emotional imprisonment. And yet this is exactly what my family expects of me; I am to remain silent about my past, specifically as it involves my mother, no matter how detrimentally this affects me. A family like this is no family at all. I was too afraid to speak up as a child, but I’m not afraid anymore.

 

 

BIO

mira martin parkerMira Martin-Parker earned an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in various publications, including the Istanbul Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Mythium, and Zyzzyva. Her collection of short stories, The Carpet Merchant’s Daughter, won the 2013 Five [Quarterly] e-chapbook competition.

 

 

 

Learning From My Past

by Lynne Blumberg

 

 

A few years ago, I was standing beside one of the four aisles of cashiers at Reading Terminal Market in Center City Philadelphia. My cashier, like her co-workers, wore a tiger orange t-shirt with “Iovine Brothers” written in white across her chest. With a young forefinger hovering over the button that would total my items, she turned to me and said, “Do you qualify for the senior discount?”

She’s trying to be nice, I told myself, forced a smile and said “No.”

I paid full price, trudged away from the market stall clutching two supermarket bags of vegetables and fruits, and recalled the hairdresser I stopped going to a couple of years earlier. She pleaded with me to let her color the band of gray framing my face. She said it would take off ten years. People would think I was in my 40s again.

Whenever I considered her advice, I recalled events that began in the seventh grade when Scott S. called me Big-nosed Blumberg. Piecing the events together chronologically, I remember in the seventh grade I tried to distract attention from my nose by begging my mom to let me wear makeup, hipper clothes and longer hair.

Mom, and Dad, wanted me to turn off my stereo and study more in school. I couldn’t fathom how this would improve my situation. I remember sitting in my assigned seat in seventh grade English class, and surveying my classmates tucked into their own desks in different rows. They were all paying attention to Mister Binkley, even the students sitting in the back. I thought: Don’t they get it? They’re where the action is. In other words, whether or not they considered me cool was much more important to me than Mister Binkley’s explanation of number three in a grammar exercise.

In the eighth grade, Mom finally let me get a tube of frosted rose-pink lipstick from the Woolworth’s in the Abington suburban shopping strip across the street from Sears. I had fantasized about wearing a “Slicker” frosted pearl-white lipstick by Yardley of London, but a Woolworth’s lipstick was better than no lipstick at all.

I snuck on eye makeup in the girl’s bathroom in-between classes until Mom, whose only makeup was a shade of love-that-red 1950s lipstick, let me wear eye makeup the following year. I remember getting up extra early before going to school to work on my large brown eyes that classmates said reminded them of Paul McCartney.

I sat in front of the face mirror I had propped up on my desk, and pried open my tortoiseshell compact with three shades of brown shadow. As the saleslady at Wanamaker’s instructed, I applied medium brown shadow on my lids, a darker taupe on my creases, and buff shadow beneath my brows. Next I dipped a mini brush into a Dixie cup of water, and swept it across a cake of mahogany-colored mascara. I wiped a hand dry on a leg of my bellbottom jeans, and this hand kept an eye open while the other hand brushed on the mascara. After blotting out accidental globs, I placed the pads of a metal eye curler around my upper lashes, and gently clamped the pads together. I had heard a story of a girl who pressed too hard, and all her lashes fell out. Then I rested the curler on my desk and sat back to view my whole face. I expected to see Twiggy’s doe-eyes, but my coated lashes seemed to make my lids droop down over my eyes.

Because of my bad grades, Scott S. was no longer in my classes. Guys in my eighth, ninth and tenth grade classes simply ignored me. A saleslady showed me how to deflect attention from my nose by covering my face with skin-colored foundation, and then blending a darker shade around the sides of my nose. I also wrote to Dear Abby for advice on how to wear my hair, with a drawing of how my nose uniquely hooked at the end to ensure an accurate reply. Abby’s typewritten letter said I should part my hair on the side, not the currently fashionable middle. This would draw attention away from the center of my face.

Makeup, hairstyle, mod clothes, a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine—nothing seemed to get the boys’ attention. After one particularly frustrating day at school, I took the scotch tape dispenser from a kitchen drawer and brought it into the upstairs bathroom. Using the medicine cabinet mirror to guide my hands, I taped the end of my nose to curl up like a ski slope; like how Mom used hair tape to create pincurls beside her cheeks.

I kept on the tape for ten minutes, returned to the bathroom and peeled off the strips. I looked past the red marks left by the adhesive, and swore I saw the end of my nose starting to curl up. I applied new strips to set my nose for an hour, and came back downstairs. Mom saw me passing through from the living room to the kitchen and asked what in the world I was doing. I explained, and she squirmed with distaste and told me to take the tape off before I hurt myself. I had my father’s nose and there was nothing I could do about it.

“I could get a nose job,” I said.

Who actually gave me this nose wasn’t clear cut. My pretty mom had her father’s Roman nose, but her mother had an eagle’s beak bigger than mine. Nana told Mom she would have done anything to get her nose fixed at my age. Nana convinced Mom to let me get a nose job, and they both convinced Dad. A morning during the summer before my senior year of high school, I awoke on the operating table, looked up at my masked doctor, heard him scraping away at my nose, and fell back into an aestheticized sleep. I re-awoke in my semi-private hospital room with my nose covered in white tape.

About eight months later, while shopping with Mom at Woolworth’s, we bumped into Mrs. Corcoran, my English teacher senior year. Mrs. Corcoran told Mom what a good student I was, and Mom told her this wasn’t always the case. Just a few years ago, I brought home report cards with five D’s…I drifted away to another aisle while Mom went on with her usual spiel.

In English class a few weeks later, we finished the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales. Mrs. Corcoran’s weekend assignment was for us to write what we would do if forced to make the Knight’s choice. Would we choose an old and ugly spouse who was kind and faithful, or a gorgeous spouse who was cruel and promiscuous?

That weekend I recalled my friend, Joanne. She was gawky, taller than most boys, and her overbite had reminded me of a horse. As I got to know her sweet personality, her mouth seemed to resemble Sophia Loren’s. So using metaphors I thought would make F. Scott Fitzgerald proud, I wrote that I would choose the ugly spouse because my perception of him would change as I got to know his personality.

On Monday I handed in the paper, and later in the week Mrs. Corcoran returned it with a big red “A” at the top, and the word “Beautiful” beside my favorite metaphor. When she finished returning the rest of the papers, she came back to my desk and said, “Did you show this paper to your parents?”

I shook my head.

“Show it to them.”

After the school bus dropped me off, I found Mom working by the kitchen sink. I read aloud my composition while she leaned against a kitchen counter wearing a short teased hairdo, A-line dress, and sensible black pumps. At the end she shrugged and said, “I don’t see what the big deal is about.”

I squinted with disbelief: “This is how you respond to your daughter’s composition, that her teacher recommended she read to her parents?”

“I’m not going to lie.”

“You bitch…”

I couldn’t wait for Dad to come home and get her in trouble. His sports car roared up the driveway a couple of hours later. I reported what happened as he stepped through the back door. He stopped in the kitchen and I read my composition as he stood beside Mom, eight inches taller and dark and dashing in his pinstriped suit. At the end he shrugged and said, “I don’t see what’s the big deal.”

My mouth fell. After all the times he sided with me against Mom’s ridiculous ideas, and a few years later would divorce, I couldn’t believe he was siding with her on this one.

Mrs. Corcoran, who dressed like Mom but without a trace of makeup, came up to my desk the next day. “Did you show your parents?”

I nodded.

“What did they say?”

I couldn’t tell her the truth. “They really liked it.”

About ten years later, I was sitting in the dark office of my therapist, Betsy. She was helping me get past my own brief marriage and my parents’ bitter divorce. Betsy claimed Mom was a better parent than Dad, so I brought up this incident. “Are you sure your mother was putting down your intelligence?” Betsy said.

I threw out my hands. “What else could it be?”

A few days after our session, I thought about how I began studying during my junior year of high school. I had attributed my behavioral change to the heart-to-heart I had with myself while walking home from a girlfriend’s house one afternoon the summer before. Like my father, an attorney, grilled me, I asked myself what I was good at. I thought of how I wasn’t good at drawing or doing other things with my hands; and two years of piano lessons confirmed that a dormant musical talent wasn’t veering me away from my schoolwork. I decided if I wanted to get anywhere in this world, I needed to go to college.

I earned B’s and C’s my junior year, and when I became a senior, I got report cards with A’s in everything except Math. Mom boasted to everybody that I achieved those A’s because my nose job had boosted my confidence. I was positive Mom shared this theory with Mrs. Corcoran that day in Woolworth’s, and this explained why Mrs. Corcoran wanted me to show Mom my composition. Mrs. Corcoran was a nun before she married a priest.

I recounted this memory about my nose job to Betsy during our next session. I also confessed that I used to look in the mirror and think I was beautiful before Scott S. called me Big-nosed Blumberg.

Betsy, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with thick black layered hair and jingling jewelry, took the door mirror resting against one of her wood-paneled office walls. She held it in front of me and said, “What do you see?”

Sitting on a black cushioned chair sat a 26-year-old woman in jeans and a black tank top that revealed thin yet muscular arms; thick brown hair streaming past her shoulders; a band of natural gold highlights framing her pale unblemished face; and naturally long lashes fringing cinnamon-colored eyes.

“That’s real,” Betsy said. “You’re really that pretty.”

I crossed my arms over my ample chest, not knowing how to integrate this.

After the session, inside my studio apartment, I considered how knowing I was pretty could change me. In my family, Mom was typed the pretty one, and Dad the smart one. How could I be both? I didn’t want to become one of those people who are always conscious about how they appear. I didn’t want my looks to go to seed either.

I decided to forget about how good I looked and just live my life. I focused on getting A’s in college, eventually teaching, and maintaining my health. It wasn’t until 25 years later, when people asked me about the senior discount that I panicked about my looks again. I had procrastinated in my search for another mate, and without some major renovations to my appearance, I feared I was now too late.

 

After the comment at Iovine Brothers, I examined my face in the bathroom mirror of my current apartment. Since my late 30s, the dark marks under my eyes stopped disappearing after I got more sleep, but the corners of my eyes weren’t crinkled with crows’ feet. Worry and the sun had lined my forehead, but young people had worry lines too. What they didn’t have, was the band of gray replacing the gold highlights around my face. The hairdresser was right.

Yet I remained hesitant about coloring my hair. In addition to my nose issues, I thought about the men who were perceived as more distinguished-looking when they grayed. Look at Richard Gere and George Clooney. Someone who thought I should color my hair bet that Gere’s salt and pepper shade came out of a bottle too.

I also debated with myself about what is natural. Simply washing my hair or brushing my teeth could be considered unnatural too. Personal maintenance was always a balancing act between what you’re born with and what you can change.

I realized if I could do it again, I wouldn’t have fixed my Semitic nose. As society grew more accepting and I grew into my features, I would’ve been considered attractive with the schnoz. The surgery also dulled my sense of smell. So this time around when my looks weren’t conforming to the cultural ideal, I could be a pioneer. My embrace of aging could help expand future definitions of beauty. But I wanted people to think I was pretty now!

I remember the surprise of Michael, the colorist a friend highly recommended, when I announced that this would be the first time coloring my hair. “Let’s make you into a red head,” he said.

“Whaaat?!” My eyes were popping out in the mirrored wall before the salon chair.

Michael clasped my smocked shoulders and laughed. “Relax. I do suggest you go a shade or two lighter. Skin pales as we age.” I bet the pale-blonde hair color blending with his pale lined complexion covered a full head of gray.

Since most of my hair, except for the front, was still brown, instead of covering the full head, I opted to frost my hair with dark-blond and pale-brown highlights and left a few gray strands untouched. After Michael unwrapped the foil sheets and blow-dried my hair, he swirled my chair so I faced the mirror. I thought I looked the same…Maybe a little more rested.

I paid the 100 dollar fee, Michael’s tip, and paraded my new look along Chestnut Street’s brick sidewalks. It was lunchtime in Center City, and I peered at the business-suited men for their expressions. No one that day or in the days that followed paid attention to me in the ways they paid attention to me when I was ten years younger. Did the highlights make me feel more confident about my appearance nonetheless?

While brushing my hair in front of the large mirror above my bathroom vanity, I discovered orange-tinged gold streaks in my hair. Ewwww! I wondered how this blatant artificiality could be considered more attractive. Michael changed the blonde highlights to caramel during my next appointment, but even these seemed too synthetic. Plus I was getting some kind of itchiness on my neck, and one of the first questions a dermatologist asked was if I was coloring my hair.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

A month ago, I walked past the decorative mirrors in my apartment building’s lobby. I glanced at a sweet elderly-looking woman with dark hair except for the gray framing her smiling face. I did a double-take and walked back. This elderly-looking woman was me, and I was still ineligible for the senior discount.

I pressed the up button and waited for an elevator while I considered going back to Michael for a full head color. Inside the elevator and riding up to my floor, I considered never stepping outside of my apartment again, like how Greta Garbo handled aging. Walking down the carpeted hallway and inside my apartment, I decided to forget about how old I looked and focus on staying healthy and sharp. I’d still strive to be attractive, but also embrace that attractive at 59 was not the same as at 26. Maybe I’d even find an eligible geezer whose love for my inner qualities would transform me into his beauty queen.

Of course I wavered on this decision later that day and during the days that followed, especially after Comcast posted photos of blonde, 61-year-old Christie Brinkley, in a bikini. Then a few days ago, when I thought about visiting my mother in Florida, I finally pieced together another memory. I realized that the summer I got my nose job was the same summer I read about ten hours a day, every day. My 16 year-old-self calculated that by reading this much, I could make up for the years I goofed off in school. Unlike taping my nose, maybe this idea of mine actually worked: the disciplined reading enhanced my study skills, and the enhanced skills, not my enhanced nose, brought about all those A’s.…

After piecing together this memory, my mental fog lifted. The decision was final: I’m not coloring my gray hair. It’s like what Doctor Freud said about recovered memories … And after election of Mr. Beauty Pageant, I won’t even be tempted by model pictures for a long time. Standing up for more inclusive body images is imperative.

 

 

BIO

Lynne Blumberg has written for various national and local publications about topics in health, religion, education, and urban living. She lives in Philadelphia, and when not writing, teaches English as a Second Language at the Community College of Philadelphia.

 

 

 

Lost Time

by Edd Jennings

 

 

July 22nd, Wednesday, Sun at 75 degrees in the northeastern quadrant—I lost my watch, or maybe—I hope—I misplaced it somewhere in my gear as I packed up to leave camp. The little Timex was already on its last legs. The plastic band had broken, and I had it attached to my wrist with parachute cord. The watch’s calendar showed a day behind because it always shows a thirty-one day month, and I couldn’t reset it correctly for the beginning of July because the adjustment knob had broken off. Without the watch, I feel naked because I cannot at a glance reduce my world to a number.

It is early morning and calm. Beyond that what can I say about my place in time and the world? My latitude lies just above sixty degrees forty-five minutes. The sun stands at seventy-five degrees by my compass reading, and I haven’t figured out how to use the crude clinometer on the compass to get the angle of elevation of the sun above the horizon. To measure the sun’s elevation with any accuracy would mean looking directly at the sun.

I use the watch for pacing. If I hurt after four or five hours of paddling, I have the tendency to take a breather and continue. If I feel good after twelve hours, my tendency is to quit. Many athletes recommend that you listen to your body, a cute enough expression, but only the simple-minded fail to realize that the body lies.

 

Sun 87 degrees—If the sun is at 87 degrees, and my shadow falls directly in line with the canoe’s bow, I must paddle on a line, which amounts to approximately due west. I hadn’t attempted to use the sun or its shadows for much of anything in the past. The sun and its shadows are one of the few navigational tools an ancient wanderer would have known. By rarely using the sun, when I do use it, I do it with uncertainty and clumsiness. I always wonder if I miss the useful and the obvious or whether my dissatisfaction with generalities causes me to look for specifics impossible to determine with the means at hand. I don’t want “about west.” I want the 273-degree reading of a graduated dial.

My compass readings lack refinement. The 87-degree reading I use for the position of the sun comes off a spruce that seems to stand directly below the sun, but no matter how big the rose on this Suunto Compass or how accurate, I don’t use the compass with a level. To further introduce inaccuracies, I read the compass from the unstable platform of a canoe shifting in the breeze.

 

Sun 103 degrees—I have my system. The sun makes one, or rather the earth—I almost went back to Ptolemy—does one revolution in about twenty-four hours, or moves about 1/24th or fifteen degrees of the full 360 degree circle each hour. I can easily get enough readings for sunrise and sunset, which will change only slightly each day, to calculate the remaining daylight by comparing those readings against the sun’s apparent fifteen degree per hour movement across the sky. Time elapsed doesn’t seem like an hour since my last entry. Whether it is or isn’t, I will soon be accustomed to the difference and begin to take more accurate readings more quickly.

 

Sun 112 degrees—It occurred to me that perhaps a back reading using the compass lanyard to make a shadow across the rose might have more accuracy on much the principle of the backstaff replacing the quarterstaff. I have entered a world of altered values. At home, this red nylon lanyard attached to my compass could sit in a drawer for years, an unremarked item of clutter, as superfluous as the ivory billiard ball or the sewing kit that might not have been examined or moved since the Second World War. If someone in the next generation living in the old house after my time fished the compass out of the clutter of the drawer, he might speculate that the compass would fit into the pocket more neatly without the lanyard. The person looking into that cluttered drawer sometime in the future would never guess the importance this simple piece of red nylon string had in my life and fortunes, as I fail to appreciate the small items left over from the generations before. Life is lost, and holding the small item in my hand and wondering what it could have meant will never quite bring it back.

I can’t make the islands I see in front of me match the map, but where else but this outlet bay could I have traveled for so many hours toward the north? Wishful dangerously wrong reasoning.

 

Sun 118 degrees—I have made the map fit my position. Even a back reading, which is easier, subjects itself to wide variation. The compass requires a dead level surface and the string held exactly perpendicular. Suunto rates their compass as accurate to within two degrees. If I had a solid surface, and a pair of levels, I see no reason why it wouldn’t hold to such a standard.

 

Sun 128 degrees—A haze in front of the sun made a back reading impossible. Doubt checks my speed. It must have been the same for the early hunters moving into this country. To learn this country must have been the work of generations, as a man in his prime hunted a bit farther afield than his father.

 

Moments later—Perhaps I should give stage directions rather than continual readings. I will try. The decrepit man’s legs hurt. He is perhaps lost, but only moderately concerned. He proceeds through his country with an eye for anything he might use. Were he to use his compass mirror for self-examination, he would discover that he had let himself go. His attention to grooming has dropped far below the level of the civilized man, who is aware that he may be seen at any time. Our man, if he itches, scratches.

I like this. After all how different am I from a character in a novel? I have the power to create myself as I wish, don’t I?

 

Fewer minutes later—To a degree I create myself. I can be physically strong or not based upon the amount of work I do. I won’t, though, run the four-minute mile. I can be intelligent or not, as I choose to read, but I am past being hailed as the new prodigy. The genetics of my makeup limit. Chance also is an element. Lesser men have done more, better men less.

The vast majority of humanity is a combination of no more than the effects of genetics and crass chance. There are those few, however, who fight, and every skirmish is not lost. It is a man’s job to fight the unequal fight.

 

Sun 166 degrees—I pulled up on the bank to make bannock and tea. I am lost. When I hit this big open stretch, I knew I couldn’t be where I thought I was. Blue goes into blue in the southwestern quadrant, where sky touches lake. Nothing in the area of the outlet matches that scenario.

I spent some time, when I first stopped here, with the map and compass. I only made things worse until I decided to build a fire and have tea.

My first order of business demanded that I deal with my anxiety. I had to ask myself if I expected to do this trip without mistakes, and now that I had made a mistake, how serious was it? My answer had to include the two basics: I had not hurt myself, and I had not lost any gear, which meant I had the means to deal with the problem.

 

Sun 240 degrees—I finally made a place on the map fit. It lies on the north shore of Wholdaia on the main shore north of a chain of islands just west of the 104th meridian, and on the eastern edge of map 75A. I thought I had moved much farther east. I don’t have and may never have a reasonable explanation of how I arrived here. I may have lost a full day of paddling. I don’t care. I just wanted the anxiety to be over. Before I matched this place with the map, I had to fight the impulse to just follow my instinct and move. Had I allowed my instinct reign, I would have moved in exactly the wrong direction.

 

Loaded and paddling east—I could have stayed where I stopped to make tea and bannock, according to the sun, I have been out ten to eleven hours since I left camp this morning, but to stay at that campsite would have made for a very bad night. The place had natural beauty and an easy place to load and unload a canoe, but it was as if the place had been trashed, although that’s not exactly it. At the sight of somebody’s liter, I could have felt righteous indignation, not a completely unpleasant emotion. In that place, I fought the worst of myself and came near to losing. All afternoon, I had the impulse to load up and go, and figure within hours I would be in the Dubawnt River’s current. I wouldn’t have been. I would have paddled in the wrong direction. The memory of the rising panic tainted everything about this otherwise beautiful and untouched place.

 

Sun 268 degrees, Camp XLVI—I will accept the setbacks of the day with the best grace I can manage. If the season depended upon the success or failure of a single day, I wouldn’t have a chance.

Thinking about today’s solar observations makes me realize just how little I know of the actual mathematics of the universe. Though I know some of the history of science from the Greeks to Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, and up to the moderns, I couldn’t personally produce the mathematics to refute Ptolemy. As far as having knowledge of the visible motions of the heavens, and how these motions relate to the day, the month, and the seasons, I know less than the ancients. I don’t usually concern myself with the movements of the sun. I use a watch. I don’t usually track the phases of the moon. I use a calendar. I don’t watch for the rise of the Pleiades in the east, or the setting of Orion in the west. These things the ancient mariners knew, and lived by, feel strange and clumsy to me. I have gained from my instruments, but in so gaining sometimes I feel as if I have become less man.

 

 

BIO

edd jenningsEdd B. Jennings runs beef cattle on the banks of the New River in the mountains of Virginia. Since spring of 2016, he has placed work with Trigger Warnings, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jotters United, Bedford 87, Thread Magazine, Quail Bell, Roane Publishing, Sicklit, Ginosko Literary Journal, Tell us a Story, Sleet, The Blotter, REAL magazine, Literary Orphans, and Quarterday. His nonfiction Arctic canoeing books and his novel, Under Poplar Camp Mountain, are with the Leslie E. Owen Agency.

Lucida and Me

by K.B. Dixon

 

 

Any photographer whose interest in the subject extends to reading more than just his camera manuals will eventually come upon the names Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. Their books—On Photography and Camera Lucida—are canonical texts. It is difficult to read anything thoughtful on the subject that does not mention one or the other.

I read the Sontag book many years ago with pleasure, but came reluctantly and late to Camera Lucida—reluctantly because it was a translation, late because it was Roland Barthes. As a writer I was—and still am—wary of translation (a subject for another time). As a reader I was wary of Barthes. I had a residual bias against him, a keepsake from college where I and a thousand hapless others were compelled by sadistic professors to read such things as Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology—a bias against him for the role he played (with Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, et al.) as a founding father of “Theory,” the torturous gobbledygooking of literary study that did for literary criticism what smallpox did for the Plains Indians.

But in the end I was lured to the book by quotations that I found everywhere and by a promise—a promise that the Barthes of Lucida was different from the Barthes of Image-Music-Text, Mythologies, and S/Z; different from the Barthes that Barthes-likers liked, the one euphemistically referred to as “rigorous” (read gratuitously obscure). Lucida was shorter, more intimate, more personal than the impenetrable tomes on which his statue stood.

What I found was a book that was technically “as-advertised”—that is, a book that was un-Barthes-like to some degree (but, alas, not to degree zero). It was by most objective standards quite likely the least Barthes-like of Barthes books, but it was not by my troglodytic standards quite un-Barthes-like enough. I found plenty of the old writer here—lapses into the calorieless paragraphs of semiological word-salad that reminded me of why I had avoided him. He talks about being torn between two languages—expressive and critical—about abandoning the latter as “reductive,” but he cannot resist the Siren call of an influential constituency clamoring for a bowlful of scholarly jargon. Clarity, it seems, is to be treated as a form of groveling.

 

*

 

Camera Lucida is divided into two parts. Each is itself subdivided into a plethora of short, related sections. Part One examines the subject of photography in general. Part Two circles around a single image. Although Part One was for me the most problematic—the most inclined to empty amplitude—it was not without its points of interest; for instance, Barthes’s thoughts about being photographed himself and the famous coinage of “punctum.”

Like most people Barthes had a troubled relationship with his photographic image. “Once I feel myself observed by the lens,” he wrote, “everything changes…I transform myself in advance into an image.” The image he transformed himself into was never satisfactory. “If only I could ‘come out’ on paper,” he writes, “as on a classical canvas, endowed with a noble expression—thoughtful, intelligent, etc! In short…be painted (by Titian) or drawn (by Clouet)!” Barthes being Barthes, he could not admit to the pedestrian vanities that plague we mere mortals. The problem was not that he looked sallow or overweight—it was that his portraitist had not captured “a delicate moral texture.” One would have to love him, he quite rightly observed, to see what he would like them to see in a photograph—the “precious essence of [his] individuality.” The fault, dear viewer, was not in ourselves that we were underlings, but in the medium that it was not sympathetic. He returns to this subject again and again. That he should address it so early in the book and at such relative length and with such obvious passion says something about its importance to him, and its importance to him is something that should be taken into account when trying to assess the various ambiguities of his wandering analysis.

If Helen’s face launched a thousand ships, Barthes’s coinage “punctum” launched a thousand tortured essays. It was catnip to the explicating classes, a favorite of fledgling poseurs everywhere. I have always had a problem with it—first as a word, but more importantly as a concept. As a word it has always struck me as unnecessarily ugly. (But then, of course, it may sound sweeter to the classically-educated Francophone’s ear than to the State University-educated Anglophone’s.) As a concept it has always seemed trite. Early in Part One Barthes takes an analytical axe to his subject (the essence of photography) and divides it into competing parts—Studium, the ostensible subject of the photograph, the source of the viewers “polite” interest; and Punctum, a tangential detail that provokes a personal reaction, that breaks through the complacent response, “an accident which pricks.” To me this seems an almost meaningless tautology—a needlessly obscure way of saying that certain photographs have a certain something about them that makes them special to certain someones—a commonplace that when draped in Latin becomes a shiny original thing, a breathtakingly sophisticated utterance.

Find the Punctum became a popular game for a while—a Where’s Waldo for academics. A futile game, I’m afraid. What is punctum? A special something that may not be found in every photograph. What is this special something? It differs from one person to the next. It is a detail that attracts, that moves, that holds. One cannot say why. It is not a general special-somethingness, but a special-somethingess that is specifically “special to me.” It is, Barthes says, “What I add to a photograph.” It is wholly subjective. A punctum is a punctum only to the punctee. Your punctum is not my punctum—it is not X’s punctum or Y’s or Z’s—but hasn’t it been a lot of fun going on interminably about it.

The introduction to my copy of Lucida was written by the current go-to guy on the subject of photography: the inventive and agile Geoff Dyer. “To formalize…Barthes’ argument,” he writes at one point, “is not simply to diminish it, but to rob it of so many subtleties as to misrepresent it entirely.” This is an artful dodge, a gracious effort by Dyer (a man hired to do a gracious job) to cover for Barthes, to warn us off our bourgeois ways. Barthes is uncomfortable with the exposure lucidity allows. The clearer one’s expression, the fewer places there are to hide. One of the important things about this sort of writing—why it is obscure—is that it offers a way out. One can always claim to have been misunderstood.

 

*

 

For all the notoriety and thesis-fodder of Part One, it is Part Two of Lucida that interests me, that means something to me, that engages me. It is here that Barthes changes rhetorical gears, becomes more personal. Having failed to discover the essential nature of Photography in the previous sixty pages, he proposes to dig deeper into himself to find what he is looking for. It is here that my internal conversation with him changes a little, becomes a little less antagonistic. Here, mixed in with the brilliant claptrap and convolution, is poetry and pathos.

A month after his mother’s death Barthes was sitting alone in his apartment (the apartment where she died) sorting through photographs of her. He was struck by the fact that they brought him so little. None of them seemed “right”—that is, none of them seemed to have captured what was essential about her. He continued looking through these photographs one by one “looking for the truth of the face [he] had loved.” Finally he found it. He was staggered. It was an old photograph—dog-eared, faded. It showed two children—his mother (age 5) and her brother (age 7) standing at the end of a wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory—a “winter garden.” The sensation was for him overwhelming. “I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother.” In this image he found “the kindness which had formed her being immediately and forever.” It is here in this moment when he makes this discovery that I made a discovery of my own, that I suddenly and quite unexpectedly felt a connection to the man—and not just any sort of connection, but a close one. I recognized the sensation he was describing. I had experienced an almost supernaturally similar shock coming across a photograph of my very-much-living wife. That photograph was, likewise, an old one. It sits at this moment about three feet from me in a small, egg-shaped pewter frame. My wife (also age 5) is not standing in a winter garden, but sitting in a winter coat on the knee of a department-store Santa, and I can see in her face the excitement and innocent joy that formed her being immediately and forever. I found in Barthes’s lushly described response to this treasured photograph of his an eerie, almost perfect, articulation of my own unarticulated feelings about this treasured photograph of mine—a photograph that has remained for me an emblem of the medium’s mystery.

The Winter Garden photograph became a guide for Barthes, the foundation of his thinking on the subject of Photography. “Something like an essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture,” he says of the image. This particular “something-like-an-essence” was the sort of thing one could build a metaphysics of Photography around if they were so inclined. Barthes, of course, was so inclined.

A photograph, Barthes says, is “a mutant…neither image nor reality, a new being, really: a reality one can no longer touch.” The photograph “ratifies what it represents.” It “can lie as to the meaning of a thing…never as to its existence.” In photography one “can never deny that the thing has been there.” The essence of photography is, he says, “that-has-been.” As a realist this is a view I endorse—digital-age quibbles aside. Of course, this “that-has-been” idea leads Barthes quickly to a darker place, to the logical and familiar conclusion: “but-is-no-more.” In every photograph, he writes, is the “imperious sign” of death—not just any death, but his own. (If Barthes cannot link a thing to “death” or “madness,” he does not think he is doing his job.) The theory that evolves circles around the photograph as memento mori. “In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder…over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” In photographs “there is always a defeat of Time…that is dead and that is going to die.” He observes with “horror” this “anterior future.” The experience of time defeated is dizzying. He is mesmerized (as I am) by the medium’s unique ability to mix the past, the present, and the future—what has been, what is now, what will be. I share his fascination with time in a photograph (if not his inclination to morbidity). For me a good photograph is made of time, light, and feeling. There is no question that it is a melancholic medium—to experience it as a tragic one requires a certain exertion and a certain predisposition.

Barthes returns in his exposition to the Winter Garden image. It fascinates him. He lingers over it just as I linger over my Santa picture. “The photograph,” he writes, “is literally an emanation of the referent.” These emanations are “a sort of umbilical cord,” he says, that “links the body of the photographed thing to [his] gaze.” “Hence the Winter Garden Photograph, however pale, is for me the treasury of rays which emanated from my mother as a child, from her hair, her skin, her dress, her gaze, on that day.” A photograph is not just the preservation of a split-second, but of a life, of a “unique being.” I have a strong sympathy for this view. But in lingering with it, he is frustrated—he cannot enter the photograph as he would like. “I can only sweep it with my glance,” he says. It “arrests” further interpretation—he has exhausted himself with his “this-has-been” realization.

Barthes confronts the question again: what is it that makes this special photograph a special photograph? It is something beyond resemblance, something more than physical reality. This mysterious essence-like something is what Barthes calls (with shocking simplicity) the “air” of the photograph. It is another undefinable essential—an unanalyzable thing that is evident but cannot be proven, a secret door through which he can escape troublesome parts of any previous analysis. The “air,” he says, “is the luminous shadow which accompanies the body.” He returns yet again to photographs of himself. Without this shadow, the subject does not come to life. This is what is wrong with the photographs he has seen of himself: “if these thousand photographs have each ‘missed’ my air, my effigy will perpetuate my identity, not my value.” In other words, we do not have his true image.

 

*

 

The photograph, Barthes says, is “a bizarre medium; a new form of hallucination.” This is a nice way to think of it. Likewise, Lucida is a bizarre book, a new form of critique. There is a great deal to admire about it—the only problem it seems to me is that most of the admiring being done is being done without reservation. There is a part of me that wishes there was a part of me that cared more about being charitable on the subject of theory-speak. (Who does not want to seem fair-minded?) For me it was (and still is) a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. It is not about the pursuit of truth or knowledge, but reputation—a status game, its defining high-syllable-count gibberish a sort of tribal patois. Its famous obscurity has nothing to do with subtleties or with the difficulty of the subject and everything to do with ego, fashion, and professional advancement. There is less of this sort of thing in Lucida than elsewhere—passages that have been “freed from the tyranny of meaning”—but for me, not less enough. One cannot ignore the grief that is everywhere in this book, and a more conventionally empathetic person than me would, I suspect, be inclined to make greater allowances. I might have made greater allowances myself if I had not been misled into thinking the subject here was to be photography. Lucida is, in fact, only partly about photography—it is in equal parts about how smart Mr. Barthes is and how deeply injured.

From its beginning Lucida has provided inspiration and annoyance. A pedigreed consideration of photography’s endlessly replicating complexity, it took its subject seriously at a time when it needed taking seriously, and in so doing it offered aid and comfort to those championing the medium.

The photograph is not “a ‘copy’ of reality,” Barthes wrote, “but an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art.” This is one of the quotes that brought me to Lucida, that indicated to me a shared sense of the subject. This ends up so many times being, for me, the last word on photography. It is, I think, the best analysis yet of the essence of photography, a response to the wonder of what may be found in a single image—its ability to transcend time and space, to put one in direct contact with more than just near and distant pasts.

 

 

 

BIO

kbdixon2K. B. Dixon’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals. The recipient of an OAC Individual Artist Fellowship Award, he is the winner of both the Next Generation Indie Book Award and the Eric Hoffer Book Award. He is the author of seven novels: The Sum of His Syndromes, Andrew (A to Z), A Painter’s Life, The Ingram Interview, The Photo Album, Novel Ideas, and Notes as well as the short story collection, My Desk and I.

 

 

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER: This essay does not intend to imply that all bulimics are female, nor that all females are bulimic, but rather attempts to account for the starkly gendered statistics of eating disorders in which those who identify as female outnumber males 10:1.

 

Making Space

by Kym Cunningham

 

It’s presented as a perpetual occurrence, like every time we eat a salad, drink a smoothie, we run for the bathroom door, first two fingers down our throats. Maybe they do exist: people who shove others out of the way, “’scuse me, I gotta go throw up,” before launching themselves into a bathroom stall, knees hugging the pee-stained porcelain base, the smell of disinfectant as sharp as the bile in their mouths.

I’ve never met anyone like this, but then again, I’ve never known a woman willing to talk about bulimia other than the vague “same here” or “me too” that accompanies self-reflective nodding. Bulimia is not something women speak about the way we speak about eating celery to burn calories or drinking products like SkinnyMint to give that extra laxative push in the morning. It is not among the weight-loss strategies approved by fitness experts like Jillian Michaels or up-and-coming fashion icons like Kylie Jenner. There is no American Society of Bulimics to commune with, handing out tips on prevention of enamel decay. Those who participate in this distinctive method of body management know that unlike weight loss, unlike fitness, bulimia is not a social event.

It is personal. It is done in secret, behind locked doors: the shower running to cover the plunk of undigested food. A roll of toilet paper stationed at-the-ready, sheets and sheets to melt against acid-entrenched hands and speckled surfaces. All articles of clothing, apart from underwear, off and to the side, out of the splash zone, same with jewelry and hair ties, except the one currently pulling the follicles up and away, cinching them tightly against the scalp. A glance at the Hawaiian Aloha Febreze to be used after-the-fact, its sweetness designed to mask the air’s telltale souring.

Ready.

Kneel out of respect, leaning like Narcissus over the toilet bowl. Examine flaws as they emerge; the water reflects more clearly than a mirror. A mirror smudges, bows in or out, brightens with artificial bulbs that distort reflection while maintaining the illusion of reality. Water does not pretend. Look too closely at a reflection and it dissolves, revealing the self’s abyss.

Test vulnerability, sticking one, then two fingers down, spasmodic gagging at first—then choking pressure—then release.

Now is the time to be completely open, to revel in the personal, a kind of meditation—imagine it as the most intense form of yogic breath.

Breathe in—and release.

We listen to our body, continuing at our own pace until the bile from the bottom of our stomach tells us that we are finished.

We rinse our hands, turning on the faucet gently with our uncorrupted elbow, massaging slime from between our fingerprints, pushing any errant food particles down the drain. We splash water on our chin, wiping our mouth, investigating the sting of skin split from being forced open. We stare at ourselves in the mirror for a few seconds, cheekbones already more prominent, lips appearing fuller and redder courtesy of laborious flush, before turning our attention back to beauty’s workspace.

We flush once for the larger lumps, watching what seems like pounds of varicolored half-solid baby food disappear into the bottom of the bowl. We wipe the edges of the seat, above and underneath, around the base, checking for splatter on the walls and cabinet sides. We throw the paper mash into the toilet. We grab a new handful and dampen it in the sink, wipe again, erasing every trace of what we have done. We flush again.

As we watch the discolored water swirl down, down, down, and new water come up clean, we survey the tableau, congratulating ourselves on spotless work. We feel satisfied, right down to the core of our beings, in the way that food never seems to satisfy, a way that is only just for us.

Then we remember the shower is running, wasting water, and we strip the rest of our clothes off in graceful feline swoops and embrace the cleansing scald.

With the water seeps guilt—the unnecessary flushing, the rampant toilet paper abuse, of course the shower—self-incrimination growing a drop at a time, until we are forced to acknowledge that the food we just flushed down the toilet could have fed another human being. We become disgusted at our wastefulness, at our privilege, ashamed that we lack self-control and common decency. To salvage some shred of humanity, we tell ourselves this is the last time.

But like so many other lasts—cigarettes, potato chips—this bargaining is part of the ritual.

“How did it start?” psychiatrists ask with tilted heads. The walls are the same—something beige and nonthreatening, or for the new-age shrink, something tranquil, calming—sea-breeze blue. Psychiatrists are master space-manipulators, adept at reconfiguring prototypical office buildings into terrariums blooming with subconscious healing. Their walls bear the correct amount of posters, degrees, etc, not to overwhelm, but to communicate authority, to provide patients the security necessary to abdicate adulthood and responsibility.

Shrinks never do manage to get the furniture right, though. Their chairs are unsightly lumps of puce suede or uncomfortable plasticized geometric angles, Pottery Barn in a funhouse mirror. Perhaps this is for added effect as well, the physical embodiment of the mom-worn cliché: nobody’s perfect.

Because that’s how it started, isn’t it, with the first time we questioned our mothers: why can’t I be perfect? Or, at the very least, how do I convince others that I am, how do I keep myself a secret, safe from everyone but me?

We don’t tell this to those searching eyes, bespectacled or not. Instead, we come up with a date, as though we had circled it on our calendars. “Second semester, sophomore year of high school. I was 16.”

The psychiatrists smile and write something illegible down on their legal pad, confident that they are really getting somewhere. All it takes is time.

They don’t know that the first time was not important, just as the food consumed was not important, or the fact that we were watching shitty tv, or that it was late at night. At some point, it came to us in a thought, sans action: I could throw this up.

And we continued to sit on the couch, each another brownie or two, maybe some Sour Cream ‘n Onion potato chips, before we thought: I should throw this up.

And maybe that first time was in tenth grade, or maybe it was even in middle school, and maybe we did it once and stopped for a few years and then started up again. Or maybe we did it consistently for the better part of a decade or maybe one day we stopped cold turkey or maybe we’re still doing it.

But how can we tell them that the idea just kind of popped into our heads without them looking at us like we were fucking crazy? Because that look is even worse than the look we get when we first tell non-bulimics, that transparent mixture of pity, derision, and curiosity.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” they say, as though we weren’t doing it to ourselves.

“That’s terrible,” they say, hunkering down for more details.

But we will never tell them all of our secrets. They will never know that the first time we remembered feeling fat was looking at pictures in the first grade, being able to distinguish that our cheeks were chubbier, our belly pudgier, our chin rounder than the gymnasts or soccer players. We will not tell them that we used to resent our younger sisters for their slender legs and tight ribcages. That we still do.

We will never explain to them that we enjoy this selectivity as it allows us to manipulate the conversation, to disclose only what we think they should hear. Bulimia is, after all, all about perception.

It is the perception we crave, the idea that others might see us as strong, as fearless, as instinctively thin. We want to be the heroines we read about in novels, who eat whatever they want, kick ass, and never gain a pound. We want to look effortless in clothing, trick society into believing that we are self-assured, that we do not need to wear make-up. We want everyone to believe that we are the natural ones.

And because bulimia is about perception, the battle of belief over substance surreptitiously flushed down the toilet, it begins with the idea of itself.

Health class, sixth grade. The eighth grade boys whisper dirty suggestions concerning teeth and pubic hair as we try to keep the flush from our faces and our gazes level, actions that to them, resemble coy acceptance. We do not yet understand the art of perception.

The teacher, middle-aged and slightly pudgy, though she seems ancient and fat compared to our youth, lectures loudly on the perils of the unhealthy lifestyle, which include unprotected sex, drugs/alcohol, under-eating, and obesity. At the mention of obesity, the older boys snigger, looking pointedly at Meghan, the largest female student in the class. The teacher does not seem to notice, clicking the slideshow forward to a photo of an emaciated naked back with the words, ANOREXIA NERVOSA, in bold across the top.

The back, unmistakably female, consists mostly of shoulder blades that jut out tightly underneath the skin like frustrated wings. Nodules of spine poke out from between the wings as from a vacuum, then curve back into the ribs’ well-defined corporeal abyss. A light coat of hair, so pale as to almost be translucent, covers the body like a shawl, a last-ditch effort to keep out the cold.

Groans of male disgust undulate through the classroom, but we are silent, holding our breath, shivering under the persistent air-conditioning.

There is no photo for the slide on bulimia, only a terse definition regarding binging and purging, and an eating disorder hotline. The teacher moves on to obesity.

At lunch, we bring questions of biology to our peers, who always seem to know more on this subject than we do.

“I heard Lindsay and them were all drinking last night at Katie’s house.”

“I heard they get alcohol from Lauren’s older brother.”

“I heard Katie’s parents just leave her alone when they go out of town.”

“Oh yeah, and then they invite guys over, and they all make out.”

“Well I heard that Lauren and Jill throw up in the seventh grade bathroom after lunch.”

The bell rings before we can ask why.

After school, we bring a selection of our newly acquired knowledge to our mothers in the form of workbook pages, parent signatures required. Our mothers don’t want to talk about sex any more than we do, but when we get to the section on bulimia, they pause, finger hovering over the word, considering us.

“I was never skinny growing up, you know,” they say to us as though we can imagine that they were ever our age.

We look at them blankly, unsure of where this is going.

“I did a lot of things to make weight in the army, things that were really unhealthy, things that have made it harder for me to lose weight the older I get.”

They shrug, assuming we’re too young to feel the pressure of tight shirts against our stomachs and bikini strings around our love handles. It is this assumption that prevents them from naming it, that keeps it personal, half-secret.

“Anyway, I just don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did when I was young. It’s not worth it.” They sign the page and move on, while we are stuck wondering how they could ever think that we were like them.

We do not think that we are like anyone, or rather, we do not think that anyone is like us. We have been called different since we can remember, and this difference has woven itself into a coat that would totally work if only our waist was—or our thighs were—or if clothes fit correctly, like how they do on everyone else. It would work if only we could forget to be conscious of ourselves and the space that we occupy.

But we cannot forget. We are female, after all, and to be female is to be required to justify our corporeality in society.

We hear the justifications manifest so frequently we don’t recognize them anymore, these arguments over our right to social space. In grocery isles above the M&M’s and 3Musketeers, curvaceous women like Kim Kardashian explain: It’s okay that my ass is this big. Most guys would still bend me over a table to fuck me. On Amazon, reviews from XFitGirl94 clarify: 5’4’’, 135, but it’s mostly muscle.

But we aren’t as fuckable as Kim Kardashian, or as muscular as Amazonian CrossFitters, and so we are expected to deny our need for space. We sit on laps, holding seatbacks and clenching our butts to diminish the perception of weight. We Saran-Wrap ourselves into high-rise skinny jeans and lycra body shapers. We even practice geometry, contouring our faces with color pallets to hide any evidence of excess skin or enlarged pores.

But we are not satisfied, as society is never satisfied, as the male gaze can never be satisfied. We still intrude: knocking coat hangers off racks with our shoulders, plastic cups off tables with our asses. We are chastised if we speak too loudly, or glared at when we try to prevent others from cutting in front of us. We are ranked, measured, weighed—always found wonting. We are confined in boxes too small to breathe.

We suffocate in these boxes, too-large bodies pressed up against transparent plastic, the same material that once held our Barbies on Toys“R”Us shelves. Here, we understand that our bodies are public, for sale—what the dirty whispers from the eighth grade boys were trying to show us. We are reminded whenever we are catcalled or groped, propositioned or ogled. This is your space, society says. Be grateful for it.

But we are not grateful; we are spiteful. We want to be able to breathe. We want privacy. Crouching over a toilet, we carve spaces out of ourselves as tithes for existence. We become their predestined statistics.

The knowledge of statistics rarely helps anyone. It is not enough to know that more than 5% of individuals suffering from eating disorders die from health complications, just as it is not enough to know the dangers of drug or alcohol abuse. A certificate of D.A.R.E. completion does nothing to erase memories of powerlessness or injustice.

So rather than sitting on psychiatric couches attempting to remember a specific date or incident, it seems more important and more effective to come together as a community, to find the similarities in our stories, to call into question that which allowed us to consider bulimia as a solution. So that the next time we are exasperated at the size of airplane seats or the measurements of runway models, we do not seek comfort in the tile under our knees and the edges of our porcelain thrones.

Instead, we begin to understand and revile bulimia for what it is: acceptance of the patriarchal subjugation of the female body. Only then, when we seek to remedy our anger and not the food in our throats, can we be cured. Hell hath no fury like a woman full of bile. Viva la cuerpa!

 

 

BIO

kymcunningham1Kym Cunningham will receive her MFA from San José State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry.  She is the lead Nonfiction Editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine West of the Mississippi.  She received the Ida Fay Sachs Ludwig Memorial Scholarship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for outstanding achievement in her writing. Her writing has been published in Drunk Monkeys and Reed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Why I’m not a Hypochondriac

by Rachel Croskrey

 

 

According to the simple rules of growing up, burping should be mastered by age ten. Everyone should be able to pull it off: a Calvin and Hobbes worthy, mouth askew, one eye wide, fist clenched, great burp. wikiHow even has an instruction page on how to burp, written undoubtedly for truly educated individuals who wish to learn. They give helpful tips, such as: to accomplish “truly horrifying odor combinations, experiment with different foods!” and keep your mouth wide open for “cavern-like acoustics.” Only the sophisticated select transverse these useful informationals – them, and of course, those who can’t burp.

The inability to burp could be a medical condition – something wrong (unless you’re a prenatal baby, and if so there’s no gas to burp). There’s a doctor on Facebook for this type of illness. He has created a support group page: Dysfunction of the Belch Reflex – We Can’t Burp. I stopped taking their survey after questions like: have you ever had a hiatus/hiatal hernia? – Please list foods, drinks, activities, and your thoughts about what make your DBR worse. Um, I don’t know? What I do know is that since my youth I’ve I wanted to be like my brothers and dad and let loose great burps, but I haven’t been able to burp on command. In fact, I can’t burp – or eructate – unless it’s accidental. Burping is more like a hollow bubble of gas traveling up the bottom of my throat and stopping somewhere in the middle of my esophagus. Medhelp.com and other such sites help individuals who also cannot burp meet and discuss their conditions. Moth-eatenDeerhead says that he calls his rumbling gurgle a “burgle.” jillsinlalaland was so self-conscious about her gurgling throat that she added it to her dating profile. Louis11 thinks he can’t burp because as a kid he was scared of throwing up – a fairly good reason to suppress those eructations. It’s why I did it. A fear of vomiting might keep a lot of people from burping, or maybe even emetophobia, the fear of puking. Upchucking. Gut-souping. Ralphing. Barfing. It may even be a good enough reason to let go of the ability to give a good, intentional supragastric burp. At least, I seemed to think so as a kid. I was so afraid of throwing up that I used to take painkillers every night of my period for around a year because of one instance in which I woke up in pain and vomited.

One UK website claimed that 3 million people suffer from Emetophobia. It’s a fear that vomiting will lead to or cause insanity, death, endless vomiting, etc. Emetophobics fear being out of control. They have a cycle. First, there is a reminder of vomit, puke, or the porcelain throne of chunks. Which then moves them to worry about vomiting. Emetophobia. They then participate in impulsive behavior to escape vomiting. Starvation. Agoraphobia. The background of the KidsHealth page “What’s Puke” would be enough to set emetophobics off. It’s yellow with darkly outlined squares – quite chunky. My own fear of puking was never that bad. Although, there was that time in daycare where I examined that one book on puke with appalled curiosity – it had a raised illustration on the cover and everything – and solemnly brought it to the attention of an adult, safely disposing of the thing. Things were better after that.

More recently, that one night I woke up in burning pain and threw up happened three or four or five more times – not all during my period. I didn’t know what it was, or why it hurt. I know now. Celiac disease (over 200,000 new discoveries a year) combined with a dairy allergy. For those with Celiac disease, gluten causes their immune system to attack the villi in the small intestine – it destroys the microvilli that absorb nutrients and transfer them to the blood stream. Candida (a yeast that actually implants itself between the cells in the intestinal wall) allows food particles to get into the bloodstream which the white blood cells then attack, causing food allergies. Hence, the dairy allergy. 95% of your body’s serotonin is produced in your gut. You can imagine what happens when you have gut problems.

Now that I’ve also discovered that I have Lyme Disease (the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi that hinders the endothelial cells in the vessel lining, platelets, chondrocytes, and extracellular matrix from operating correctly) I fear other things. Kidney failure is my latest kick. A friend (who recently defeated Lyme) said that Lyme Disease is serious – someone went into kidney failure because of it. Well, most dogs who die of Lyme Disease die of renal failure. Point-in-case. Symptoms include: no urine, swelling – especially in the legs and the feet –, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, feeling confused, anxious, restless, or sleepy, and pain in the back below the rib cage, according to webmd.com.

One week it was brain fog, bloating, and an exhausted nap after being awake only three hours. The fatigue made me realize something was really wrong. But what? It turned out my white blood cells were responding to something they thought was a foreign intruder in my bloodstream – little bits of egg that had leaked through my gut lining. A new allergy.

Sometimes I experience other symptoms, and sometimes they are nothing. Like the red bumps on the backs of my legs and the backs of my arms. They itch, I scratch, I rub. But, it was probably just from dirty clothes right? It’s up to me and webmd.com to decide.

Hypochondriac. Valetudinarian. Neurotic.

Fearful. Fixated. Frantic.

I’m not a hypochondriac. I’ve never considered myself one. There are tests to measure if you’re a hypochondriac (I bet only hypochondriacs take them). I took it. But, I’m not one because I live by myself, my best friend moved, and I have serious medical conditions. I’m just lonely. I’m not a hypochondriac. It’s just my way of convincing myself I’m special. Maybe. I wrote a piece once about the depression my conditions have medically caused. It got published. You can find it in Gravel Magazine, February 2016. But, I have never been officially diagnosed with any of the things I have diagnosed myself with.

I’m not a hypochondriac. Maybe I’m an un-hypochondriac. I’ll go to their kick-off parties and talk about Denise Richards, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Brooker who all have emetophobia. I just won’t drink the Kool-Aid.

I’ve discovered that the bump on my wrist is in fact not cancer, but a cyst. And I haven’t stopped peeing yet so my kidneys haven’t failed. So I can relax, right? Relax.

 

 

BIO

rachelcroskrey2Rachel Croskrey is an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing at Cedarville University. She greatly enjoys stories of other people’s lives and one can often find her reading or watching those accounts. In addition to her interest in other people, she also appreciates order and peace and hopes to be a law enforcement officer one day. Her work can be found in the Cedarville Review and Gravel Magazine.

 

 

 

Shay Siegel

Don’t Quiet Down Please

By Shay Siegel

 

I was voted ‘quietest’ in high school, an achievement that required me to send in an embarrassing picture of myself doing the “shh” sign to the yearbook committee (see below). Because being ‘loudest’ is where it’s really at, right? Apparently. It wasn’t one of those things that I developed one day because some traumatic incident occurred that scarred me for life or anything like that. No, I have always been shy. It kind of became the signature thing about me as I grew up—not quite the trademark everyone would strive for. The quiet girl—a la Hampton Bays High School 2008 yearbook.

 

Shay

Me silently hating the yearbook committee.

 

I was diagnosed “selective mute” at age seven. Now, I know what you are thinking, “Is that a thing?” I am here to tell you that yes, it is a real thing. I wouldn’t speak to anyone other than family and a few close friends. So, you see I was selecting whom I would be mute to. I am proud to report; however, that I am no longer selectively mute with the exception of Terrance who I am afraid will remain selected because quite frankly, he deserves it. I don’t see myself as just ‘the quiet girl’, but it isn’t as if I can show people the rest of who I am right when I meet them. That is not something that quiet introverts do. I’m not the person who will spill her life story in the first fifteen minutes of meeting her. i.e.: “Hi, I’m Sandra, OMG that cake looks so good. Is that hazelnut? I have the BEST hazelnut cake recipe, passed down from my grandma. The secret is just a pinch of salt, funny how one ingredient can totally change the recipe, right? Anyway, I really shouldn’t be eating cake, I have this wedding coming up and I have to fit into my dress. Strapless dress! Ugh, that cake really does look good though, maybe just a bite.” Now, me, I usually just say “Hi, nice to meet you.” And, it’s most likely barely audible at that.

In a previous life, I was a European gentleman who was protesting Parliament. At least that’s what one of my therapists told me. After all the sporadic therapy over the years and all the different interpretations as to why I have so much trouble speaking, this one finally did it—she found the cause of my anxiety and shyness. She is an “energy healer” who can sense things in other realms. So, when she told me that I was a Scandinavian activist many lifetimes ago who was beheaded for what he had said at a political hearing, I had no choice but to believe her. I am all for blaming problems on past lives.

Even though I now know the cause of my selective mutism, it doesn’t quite make the speaking pressures any easier. It has been within the last few years that I have really had to accept that this is who I am. When I started the fiction program at Sarah Lawrence, I didn’t realize how much speaking there would be in the writing program. Isn’t this why writers are writers and not speakers? Apparently not. And it isn’t as though these are big classrooms like say a lecture hall or maybe a basketball arena. No, these are tiny rooms with round tables and sometimes as few as seven students in a class. You can’t hide. People do not forget that you are there. And you certainly cannot stand up and explain that you have a condition due to your colorful past as a European Greenpeace activist—not that I would ever stand up to make an announcement anyway.

When I was younger, in school, I used to write notes for my teachers when they would ask me a question. Things such as, “the correct spelling of banana is b-a-n-a-n-a,” (I was a fantastic speller). This writing of notes didn’t only take place in school; it translated to my home life as well. Not my actual home life because my parents were puzzled as to how I had so much trouble speaking to others, but was as loud and annoying as an incessant, buzzing mosquito at home. One time I tried to sell my sister the leftover cheese off my plate at a restaurant, and I would frequently tell my dad to ‘bring all he’s got’ when he’d take me shopping. I would run through the house screaming, porpoise on the bed, and my friend and I even started a “band” where I was the lead singer. But, these instances were all about who I was comfortable with. I used to go over my best friend’s house everyday, and her mom was a receiver of some of my infamous ‘substitute for voice interaction’ notes. One day I was at her house and while we were prancing around the yard on our stick horses, we discovered that her cat, Midnight, had kittens. My friend told me to run into the house and tell her mom about the newborn felines. This is the effective way in which the selective mute child delivered such information:

 

shay siegel

 

My family used to joke about hoping that no one ever got sick or injured around me because I would be too shy to call nine-one-one. I’d like to think I could have overcome the shyness and risen to the occasion when faced with a real crisis, but thankfully I never had to find out. That phone call would have been brutal—only because I’d have to talk to a stranger, of course—and perhaps would have led to my own illness. i.e.: Severe panic attack.

Most people consider being shy a bad thing because we are all expected to not just have lots to say, but to actually say it. We live in a world where exterior success and image is valued over who we are on the inside. You must show who you are! So, of course, those who don’t struggle with social situations won’t realize that shy people do most likely have a lot to say. As a result, you have the teachers who will feel they have to force quiet students to participate by calling on them in class. If I had a nickel for every time I heard, “Now, Sharon, what did you think of that?” Well, I’d have a lot of nickels. It’s not like I’m not paying attention, if anything I’d bet I’m listening more intently than most. It’s called selective mutism! And then, there are all the people who feel the need to keep repeating, “You’re so quiet!” Why thank you for stating the obvious and pointing out that there is something different about me, moreover, suggesting that this difference is wrong. Why not just push my insecurities to the surface, people? How would they feel if I went around saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re so fat!” or maybe “Whoa, you’re extremely smelly!” I’d say it’s probably an equally pleasant experience to hear about how quiet you are every single day. And, for some reason it’s acceptable to point this out, but not to point out weight and hygiene issues. Of course, I’d never say those things anyway. Not just because they’re quite rude, but also because I don’t say much to strangers.

This is who I am, and I have mostly made peace with it. There is a certain girl, let’s call her Marian. She really helped me come to terms with my shyness. Not because she is a nice person who discussed it with me, but because she is the loudest, most annoying human in the world that has to make every situation about herself. (Refer to ‘Sandra’ on page two). So, I had to say to myself “Well, I’d rather not say a word than sound like a cackling hyena from The Lion King all day long.” I would not strive to be someone who talks a lot but doesn’t say anything.

Do I feel stupid when I sit through my classes or at work not saying a word? Sure. But it isn’t logical for me to tell myself I’m going to be the liveliest participant in a group discussion. I’ve tried telling myself that before and my real self knew I was being a damned liar. Sometimes accepting who we are is half the battle. The other half is finding a profession where there is as little human interaction as possible.

 

 

BIO

Shay SiegelShay Siegel is from Long Island, New York. She received a B.A. in English from Tulane University in New Orleans where she was a member of the Women’s Tennis Team. She recently completed an MFA in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in The Montreal Review, Burning Word, Mouse Tales Press, The Cat’s Meow for Writers and Readers, The Rusty Nail Literary Magazine, Belleville Park Pages, Black Heart Magazine and Extract(s). Her website is www.shaysiegel.com.

 

 

 

vertigo book cover

“The feeling of falling, which was not falling”

A review of Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

Dorothy (US), 2015; And Other Stories (UK); Tramp Press (Ireland), 2016. 123pp

 

Vertigo Joanna Walsh

Review by Ruby Cowling

 

Struck with vertigo, suddenly things are not what you thought. You’re dizzy, disorientated, and it turns out the world is not, after all, what your brain has been constructing every day through its normal sensory feeds. Actual physical vertigo is not pleasant, but a literary style that steps away from the one we know best is exciting, and Joanna Walsh’s approach in this collection certainly does that.

This is not to say that her stories are obscure or “difficult”; I’d hesitate to even label them with that damningly nutritious word “experimental”. They are full of recognisable situations, humour and relatable moments. It’s just that she goes directly for “the truth”, without all the niceness that the mainstream short story slips into so easily. She unhooks herself from common expectations of narrative, in turn untethering the reader from the standard, safe experience of reading short fiction.

Short stories in the form we know best – the form you find in weekend magazines or in annuals from big, safe publishers – typically feature a little aching moment of truth at their heart, which is wonderful, of course; it’s an authentic experience, a quiet, humane offering in a noisy and brutal world. But too often they’re under pressure to deliver that moment up to the reader in a nice velvet-lined box of comfort and familiarity (a named character, going about business you recognise (even if in an exotic setting), working up to a relatable moment of realisation or change). The lid of that beautiful box gently closes at the end of the story, reassuring you of solid ground. However, instead of apologetically working up to a tentative assertion about Life, Walsh just states a truth and kicks it around – no box, no lid, no tethering it to reassuring elements such as softly-introduced character or plot. Because she pulls no punches in her stories – simply stating facts, observing behaviours and honestly presenting the kind of psychic darkness that usually gets fudged – the peculiar is made powerfully universal.

There is so much in this collection: so much intellectual and emotional content, so many direct gestures toward the biggest, scariest parts of human existence. No wonder we get dizzy. One of her skills is to achieve an almost-real-time expression of thought. Internal reality moves quickly and the resulting impression is that we are inhabiting a real mind. “A man sits down at the table next to me. I wonder whether he is French, whether he is foreign, whether he is a tourist. I also wonder whether I could say hello to him, in French or in English, whether we would like each other, whether we could sleep together.” Aren’t characters in cafés supposed to mull things over in a Stately And Important Way, using their observations of the people around them to Come To A Subtle But Profound Conclusion? Once again, we are untethered from expectations, unhooked from the usual steady, authorly manipulation of time. Walsh gives us a more honest experience, and we are giddy.

“The first effect of abroad is strangeness,” says the opening story’s narrator, and it’s because we are “abroad” stylistically that it feels strange at first. But my argument is that these stories are more radically realist than the standard so-called lyrical realism. Drowning, the final story, may be one of the more accessible stories in the collection (perhaps deliberately, so that we think we’re back in safe waters and are even more emotionally unprepared for the stunning ending), and even here Walsh doesn’t shy away from admitting that “the abyss” is real, and although it is “your family who would not like to see” it, it is nevertheless a real part of lived experience which must be acknowledged, however vertiginous that makes us feel.

* * *

Some of the fourteen stories are very short and focused, addressing quite viscerally the internalities of humanhood – and, all right, of womanhood. Here, I get hesitant. It’s essential not to circumscribe Walsh’s intellectual ambition by claiming her focus is “women’s experience”. It’s easy for it to seem that way, because her narrators are female, and because of her “otherly” narrative form – the “other” arguably being aligned with the feminine. She speaks powerfully and concisely of the experience of “failed girls”, and many of her detailed observations encompass clothing, food, and the specific ways people touch each other and use language to manipulate their relationships. Historically, these have tended not to be Great Literature’s dominant concerns; I don’t have a PhD-length space here, so let’s quickly agree that this is because clothing and food have been part of the domestic realm and the significance of the domestic has been side-lined, and that if a writer includes these, the writing ends up with the label female interest. This is not a complimentary epithet: it still carries the accusation of smallness, weakness, intellectual parochialism, so I am loath to bring it up at all. But there is still that political paradox in which you have to marginalize yourself to point out that your voice is not yet, and should be, part of the mainstream – so, there, I’ve brought it up.

These female interest stories are stark and muscular; full of invitation, full of provocation, full of the acknowledgement of the non-separation of body and mind. This latter position has been a concern of feminist thought, and there are certainly explicitly “feminist” moments here (“I’ve heard him shout at her to pick up the telephone, as though she were his extra hand”, says the narrator in Claustrophobia, about her parents). But even to label these as “feminist” is to put a boundary around them: to say, well, that’s an argument, that’s a position, an opinion – instead of a fact. Hence my hesitation to bring up any of these terms.

What Walsh does, in her refusal to use standard story conceits or a banal lyrical realist style to soften the blow, is to bring all this female interest material into the realm of hard fact – of unapologetic, undeniable truth – reminding us that women’s intellectual lives are actually being lived, in reality. They are not a special interest or a theory. They are real.

It still feels radical to be intellectual, in fiction, from a specifically female perspective. It gives us vertigo. “There’s something about our un-control, no men to watch over us,” notes a character in Claustrophobia, a story in which the narrator’s father dies. “What if it never stops?” In these moments vertigo is giddy possibility: freedom, danger, adventure, the sudden removal of the gravitational force of embedded power structures.

* * *

For reasons I’ve just alluded to, clothing is a neglected node of social significance; Walsh’s narrators notice clothing and its meanings perhaps more than any other writer I’ve read. Indeed, the book opens with Fin de Collection, a plot-light exploration of a Parisian department store and its stock (and its customers). In later stories, her eye for clothes is that of an artistic sociologist: she knows what these colours and shapes and fabrics and choices mean. Nurses’ uniforms in The Children’s Ward are unsettlingly the same blue as the attendants at petrol stations; in Relativity a grandmother’s “shades are mint, peach, lemon, blueberry, cream. She dresses as she would like to see her granddaughter dressed: edibly.” A daughter’s “short pink skirt with lace” ignites the title story. And in the Paris of Half The World Over, the young women tourists “are all dressed the same, in the current fashion. The older women are dressed either more primly or more provocatively than the older women, but always in reaction to them.” The iterative effect of these observations is that they are not the stuff of flimsy domesticity but a type of forensic anthropology.

Walsh is preoccupied with the disorientating experiences of contemporary life; its shocks; its threats; the things that throw us off balance. And what delights me most is that she doesn’t shy away from any of it: she doesn’t pull the cozy blanket of standard narrative over the dark and difficult things. Like family. In the complex, multi-generational story Claustrophobia, children are mentioned in passing as “blind lumps of my flesh, detached…”, while the narrator wrestles more centrally with the meaning of her own mother. In The Children’s Ward babies and children are the pulsing, “beeping” heart of the horrific tension of being a parent at all. This story is strung out with the hopeless terror attached to parenthood, the supremely attached status a mother has, against her own will. Young Mothers takes this further: the mothers have become children in the way they dress, behave, and speak, even though it is mysteriously important to everyone that the contract remain “kids be kids” and “mothers be mothers”. Do we get soothing resolutions to these unsettling scenarios? Of course not.

It’s brave and essential to lay out so starkly the details of life – and often, women’s lives – in all their uncomfortable ambiguity. Not to say that laying things out starkly means there are no layers of meaning – quite the opposite; this book is full of those. But the layers of meaning aren’t here because of that standard, MFA-story, show-don’t-tell manipulation. They’re part of the honest presentation of the complexities we negotiate as we go through life, as “good people, who can hardly live in this world, which continues almost entirely at our expense”.

Vertigo is packed full of the stuff we’re afraid of and attracted to, in the way we’re attracted to wild animals and cliff edges and the disconcerting behaviour of other humans we’re close to. And ourselves. The overall experience is exciting in the way only a truly original reading experience can be.

 

 

BIO

Ruby CowlingRuby Cowling is a British writer currently living in London. Her work has won awards that include, The White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize, and has been shortlisted in contests from Glimmer Train, Short Fiction, and Aesthetica, among others. Recent anthology credits include I Am Because You Are (a Freight Books collection of work inspired by the theory of General Relativity); Flamingo Land and Other Stories, from Flight Press; and Unreal City: Constructing the Capital, a book of fiction and non-fiction about London, from Cours de Poétique.

Elizabeth Johnson

Chartwell Manor

by Jennifer Elizabeth Johnson

 

 chartwell manor

 

“Forgive and forget all the while, love and pain become one and the same in the eyes of a wounded child”
Pat Benatar

 

*Some of the students’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.

 

Have you ever as a child, been so victimized by a caretaker that you carried the scar well into adulthood? Many of you have, so let me ask you this instead: What if you found out later on in life that other children had been terrorized to a greater extent than you had by that same person? Let’s add another layer: What if you suddenly learn that said perpetrator did prison time for some of the most egregious of his crimes? What would your emotional reaction be? Would you feel sorrow for those with the bigger scars? Would you feel relief or joy knowing that the abuser was punished? What happens when you realize that what happened to you could have been worse, and was for many others?

I went to a nightmarish, Kafkaesque boarding school when I was eight-years-old.   I was a terrible kid, unquestionably, and needed to be separated from my younger sister, Laurie, for her protection. I was a breech birth. I had tried to exit the womb butt first, folded into two slabs of infant meat, with my feet pressed against my head. There was an oxygen shortage and as a result, I had minimal brain dysfunction, which later resulted in a severe behavioral disorder. Or maybe it happened because I fell in the bathroom when I was still a baby and hit my head on the tiled floor, hard. Could it be that my preexisting condition was exacerbated by my father’s unforgiving parenting style? Whatever the reason, I was a monster, but these issues didn’t’t surface until I was two, which is when my sister Laurie came into the world.

According to my parents, I was jealous of the new infant, and I would act out in ways that they weren’t equipped to deal with. I would engage in frequent tantrums, throw things and punch holes in my bright pink bedroom wall. I stopped eating most foods, especially vegetables. My father’s version of this is that it did it all for attention, even though that attention came in the form of a beating. I preferred negative attention to none at all.

As I got older I didn’t get along with other children. Rumor has it that I threw a brick at another child, and that I wasn’t nice to animals.  But nobody suffered my wrath more than my little sister. My mother claims that from a very young age my father beat me mercilessly, and that I turned it around onto Laurie.

My parents’ marriage was an unholy union, to say the least. They fought constantly, and when I was five, my dad moved out, followed by acrimonious divorce proceedings. My mother had to take on the task of policing my sister and me on her own. After the divorce, my father moved to a slum in Piscataway, New Jersey, while we remained in Kendall Park. My sister and I only saw him once every other weekend, so my mother, for all intents and purposes, was a single parent. I can still remember a day when I was especially vicious to my sister. My mother was on her own with the two of us in tow. She needed to run a quick errand, and didn’t’t want to deal with the hassle of packing us up in the station wagon. I was seven-years-old and Laurie was five.

“Let me babysit,” I said.

“That’s a terrible idea,” my mother answered.

I begged. “Pleeeeeaaase? I promise I’ll be good”

Against what I suspect was her better judgment, she agreed. She was barely five minutes out the door when I was on top of my sister, who was lying on our grey velvet sofa, with my knees in her chest, pounding on her with closed fists and a dragon-like malevolence. For reasons I can’t recall, I really wanted to do damage. I was filled with an unidentifiable rage.

My sister’s harrowing screams must have been audible from outside the house because upon her return, my mother bolted through the door, made a B-line for the couch, pulled me off of my sister, and threw me to the floor. I don’t begrudge her that. I’d do the same thing as a parent. I still experience guilt for everything I did to Laurie, but that day stands out in my mind because I was so out of control, that I believe there was some chance I could have killed my sister if my mom had come home mere minutes later. It was a terrifying prospect for my mother. Geographical separation was the only effective solution, so at eight years old I was sentenced to Chartwell Manor for an undetermined amount of time.

* * *

Chartwell Manor, named for Winston Churchill’s estate, was located in the town of Mendham, New Jersey in Morris County. It was run by Terrence and Judy Lynch or as I like to call them, The Lynch Mob. I did three years time there before I was released. The headmaster was a sadistic British man in his thirties. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, spoke in a thick British accent, and had dark hair perfectly parted to one side. His body was slightly rotund and he had a round, cherubic shaped head, which gave him a deceptively innocuous appearance. We were instructed to refer to him only as “Sir”.

His wife Judy was a very large and curvy American woman. She had enormous breasts, a macro-booty and always wore a big, dark brown bun on the top of her head.  She wore form-fitting, dark colored dresses.  I had never seen such a big derriere in my entire life. Her hips moved so much when she walked it was easy to picture her shimmying down a narrow corridor, swinging them left and right, hitting the walls each time. She was cold, stoic and just as intimidating as her husband was. She rarely smiled, and sometimes beat the girls viciously. Although I never witnessed it first hand, one student claims that they saw her beat a girl with a riding crop for what felt like an eternity. Another stated that he and his friend looked on helplessly as she punched a twelve-year-old girl in the face, knocking her to the ground for the alleged crime of having kissed a boy. Judy wore a large diamond wring in the shape of a crystal doorknob, so her punches did some damage. Every time she entered a room, most of us were in the habit of disappearing, whenever that was an option.

 

chartwell manor

 

“Sir” would have made a great post-apocalyptic dictator. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized just how unhinged he was, and only very recently I discovered that he was far sicker than I had previously imagined.

I can still conjure up a pretty clear image of the day I was taken there for the interviewing process.  We stood at the top of his majestic, sanguine colored staircase as he smiled at my mother and I with that phony, Muppet-like joviality. He looked a little to Pillsbury Dough Boyish for either of us to sense any type of peril.

The large, stone mansion was regal and elegant, stunning to some, I imagine. The building contained The Lynch’s living quarters, the classrooms and the boys’ dormitory. The foyer was huge, with classrooms to the left and a large dining hall to the left of the classrooms. Elegant French doors connected all three sections, and French windows graced the entire building. So did chandeliers.  Red carpet covered every room in the building except for the dining hall and classrooms, which had painted brick and hardwood floors, respectively. The carpeting gave the place a Stephen King like quality and seemed to reflect The Lynch’s blood lust. It extended from the foyer to the double, wrap around, mansion style stairs, to all of the second and third floor hallways, which featured Sir’s office, the Lynch’s apartment, a payphone, and boys’ dormitories.

“Have you ever been to sleep away camp, Jennifer?”, Lynch asked me. I smiled and nodded. “Well this is a lot like that,” he said, grinning.

It turned out that except for the element of living away from home; it was nothing like sleep away camp. I had lived in several summer camps. I remember arts and crafts, roasting marshmallows, volley ball games, campfires and the lush greens of Pennsylvania campgrounds. I don’t remember ever having been beaten or humiliated by a person of authority at such a place.

As I ran in circles around the majestic staircase I overheard Mr. Lynch tell my mother, “Our specialty is hyperactives.” or something to that effect. As his eyes followed my frenzied little feet scurrying around, it didn’t occur to me at the time that he was probably thinking about the beating he’d be giving me, had not been for the presence of my mother. He saw a wild beast in me. I was the shrew, and he was damn sure going to tame me.

The boys outnumbered the girls about five to one. There were approximately sixteen girls and eighty boys, so the girls lived down the road in a separate little cottage, which was actually a five-bedroom house. Each room except for our housemother’s was color themed. There was a red, orange, green, and purple room. The walls were white, but the bedding and carpets had a color scheme. I lived in all of them at one time or another. There was a payphone for collect calls in the downstairs hallway.

The girls’ dorm was a kind of hell in and of itself, despite the lack of “Sir’s” presence there. There was only one bathroom where the older girls picked on me constantly; always trying to force me to take baths I didn’t think I needed.  They called me names: “ugly”, “greasy hair” and others. We had a lovely housemother named Barbara Sainsbury for a brief time during my tenure there, but Olga Reimer, who was far more unpleasant than any of my coeds, soon replaced her. What a nasty old hag Olga was.  She was also British, but much older than the Lynches. I don’t know what her relation to Sir was, but she was a pretty good stand-in for him in terms of excessive discipline. I remember wondering what was wrong with British people, having had such limited exposure to them at that time. I can vaguely recall her dragging me by the hair on more than one occasion. She loved to tell me what and idiot I was. “You’re an idiot, Jennifer. You really are. You really are an idiot!” she’d say in a piercing, high-pitched voice and hoity British accent.

 

chartwell manor

 

In the beginning, I went home every weekend. I’ll never forget the first time I returned Sunday night sobbing in my mother’s car. My mother had moved us New York City, so it was a little over an hour’s ride to the school. After we drove up the long winding driveway and past the snow covered forestry that spanned the distance between the girls housing quarters and the mansion, I begged my mother not to leave me there. I wouldn’t even know how to describe the feeling of terror and abandonment. Mr. Lynch had no love for me. My mother had to drag me to the door and drive away as quickly as possible.  Later that evening, I called my mother, still sobbing. Much like prison, collect calls were the only option.

I would dial zero and the number and when the operator came on line I’d say. “Hi, I’d like to make a collect call, my name is Jennifer.”

My mother always accepted the calls when she was home, at least it seemed that way. But she was back on the dating scene, so sometimes she was out and some babysitter would answer the phone. I hated those nights. On this particular evening I made the mistake of calling my mom from the mansion payphone, just down the hall from Sir’s office and the couple’s apartment.

“Mom please don’t make me stay here. I hate it here. I’m so homesick and they’re so mean!’’

“You’ll get used to it Jen, I promise. It’s just going to take some t…”

My mother barely made it through a sentence before Sir grabbed the phone from my hand and demanded that I go wait for him in his office. As I headed in that direction I heard him talking to my mother.  He was eerily composed. “No worries, Mrs. Johnson. Jennifer is just a little agitated right now. I’m going to try and calm her down.” He hung up the phone.He stormed back to his office and began striking me left and right, mostly on my head and face. “How dare you make a scene like that?!” he told me. I begged him to stop hitting me and finally, after about five or six blows he shoved me out of his office. I practiced what I would say to my mother the next weekend when I went home again. This man was lying to parents. Surely, she would understand that this gulag was no place for her daughter.

Well I wasn’t withdrawn; in fact I started spending most weekends there. My parents decided that I needed to get used to the place, and that taking me home to be with my Mom or Dad was just too disruptive. I’m fairly certain Mr. Lynch was behind this decision. Like most sociopaths, he could be extremely charming and convincing when he had an agenda. Parents saw an entirely different person than we did.  They saw Fred Rogers. We saw a draconian prison guard. Lynch could be so charming at times that many parents donated money to the school on a regular basis, and one student even told me that her mother had put the Lynches in her will. My mother believed that Mr. Lynch was a good disciplinarian who was acting in my best interest, and that my tales were just the result of the active imagination of children.

My mother was wrong, and I made all of my future calls from the girls’ dormitory. Shortly after my escape at age eleven the school was investigated for allegations of child abuse.  In the year of 1976 Lynch’s accusers were unsuccessful in their pursuit of justice. What I discovered recently is that school did eventually shut down in 1984, when I was nineteen years old, after the headmaster Terrence Michael Lynch was sentenced to fourteen years of incarceration, for the ritualistic sexual and physical abuse of young boys. There is also a great degree of speculation that some of the worst abuses were never brought to trial and remain undocumented: incidents including sex trafficking and the creation of child pornography, which was all said to have taken place during Chartwell’s annual excursions to Europe.

Lynch only served seven years of his sentence and was released in 1997 only to become a volunteer at a Beginnings, a substance abuse rehab center where he molested grown men in a similar fashion, in spite of the fact that he was branded under Megan’s Law. Apparently, he wasn’t only a pedophile; anybody vulnerable was fair game. As reported by Kevin Coughlin, of The Daily Record a local Morristown paper, in 2009 three survivors of Beginnings received a total of 780,000 for the abuse they endured under Lynch’s care. More will be revealed later in the essay, but if you’re feeling curious, dubious, or impatient here is one of the sourced articles:

No Spank

* * *

If I had to choose a room at Chartwell as the most ominous place on the campus, I’d have to go with the foyer. We would all stand there downstairs, on that god awful crimson carpet, lined up according to grade in our school uniforms for what Sir called assembly. The uniforms were absurd: navy blue blazers with the Chartwell Manor insignia, with grey skirts for girls and grey slacks for boys.  Both sexes had to wear a tie. I looked ridiculous standing in front of the mirror. Who dresses like this? Was this a British thing too? Mr. Lynch would stand at his podium in all of his eccentric glory, and preach to us about nonsense.

 

chartwell manor

 

Assembly met several times a day. Of all the images of rooms at this school this one stayed with me the strongest, because it’s where Mr. Lynch was the least restrained and the most venomous. It was in this room that Mr. Lynch repeatedly subjected us to his terrifying psychobabble, knowing full well that many of us were too young to understand it. There was nowhere to go and nothing we could do about it unless we wanted beatings, so we would stand there and listen to him, until he dismissed us.

He was our personal evangelist preacher, only unlike a TV evangelist; we didn’t have the option of turning him off. I didn’t understand most of what he carried on about, but the gist of it was about debauchery and disobedience, and the subsequent consequences. Just like any talking head on The 700 Club, he used fear and propaganda to keep us in line.

He would start with a stern yet serene tone of voice, and then get progressively louder and more delusional, waving his hands around while he yelled about drugs, lust, or whatever his scourge du jour was. One of his favorite topics was the benefits of corporal punishment. He never tired of hearing himself “reassure” us that he beat us out of love.

I’ve been interviewing former students, and many of them actually believed that Lynch’s declarations of affection were genuine. While they feared Sir, they also considered him a father figure, and felt desperate for his approbation. According to some of the boys I interviewed, this betrayal of trust was perhaps the most detrimental aspect of the abuse. The pain that some carried around later in life was so unmanageable that many suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, with memories of the abuse repressed well into their twenties and thirties. A few former students responded to my research with reactionary contempt, which I can only imagine stems from the pain associated with these memories, and the need to suppress them.

Beyond the usual “If I don’t beat you, you won’t learn, and if you don’t learn you won’t survive in the world” bullshit, I mostly just recall random words during these assemblies. The only other word group that comes to memory was “Fuck fuck fuck! Lovely, lovely!” His hands seemed to fly every which way as he said it. He was trying to make a point about how ugly curse words were, and what sinners we all were for using them. Other words that I recall hearing were “sin, lust, bedlam, anarchy, drugs, honor, whore, virgin, pure, slut, zeppelin, woman, and temptation.

Terrence Michael Lynch was the first to teach me about the virgin/whore complex. As far as he was concerned girls should be “pure.” He spoke with great contempt about a girl from his school days called “Mattress Mary” who he referred to as a “slut.” The oldest students at Chartwell were 15-years-old. Since teenagers are wired to be both sexual and curious, some heavy petting was inevitable, and occasionally one of the female students was made an example of, in the worst way imaginable. First they were slut shamed in front of the whole student body, and then beaten. I can’t remember the exact words Sir used, but at eight-years-old I knew what a tramp was, and I knew that you could only be one if you were a girl.  I also knew that if you did happen to be one of the girls caught in some teenage dalliance sanctioned by Mother Nature, Sir would convince the rest of us that you were a Jezebel of the worst kind, capable of the darkest of sexual transgressions. Yes, we were the perverts: Projection in action: Calling Dr. Freud! What occurs to me now is that Sir was jealous of girls, because they were the object of the boys’ affections. Judy Lynch was said to have done routine “virginity checks” on some of the older girls. Officials tried to make a case against her as well, but the state lacked witnesses who were willing to testify.

I can’t remember which fundamentalist brand of Christianity Sir embraced, but in light of the fact that I now know that was a convicted sex offender, it’s so much easier to connect the psychopathic dots. It’s fairly common knowledge that there is a strong link between sexual repression and sexual deviation, and the more an orator follows the narrative that “sex is dirty and shameful” the bigger pervert he either currently is, or is destined to become. You know the saying: “Me think thou art protest too much” or something like that. While I attended Chartwell there were at least two girls who were either expelled or withdrawn for sexual “indiscretions”. The official story was that they were expelled, but I knew what a pathological liar Sir was, so I questioned everything.

Dianna Carrington and Courtney Abbot both left Chartwell Manor for these reasons, but not before they were branded with both a physical and psychological Scarlett Letter. Bruising students was commonplace. I remember going home with a giant bruise on my ass, although on that particular occasion it was Mrs. Lynch who had savaged me. My mother was strangely unaffected when I showed it to her. Shortly after Dianna left, her parents decided to take Sir to court. They were not impressed with the welts on their daughter’s backside. The girls were set to be witnesses. Some time before her parents were scheduled to come The Lynches pulled all the girls into a classroom for “rehearsal.”

“Miss Carrington’s parents are going to ask some of you some questions.” Sir told us. “They’re going to ask you if we beat you here and you’re to tell them that we don’t. Is that clear?”

We all nodded in agreement. Nobody was going to martyr herself to this cause. Thankfully, Dianna’s parents never approached me.  I don’t think I would have been brave enough to tell them the truth.

* * *

Assemblies were bad enough when Sir just went on some random diatribe, but once in a while he required an actual victim: someone to accuse, mock or terrify for no good reason.  I can remember at least two times when I was the victim of choice.  I was one of the students he hated, so I was targeted disproportionately. Nothing was more dreadful than being singled out as this man’s personal plaything, especially in front of the whole school. I had seen him do it to others.

Even at eight I was enough of an independent thinker to know that something was horribly wrong, even when he targeted other students. I had seen him make an announcement that someone clogged up one of the boys’ toilets, and then look around for a scapegoat. It didn’t take him long to point to a eleven-year-old and say “Mr. Green, you have a very guilty look on your face! Go up to my office and wait for me.!“ This is how Mr. Lynch adjudicated our alleged crimes. Apparently, he wasn’t a big fan of the American justice system, where actual evidence is required before a sentence is passed.

Not much later, I was accused of a more serious crime. During the weekends most of the students went home, so the girls would sleep in the empty boys’ rooms in the mansion dormitory. During such a weekend, a male student’s belongings were ransacked and his musical apparatus was smashed. I knew nothing of it and had nothing to do with it, but damned if Il Duce let that get in the way of administering his own special style of justice.  After he ranted about the alleged vandalism that took place, he announced without hesitation that I was the guilty party.

“Miss Johnson!” he said. “You broke that boy’s radio just because you didn’t have one of your own! Get up to my office! We’ll be docking your student account to replace it!”

So just like that I was simultaneously losing money, having the entire student body turned against me, AND I was getting a beating? The combination of rage and fear I experienced was unimaginable, because I was so angry I wanted to kill him, but also so terrified all I could mutter was “But I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!” which as you can imagine, was not effective.

I never went up to his office so I didn’t receive that beating. I refused to get a beating with a wooden hairbrush for something I just didn’t do. Luckily, he had so many other kids to beat or violate that day that he must have forgotten about it. I later discovered that it was commonplace for some of Lynch’s former victims to return to the school, often in a drug or alcohol addled state, in order to vandalize the property and steal cars, money and other things. In all likelihood I was taking the rap for someone Lynch no longer had access to.

One of final acts of retaliatory vandalism against the Lynchs: Terrence and Judy’s gravestone was “christened” by a former student.

Calls to my mother were frequent. “When can I come home?” I asked after returning from Thanksgiving break. My homesickness was always worse after visiting my mom or dad.

“Christmas,” she said.

“Christmas?” I asked. “Christmas is like six weeks from now.’’

“It will go by fast, you’ll see,” she said.

Sometimes I begged her. “Let me come back home,” I’d say. “I promise I’ll be good.” But she’d heard that before.

Christmas break would come and go with all the excitement and subsequent heartache that came with seeing family for only a couple of weeks. Christmas and summers were the longest breaks I got from Chartwell, but the longer I was home the harder it always was to go back, although after the first year I was more resigned to the sadness.  I believe the psychoanalytic term is “learned helplessness” It wasn’t like my parents were going to listen to me anyway.

The aforementioned bruise was a consequence of smoking. At the time I lived upstairs with the older girls: Karen, Anita and “slutty” Courtney. There were four of us in the room, and sometimes some of the boys would sneak down from the mansion to the girls’ dorm in the middle of the night. We had a ledge right outside our window, where the boys would hang out, although I have no idea how they got up there in the first place.  My roommates and the boys woke me from the deepest of slumbers. I let out a grunt. I was tired.

“Go back to sleep. You’re dreaming,” Courtney would say over and over again. Eventually I was fully awake. There wasn’t much point in trying to sleep. The girls were all up smoking and talking. I had little interest in smoking at the time, but Courtney said “She’s a witness, so she has to take a security drag.” So I did. I sucked on a cigarette and blew out the smoke immediately without inhaling. The very next morning after my roommates had gone Olga entered the room to do some cleaning and began sniffing.

“I smell cigarettes. Jennifer, were any of the girls smoking in here? I had intended to lie, but became so nervous I just gulped a little and then heard myself saying “Yes” in hesitant, almost whisper like tone.

Later that day all four of us were beaten with the wooden side of a hairbrush. We all sat in the Lynch’s living room and when it was our turn, Mrs. Lynch took us to their bedroom and ordered us to lift our skirts and pull down our underwear. She remained very quiet during the beatings. She hardly uttered a word the entire time we were all in there. Sometimes the quietist villains are the scariest. When my turn came around I tried to block the first blows with my hands, but that hurt just as much. The burn on my ass was intense and I screamed. It was the worst pain I’d ever experienced. I’ve never been so relieved as I was the minute it was over. I don’t know how many lashes I received, probably about ten, but I believed that the grapefruit size bruise that spanned both cheeks had a story to tell.

Child protection laws rendered it illegal to leave long lasting marks, especially bruises. I don’t remember how, but I was familiar with these laws, so I assumed that naturally, this would be the tipping point for my mother. She couldn’t ignore bruises like that, could she?  Her reaction to the bruise was similar to all of my other complaints of abuse. “What did you do?” or “I’m sure they didn’t mean to leave a bruise like that.” I think she felt trapped and conflicted with her lack of choices, which caused her to ignore inconvenient truths. How else does one justify such victim-blaming statements?

On another occasion Sir saw fit to humiliate me during an assembly, for no reason in particular. He was explaining that a new girl from a foreign country had just become a student, but didn’t speak any English.

“You have to talk softly to her,” he said. “Not like Jennifer Johnson. Don’t say ‘Helloooo!’” he said, while making loud, guttural sounds, as though he were mimicking an actual monster. The students laughed as I teared up. It didn’t seem to matter that I was the new girl’s only friend, and had been spending my free time taking her around, pointing to objects and saying them in English so she could repeat and learn, which she seemed to greatly appreciate. I was absolutely mortified. After the laughter died down he asked,  “Is Jennifer crying yet?” with a big shit eating grin on his face. To his great satisfaction, I was.

Mr. Lynch did this to me on more than two occasions, but these were the most memorable. Perhaps my behavioral problems were so severe that I deserved a beating now and again. But I can’t recall any “fair” beatings.  Justified disciplinary actions are far less eventful than flagrant acts of abuse, so the abuse what I remember.

The thing is, I knew he was wrong. I knew that what was happening to me was not normal. I knew it was unjust. I often wonder if this has something to do with the fact that I was raised without religion. Most kids accept what happens in their childhoods as the norm, but I had a better bullshit detector than most, and I wasn’t even remotely impressed with fake father figures with misguided God complexes. I hated the man, through and through. I understood his intentions.

* * *

I can’t remember why, at the age of eleven I was finally withdrawn. Maybe my mother’s guilt got the better of her, or maybe she believed that I would be less violent after living in such punitive, despotic circumstances. I honestly don’t recall many the details of my visits home because as bad as they might have been, it was always better to be home. For this reason, I can’t reliably tell you if I struck Laurie less often or with less malice during visits home or after my tenure at Chartwell. What I can tell you is that I was still a very angry child, probably more so than I had been previously.

What I didn’t figure out until adulthood was that the man was just bat shit crazy. Before that, I was too busy reflecting on how evil he was and how much he had hurt me.  I didn’t have the emotional resources left to consider his illness.  After some processing, the guilty verdict remains in tact. I have no pity for the man and his sickness.  He’s harmed too many people to cash in on any of my empathy. As one victim stated,  “ The ruined lives this guy is responsible for is staggering.”

Brendan Burt was a student in the early eighties right before the school was shut down. He told me that Lynch would routinely bring him into his office, order him to pull down his pants, fondle his genitals, penetrate his anus with his finger and then beat him. He also informed me that on one occasion Lynch threatened to break his mother’s arm if he told anyone about the abuse, and that sometimes after beatings Lynch would congratulate him for “taking it like a man.”

Perhaps one of the most disturbing accounts revolved around a year long epidemic of bowel incontinence that took place in the boys’ dormitories. According to Brendan, some of the boys were defecating in their beds, and the afflicted students were all assigned to designated rooms. “Those rooms should have been quarantined,” he recounted, since the odor was so foul. None of the girls were affected, which suggests it was not the result of a contagious illness. At first I thought it must have been caused by rectal damage resulting from sodomy, but an equally plausible scenario is that it was psychosomatic; students were soiling themselves to keep Lynch away from their rectums. Apparently, some students just stopped wiping themselves after a bowel movement, probably to the same end.

I understand that Lynch died in 2011 after becoming very ill during a trip to Cuba. The official story is that he went there with a group of missionaries, but it is widely suspected that this trip was intended as a sex tour for pedophiles, although I cannot confirm or deny this.

* * *

The worst part about this for me is that my mom had always been dodgy when it came to being accountable for having sent me to this school in the first place. We had blowouts about it every Christmas for a while, until my stepfather Phil, made a point of convincing my mother to accept some blame for what had happened.

I remember wailing, sitting on our soft off-white sectional sofa, all facing one another surrounded by ravaged gift-wrapping paper and an all-white-lit Christmas tree several feet away.  I don’t remember how the conversation started, but I remember saying something like “I came home with a huge bruise on my ass and you sent me back!”

“How do you know you had a bruise? How could you see it?” Yeah, she really asked me that.

“In a mirror!” I said

“What mirror?” my mom answered.

At this point my stepfather Phil intervened. “Gretchen!” he said with a shocked look.

This was the Christmas that put this subject to rest. By her own admission, Phil was the only man my mom ever really loved. She didn’t love my father or my first stepfather. Phil was her one and only true love, so his opinion mattered. My mom realized that this was the time to stop belittling me, and take my complaints about Chartwell seriously. I was about twenty-two or twenty-three and this was the first robust apology she’d ever given me. It was heartfelt, and all I ever needed from her.

“I’m sorry Jen, I’m sorry I sent you to such a horrible place. If I had to do it over I would choose another option. I wish I could take it back, but I just can’t. I was a young mother and I didn’t know how to control the situation. I had no support from your father or anyone else. The seventies were a very mother-blaming era. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time.”

There was truth to a lot in that. They didn’t know then what they know now about ADHD. Every time there was something wrong with a kid it was just assumed that the mother was fully culpable. My mother was working full-time, taking care of my sister, and going through rancorous court proceedings with my father regarding retroactive, unpaid child support. Consequently, she had deluded herself into thinking that a military type environment would protect Laurie for a time and set me straight. She was correct about the former, but mistaken about the latter.

* * *

I googled  “Chartwell Manor boarding school abuse” just recently, and several articles popped out at me. In the internet age with so much information at my disposal, I wonder why I never considered doing this earlier. All these years it was just a button tap away. It might have given me better clarity into the depths of Lynch’s twisted inner workings.  I guess I thought it was all behind me.

According to an article published in 2006 by Peggy Wright also from the Morristown, New Jersey Daily Record, boys were routinely lined up naked, beaten, and molested through various ceremonial manifestations. As Wright points out, Michael Uhl described Lynch as having “a forceful, hypnotic quality that compelled students to obey him, even when he bent them over his knee to beat them with a slipper, his hand, a brush or paddle”.  The article also explains that Lynch “went to prison for seven of a 14-year sentence for sexually abusing boys by spanking them, squeezing their genitals, or giving them enemas.”

I spoke to Mr. Uhl on the phone for five hours recently. Due to the statute of limitations, Uhl was the only student from our era to successfully sue Lynch. His lawyer argued that the memories of the abuse were so painful that Uhl had repressed them until his twenties,

so effectively that he was sending Lynch yearly Christmas cards, even after he had been incarcerated for his crimes. Lynch used various techniques to indoctrinate students. What I remember specifically is being forced to watch the Sidney Poitier movie “To Sir With Love” every year. I also remember graduation ceremonies, where graduates were forced to sing “Thank You Very Much” from “A Chorus Line”. Our yearbooks were filled with self-aggrandizing statements written by and about Lynch in the third person. The pervasive theme in all these examples seemed to be the unending gratitude we should all feel for a person who was essentially, our kidnapper.

Some of Wright’s anecdotes came from students like Andrew Fleisig who claimed he got a “bare-bottomed spanking” just for crying when he arrived at Chartwell for the first time. Sound familiar? Student Glenn Head, who attended Chartwell around the same time I did, claimed that Lynch was fond of “beating the boys, and then cuddling them when they cried.”

Some students claim that they were commanded to masturbate in front of Lynch, while others say that he forced them to perform oral sex on him. Still others have stated that Lynch sodomized them. The school offered an annual trip to Europe for one thousand dollars, which was a lot of money at the time. My parents were broke, so I never went myself. In retrospect I’m grateful for my parents financial limitations, because some-of the worst abuse was said to have occurred on these trips. Since laws regarding the consumption of alcohol are more relaxed in Europe, Lynch allowed the students to drink beer and wine. One student claimed that he was drugged, raped and filmed by a group accompanying Lynch. That student has since committed suicide. He confided in Uhl about the incident, and for this reason I am unaware of his identity. Since then, I have heard of at least four other boys who took their own lives sometime after leaving Chartwell. I did specifically seek out information about suicide in my research. This was all mentioned to me through casual conversation. If you consider the fact that the percentage of former students who are in touch with one another is a mere fraction of all Chartwell alumni, it would be logical from a mathematical standpoint to assume that there were many more, perhaps dozens who took their own lives.

Many students such as Sam Jacobs and Kevin Steiner struggled with substance abuse. Some became criminals. Kevin Steiner died in a car accident, during which time he was in and out of rehab and stealing cars. At one point he stole Lynch’s cars. Sam Jacobs became a convicted rapist at the age of 14, mere weeks after Lynch had sodomized him.

Brendan internalized the blame and engaged in self-sabotage in the form of heavy drug abuse. He didn’t know why until the age of 30, when visions of Chartwell were revealed in a dream. “I barely slept for the next three years,” he told me. Both Mike Uhl and Brendan Burt had managed to keep the memories at bay until adulthood, but in both cases all their recollections came flooding back in a single defining moment, like an emotional tsunami. In Uhl’s case it occurred when Lynch sent him an odd, metaphor riddled, parable from prison, which contained a strange message about embracing victimhood.

But Lynch abused children even before the creation of Chartwell Manor. Bill Moore was a Jewish sixth grader in the 1960s at Somerset Hills School in Warren, Somerset County where according to former teacher Jerry Amedeo Lynch was fired when the owner discovered he was spanking children. The sexual abuse was only discovered after Lynch left, when students felt safe enough to start talking.  Not only were students beaten, forced to parade naked together and selected to cuddle in bed with Mr. Lynch for intimate TV time, Wright explains how Moore described a scene to him where “Lynch would hold part of a comb to his upper lip and imitate Adolf Hitler.” In 2006 Lynch volunteered at an adult rehab center called Beginnings where he molested men, presumably because he no longer had access to children.

His Beginnings victims say he posed as a real doctor to facilitate molestation, and asked to be called “Dr. Mike” In an ironic twist; it was Lynch’s parole officer that landed him the position at Beginnings, on account of his “experience” as a headmaster, in spite of his status as a registered sex offender.  Lynch pleaded guilty to three fondling charges, after which he did spent only ten months in a county jail. The short sentence probably had something to do with how well he was well connected with the local police, to whom he gave expensive bottles of scotch every Christmas.

* * *

The year of 1984 completed almost two decades of Lynch abuse that fell under the radar of law enforcement. I was nineteen that year, and wished I’d heard about his incarceration then. It might have given me some closure earlier. I also might have been able to write this essay while the Lynches were still alive, exposing them to the entire country. I had never realized that I was actually one of the lucky ones. There are undoubtedly countless survivors as well as causalities.

“Sir” Terrence Michael Lynch is dead and in the ground, but his legacy of tyranny will live on a long time. According to extensive psychological research, it is likely that many victims’ stories will bleed into generations of families to come. Jacobs is a case in point.

After a great deal of research I discovered that Sam started sexually abusing girls in early adolescence and at fourteen, raped a girl at knifepoint. According to Sam, Lynch had attempted to sodomize him shortly before, but was unable to complete the act, because Sam screamed so loudly from the pain that Lynch retreated for fear of exposure.

“He would beat me, molest me, and then rub my butt and tell me how much he loved me,” Sam told me. “He was like a father figure.”

“That’s probably what fucked you up the most,” I said.

“It definitely is,” he responded.

Sam committed his first offense as an adult in the year of 1977 and spent ten years in prison. As far as I’m concerned, this is Lynch’s handiwork. I don’t excuse Sam for his behavior, as I believe he made a choice to rape. I firmly believe however, that he would not have become a rapist if it weren’t for the years of abuse he endured.

Sam was released from a treatment facility in 1987 and in 1994, married and had a daughter, but was divorced shortly thereafter on account of heavy drug and alcohol use. He was re-incarcerated from 2002-2006 on a stalking charge. According to court documents from 2006 and 2009, Sam was sentenced to remain at a sex offender treatment facility under a civil commitment mandate, in spite of the fact that he had completed his prison sentence and hadn’t committed an actual sex crime in decades.  Because of the stalking incident, the court decided that he was still a sexually violent predator, even though the stalking charge was ruled as a non-sexual. He is still being detained today.

Sam and I talk on the phone a lot these days.  He told me that Lynch abused him sexually, physically and emotionally with frequency and severity. “ I don’t hate women,” he told me. “When I raped those girls I never really wanted to hurt anybody. Some of them fought back and I let those girls go, because I didn’t want to be violent. I didn’t realize that rape was violent or harmful. I was insecure and didn’t know how to talk to girls. Lynch took away all my control. I thought this was the only way to get it back. I thought it was the only way to prove that I was a man.”

“Didn’t your victims cry?” I asked him.

“No, actually, they just begged me not to hurt them. I told them I didn’t want to hurt them. During my incarceration I underwent a lot of therapy. It wasn’t until then that I realized what kind of damage I had done. Before that, I actually believed that they enjoyed it. I even went down on a few of them before I raped them, so it could feel more like seduction than rape”

Earlier, I had sent Sam a heartfelt letter along with a copy of my latest version of the memoir and some copies of articles regarding Lynch’s incarceration. He said that the pictures of Lynch in the article filled him with terror and that he cried when he read my letter. I don’t think he is accustomed to people treating him with empathy.

“Sam,” I said. “You do realize that when your victims see pictures of you they have the same visceral reaction. You get that, right?”

“I do now,” he said. “I really regret hurting those women. I was an asshole.”

Sam Jacobs was a handsome, young boy. When he was only four years old his father put him in Lynch’s care at Somerset Hills where Lynch was then headmaster. After Lynch was fired from Somerset and created Chartwell Manor, Sam’s father allowed Lynch to take his son with him. Research conducted over a number of years indicates that a child’s conscience and capacity for empathy is not fully formed before the age of six. Some people remember a very different Sam Jacobs than the one that the psychologists, lawyers and inmate staff know today.

The Sam Jacobs I briefly knew as a kid was sweet and playful, never mean spirited; at least not to me. There were plenty of bullies there. He was not one of them, despite the fact that I was an awkward, skinny little girl with buck teeth, six years his junior, who was bullied by many. Amedeo, who was also Sam’s teacher from Somerset recalls Sam as “a great kid.” Lynch robbed Sam of both his innocence and humanity. He never stood a chance. His tragic story gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “school to prison pipeline”

So how do I think and feel, now that I know what I know? I’m sad for his male victims, but thankful that he didn’t molest girls, at least as far as I know. As unpleasantly as I experienced those three years, I take comfort in the fact that I wasn’t a young boy or teenage girl at Chartwell Manor. I now wonder how many former students have become pedophiles themselves. I’m happy Lynch did some hard time, but I wish it had been longer. I’m disgusted that a registered sex offender was given the freedom to abuse again with such apparent ease and negligent oversight.

How many other victims are now out there hurting people? And who will their victims hurt? How many lost, broken Lynch souls are running amok without refuge? These are questions few of us can answer. We only know that the infamy of the man we knew as “Sir” and “Dr. Mike” is likely to live on well after our lifetimes, and that is the most unsettling aspect of all.

 

 

BIO

Elizabeth JohnsonJennifer Elizabeth Johnson has a BA in sociology, studied creative writing at Austin Community College. She currently lives in Newark, New Jersey. She’s lived in five countries and is a cinephile who believes that dubbing movies in another language is a grave crime against art. She wishes Bernie Sanders was her father.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bloodline

by Janet Damaske

 

 

My mother had the best set of legs; anyone who ever saw them would agree. They didn’t see much sun and they didn’t go on forever like some great legs do, but they were dancer legs, always working, twirling, pointing, flexing, barely ever still.

When she got the call that her cancer had come back for the third time, she and I were standing in a subway station. When I saw her face fall, I sat down on a bench and lowered my head, my eyes resting on those legs. They were still for longer than a moment. But when they started moving again, her body stayed still and her left leg straightened and stiffened, while her right leg swung forward, kicking back, toe pointed. I heard her words, quietly spoken, but kept my eyes on those dancing legs and hung onto a shred of hope.

My daughter Grace, now 4, got her Grammy’s legs. They have more definition than one would expect in a tiny person, solid little calves, a miniature version of my mother’s, with the right calve a bit larger than the left. Her legs do not work with the skill that my mother’s did and her toes are never pointed, but they move just as fast and often. Legs pumping, arms flailing, she dances and skips and she runs, towards me, away from me, sometimes stumbling, always counting on me to steady her, no matter where I am.

Grace and Mom missed each other by six months and seven days. I took the pregnancy test in the hospice house where my mother was dying of ovarian cancer. She cried and then laughed: “I bet that’s the only pregnancy test that’s ever been taken in this place.” It was April then; we thought if only she could make it to Christmas, she’d get to meet my second child. But she was gone by May.

In the weeks when my mother lay dying, Grace was taking form – her heart pumping blood; her brain and spine developing; her tiny nose, toes, fingernails, all brand new. I cannot decide how I feel about this, that at the precise time my mom’s heart was slowing pace, as her body was shutting down for its final rest, Grace’s was booting up. The little girl whom Mom and I had spent years envisioning slipped right past her Grammy, leaving me hopelessly shouting, “You missed her! You missed Grammy! She was JUST HERE!” And to Mom, “Tell me you can see this child. Tell me you aren’t actually missing this.” One is here and one is not.

And now, I see my mother’s legs and her petite hands and her long, narrow fingers and the walnut shell shape of her eyes in my 4-year old girl. I wrap her folded hands in mine and cup them to my face, breathe her in. I never meant to see my mother in my daughter, but I do, and I am grateful, but also troubled.

My mother got her good looks and her hot temper from her mother. Her love of music and her nervous energy came from her father. And, it seems, the mutated BRCA2 gene that we discovered in the years before her death came from him as well. This imperceptibly small error lay along the Chromosome 13, where one particular gene, whose job is to suppress certain cancers, breast and ovarian among them, simply does not work. The BRCA gene ended my mother’s life long before her body should have ever shut down.

I can’t say I was shocked to learn years after her death that the exact same mutated gene ended up on my own Chromosome 13. I have her green eyes and her inability to lie and that tiny dimple at the top of my left ear. I have her nervous energy and I have her bloody BRCA2 mutation, and I have a terrible suspicion that my daughter does too.

“Will Grace have to do what you did?” My 7-year old son asks on our way home from karate.

He refers to my double mastectomy and my bilateral salpingo-oopherectomy, though he doesn’t entirely understand what he’s asking or what’s gone on. My breasts and ovaries and fallopian tubes are gone now, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to him. He has been told there will be no more siblings, which he’s responded to with relief more than anything. And he knows that if he puts his hand on my chest I will flinch, not out of pain, but because I’ll never get used to this numbness. I’ve been scraped out and refilled, and what is there now is hard, foreign, and entirely man made.

“I hope not, Noah, but I really don’t know,” I say, looking in the rearview mirror as Grace, buckled in her five-point harness, stares sleepily out her window.

When he was 5 and she was 2, and I had just learned I was BRCA positive, I had my breasts removed to prevent my near 50 percent chance of getting breast cancer before age 70. My toddling girl stared at me in bed, poked at my bandages and stared at the drainage tubes protruding out of my skin. “That hurt, mama? Your booboos hurt? Why did you get boobies at the hospital?” The words are used interchangeably and over time, it sticks. Booboos, boobies, they are the same.

My tiny nurse watched over me in the weeks that followed my mastectomy, nestled up to my side, sometimes standing over me as I awoke from medication-induced naps. She’d stay an arms length from the tubes dangling from my chest, but she was not afraid of the rest of me. She’d run her tiny finger along the bandages, and later, along the bright red scabbing lines, and later, along the fading scars. She’d check on me by the day; she’d comment on my improvement. “Oh! Better! The booboos look great, Mama! No more boobies!”

If ever I’d been forced to picture this time of my life, breasts removed, a sense of disfigurement sweeping through me, it was my mother who was standing over me, feeding me comfort and warmth, with soft words and soup from a can. But in her place, a not quite three foot, fuzzy-headed, pacifier-addicted, heavy-breathing, sweaty morsel of energy. She fed me plastic chicken thighs in tiny blue bowls made for stuffed animal tea parties and I felt better.

Early this year, when she was 4 and I, 36, a spike in a routine screening test resulted in a surgery my doctor advised I have as soon as possible, and so out came my ovaries and my fallopian tubes and any hope of one more pregnancy. I came home exhausted and infertile, and began my recovery by sleeping through the day. Grace peered in on me, listless on the couch, that late Friday morning, and then quietly mentioned she was tired too. She walked up the stairs and slept, three long naps within that one day, broken up only by mealtimes. She hadn’t napped in over a year and she’s never napped since. She will likely not remember this day, but I always will.

I did not expect to accept empathy from a 4 year old or nurturing from a 2 year old, but I suppose she started holding me up long before I even met her, perhaps from the moment I realized a life was starting in a place that only sees death. A chance of hope, subdued indeed by my own shame at envisioning a future while those residing in the same space were reaching back into their lives once lived or, worse, simply at a standstill, just waiting to die.

Because I never really believed my mother was actually dying, even as she lay on her deathbed, she held her place in my daydreams, right plunk in the middle, holding the new baby while I chased my son. Still, today, she is there in my head, coming in the front door of my home, whisking the kids away to the park, laughing as she closes the door behind her and runs to catch up with them.

The room across the hospice house hall must have welcomed and parted with at least five people in the six weeks we were there. I always knew when the end had come; calmly whispering nurses, sometimes with tears, followed by a noticeable increase in activity in and out of the room. At some point, our door would get quietly closed as the room across the hall was emptied. I listened and watched as it all took place, every time, and still I could not picture the moment that this scene would be ours to experience.

Things were perhaps more settled in our room, but our shared desperation became more palpable by the day until we could not help but acknowledge it. My mother took the lead, and in stunned, silent resolution, we followed. One day, she asked me to bring my laptop to her bed; we spent that afternoon online buying clothes for her grandkids in ascending sizes to cover the next several years. Another day, she sat the family down to explain where all Christmas decorations could be found. Other days, she talked about where she wanted her clothes to go after she was gone. On the nights when it was only she and I, we talked about baby names.

Most days, I lay next to my mother in a reclining chair and sometimes I crawled into bed with her, unable to put any space between us. At times, I sobbed until I could hardly breathe, and when my mother, sinking deeper, could no longer calm me down, the thought of my little boy and the tiny person I was supposed to be making usually did; I’d catch my breath, anyway; I’d pause to breathe. I wondered if a fetus could survive this sort of stress. Hang on, please just hang on, I thought, hand on my stomach, eyes on my mother.

I hovered over her in those final weeks, checked her feeding tubes, brushed her hair, added blush to her cheeks, and, later on, I sat towards her head and dripped water from a sponge, the slowest drips, every few minutes, onto her lips and her tongue.

What I wanted, every minute, just one more lucid moment with her, and then one more, until the day came when I was too afraid I’d waste her energy if she gave it to me. I begged my father to stop trying to make her talk because I wanted her around longer. He looked at me frantically and I covered my face, knowing full well I had chosen her stability over his.

And there I was, both daughter and mother to my mother, holding on for dear life.

The years following my mother’s death were uniquely lonely and humbling for all of us. I did not stop it – or even realize it – when Grace, in her infancy and in all her innocence, somehow took the reins and blindly guided us along. I welcomed her neediness, my hands in motion all day, changing diapers, offering milk, wiping spit-up, thrusting something new into the life of our family.

I never meant for Grace to help save us from our grief. But it couldn’t be helped. Born into a family in mourning, this six-pound morsel seemed to have passed her maternal grandmother in the night. Six months and seven days after our loss, here was Grace, reflexively grabbing our thumbs and not letting go, and we could not help but feel a relief akin to rescue. It was never fair, but it couldn’t be helped.

And now she is a child. I look towards this little girl and, it seems, I’ve created a miniature version of myself. I see her fine, scraggly hair and hear her raucous, unapologetic laugh. I watch her in her shyness, stepping back, observing, and I see her, in moments, tangle her words in her tongue and quickly ask me to erase what she said. I see her head in the clouds and her eyes on me and, as I look back at her, I see my own reflection.

But oh, how I want a map of her genes, to be assured that if we magnified her Chromosome 13, it would look exactly like her daddy’s and nothing at all like mine. Perhaps the day our coded strands were grabbed and combined at random was a lucky day for her. I am full of doubt, but for now, what more can I do but hold onto the chance that her shapely leg gene and her boisterous laugh gene lie on any other chromosome than 13? Perhaps her BRCA2 gene is entirely intact and we have somehow broken this wearisome, worrisome pattern.

Each morning, she slowly emerges from her room and walks downstairs, a late riser like me, with her arms outstretched. She’s getting big now, but I lift her up and she collapses in my arms. I pat down the thin layer of hair that covers her head, pull it out of her face and look at her. “I missed you last night!” I say, and it’s true. Because, after all, this is a love story. It is a love story with perhaps more complexities than other love stories I’ve been able to tell. It’s a love story between a daughter and a mother and a grandmother, though two of us have never met. Here are three Davis girls who, in and out of life, have held each other together, swapping roles, instinctively grabbing ahold of one another in desperation or support. Yes, we are daughters of BRCA, but more importantly, what runs through our blood is fierce love, an intuitive need to heal each other’s pain, an energy that endures on and on and on. We dance on until we’re entirely out of breath.

I was not there the morning my mother died. After weeks of sleeping on a hospice house couch, I began to think that if this baby did have any chance of surviving, I needed to spend my nights in my home, make steps towards some sense of balance. The last evening we spoke, she was barely conscious and impossibly weak; she had not moved on her own in days. I sat on the left side of the bed, leaned over her head and kissed her again and again. “I can’t say goodbye but I need to watch out for this baby,” I said. “I think I need to go home tonight, Mom. How can I go?” I laid my head and arms upon my mother’s tiny body and shook with sadness, soaking my face and her sheets. And then I felt a hand on my head, the gentlest touch, now smoothing my hair. I looked up and saw her face, drenched in tears, and I saw she was nodding. I will miss you so much, said the sorrow in her eyes. But you need to take care of my daughter and my grandbaby, said their twinkle, still alive, amidst the green. At some point that night, and I don’t know when, I lifted my head, rose from her bed, and slowly walked to the door.

 

 

 

BIO

Janet DamaskeJanet Hope Damaske is a stay-at-home mother with interests in writing, reading, editing and psychology. After earning her BA in psychology with a minor in creative writing at Hamilton College, she worked for several years at a rehabilitation center for people with mental illness, providing job training and running a writer’s group for creative therapy. She later moved onto a career in medical publishing, where she continues to work part-time. Janet currently volunteers with several non-profit organizations in her hometown of Winchester MA, where she lives with her husband and two children. She writes a blog, which can be found at http://jhdamaske.blogspot.com. This is her first published piece.

 

Kristian Hoffman

David Bowie Diary Entry

by
Kristian Hoffman

 

I was introduced to David Bowie because of a Rolling Stone article about “Hunky Dory.” Yes, I was THAT pedestrian. But it seemed sort of “gay-ish” with that Lauren Bacall cover, and piqued our nascence stirring for an outrageous representative, and our perhaps too forgiving love of all things British. Atypically of the time, my friend Lance Loud had already schooled me in the fine art of shoplifting, and, being a completist, I drove down to Tower Records in L.A. and proceeded to steal everything in the current David Bowie catalogue, which included The Man Who Sold the World, Mad of Words, Man of Music, and a few British import 45s. It was love, and some befuddlement, at first listen.

Then the local record store on Coast Village Road, in Santa Barbara, from which I regularly sneaked out LPs under my faux Portabello Road Pepper-adjacent epauletted jacket, happened to have a whole cardboard box of Bowie’s ill-reviewed Deram 1rst LP, for 10 cents apiece! I actually think I paid for that. I was confused by the Newley mannerisms, and didn’t care for the lumpen “comedy” moments, but was intrigued enough that when “Images” was released, I easily fell profoundly in love with “In The Heat Of The Morning,” a song I have occasionally attempted to perform, with varying, but not altogether unpleasant results, ’til this very day.

It’s hard to imagine a time when I could make out a diary entry as specific as the one I have included here. By the time I moved to NYC in the 1970s, the bridge between the NY Dolls and the CBGBs/Max’s scene was so dizzying with daily incessant adventure and event that I could barely keep track.

But I thought I’d share with you an actual diary entry from 1970, when a fairly unsophisticated child trapped in the rusticating environs of Santa Barbara suburbancy had to share, if only with ‘Dear Diary” his fledgling experience of “La Bowie.”

 

Kristian Hoffman (ACTUAL) Diary Entry
March 7, 1973

 

Last night I went to see David Bowie at the Long Beach Arena with Michele and Delilah Loud, both sisters of my long time “best friend” Lance Loud. Both endearing little nippers in their own way; however I must confide in you I like Michele’s “own way” a trifle more than Delilah’s — I know comparison is odious – but if it’s unfair, that’s just fine, because it’s MY BOOK. It’s just that Michele really laughs when she sees old people fall down.

Anyway, Mr. Bowie (I will resist the temptation to make Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms. jokes, but won’t resist it very well) has been one of my very few self-indulgent, coveted, and clipped fave raves lately, and his concerts are “events,” or at least time markers in my life right now. And they are also nice fillers of comfortable small talk for letters to “friends” (still one of my favorite words, along with the meaningless “special”) which otherwise might have been embarrassingly short.

I can chat about him, express concern, delight, and even interest in his hair dressing methods, his clothes, and of course the latest albums, which I can play OVER AND OVER again — a real redeeming feature!

And besides, he’s just so great — he’s made his entire life into a great show, and if the “jams” are too long, the romantic interest makes up, as do the cute idiosyncrasies, so worthy of classic fan magazine write-ups.

On the way down to Long Beach in my fairly recently purchased Chevy Vega ($2,000.00 new, as I recall; I asked for it in silver because I thought that was Andy Warhol-esque), we had to stop for gas at a strange freeway turnoff near the venue, and some stranger who could be kindly described as rumpled, but less kindly described as “homeless” or “a bum” accosted the girls and asked, “Where are you going?” They kindly but a little trepidatiously replied, “To see David Bowie!” The apparently culturally attuned vagrant replied excitedly, “Jane Boo? I LOVE Jane Boo!” without further incident.

Anyway, Michele and I sat, rather conservatively dressed, next to a sparkling and glittering Delilah, whose whole-hearted commitment to a sort of strumpet/contempo prom queen attire is one of her best features, and exchanged turns with the binoculars while waiting with avid attempts at breathlessness for SOMETHING to happen.

It finally did – the lights went down, and as the communal oooh-aaah loosened itself free, a reluctant and somewhat washed-out crowd, a spotlight revealed that, NO! It wasn’t Mr. BOO-wee. It was just the hitherto unnamed “Supporting Act”, which turned out to be JUST THAT – a mediocre, if fashionably imported, ’50s revival band called Fumble with a pleasant lead vocal that failed to even whisper the rumor of competition to the obvious rival in the field, Sha Na Na.

I allowed myself a modicum of irateness because OF COURSE it was an insult to the negligible part of the crowd who had come to see Davey-Baby, and NOT just to make the scene. But even though it didn’t seem like it, Fumble was over soon enough.

Then the already familiar Clockwork Orange-ified Beethoven came on, with the same old familiar strobe, and David and band did “Hang Onto Yourself” with Mr. B in the first of FIVE costumes: a slick white tapestry (with culottes) suit and orange patent leather space boots.

Then a couple more quick rockers and a switch into gold lame, which was quivering and quavering on the edge of fashionability (DANGER! DANGER!) but still looked pretty keen. Mr. B had not brought the “show” that Lance had ranted and raved over, but had brought a quite nice horn section, and a mellotron, so “Space Oddity” didn’t sound quite so much like a rich kid’s home movie, and “Suffragette City” took on a pleasantly pregnant tone.

Then, in “Width of a Circle”, he changed during the ENDLESS GUITAR BREAK (evidently part of the ENDLESS things that showbiz has given us to ponder, and be endlessly ponderous) into the UGLIEST DRESS which Lance calls a “KAFTAN”, which was white satin with those green and orange sort of bird/rainbow deals on it that reminded me of a nice plastic bib to protect a loving but appearance-aware mother from baby’s messy strained pears, and he billowed about in that for a while before settling on an invisible chair to sing “My Death,” which was the FIRST song the crowd warmed up to, oddly enough.

I mean – I like that song – but in my automatically condescending frame of reference towards “THEM,” it never occurred to me that “THEY” would like it.

Then he stood up and these “mysterious” green-clad figures emerged from the shadowy sides of the stage, each grabbing a sleeve from Mr. B’s outstretched arms, and as they pulled back, the costume pulled off “LIKE MAGIC” to reveal the looniest outfit I had seen in a coon’s age.

It was this skin tight sort of double-knit pantsuit with a silly Penney’s stripes and squares pattern on it, completed with detached leggings and sleeves. The main part of it might have been a tank top, except that it extended up the middle of his chest with the sort of turtleneck collar. And of course his sometimes self-consciously posturing bare feet were a sight for sore eyes, or an eyesore, because I had always wondered if he was really THAT white all over.

So — ON with the fluffily light green feather boa, and a vamp with an ENDLESS cigarette holder (to add to that ENDLESS list) to the tune of a great new song called “Time,” during which the rest of the group re-emerged with a bare chested Mick Ronson, who, mere moments before, had sported a fetching black patent leather outfit, and a bass player ensconced in some sort of madcap bird costume – VERY SPACE AGE OF COURSE – with the stupid but fetching little growths curling out from his shoulders.

Oh dear, am I beginning to sound, heaven forbid, like Star Magazine’s fashion editor?

Well, at least I won’t have to bother to remember it all, because, you – dear diary – will remember it for me!

Anyway, B made his ultimate bid for Piaf-dom with that song “Time,” and then pranced around for a few more songs before ending with the aforementioned “Suffragette City,” only to come back for an encore of “Jean Genie” in a white satin jump suit and white iceberg clogs transparently appropriated from the New York Dolls’ Mercer Arts shows, which caused him some consternation and a very near fall. He kicked them off in the general direction of a pretty enthusiastic crowd. What a show!

But that crowd – they were too boring and wishy-washy to rush the stage, and although Delilah and I tried to fend off the brutish security guards and scramble down the aisle, we were thrown back into the backs of an already despairing audience who were heading towards the exits. What are floor seats floor if not to overcome security? So we sat there in our seats, soaking up energy with no release, and that was time enough to nervously ponder the prospects of just GETTING OUT OF THERE before we were trapped in a jumble of bumbling Long Beach-ites. Almost before the encore was over, Michele, Delilah and I rushed out to the parking lot, and, finding all the exits barricaded for some obscure reason, drove my trusty Vega right over the curb – where it teetered agonizingly for a moment next to the screaming “No Stopping At Any Time” sign, and headed back to Santa Barbara. Jane Boo!

 

 

BIO

Kristian HoffmanKristian Hoffman was the founder and main songwriter for Mumps, his CBGBs era punk/pop combo with Lance Loud of PBS’ “American Family,” also being a member of the Contortions, the Swinging Madisons, and Bleaker Street Incident. He went on to become musical director and songwriter for Klaus Nomi, musical director and songwriter for Ann Magnuson, musical director for Rufus Wainwright, and toured with the Kinks’ Dave Davies for five years.

He has since released four solo CDs, while playing keys, touring and/or songwriting with Congo Norvell, Abby Travis, El Vez, Jane Wiedlin, Prince Poppycock, Timur Bekbosunov, Lydia Lunch, and many more.

 

Maximum Compound: Mug Shots

by Stephanie Dickinson

 

“Anything with glitter is great. The girls go crazy over that. We use it for make-up and art so when you see a card with glitter, send it.” — Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

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CLINTON, NJ. Edna Mahon Correctional Facility for Women

Maximum Compound revolves around the sun but the air’s darker and more confined. Understand these aren’t the femme fatales and sex selling dahlias, not the thieves and drug dealers, not the welfare cheats or DUI violators, these women are the violent offenders. They don’t pull up in a Porsche; they’re transported under armed guard. They’re young, they’re ghetto, white trash, a few are middle-aged college-graduates, some will get their GED here and take college classes, others will become senior citizens, some will die here. They’ll arrive pregnant, psychotic, post-traumatically stressed, they’ll deliver their baby here, or have a hysterectomy. They’ve got dreads, and natural blonde locks, they’re tattooed like a graphic novel and wearing the last address of their baby daddy inked on their wrist. Many of these women have killed or kidnapped an employer, neighbor, husband, child, a stranger. Maximum Compound women arrive encumbered with their crimes and the weight of their sentences. They arrive put upon and willing to use anyone.

 

“I need to get some favors if it’s possible. I’m really struggling. I have not been getting my state pay for the last 2 months. I have 1 bar of soap to my name. Is there anyway you can send me $30 by next Wednesday so I can order? I feel like a bum. Also can you call this number for my friend Shanikah and tell him to write her or email her. He lives in Newark but has a house in Summit NJ. Happy Holidays

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

It’s a rule bound world, a world where dance competitions and making birthday chili and rice for your girlfriend co-exist with fight blood on the floor. Although time is filled with a job, a routine, a mess hall schedule, real time stales. It pools around you, goes stagnant, and doesn’t flow. Each day is similar from the view of a locked world, a day hard and long to get through, and the years flying away. There are no hickories and maples and quaking aspen, no huge-eyed deer. No smell of burning pretzel dough. No strolling into a Starbucks for a coffee tall. No dressing to go out looking edible as tiramisu. The outside world stands still, remembered. The inmates in Maximum Compound count their absence from the outside in decades. Television is their one window. Rules, rules. Yet life teems here—new inmates arrive, new friendships, new loves, new hates. I’ve been a friend to this prison planet, this Maximum Compound where the most dangerous women in New Jersey live, the ones who the media portray as topping the depravity index. EMCF lies outside Clinton, a two-hour trip by car from Manhattan, but for those visitors without vehicles, there’s a prison bus that leaves from Midtown on Friday evening and arrives eight hours later. All must prepare to be searched, and to stow their possessions in a locker, before visiting an inmate. No water, no sodas, nothing but your flesh covered appropriately, i.e. no halter tops or bustiers.

 

Can you please find me an image or 2 of Woody Woodpecker, Angry Birds, and Stewie from the Family Guy. My friend needs 3 more copies of gothic lettering. Books must arrive via the publisher or Amazon, but Amazon consistently leaves out the packing slip.”

—Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C

 

mugshot #1: Krystal RIORDAN

The reason I’m drawn to this world is Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387. She’s pictured here in sneakers and the white, knee-length shorts and white, short-sleeved t-shirt inmates wear in warm weather. Summers in the New Jersey heat there’s no air conditioning to cool inmates in Maximum Compound only the administrators can control their climate. Winters, Krystal wears grey sweats, an undershirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and tie-up boots. Visiting days, blocks of two hours, a photographer comes and the inmates can pay for pictures with their commissary money. Everything runs through commissary, the real food, the fun food, Tampax and toothbrushes, shampoo and stamps, sneakers and underwear. Krystal is a beauty, her height 5’10”, her skin, the plush pale of an eighteenth century beauty whose face never sees sun and whose lady maid dusts it with a lead powder. Incarcerated for nine years, she’s moved farther beyond the headlines that once focused on her as if she was guiltier than the perpetrator, as if a male’s lust and aggression could be understood, but not a female who doesn’t to stop an attack on a fellow female. On July 26, 2006, Jennifer Moore, age 18, was abducted after a night of underage drinking. Jennifer’s friend drove them in her mother’s car to Manhattan from New Jersey, to go clubbing. The girls parked in a No Standing Zone and when they returned, discovered the car had been towed. The night has interested me since first seeing Jennifer Moore’s picture on the New York Daily News cover. Teen Missing after Night of Underage Drinking. Her face appears as if born underwater of the half-fish, half-human species, dreamily sloe-eyed as if she’s looking over your shoulder. It’s a mysterious face, her half smile like the Mona Lisa’s. The next day the teen’s body is found in a Weehawken dumpster and a pimp and prostitute are under arrest. Weehawken, New Jersey. The ménage à trois that ends with one girl dead, the other girl charged as an accomplice, and her boyfriend confessing to kidnapping, murder, and rape. The city built on the rock cliffs overlooks the Hudson, the pristine waterway that Henry Hudson, the great navigator, marveled at like the Hackensack nation before him. Manhattan lies just across the river and from the ferry launch Weehawken’s cliffs appear as pedestals for trees and stone mansions—like dreams half-remembered in the sleeping heads of robber barons.

 

 

“I used to get a lot of mail but I never wrote them back. “I’m glad you’re in my life. I asked my Mom if she would be interested in talking to you. She said she doesn’t want to dig into the past. That time was hard for her. The Media following them. People they thought were their friends stopped talking to them. She said when she goes out people still whisper behind her back. She will be 70 in November.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

And it was a mugshot I first saw of Krystal Riordan on the cover of the New York Daily News. Hooker Watched boyfriend kill teen. Arrested at age 20, the prostitute girlfriend of ex-con and small-time pimp Draymond Coleman, she had watched him beat and strangle eighteen-year-old Jennifer Moore in a Weehawken hotel room. Panicked, frozen, she’d not tried to stop him. Although, she’d left the room during the assault, she’d alerted no-one and had used the venting machine to buy a soda. This act was caught on the hot-sheet hotel’s video camera, a shabby black-and-white world where green plants, blue water, and air didn’t exist. Sure he would kill her next, she’d split into two beings, one watching herself from a distance. Not quite a robot programmed to obey him, but loyal to a fault. Wearing a pink tube top with spaghetti straps, a nose piercing, and silver necklace, her lips looked caught in mid-tremble. The mugshot that captures her soft face and frightened eyes speak their own truth. Draymond had cracked wide open, he’d snapped. Terrified, she helped him clean the dead girl’s body, and together they disposed of Jennifer in a nearby dumpster. A public defender represented her. Her sentence: thirty years. The maximum. Tabloids had a field day with the story—the underage girl/victim, a hooker, rape and murder. Fox News blamed the victim, pointing out Jennifer’s scanty attire as if a halter top had made the teen deserving of her rape. What should have been a teenage misadventure, an impulsive flirtation with the forbidden, led to ultimate consequences. Bloggers portrayed Draymond Coleman as a force of nature, bestial, hardly human and uninteresting, while they pilloried Krystal as if she were the murderer. On the escort circuit I imagine her blinking her blue icicle eyes but warm icicles. Later she will tell a friend that Draymond had sex with Jennifer after she was dead. In county jail Krystal stared at the floor for month, not speaking.

 

“Please look in the jewelry section for a cross and chain (Walkenhorsts.com caters to Institutions). The cross no larger than 1 inch by 1 inch. The chain no longer than 12 inches. I want to give Krystal a cross for her birthday. It is the only necklace they allow.”

Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C

 

&

After you’ve befriended an inmate, the Maximum Compound of requests comes at you, things that only someone on the outside can finesse. “Please help me buy a toy for my daughter’s birthday from Kmart or Toys R Us. Some type of fashion design kit of lip glosses or a cute purse from Hey Kitty.” You who can make duplicates of court documents, who can goggle and download welfare applications, who can Xerox copies in full-color of the nameless photographs that come in stacks. The photographs are so old especially those of the outside: photos of three girls sticking out their pierced tongues, arms thrown around each other; girls in indigo-blue robes graduating, choir girls singing; girls in slinky club clothes blowing lipsticked kisses. Some photos are so taped they stick to the glass of the Xerox machine and you feel the heft of something precious in your hands, many are of children—brown-eyed boys and girls ages 2 to 7, infants in flannel footsie pajamas, many of the children’s photos are old and those pictured have grown and left behind the selves they are here, but to their mothers the children are fixed, they do not change. The new photographs are from the inside of Maximum Compound—a parade of women in pairs standing before colorful wall painting (as if an altar) wearing winter’s grey sweats or summer’s teeshirts, lovers, friends, cellmates. The newest inmates have Facebook pages and you can look up their profile and page and print pictures from their photo gallery, but no pictures with gang signs or middle fingers or else you can color out hand signs with a marker, but please do send information i.e. the inmate number and address to dirt buddies, (friends from the cradle to the grave).

In Maximum Compound a Santa comes on Christmas. The state pays for the holiday bus that brings children of inmates to Edna Mahan. Here for photographs the inmates wear beige dress slacks and mannish short-sleeved shirts.The pretty mother, heavily tattooed with arms crossed over her chest, stands next to Santa, a scowling black man in red suit and dazzlingly white beard. He’s an inmate from the men’s prison and the baby boy on his lap is howling. On the back of the photo the 20 year old mother Evy Shine has written, “My baby boy don’t like Santa. Me and my Prince Duce.”

 

&

When Krystal first entered the locked land of EMCH she had a cell to herself and worked on the grounds detail. She mowed lawns, painted, waxed floors, took out the trash, and moved people from Maximum to Minimum Security. After almost nine years into her time served her public defender requests through the courts for a sentence reduction. It is denied. Here everyone likes her, both inmates and guards, but that can change in an instant. A slight. A perceived insult. She rarely criticizes anyone and never the prison. Every word leaving or entering the correctional facility is monitored. The Edna Mahan website itself says: “Incoming general postal correspondence may be read as frequently as is necessary to keep safety and security or watch any problems regarding any inmates.” And then a new inmate punches her in the face in the mess hall. Krystal defends herself and finds herself taken to solitary confinement, so too the new inmate who rumor says is psychotic. The only way Krystal could have avoided punishment would be to let herself be hit.

 

“Can you send this to Shaniqua Pierre. Hey Puddin Cup, I was going through my stuff and found letters from you. I really miss you and need you in my life. You were and are my better half. You know we always find our way back. I love you so much. I will be down there on Saturday. Maybe we can get some time together. Write me back on here. Stephanie will send it to me. I wish you were with me right now so I can do some things like we did in Ad Seg.) I didn’t want to leave. I could have done my whole time with you in there. Well I love you. I miss you. Love Always. Snuggle Bunny.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

In solitary you have quiet time 23 hours a day. 3 showers five minutes each a week. No commissary so Krystal stops eating. She lies on her bunk remembering movies she’s seen. In one a jet stream opens the sky with its tail of mist. Clouds herding, long blue tusks and storm brewing. Panning shots of the Greek caves, temple ruins, islands—chunks of burning lamb over the sea’s fire. If you talk like that with the street pimps their eyes roll back. On the third day she starts making her own movies up. She stars in them. The fine restaurant in Acapulco and on her cocktail fork the white of a shrimp with red vessels. Dessert’s a flaming baked Alaska. Dining out takes three hours. She stars herself as the Marriott maid who cleans the room of Tristan Wilds from The Wire, a hot black actor under 30 Soon they’re both sprawled in the chaises, the remains of breakfast, scrambled eggs and muffins, spilled over. Raspberry jam and butter for lube. She wears a long billowing white robe. The robe’s spreads across the aquamarine pool’s surface like a napkin. The blue is the color of her eyes, she dives in. Here is another movie the one in which she escapes Draymond and her own fate. Her blond hair is matted. She’s wearing a long skirt and a tube top. There are red crumbs around her nostrils. The bell clerk is from Guyana, (like the one at the Park Avenue Hotel) and he’s fallen in love with her. It is the Park Avenue Hotel and the murder hasn’t yet happened. “That lout must have hit you,” he says. “I want to take you away from this place.” She’s picked Jennifer Hudson from Dreamgirls for the role. Funny, it’s a woman she’s cast in the role of a man. “I don’t know how it can be but your face takes my heartbeat away. You are just the right pretty for me.” They are in a tropical country and Krystal’s wearing a thong. She shouldn’t be half naked like that in her fiancé’s Guyana with mosquitoes like small birds and disapproving eyes everywhere. You smack your arm when you feel them drinking their blood meal and your hands come away wet. But soon the woman-man and Krystal are naked and making love.

 

“Steph, me and Nicole were damaged when we got adopted. I would always tell the Riordans they weren’t my parents. I just wanted to go home. I feel like I’m losing it. Please don’t think I’m crazy but I’ve been smelling sometimes lately…I don’t know what it is. But it’s triggering something in me. It’s a bad feeling and my stomach starts to turn. I get scared and want to go somewhere and throw up. I think the smells goes back to when I was young and my uncle was touching me.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

In solitary there is time for life review. Krystal is 29 years old. The child of a prostitute and a drug dealer, Krystal spent the first five years of her life in a dirty apartment sharing a bed with her two sisters, growing up hungry and neglected, nights the oldest sister would ferry out into the wilds of the kitchen in search of food, pilfering the empty cupboards and refrigerator, coming back with treasures of dill pickles and canned ravioli. Tomato-mouthed little girls nestled against each other. Then the night men would visit, brought to the bedside by her mother. The silver bellied men. There are fishes who build nests in the weed-choked waters, like the stickleback, with its long body and strong jaw. The mother lays the eggs in the seaweed nest, and the father fans water over the eggs, then he guards the hatched offspring until they are ready to leave the nest. Krystal’s birth parents were less nurturing than the stickleback. Once the wan blond girl started school, in the fluorescent’s objective light the neglect was apparent. Now Eva has reached her 49th year and her picture on the people profile finder shows Krystal’s biological mother living in Connecticut and still married to Krystal’s father. The tiny photo shows a black-haired woman dressed in grey stretch pants tights bent over and mooning the camera, so what you mainly see is her buttocks. In Charlie’s photo he wears a white t-shirt imprinted with a pot leaf and exhales a gigantic cloud. When Krystal closes her eyes and tries to remember her early years, there’s nothing there but her uncle stroking her hair and then his fingers moving over her, touching her.

 

“As far as the “work” goes, most of the men were okay. A few jerks. The police were the worst. One put a gun to my head. Another put a knife. They would force you to do favors for free. Usually some weird stuff. How would you feel about me putting you on my phone list? It can only be a land line. I think one goes in within a few weeks.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

Krystal once lived at night and slept days. She worked in the world’s oldest profession inviting strangers to enter her body. I want to ask her about the sex, and while I’ve asked her about the murder, I’ve not gone too near the sex. Did she always use condoms? How did the work make her feel? How much of it was straight sex? When her ad read full-service what did that mean. What kind of men did she attract, and how did she find them? craigslist? I read on-line that one of the escort services Krystal worked for accused her of cheating them out of their percentage.

“My sister Nicole hasn’t been seen or heard from since December. She’s getting high again. Steph, you send me books. My family hasn’t sent me one book in 8 years. I don’t think they understand the whole commissary concept. I have to order everything, nothing is given out. I need to order clothing, sneakers, food, cosmetics, personals. You’re really my only source of income.”

— Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

Krystal tells me of being sent to Elan, the exclusive boarding school for troubled teens. Her adoptive parents, partners in the Greenhaus Riordan accounting firm, don’t know what to do with her. She’s ruining their reputations. Once at Elan she’s made to write a letter to them confessing her sins. She’s never had sex, never had a boyfriend, yet she’s forced, this virgin molested before the age of five, to call herself a whore. “It was a lockdown residential school. I was there for three years. If I’d never been sent there, I might have had a full basketball scholarship. The scouts were watching me from junior high on. In group therapy I started to believe I’d done all those things.” And in Elan she meets other troubled teens, many will later appear in police blotters some charged with murder. After graduation Krystal escapes to New York City, moving in with a girl she went to Elan with. The girl works as a prostitute and initiates Krystal into the trade. You don’t need a resume. No references. Men desiring her enough to pay money for her favors makes her feel beautiful. A princess in a fairy-tale. Placing ads on craigslist, calling herself Lisa, offering the $150 special. The good money buys her clothes and a truck; the good money attracts Draymond Coleman, the husky ex-con.

 

Please send Antoinette Carter the Cristal Bic Pens. Please send ASAP. Her numbers are #179192E/761091. Well I love the Halloween cards. I can’t wait to use the glitter for make-up. I also received Love Highway today. I will start it tonight. Don’t worry I won’t be mad. Your friend Krystal

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

Sometimes she dreams of returning to the weathered buildings of Weehawken—its sooty cliffs. The Park Avenue Hotel, a single-room occupancy, five-story brick dungeon in the middle of the block, is gone, torn down after the “notorious murder of an 18 year-old girl” in one of its rooms. A senior center has taken its place. Is that a sign that Krystal will be 50 upon her release, almost a senior? Thelonius Monk spent the last years of his life in Weehawken. And Monk’s syncopations might have been playing on WBGO in the taxi ferrying the soon-to-be murdered Jennifer and her Good Samaritan through the Lincoln Tunnel and into the cliff city. The jazz musician’s genius—tinkling piano like the bebop stirring of ice in a mixed drink, like one of the many—the blue licorice, the amaretto—the doomed teen had consumed that night. Across the street from the now senior citizen center there’s still the Dunkin’ Donuts where Candida Moore wishes Jennifer had sought shelter. Krystal staggers into the darkness, “Hey, wait,” she calls to the girl in white mini and black halter. Who doubts that Jennifer is still out there wading into the darkness. Alone.

 

“When you love someone too much, you can’t see past that person. That’s how I felt about Dray. I thought I couldn’t live without him. I can’t compare the way I loved Dray to the way you love Rob. But if I did, I hope that wouldn’t offend you. I never considered myself a strong person. People say if they got the time I got. They would kill themselves. They ask how I do it. Why I’m so nice.”

Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387

 

&

The Krystal who lives behind bars seems freer than the baby-faced prostitute trapped between her pimp/boyfriend Draymond Coleman, the funny charmer, and Draymond, the killer ex-con. Letters still come from him. “You showed me true love and I didn’t know how to handle it. I thought it was all a game, but it was true. You put your name on your body. You had my baby. You gave me everything. Now it’s all gone thanks to my stupid ass.” There are paragraphs of complete sentences with no misspellings, letters written in a delicate cursive. “We’ll be Natural Born Killers,” he told her after Jennifer’s last breaths. It surprises me to see the handwriting, and think of the same hand breaking every bone in a young girl’s face. Yet Krystal’s never forsaken him. You could interpret that as a great weakness or a strength. “I’m no longer in love with him but I still care for him. He has no one else.” Yes, Krystal bore him a baby girl who Child Welfare Services removed after finding marijuana in the infant’s blood. The night of his arrest Draymond claims that he’d picked up a working girl at the Port Authority. “I am not a wholesome man,” he tells police, “but I am no murderer.” Wholesome, such an odd word to choose. My mother’s generation used it to describe a good girl, a wholesome girl, what they hoped for in their daughters.

 

“Krystal and I can both have 24 pens sent to each of us, and I found a place that will send 24 pens, including shipping and tax, for about $16.50 in total. The pens would be very helpful in many ways to us. I will e-mail you the info when I get a chance (website, item #’s and costs).”

— Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870-C

 

Eight years after the murder, the inmate Krystal is bitten by a spider and her elbow and forearm swell up. When the redness starts to fade, another bite appears on her arm, and on her leg. Krystal goes to Medical and is told the spider’s venom has caused a blood infection. The poison is oozing out through those spots. The spots are like weeping red eyes that open on her torso. Where the poison seeps out it eats away at her flesh, leaving deep and painful wounds. The inflamed sore on her leg makes it impossible to walk and then the soaring fever sets in. Antibiotics and Motrin are at last prescribed. I wonder if Dray is finally leaving her body. Pour rum over yourself and strike a match—ultimate flambé. His dark poison, his love.

 

* * *

 

 

BIO

Stephanie DickinsonStephanie Dickinson, an Iowa native, lives in New York City. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber Studies, Fjords, Water-Stone Review, Gargoyle, Rhino, Stone Canoe, Westerly, and New Stories from the South, among others. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her recent novel Love Highway, based on the 2006 Jennifer Moore murder. Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, was released in 2013 by New Michigan Press. Her work has received multiple distinguished story citations in the Pushcart Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Mysteries.

 

 

 

UFO image

The Y Factor:
“Deep Nasal Passage” Reveals Pre-Launch Secrets of
The X-Files

by
Paul “Watch the Skies” Garson

 

You might have been there on the night of Friday, September 10, 1993 when the new The X-Files TV show broke cover, appearing for the first time on the Fox Television Network. I say “there” in the sense that you were sitting in front of your television and probably like millions of other viewers never getting up even to pee during the nine seasons of over 200 episodes. Maybe the operative word was “spellbound.” And just maybe, just maybe I had something to do with your mesmerization and the subsequent babbling of the mantra “I Want to Believe.” Why? Y? Because I was the guy that got contacted initially to make a presentation about the current UFO scene to the show’s creator, Chris Carter at Twentieth Century Fox Studios in Century City, some months before the X-Files even debuted.

Why was I the Go-to-Guy for the Out-of-this-World info? Now I am not aware personally of a deep nasal implant of an alien probe, nor have fleeting memories of floating up through my ceiling. But I have met many who have. So maybe it had something to do with a feature article that I had written for the now lost OMNI magazine, a quality publication serving up of science and science fiction first published in 1978, then having the plug pulled in 1995. My article concerned the UFO Abductee phenomena and centered around my meetings with an abductee counseling group. It also happened that for a while I was a field investigator for the Mutual UFO Network aka MUFON, the worldwide organization collecting UFO data since 1969. I had also been privy to various private meetings with the leading investigators, the likes of the late Budd Hopkins and Jonathan Mack of Harvard. And, yes, I had personally seen some pretty strange stuff in my time, well, okay, X-Files-ish, stuff. So someone must have read the article and clued Chris Carter in on me, plus it also helped that I was living in the neighborhood and could easily levitate on over in my creaky 1984 devolving Volvo.

So I drive myself over to the Twentieth Century Fox studios, and successfully pass the heightened credentials check at the security checkpoint, which amounts to my name on a clipboard. Either my car or I elicit a grimace from the guard, no doubt an actor waiting for his big break. I eventually find a parking space, and remember this is all pre-retinal scan, pre-GPS, and start meandering through the multi-cloned production offices until I locate one marked with “X-Files” on a small sign. I’m quickly ushered into a room that has a certain claustrophobic feel to it, no doubt heightened by the odd, very low ceiling. Not quite a bunker ambiance, but close. Chris Carter is there to greet me, as are seven or eight other young-looking guys and gals of his “crew.” My first impression was their “focus.” It was, well, intense. Under such scrutiny did I feel like a fish or maybe a merman in a fish bowl? Well, kinda. Was I was sweating under my fingernails as I held the notes I had prepared for my presentation? Well, perhaps a little seepage. I had been asked to focus on the subject of the paranormal aka “high strangeness” goings on, monsters, UFOs, etc. Because at that time I didn’t exactly know where the X-Files was going, I had put together a smorgasbord of weirdness in my presentation from my own files and experiences.

As I began going through a litany of wacked out worldwide events, I did feel a certain deficiency in the oxygen supply in the rather close quarters. A lot of people in a little room can accelerate the carbon dioxide levels. A side effect is wooziness, even memory loss. And the X-Filers all seemed to keep leaning closer and closer as I spoke. Forget the fishbowl, I was more like the bug under the microscope. Was it a mind probe? Or were they just somewhat hard of hearing after listening to all the weird electronic X-Files soundtrack music? Who knew? But in any case I don’t remember any of them uttering a single word as I rambled on for about 45 minutes. What did I tell them? It’s a bit of a blur now. I seem to best remember what transpired during my dreams after eating cheese late at night. Especially Mozzarella. Hmmmm. Let me close my eyes for a moment and dream cheesy thoughts. Ummmm.

Okay, that’s better. Well, now I’m pretty sure I cited the case of The Eskimo Village. The report concerned an Inuit Village nestled at water’s edge that had been found devoid of any of its many inhabitants. Racks of fish still drying in the air. Pots boiling over fires. The only traces were hundreds of footprints leading out of the village and then suddenly stopping en mass, not another step taken, as if the entire village disappeared into the frigid Arctic air. No trace was ever found of any of the villagers. And looking up from my notes, I saw the X-Filers still staring fixedly at me … shall I say, icily. I didn’t see anyone taking notes. Maybe they had good memories or thought my story was uh, fishy … or Eskimo pie in the sky… or? Wait, I don’t do puns, I was now certain the oxygen level was definitely dropping, the CO2 rising. Oddly, the X-Filers seemed to thrive on the new atmosphere, nostrils flaring, eyes bulging. I looked away, back to my notes.

What else did I mention? The Farmer in the Field story. It went something like this. One day this farmer, way out in the middle of nowhere, maybe Kansas or Iowa, walks out into his field and doesn’t come home for dinner of meatloaf and squash. His wife spends days looking for him in the fields, the meatloaf long grown cold. Then one day she hears him calling her name as if he’s nearby. Which he isn’t, because she can’t see anyone, not even a scarecrow in sight. But she returns to the spot for several more days, his voice there, but growing weaker, fainter … until one day it’s gone altogether. Then I go into the story about the guy back in the 1960s that shoots something tall and hairy and keeps it stuffed in a freezer at his cabin in the woods, photos of it showing up in a magazine, and people writing in about maybe it was manslaughter, and then zip, gone, all mention disappearing. I follow my presentation with the mass sightings of UFOs over Washington, D.C. in 1952, then the records concerning Alexander the Great and the Persians about to do battle when three huge “flaming shields” that drop out of the sky and scare the bejeesuz out of the war elephants which promptly turn tail and stomp their own troops. I seem to remember reeling off a litany of lunar anomalies and probably a mention of the Belgian UFO wave, plus a dozen more “vignettes” of things “not of this Earth.” There were dates and names and details to all these stories as I related them, but still not a pad and pencil in sight from the X-Files crew. What in Hell’s Bells name were they waiting for?

Finally I get to the end of my discourse, and there’s a long, what you might call pregnant silence. Then I think it was Chris Carter himself who finally says something. “Do you think there is a government cover-up about UFOs?” Now it’s my turn to be dumbfounded. I stutter a bit, then finally say, “Well, yes, of course.” Those were the last words out of my mouth. Then it was wham, bang, thank you ma’am, can you find your way to your car?”

I never hear another peep, much less a high-pitched humming sound, back from The X-Files production team. But I do watch once the show debuts. I think there was one episode about an Eskimo village. Yes? No?

Now, years later, and after this now public “confession” about my own “lost” X-files episode, I feel I have the right to make some comments about the newly resurrected X-Files show in 2016. For starters, Mulder is just bit more Muldery around the edges, while Scully, really trimmed down, is looking good some 14 years after the airing of the last of the originals. I can’t say that much for the “revised” story line, this whole schamoogle about UFOs being a secret U.S. government conspiracy. But then I gotta remember all the giant triangles floating blimplike and silently over hill and dale and the fact that U.S. aircraft technology has already advanced 20+ years beyond what we see, including the present day and virtually old hat stealth aircraft. State-of-the-art stealth is now probably totally invisible. Anything’s possible, right? Even Trump as President. So UFO’s from secret U.S. bases, no problem.

Then again I remind myself that the history of strange flying objects wobbles back literally thousands of years and that human knowledge has always been constrained by a combination of ignorance and ego compounded by panic stricken blind fear. So I say, nah! to the U.S. government owning UFOs. I remember that people got roasted at the stake for stating the earth was not the center of the solar system, and that until about 1920 scientists declared there was only one galaxy and we owned that. Now how many have they tallied … 10,000,000,000 … that’s ten billion galaxies of over 100 billion stars each. Do the math. And factoring into Drake’s famous equation about planets with advanced civilizations and your head starts buzzing. Wait a minute … what is that buzzing … do you hear it? Do you?!

 

 

BIO

Paul GarsonPaul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles, his articles regularly appearing in a variety of national and international periodicals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and USC Media Program, he has taught university composition and writing courses and served as staff Editor at several motorsport consumer magazines as well as penned two produced screenplays. Many of his features include his own photography, while his current book publications relate to his “photo-archeological” efforts relating to the history of WWII in Europe, through rare original photos collected from more than 20 countries. Links to the books can be found on Amazon.com. More info at www.paulgarsonproductions.com or via paulgarson@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

The Paul Garson Files

Silas WIllard Schoolhouse

The Opposite of Suicide II

by Kyle Mustain

 

The essay is obviously the opposite of that awful object, ‘the article’…
—William Gass

 

Over the years I formed this dream about my writing. Not a hard goal, like wanting to have a book published by age thirty-five. Instead my dream was immaterial: I wanted simply to know the feeling of being approached by a stranger, to say, “I’m sorry, but I just wanted to take the chance to tell you, I love your work.” After I published “The Opposite of Suicide” in the December 2014 issue of The Writing Disorder, that dream finally came true, many times.

I spent three mostly sleepless months researching, writing, and editing the essay I am most proud of. Then I spent over a year trying to get it published. When it finally hit the Web, nothing much happened at first. Then, about a month later, some parties discovered the essay, and used it to have me fired from my job as a substitute teacher. After I was terminated from my position, the essay went micro-viral, which means it was passed around a lot, among a very specific set of people—namely people from Central Illinois; people who lived near or had originally come from my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois.

I had mixed emotions about this, as I was glad my work was finally being read, but I did not believe I deserved to be terminated for it. As it happened, my dream did finally come true. People, most of them students at Galesburg High School, approached me in public.

Only what they said to me was: “I loved your article.”

Let’s get some things straight. The school district that fired me was not the same one I wrote about in the first essay. The school district that fired me was a rural community outside of my hometown. I had taken a position as a long-term substitute teacher practically over night after a teacher gave her resignation. It is still unclear to me why she left, but I know some controversy surrounded it, and that her resignation was asked for by the school board.

Before I move on there are still more things to clear up. In the first essay I kept the name of my hometown a secret. All of the identities of persons not related to me were given new names. With the exception of the underage students, I did not have to do this. I did it to maintain people’s anonymity. It was my piece of writing, my work, my opinions, and I didn’t want to muddle things for anyone else. I went to great lengths to conceal the name of my hometown and the school district for the aforementioned reasons, but most importantly to the points I was trying to make in the original piece: I wanted the message to come across that this could be anywhere in Small—or Medium—town, USA.

A major point I would like to make is that practically none of the first essay was about Lombard Middle School. That is the school I lived closest to when I was substitute teaching. I worked there probably 90% of the time I was subbing. No one who works at Lombard should feel like anything in the first essay was directed at them. I adore everyone I worked with at that school, both in the classrooms and the office. Truly, I felt at home there and believe that is the best school in all of the district.

More things to address: After I was terminated from the rural school district, I did call the personnel coordinator for my hometown school district and asked if I could have my old job back. She inquired the head of human resources. Within a few hours she reinstated my registration as a substitute teacher for Community Unit School District 205. The coordinator scheduled me for a date three weeks off. The first thought that popped into my head was, I have three weeks to find a new job . . .

A few days later I called her again and quit, even without having a new job.

Last item to address: In case there are any students of District 205 who are still confused: No, I did not commit suicide. I am very much alive, well, and living in New York City.

Let’s begin.

 

Operation Save Silas

This is a letter I wrote to the editor of the Galesburg Register Mail in early 2014:

Over the weekend a group of concerned citizens met to discuss alternatives to tearing down Silas Willard. When the question was asked, why the School Board would want the community to invest in a new building designed to only last 20-30 years, I cracked a joke, “They’re probably looking ahead to the future because in 20-30 years hardly anyone will live here anymore.” The room erupted in laughter, which quickly hushed into awkward silence. On our current path that could very well be the city’s future.

I moved back to Galesburg in the fall of 2012 after a twelve year absence. It has been my pleasure to serve this community as a substitute teacher for District 205 over the past year. As we near the summer, I am faced with the decision of whether to stay here. I have friends all over the world begging me to come live in their cities. New York, Chicago, Portland, these places all entice me. But I’m constantly giving Galesburg the benefit of the doubt; the chance for her to redeem herself to me.

One young couple I befriended in grad school relocated to Bloomington, Indiana. Now, parts of that city are as redneck as you can get. But others are quite simply stunning. Take a drive around that city and you will see historic buildings and schoolhouses, all preserved and modernized. Not just around the university, but the whole city has this vibe like things are actually happening there. That community has committed itself to maintaining a standard of beauty that cultivates a pleasant, inviting environment.

It is my belief and the belief of many people in this community that Silas Willard and buildings like it create that kind of pleasant environment within Galesburg.

At this meeting I attended over the weekend, two young couples living in the Silas Willard neighborhood said that school building was a major attraction to settling their families in Galesburg. Both young couples expressed that if the building were to be torn down, they would begin plans to relocate.

What I’m getting at is destroying landmarks like Silas Willard gives outsiders the wrong impression. If anything, it shows that we don’t care enough about our history to try to preserve it. There are less and less things that make Galesburg unique. Why would anyone from outside want to move here when it continually tries to make itself look like everyplace else? For that matter, why should anyone stay?

 

Urban Sprawl and Push-and-Pull

Think of this way: building outward and upward; building anew instead of reusing what’s already in place; corporate chains coming in, buying land cheaply instead of having to pay rent in preexisting structures, building their cookie-cutter stores instead of opening shop in unique, unused storefronts. After time, the cities who let this happen become littered with mini-malls (ironic play on “minimal,” ever notice that?). It isn’t long before these retail spaces, cheaper because of their lower overhead, take prevalence over the older buildings. Stores move out of the older buildings, leaving them uncared for so they end up becoming condemned.

Mini-malls and cookier-cutter franchise buildings look cheap because they are. They look sad and lacking in character because, well. And that is precisely the type of building going in as the new Silas Willard.

From a US Department of Agriculture Pamphlet:

. . . total rural population has declined slightly for several years, as slowing natural population growth fails to offset net migration away from rural areas; this is the first time rural population declined since data became available in 1950 that could detect such a trend. At the same time, long-term trends continue to concentrate the most highly educated members of the working-age population in urban areas where the personal economic returns to higher education are greater.

This paragraph is extremely important. What it basically says is rural population in the US is decreasing, and that those who come from rural communities, then earn higher educations are choosing not to return to their hometowns. Keep this in mind throughout this essay.

15% of the US lives in rural or “non-metro” areas. That means people who call rural America “The Real America” are way, way mistaken. And since the Great Recession people have been migrating away from rural areas. Galesburg, with a population of 32,195 is just big enough to be considered a city.

However, despite the lower earnings available in rural areas, some individuals and families do migrate from urban to rural areas at all levels of educational attainment, as quality-of-life factors, lower housing costs, personal ties, or other specific opportunities motivate them to move or move back to rural America.

After I returned to Galesburg, I made several friends who grew up in inner-city Chicago or St. Louis, who actually chose to move to Galesburg because of reasons listed above. They saw greater opportunity for themselves in a small city than in the big city. So, there is interest for people from the metropolises to move to communities like Galesburg. Why not take advantage of that?

According to this study, education has a lot to do with the success of an area. It’s a no-brainer that we should be investing heavily in improving education. But currently there are cuts on education which puts us at an impasse.

The largest factory in town, Admiral (which became Maytag in the 90s), left in 2003. Let me just say there are many ways to court a company to set up in a town, but it can’t all be based on smooth-talking. The people who built those companies and run them got where they are by being shrewd. And when they do their research and find something as simple as the school district continually making poor choices with its money, it’s an easy conclusion that they are going to have trouble drawing talented workers to live there, so they decide not to take the gamble.

It’s a vicious cycle we’re on: Nobody wants to move there because nobody who lives there even wants to be there. I read essays and articles all the time by other writers whose hometowns are going through the same thing. And yet these small towns keep making the same mistakes over and over. Something trite should go here, some Horatio Alger shit about making America great again, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t right, either. I’m sorry, but ‘Murica just isn’t working.

The fact that we even have such an idiotic term as ‘Murica is indicative of a split in the American identity. We fight over this. How can we be unified on anything if we can’t even agree on what we are anymore?

 

Factors of Migration Push Factors Pull Factors
ECONOMIC Emigration away from area with few job opportunities Immigration to areas where jobs are more available; areas with more valuable natural resources, or new industries
CULTURAL Forced migration has occurred for these main reasons: slavery, political instability, and fear of persecution. People are attracted to democratic countries that encourage individual choice in education, career, and place of residence. After Communists gained control of Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, many people in that region were pulled toward the democracies in Western Europe and North America.

This is adapted from a chart on the Lewis Historical Society website. [http://lewishistoricalsociety.com/wiki2011/tiki-read_article.php?articleId=28] It breaks down the main factors influencing what is known and the “push-and-pull factors” of migration.

 

If the trend of push-and-pull migration away from rural areas is not a primarily economic anomaly, then the problem these numbers aren’t telling us is why people choose to move away from Rural America. This is not an inconsequential number—We are talking tens of millions of people fleeing their hometowns because of ignorance, bigotry, and hypocrisy. If we were to record all of these untold stories, just imagine what kind of impact it could have—to finally hold a true mirror up to the real ‘Murica and show it how ugly it really is.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Galesburg. It happens in places like Quincy, Pekin, Elmhurst. The list goes on of these fuck-up towns. They become self-homogenizing. Then they run themselves into the ground because of their lack of diversity.

When I was working on a piece about Carl Sandburg, I wanted to explore this idea a little more closely. I wanted some facts and figures, nothing too overwhelming, but a good sampling. I called the record keeper at Galesburg High School, informing that person I was an alumnus working on a paper for grad school. I asked if I could just have the list of the student rankings from the class of ’99, thinking surely this person could pull that info up quickly. She said she would do it, but I think once she got the sense of what I wanted the information for, she never sent it to me.

Now, Dad would have been all “Freedom of Information Act” on her and submitted a formal request. But I let it go. Besides, all getting that data would have done is confirm for me my suspicion: The top performers in my class did not return to Galesburg after getting college and post-graduate degrees.

In short, every year towns like Galesburg are losing all of their intelligent people. This says many things, and this information could be hit from several different angles to extrapolate all the different factors for why people choose not to go back. But I think it’s safe to conclude that this is indicative of a place that does not value intelligence.

Notice the repeating forms of rectangular geometry, perfectly parallel, and perpendicular lines. Buildings like Silas Willard that were part of the Prairie School Movement were visual odes to the landscape; designed to look as if they were part of the prairie landscape themselves. Unique, it can be truly said there is nothing quite like them in the rest of the world, and there are precious few left.

Notice the repeating forms of rectangular geometry, perfectly parallel, and perpendicular lines. Buildings like Silas Willard that were part of the Prairie School Movement were visual odes to the landscape; designed to look as if they were part of the prairie landscape themselves. Unique, it can be truly said there is nothing quite like them in the rest of the world, and there are precious few left.

 

School Board Face-Off

That letter to the editor of The Register Mail was never sent in. My father advised me not to. After he read it, he expressed his concern that sending that letter might endanger my job at District 205. The way he put it, “If the board members or any other high-ups read this and take it the wrong way, they could make your life very difficult—I wouldn’t put anything past these people.”

Well, I got nothing to lose anymore.

When the school board members strolled in for the special meeting over Silas Willard Schoolhouse, I was immediately struck by the grotesque image of fluorescent light bouncing off a row of pasty white skulls. Many of the board members and high-ups of the school district are facsimiles of the same archetype: pudgy bald white men way past their primes. I don’t have much of a place to speak, my grandfather was also a bald white man on the school board well past his prime. But that was also fifty fucking years ago.

Since the mid-1990s my father, Douglas Mustain, has been saving my childhood elementary school from being torn down. It repeatedly comes before the school board as if it is “a decision that has to be faced.” No, the building is perfectly sound, and would remain to be so for at least another forty years.

In 2006 he, my mother, and several other members of the community went to the school board with a well-researched argument he wrote titled PRESERVING SILAS WILLARD. The board limits public comments to three minutes at the podium. So, my father began reading from the document. When his three minutes were up, my mother, Sharon Mustain, stood up at the podium, stated her name, profession, address, then began reading where my father had left off. When my mother’s time was up, another member of Operation Save Silas stood up, gave her name, profession, address, then read from where my mother had left off. Members of the group followed in this fashion until the entire 8-page document was read aloud before the school board’s reluctant ears.

Whenever I read over that document, I love that my dad kept hitting the point that if the district chose to renovate the schoolhouse instead of build anew, they would have money left over in case they wanted to make some cool additions, really pimp the place out. That year Operation Save Silas was able to postpone the demolition of the building, yet again.

But, the school board was not finished with Silas yet. In the fall of 2013, they voted to destroy and replace the building. My father was outraged because they made the vote brashly and with no opportunity for the public to voice their say in the matter. An earlier iteration of the board had determined the vote would go to referendum. But, when a new superintendent of finance and interim superintendent of schools came in, they changed it to a board decision, taking the public’s voice in the matter out of the equation.

So, in the spring of 2014, we and many disgruntled community members got together every Saturday to brainstorm ideas for how to bring the school board around to our way of seeing things. We got the board to agree to hear us in a special meeting set for April 7, 2014.

It had been a busy week. My father and other members of Operation Save Silas met with each board member individually, suggesting what could be done with the $11 million the district would save by simply renovating. The more they appealed to their senses of reason, Dad began to feel a few of the board members had turned their minds.

All we needed was someone to make a motion for a vote. A majority vote would save Silas once and for all.

When the public comments time was over, every single board member made a statement about the schoolhouse. One remarked that previous iterations of the school board, going all the way back to the 90s, were “faced with the decision” regarding whether to tear Silas down because of its numerous life safety issues and poor conditions (which was actually all due to deferred maintenance). As he saw it, “this can had been kicked down the road several times,” and now it was this board who would finally bury the hatchet in this ongoing problem that is Silas Willard Schoolhouse.

Others from the board lamented that they had already voted on this matter the previous fall. By holding this special meeting, they were in fact doing us a favor, and going against protocol. So, a couple board members stated that overturning their decision would “damage the board’s credibility.”

That seemed to be the angle the board decided was best to play—that to save face, they could not possibly go back on a decision they had already made. Those of us pleading with them were simply too late. We should have been there in October, even though the board slipped that earlier vote by us.

The board president spoke and actually commended us community members for our hard work and time invested in contacting the board members. This inspired rousing applause from my fellow Operation Save Silas members. I could not bear to put my hands together for this man. We’d met a few times while I had been subbing, although he never bothered introducing himself to me. I guess by his expensive-looking overcoat I was supposed to just assume he was somebody important. He has a goatee, I have a beard. There’s definitely a divide between the kinds of people who wear goatees and those of us who wear beards—I know a tool when I see one.

He played aloof when he asked the district attorney whether there needed to be a vote. They both put on this spectacle of befuddlement; the district attorney shuffled some papers as if he was at that moment looking up the bylaws. He said, “This has never happened before,” then explained to the room that since the decision had already been voted on the past fall, there would have to be a motion by a member of the board before they could vote on the matter again.

The board president raised his eyebrows like he was so surprised and concerned that to go back on their vote would be such a major undertaking, going against all that important procedure stuff that they held so dearly. But, as if it was a favor to us hard-working constituents, he said he supposed he could put it to the board to ask if any of them would like to make the motion to have a revote on Silas Willard. Eyes darted from board member to board member. They sat back in their seats, pushed themselves as far away from their microphones as possible. Their faces directed downward to the table.

Meeting adjourned.

We got fucking played.

From the newspaper in 2006 when the community successfully saved Silas Willard from the school board’s wrecking ball. Gotta say, it’s pretty badass to see one’s parents in a human chain.

From the newspaper in 2006 when the community successfully saved Silas Willard from the school board’s wrecking ball. Gotta say, it’s pretty badass to see one’s parents in a human chain.

 

I Love My Hometown. Some of My Best Friends Are Buried There.

I didn’t actually hate growing up in Galesburg. I hated growing out of it. I hated that there was a gradual awakening that took place by my teen ages, that the person I was on the inside was at conflict with the person I was on the outside, which was the perception people had of me and the way I was expected to be. It’s hard to prove that, of course—what people’s expectations are of you, but there is unspoken mojo that goes on between people. It’s indirect. People say homophobic, racist, and otherwise bigoted things. Even though they may be directed at a third or more often fourth never-present party, it is a warning to everyone in immediate presence.

The underlying power of that message is that by striking out on your own and voicing your dissension with the popular opinion of those you are among, you run the risk of losing everything you have ever known. You will no longer belong. You will become isolated. And there’s great power in threatening someone with isolation.

This is a stupid fucking way of going about life.

I don’t hate Galesburg, but I don’t love it, either. I both love and hate it. There are places I love going there. There’s not a lot, but it has its charm. I hate most of it. But I do enjoy that the people who live there and I have common background. There are stories we can share, things we can all laugh about. I just hate how people seem to have cut themselves off; the way the rest of the world is advancing, but they aren’t.

So what do you do when you move back to your hometown that you feel ambivalent towards? As I found out in the first couple months after arriving, work was clearly not an option. There just weren’t any jobs in the area. My move to Galesburg was meant to be a short layover to get reacquainted with family and old friends. My dad needed some help at his law firm scanning about thirty-five years’ worth of paper files into PDFs. Problem was, he couldn’t afford to pay me very much. So, I started subbing to make some extra money. Then that turned into a full-time job.

It was a delight to get to spend more time with my family. With the exception of my younger sister, my parents have an empty house these days. I had just spent four years in North Carolina attending school and figuring out what kind of writer I wanted to be, albeit a mostly unsuccessful one. When I moved back I was certainly jaded from my experience in grad school and had developed a cantankerous attitude toward anyone who didn’t agree with my worldview. I arrogantly snapped at people with little or no provocation—I was not a pleasant person to be around.

Subbing helped me mellow out. As I was having success at it, I would recount my experiences to my mother and father at dinner, and I could see Dad reach for Mom’s hand under the table and squeeze her with excitement that I was getting on so well at being an educator.

See, my family has a long history with education. My father’s father, Reginald Mustain, was on the school board for fourteen years, many of which he served as president. My sisters Kristi and Kari both have degrees in Education and have had numerous teaching and coaching jobs since college. My younger brother Kirk has a provisional teaching certificate so he can teach full-time graphic design and computer science to middle and high school classes, and he has taught at the college level. On my mother’s side, her older brother Stephen Tegarden had a thirty-five-year career serving as principal and superintendent of schools all over the country.

One might say educating is in our blood. Even members of the family who do not teach are very invested in volunteering for the schools and sitting on boards.

So, when my father was squeezing my mother’s hand at dinner all those nights, it had to have been with the hope that I had finally found my calling. Teaching, after all, was something I could do and still continue to write in my free time—as a hobby.

Little did he know I was working on something. Little did he know how enraged I was becoming at the state of public education; that I felt compelled to write about it. I was running home all those nights after dinner to research all I could about the Columbine Massacre and put down my own tormented experiences.

Marble floors and this unique locker nook between two large classrooms is just one of the many sights we all saw as kids that we probably took for granted, but looking back, provided us the most original schooling experience in the district.

Marble floors and this unique locker nook between two large classrooms is just one of the many sights we all saw as kids that we probably took for granted, but looking back, provided us the most original schooling experience in the district.

 

Code-Switching

My favorite passages from “The Opposite of Suicide”:

We spend more time telling kids to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and smoking than we do teaching them how to identify the lower half of the periodic table of elements.

I realized I was gay by the age of twelve, but I tried to push it out of my thoughts. I felt guilty about it. Thought I could overcome it. I thought I was going to go to hell. Getting over that self-hatred is a process that takes several years. There is no doubt in my mind that has a long-term effect on a person’s psyche.

That last line is a notion I got from none other than N*Sync member Lance Bass. Bass came out publicly in 2006 after spending about a decade singing, dancing, and acting before the whole world. To keep something a secret not just from friends and family, but the entire world would be a hell of an undertaking. What’s especially messed up about it is we all knew Lance was gay from the beginning. So, why did he have to keep it a secret in the first place? Regardless, he did, and I heard him say once on his radio show that he is certain that being in the closet fucks up a person’s brain. So, I decided to drop that little chestnut in my essay.

Sidenote: I have never met a closet-case who wasn’t deeply emotionally disturbed. My out gay brothers and sisters will back me on this.

I recently watched The Way He Looks, a Portuguese film about two teen boys, one of whom is blind. The movie mostly follows the blind one, and the tension of the story is trying to discover if the new boy in town is gay. The movie had a happy ending, which gave me a weird feeling. I felt a little letdown that the new boy turned out to return the main characters’ affection. What a copout!

I’m accustomed to gay movies ending in the following ways: He’s willing to “experiment” a little, but he won’t take the plunge of acknowledging his love in public. Or they die in a suicide pact. Or they turn into terrible drunks and never achieve happiness. That’s how gay movies are supposed to end. Because that would have reflected my experience as a gay young adult.

As I was having this reaction, I stopped myself, and thought, What the fuck is wrong with me? Why was I bitter about these two boys finding love with one another? It’s because the environment I grew up in programmed me to expect the worst.

Where I live and work now, where I get my coffee, and the trains I ride with several million people every day, I don’t have to look over my shoulder anymore when I am looking at the profiles of other dudes on my iPhone. Funny how I felt more oppressed in a small city of 30,000 people, most of whom I knew very well, than I do in a city of 8 million strangers.

My voice has gotten lighter since I moved. Now, I wouldn’t say higher. My voice naturally has a deep register. But there’s just a little bit more of a softness to it. I’ve written about this phenomenon before. In particular, at the Pizza Hut I worked at in Iowa City, a fair amount of my coworkers were lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgendered. I noticed that all of the gay males who worked there, we all had this reflex to drop our voices an octave whenever we answered the phones. We had all learned this survival mechanism to, in uncertain company, put up these shields: change our mannerisms, how we talked, what we said, how we dressed. In linguistics this is known as “code-switching,” and everyone does it to some extent. But for many gay men, we are acutely aware of what about ourselves sets off homophobic reactions from other people.

So, when I worked at Pizza Hut I noticed that even over the phone, talking to faceless strangers, we were not willing to chance a homophobic interaction. I wonder who it was my coworkers pictured on the other side of the line. Their dads? One of their dads’s bigoted friends? Their preachers? What was going to happen? Someone calls their parents and says, “I called Pizza Hut the other night and Benji answered. You might want to have a talk with that boy.”

Who surprised me the most was Alonzo. He moved out of his parents’ house when he was 15, and ever since had lived primarily with other gay people who took him in. His life was full of the gay community; what the gay community has classically been for orphans like him. Alonzo was the most outrageously gay person I knew, and yet even he lowered his voice like the rest of us chumps whenever he answered the phone. That’s how deep it runs.

If you just take a behavior like that as a microcosm, then consider how many other things there are stacked up on top of that, how many ways people like me have to go about our daily lives because we are terrified, then you start to get a picture of how hard it truly is to be gay, and that it’s mostly because of how other people react to the way we naturally are.

Many people think there was a homophobic motivation behind my firing and that my illegal drug use from 16 years ago was scapegoating. I agree. Many people think I should sue. I disagree. Because I actually think the whole ordeal is fucking hilarious.

But honestly, I have to stop and think about this: While I was substitute teaching, pretty much every gay person I talked to about my job, asked: “How does being a teacher work out with being gay?” Which is pretty fucked up.

We’re engrained as a culture now to think that certain people are not eligible to be teachers. That’s how pervasive the fascism in public education is. And to boot, my gay brethren are keenly aware of where we are and are not wanted. For years I have noticed how many of my gay friends work in the fields of nursing and special education, especially in less populated parts of the country. Because trying to have a career doing anything else would be too hard a battle to forge, so many of us have settled for jobs within these industries that the ruling majority has deemed it acceptable for us to work in.

But I’ve noticed since moving to New York City I just don’t have that fear anymore. Living here I don’t have to watch what I say, how I sound, or how I look. I no longer have that closet surrounding me.

Life is so much better when you simply let people be themselves.

A major characteristic of the Prairie School architecture was creating open spaces within the structures. Things like this marble staircase and tall windows were just as iconic as the outside facade of the buildings.

A major characteristic of the Prairie School architecture was creating open spaces within the structures. Things like this marble staircase and tall windows were just as iconic as the outside facade of the buildings.

 

Victims of Deferred Maintenance

My father worked on four referendums to save extracurricular sports and activities from being canceled by the school district. We won two of them. After he won the final referendum, he and his collaborators established the Galesburg Public Schools Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the sole purpose of raising funds for District 205 to acquire things it needed, but were not within its budget. Their first and most major achievement was building an auxiliary gym and pool for Galesburg High School.

That took six years of my parents, brothers, sisters, myself, and somewhere between fifty and one hundred committed citizens to see through to fruition.

After we turned the keys over to the district, everything was peachy, right?

My father answers, “Well, no . . .”

Right away there was a humidity problem. The facility had a built-in state-of-the-art dehumidifying system, but the maintenance worker the district hired didn’t know how to run it. Several of the people who had overseen the construction urged the district to pay for a maintenance person to be trained how to run the dehumidifying system and be kept on staff.

A few years after the gym and pool were built, the district had to make cutbacks again. One of those cutbacks was they let go the one employee who knew how to run the dehumidifying system. They didn’t hire anyone to replace him, nor did they pay to have someone else trained. Now there’s rust on the beams and mold throughout the building. It’s going to cost at least $900,000 to fix the damage, which is three-quarters what the community raised to build it. The facility is only twenty years old.

“I know if they hired people who knew how to operate the system, they wouldn’t have a problem,” my father says, adding, “That’s just the way they do things.”

At some point after the gym and pool were finished, my father fell out of high opinion with the school board. I’ve heard it said a number of times this was because of jealousy—the powers that be felt insulted that my father’s organization could do things the district was incapable of doing itself. In regards to all the work, their reaction was “Thanks, but no thanks.” And, in retrospect, their naming the pool after him was a backhanded compliment. Dad can’t swim a front crawl to save his life. None of his children have ever participated in swimming as a sport. I, however, decided that because I would be the first person in my family to go through GHS after it was built, I signed up for swimming classes and swam in Douglas D. Mustain Pool nearly every day of the three-and-a-half-years I attended high school.

So, when it comes to ideological arguments about why the district should preserve Silas Willard, the board has no interest in hearing my father out. In fact, they may be adamant to tear it down because it’s him who’s fighting against it. To add insult to injury, the gym he raised $1.2 million to build for them is being sent down the same path of neglectful management as the Silas Willard Schoolhouse.

My dad can get a building built but does not have the power to save one from being torn down.

Originally built in 1912, Silas Willard Schoolhouse was added onto nearly thirty years later, giving it new life. This was commissioned by the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, headed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression; perhaps the single most socialist thing an American President as ever undertaken, but, hey, people needed work! Some might say we need something similar to be done for our crumbling infrastructure and public buildings these days.

Originally built in 1912, Silas Willard Schoolhouse was added onto nearly thirty years later, giving it new life. This was commissioned by the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, headed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression; perhaps the single most socialist thing an American President as ever undertaken, but, hey, people needed work! Some might say we need something similar to be done for our crumbling infrastructure and public buildings these days.

 

The “No” People

I’ve always found it deeply ironic that Carl Sandburg grew up in Galesburg. Not only was he one of the most famous writers of the twentieth century, he was equally known for his activism. Before he even became famous as a poet, he toured the country lecturing on Walt Whitman and socialism, tying the two together because he found Whitman’s writings to be inline with the tenets of socialism.

The Galesburg Sandburg grew up in was not much different than the one I grew up in. It was a deeply conservative community, even a hundred years ago. His father, August, was a blacksmith for the CB&Q Railroad. Illiterate, August was a staunch Republican. Carl knew from a very young age that he himself was a leftist. He and his father fought over the fact that August continually voted against his best wishes—August worked very long hours for very little pay. Carl could never get through to him that if you were working class and voted Republican, you were voting for the very same people who were exploiting you.

By today’s standards, while the people who vote Republican are not illiterate—but certainly there are still those among us who have never learned to read or write—but many people are brought up in our schools as non-literary. People who were not taught how to read properly, people who are poor at recognizing nuance, to grasp subtlety and lyricism. People who read everything at face-value and cannot recognize when they are being fucked with.

We should actually be quite alarmed by how many people referred to “The Opposite of Suicide” as an article. That in itself shows there are so many people these days who are literate only in the most rudimentary sense. I mean, even the man who fired me referred to it as an article, and he was superintendent of an affluent school district.

This is a short biography of Carl Sandburg in a textbook. One of the main things textbooks keep hitting in 6–12 literature is an author’s word choice. In the field of Rhetoric, the way an author phrases things is how she conveys her ideas, but it can also be the way she covers-up or omits certain ideas, certain facts that she and the people holding the purse strings don’t want the reader to know, that are better left unsaid.

Now, given that this bio is so, so short, I would not expect the writer to go too in depth, but let’s take a look at it:

Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) was a Pulitzer
Prize-winning American poet, historian, and
novelist. Born in Galesburg, Illinois, to
Swedish immigrant parents, Sandburg
decided at age six that he would be a writer.
Although, he had to quit school after eighth
grade to go to work to help support his
family, Sandburg continued to write. As he
pursued writing, Sandburg worked in a variety
of trades from factory worker to
newspaperman. He also became a well-known
musician and political activist. The
variety of Sandburg’s experiences informed
his writing, and Sandburg eventually gained
recognition as an iconic American writer.

This is all true. Sandburg did drop out of school when he was only thirteen. But this short bio, given to young, susceptible minds, makes it sound like he did it because his family was poor and he had to support them. That is only part of why. The main reason was most people didn’t go to high school back then. Back then young people had the legal right to choose not to attend high school. It cost more money to go to high school.

I wouldn’t expect a 50-word biography to go into this, nor would I expect the person who wrote it to know this information, unless they had done extensive research on Sandburg, but the family did pay for his older sister to attend high school. She passed her schoolbooks down to him and he used them to teach himself. That was a way for the family to cut corners: they sent the older one to high school, but Carl was equally educated, maybe even more so because he was learning at his own pace, within his own parameters. This may even speak to why he became so knowledgeable, so talented, and such a radical leftist. Because he was self-taught, there was no one pulling strings on young Sandburg. He did have mentors in the community, but he sought them out on his own.

The line “political activist” sidesteps the fact that he was an activist for socialism. Of course the bio is not going to mention that because textbooks intentionally avoid any language that could be construed as having polemic. Although if you read enough textbooks, you’ll see that they are intrinsically conservative. Actually, whenever the content from a selection is obviously left-wing, like the Civil Rights Movement, or Immigration, they tiptoe their way through these topics. I think it can safely be said most novelists, poets, and playwrights throughout history have leaned to the left—at least the good ones. But a textbook won’t call out a writer’s political beliefs, even if they are embedded in just about every single word he ever laid on a page, because the textbook is a product, and at the end of the day, that product has to be marketable to school districts who are known for being conservative.

The distillation of rhetoric is how misinformation spreads and breeds non-literary minds—Like students seeing a black and white photo of me on Facebook next to the word “Suicide” and assuming the worst, without having the inclination to read on.

Carl Sandburg left Galesburg at the age of nineteen. He knew it was time to leave when he became suicidal. Yes, young, mythic Carl Sandburg contemplated throwing himself in front of a train—which also happens to be how an absurd number of people die in Galesburg. Mostly because it’s a very effective way to do it, and as Sandburg thought himself, people might mistake it for an accident.

Sandburg instead reminded himself there was a great big world out there, so he decided to go see it. He left. And never came back, really. He saw Chicago. He rode the rails all over the country. He became enamored with getting to know strangers, wherever he could find them. This intensified his belief in socialism and the common good of the American People—not the ‘Murican People.

He ended up in Wisconsin, where at the time the Socialist Democratic Party was making major breakthroughs. Socialists from around the country were migrating there. The world was paying attention to the very groovy stuff that was going on in Wisconsin. Carl wanted to be part of it. And so he became a big part of it.

Galesburg’s favorite son, Carl Sandburg, who produced some of the most widely-read poetry of the twentieth century, who won the Pulitzer Prize three times, who left the world with everlasting gifts of his testaments to the common good of the masses and the evils of the rich, once upon a time wanted to commit suicide—Then he changed his mind and went and did the opposite.

Silas Willard Schoolhouse is set for demolition next summer. It would appear many of the people who would have fought for its standing have moved away.

#savesilas

Photo7

 

 

BIO

Kyle MustainKyle Mustain received his BA from the University of Iowa, and MFA from University of North Carolina Wilmington. His work has appeared in St. Sebastian Review, Medium, and the Writing Disorder. He balls every day.

 

 

 

Michael Filas

Galileo’s Wake

by Michael Filas

 

I’m no narcissist, and I’m sorry if I sound like one. Awhile back I was put upon to join an academic conversation about Galileo with several distinguished Galileo scholars, but knew nothing about Galileo, so I fell back on what I knew—me. For that I apologize. I was trying to arrange a semester-long teaching gig at Florence University of the Arts, and I’d been working at my American university in Massachusetts to develop a faculty exchange at FUA because I wanted desperately to live abroad with my family for a semester, and nothing sounded so good as teaching writing, lecturing, and collaborating in Florence. When FUA announced they were holding a Galileo conference, I was encouraged to participate, and commenced a crash course in Galileo.

Learning about Galileo came at a cost, of course. My other projects suffered for lack of attention and my short conference trip to Florence cost a bit more than I got from my university to attend. My quest to teach in Florence, too, was ultimately gnawed down from a semester abroad to just a few weeks. I look forward to the short-term course, but it won’t be quite like living in Florence for three or four months with my family. How the plan changed, from a semester abroad into a few weeks, is a dull and aggravating story despite its bureaucratic twists and turns, occasional misdirection, and a whittling away of dreams. The good news is I did make it to Florence on academic terms. Whittled dreams notwithstanding, I went to Florence for four days and talked and listened to days of conversation about Galileo.

Bad form. Allow me to apologize both for starting off with complaints, and for talking about myself. I’m just getting the clumsy stuff out of the way first.

I submitted to the conference in Florence on the suggestion from a helpful vice president at my university who understood Westfield’s mission at FUA. He’d been to the conference before and recommended it highly. “The theme is Galileo,” he said, “you can write something about Galileo. It’s a great conference.” Just like that, as if Galileo expertise were mine for the asking.

“Maybe next year,” I said, having no knowledge of Galileo and no idea how I could fit him and his universe into my expertise. And there was another matter of how I could pay for international travel on top of my academic travel commitments in the states. To be honest, when he suggested it to me, I did not think I needed Galileo in order to get to Florence. I was wrong.

 

I covet my torments.

Mr. Galilei, if you want money and leisure, go to Florence.

[T]he rays of Your [Highness’] incredible clemency and kindness . . . Night and day [I reflected] on almost nothing else than how I, most desirous of your glory (since I am not only by desire but also by origin and nature under your dominion), might show how very grateful I am toward you.

By November, Livia was pregnant and his new brother-in-law, Taddeo Galletti, exigent. Galileo asked Michelangelo to oblige himself legally to pay his share. For himself, he wrote, he was tightly pinched. Michelangelo could not contribute and Galileo had to borrow another 600 scudi and obtain an advance on his salary to meet his running expenses and the obligations he had assumed to assist his siblings.

The young scientist’s work was held in great esteem by the professionals who assisted him in heading the mathematics department at the university of Pisa and then of Padua. Later Galileo would become famous as a great scientist, a broadly educated man, a good conversationalist, and a skillful debater. In addition he received fame as a writer and a musician. He brilliantly played string instruments and the clavichord. He also succeeded in drawing, painting, and writing sonnets.

 

For a mid-tier 21st century professor like me, scrambling to make a difference on my own modest scale, it is humbling, cripplingly so, to read about someone like Galileo, larger than life in every discipline he undertook. More apologizing seems in order.

When the VP at my school told me to write something about Galileo I struggled—my job is mostly about teaching, but I still make time to sustain a modest research career. I write about post-evolution, embodied technology, medical humanities—areas without abundant overlaps in astronomy, physics, or renaissance science. To make matters worse, I couldn’t really set aside the prose form I’d been working in for a few years—prose collage experiments, part fiction, part creative non-fiction. I apologize, then, for the jumps and non-sequiturs careening from my words to those of Galileo, his biographers, and his critics. My VP who recommended I do something about Galileo for the conference did not specifically recommend the collage style. To be honest he was probably unaware of my specialty, but alas, I had to do something I knew if I were to have any credibility at all. There are end notes for the non-memoir collage material, for credibility’s sake. And yet, for the reader disinterested in juxtaposition and cross referencing it may just seem like a disjointed jumble of language.

Did I mention that I went to Florence to deliver this paper? I apologized then too.

 

Although Galileo’s “Capitolo contro il portar la toga” has its zing from his annoyance over the rule of the robe and the stock association of academic dress with pedantry, it was a piece with his duller sonnets in that it was an exercise to master a literary form.

The ways of invention are varied, very
To seize on the good there’s but one that has worked
Look about for an evident contrary.
That means search out evil, it’s easily found
You’ve then Summum bonum [the greatest good], no trouble at all
Bad and good are as like as pence in a pound.

Your friends were baffled when you bowed to the Prince of Florence: science gained a wider audience. You always laughed at heroics. “People who suffer bore me,” you said. “Misfortunes are due mainly to miscalculations.” And: “If there are obstacles, the shortest line between two points may be the crooked line.”

Anyone will then understand with the certainty of the senses that the Moon is by no mean endowed with a smooth and polished surface, but is rough and uneven and, just as the face of the Earth itself, crowded everywhere with vast prominences, deep chasms, and convolutions.

With monuments destroyed and temples burned
Proclaims my greatness in fierce examples.

 

When I try and relate to Galileo as a man, as a person, I come up feeling like a flea staring down an elephant. I am so awed by his accomplishments that I feel under qualified to have even stood in the same city where he once wrote couplets and hashed out the architecture of heaven, of purgatory, and of hell. His crispy middle finger stands, centuries dead under glass in Florence, pointing towards heaven, towards mountains on the moon, but I feel like he’s pointing at me, shaming me for having gone to Florence only to talk about myself.

Galileo would surely have no patience with my star struck self deprecation. Though he understood flattery intimately, a man of his wit and serious purpose would eventually move the conversation to something more interesting than my fawning. When Galileo was faced with a giant that had come before him did he cower or apologize? No. He openly ridiculed Aristotle, whose vision of the earth-centered universe was the law of the land handed down from God.

 

We have it on Viciani’s authority that Galileo dropped different weights of the same material from Pisa’s Leaning Tower to show, “to the dismay of the philosophers,” that, contrary to Aristotle, they fell at the same speed. And he did it not once, or secretly, but “with repeated trials . . . in the presence of other teachers and philosophers, and the whole assembly of students.”

One of Berni’s [Galileo’s influence for his burlesque writing] favorite techniques was to treat a common subject in an elevated manner, “in praising [as Galileo characterized the method] the meanest things, urinals, plague, debt, Aristotle, etc.”

Circular motion has the property of casting off, scattering, and driving away from its center the parts of the moving body, whenever the motion is not sufficiently slow or the parts not too solidly attached together.

He never takes his adversary by abrupt frontal attack, but after a courteous greeting stands back to await the first blow. Going on the defense, he entices his opponent to advance. Suddenly he strikes where least expected, and profiting from the surprise, presses in, pushes back, knocks out his adversary, and withdraws without taking any further notice of the combat.

You greater ones, if it shall please the Good Lord and Your Serene Highness that he, according to his desire, will pass the rest of his life in Your service. For which he bows down humbly, and from His Divine Majesty he prays for the utmost of all happiness for You.

 

Let me attempt to drag Galileo down to my level for a minute. I have no sisters or daughters in nunneries, but I do have four sons, each born legally under wedlock and inheritors of my name. I’m twice married as compared to Galileo’s none. I’m probably a better Dad, too. There’s no evidence of Galileo having coached Vincenzo’s soccer team, or volunteering at the kids’ school. I’m probably better at committee work too, I’m guessing. No, while I’ve muscled through program building and mentoring young writers, Galileo was off with the lynxes, having intellectual seminar discussions and discovering, on his own, laws of gravity and earthly motion.

I have to reach for his period of house arrest, his blind years, in order to feel good about myself: happily married, fond of family life, and well employed in the comfortable middle of American academe. But like Galileo I have my own challenges, like scrapping for funds to help my projects along, pinching time from every corner to keep up with grading, meetings, orthodontia bills, and soccer practices. It takes a lot of work to be a husband and a father, a brother, especially in the middle-class where family connections are tight and frequent. Is the main difference between Galileo and me one of class? Was a hearty and healthy family life a casualty of his high-end career and unfettered thinking? I don’t think so. I can’t believe Galileo was meant to do anything differently than he did.

 

Galileo did not shirk the financial, only the emotional, responsibility of maintaining his children.

He began to suffer severe rheumatic attacks at the age of forty in 1604/5. He shivered in the summer of 1608 with a persistent fever. He was bed-ridden during most of the winter of 1610/11 with severe miscellaneous pains, sleeplessness, discharges of blood, and depression (melancholy).

I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged 70 years, tried personally by this court, and kneeling before You, the most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General throughout the Christian Republic against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Most Holy Gospels, and laying on them my own hands; I swear that I have always believed, I believe now, and with God’s help I will in future believe all which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church doth hold, preach, and teach.

MONK: Hey! Hey! We’re slipping off! Help!
SECOND SCHOLAR: Look! There’s Venus! Hold me, lads. Whee!
SECOND MONK: Don’t, don’t hurl us off onto the moon. There are nasty sharp mountain peaks on the moon, brethren!
VARIOUSLY: Hold tight! Hold tight! Don’t look down! Hold tight! It’ll make you giddy!

Knights-errant travel light. Galileo divested himself of his daughters as soon as they became nubile. In 1613 he placed them in a nunnery of the Poor Clares in Arcetri just outside Florence, where they would spend the rest of their lives.

A small flame moves in us as from the glow of a dim torch.

 

Alas, the catch all comparison between Galileo and me has produced only this—that his contributions to our understanding of the universe and physics were astounding then and relevant still. My writing and teaching, under the American first-amendment protections of freedom of speech, are respectable contributions to society. Mine is not a shameful career, but neither is it close to greatness, or to impact beyond my generation. Is mediocrity in my professional accomplishments the cost of relative domestic beatitude and reliable good health? Even Galileo’s abjuration, rejecting his beliefs and discoveries to save his own life, even this conflicted act elevates his grandeur, and provides Galileo his heroic hamartia. My comparison is a fool’s errand because Galileo lived as a tragic hero and thrives in our shared consciousness as a hero still. If I am to be hero of any story it will be a comedy, I hope, with a happy ending and feasting, preferably in Florence, with a statue of Galileo overseeing the festivities. I don’t want the burdens of greatness, and as it turns out, I’m not worthy of them anyway. Galileo lived as he had to, juggling family matters and underground manuscripts in service to knowledge that would resonate through the ages.

 

Galileo’s behavior was not irrational but carefully calculated. He responded not as a philosopher, world builder, or frustrated prophet, but as a “competent courtier.”

His hair hung down; his skin, in its tiniest folds, is covered with marks of the mal français; his skull is affected, delirium fills his mind; his optic nerves are destroyed because he has scrutinized minutes and seconds around Jupiter with too much curiosity and presumption; his vision, hearing, taste and touch are shot; his hands have the nodules of the gout because he has stolen physical and mathematical treasure; his heart palpitates.

Strozzi and Ricasoli were leading lights of a serious literary club, the Accademia degli Alterati composed, etymologically, of altered, twisted, false, angry, and befuddled poets. There is good reason to believe that Galileo was a member.

Before he contracted this advanced form of melancholy around 1610, Galileo exhibited only the mild melancholic symptoms of uncertainty, protectiveness, circumspection, ironic humor, and scholarly arrogance.

[Galileo’s] poem tells something about his pursuits and attainments at the age of 25. Many sacred cows came to slaughter by his sharp wit: university officials, ecclesiastics, academics, philosophers, idiots. And many youthful preoccupations leave their marks: sex, wine, clothes, money.

Galileo’s exercise in the Bernesue manner did not raise his standing at the university.

But a broken spirit drieth the bones.

As a good gambler Galileo occasionally bluffed by raising the stakes on a losing hand—a technique he later identified with the propensity of his philosophical opponents to add reckless worthless arguments to bad ones. This criticism applied better to him. His later claims about experimental results and theoretical insights contained a quantity of bluff.

 

I’m almost done apologizing. Florence, for me, will forever be imbued with the mystique and grandeur of Galileo’s larger-than-life discoveries and struggles, with his martyrdom to science, with his architectural interpretations of Dante’s Comedia, and with the incredible wake and undertow he leaves in the city. But it is up to me to discover what Florence means now, to a middling American academic, and that too is a worthy cause. Let me avoid the pigeons and keep company with lynxes. Let me practice a literary form or two while I keep my family intact, out of nunneries, and out of debt. I abjure nothing, and without shame take no small pleasure in simply having cameoed as a professor in the same city where Galileo once learned, taught, and discovered the difficult truth that the earth is not the center of the universe.

The truth of the matter is that Florence didn’t come easily to Galileo either. He had to leave Florence to do much of his life’s work, and returned to Florence under house arrest for his last years. I once dreamed of living in Florence for four months, teaching and editing and writing for my keep while my family lived with me, and we partook of Florentine culture as temporary residents. The lived experience will be something less epic, for now. In spring I’ll go to Florence for a few weeks to teach a handful of my university’s students to write about Florence—that’s the plan my university has set up and it sounds inviting to me. Not epic, but my life isn’t really about the epic, if I’m being honest. When I’m in Florence I simply want to meet a few people and get to know Florence University of the Arts. I want to eat great food and see the skyline. I hope to avoid house arrest and public abjuration of any of my beliefs and accomplishments.

But however self-satisfied or humbled I may feel about going to Florence, representing my university and sharing my writing, I will always be haunted, just a little, by the idea of Galileo’s finger, pointing at me, reminding me that Florence is for accomplishing great things and enduring extraordinary personal suffering. Forgive me, then, this one last misstep should you sense that I am enjoying myself, savoring small accomplishments, and forgetting to reach for the epic.

 

A man such as I can only obtain a moderately dignified situation by coming crawling on his belly.

To whose Highness, besides the reverent service and humble obedience which every faithful vassal owes him, I feel myself drawn with a devotion which I may call by the name of love (for God Himself asks us no more than love), so that, setting aside my own interests, I would without hesitation change my fortune, to do his Highness a pleasure.

And if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be. I also swear and promise to adopt and observe entirely all the penances which have been or may be by this Holy Office imposed on me. And if I contravene any of these said promises, protests, or oaths, (which God forbid!) I submit myself to all the pains and penalties which by the Sacred Canons and other Decrees general and particular are against such offenders imposed and promulgated.

I wrote at the time when theologians were thinking of prohibiting Copernicus’s book and the doctrine enounced therein, which I then held to be true, until it pleased those gentlemen to prohibit the work and to declare the opinion to be false and contrary to Scripture. Now, knowing as I do that it behooves us to obey the decisions of the authorities and to believe them, since they are guided by a higher insight than any to which my humble mind can of itself attain, I consider this treatise which I send you to be merely a poetical conceit, or a dream . . . this fancy of mine . . . this chimera.

Alas! revered Sir, your devoted friend and servant, Galileo, has been for a month totally and incurably blind. This heaven, this earth, this universe, which I have enlarged a hundred, nay, a thousand fold beyond the limits previously accepted, are now shriveled up for me into that narrow compass occupied by my own person.

Oh, prime cause of my sweet misery!
To gaze upon those eyes was my destiny.

 

Collage Notes:

“I covert my torments.” Galilei, Galileo. Excerpted from a long poem translated in Heilbron, J.L. Galileo. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. 85.

“Mr. Galilei . . . Florence.” Line spoken coolly by the Venetian CURATO to GALILEO in Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Trans. Charles Laughton. Ed. Eric Bentley. New York: Grove P., 1966. Print. 53.

“The rays . . . toward you.” Galilei, Galileo. Excerpts from a letter to Cosimo de Medici telling of the naming of the Venetian moons. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. (157)

“By November . . . his siblings.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 89.

“The young scientist’s . . . writing sonnets.” Scientists Vol. 2: Famous People. . . Incredible Lives. Text by Shevela Olga. Encyclopedia Channel/Film Ideas, 2008. DVD.

“Although Galileo’s “Capitolo contro il portar la toga” . . . master a literary form.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 60-61.

“The ways of invention are varied, very / . . . / Bad and good are as like as pence in a pound.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 61.

“Your friends . . . the crooked line.” Lines spoken by ANDREA to GALILEO in Brecht. Ibid. 122.

“Anyone will then understand . . . convolutions.” Galilei, Galileo. Sidereus Nuncius or The Sidereal Messenger. Trans. Albert Van Helden. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print. 36.

“With monuments destroyed and temples burned / Proclaims my greatness in fierce examples.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 86.

“We have it on Viciani’s authority . . . the whole assembly of students.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 59.

“One of Berni’s . . . urinals, plague, debt, Aristotle, etc.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 60-61.

“Circular motion . . . not too solidly attached together.” Galilei, Galileo. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic & Copernican. Trans. Stillman Drake. 2nd Ed. Berkeley: U of California P., 1967. 132.

“He never takes his adversary . . . notice of the combat.” Belloni, Luigi, quoted and translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 22.

“You greater ones . . . happiness for You.” Galilie, Galileo, in a letter to the doge, chief magistrate of Venice, quoted in Van Helden, Albert. “Introduction, Conclusion, and Notes.” Sidereus Nuncius. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print. 8.

“Galileo did not shirk . . . his children.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 164.

“He began to suffer . . . melancholy.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 162.

“I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence . . . hold, preach, and teach.” Galilei, Galileo. “Galileo’s Abjuration.” The Private Life of Galileo. London: Macmillon & Co., 1870. Print. 396.

“MONK: Hey! Hey! We’re slipping off! Help! . . . It’ll make you giddy!” Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Ibid. 72.

“Knights-errant travel light . . . the rest of their lives.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 192.

“A small flame moves in us as from the glow of a dim torch.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 86.

“Galileo’s behavior . . . competent courtier.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 240.

“His hair hung down . . . his heart palpitates.” Horky, Martin, describing Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 161-162.

“Strozzi and Ricasoli . . . Galileo was a member.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 11.

“Before he contracted this advanced form . . . scholarly arrogance.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 26-27.

“[Galileo’s] poem . . . sex, wine, clothes, money.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 60.

“Galileo’s exercise in the Bernesue manner did not raise his standing at the university.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 62.

“But a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Dialog by GALILEO in Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Ibid. 78.

“As a good gambler Galileo . . . contained a quantity of bluff.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 24.

“A man such as I . . . crawling on his belly.” Dialog by GALILEO in Brecht, Bertolt. The Life of Galileo. Trans. Desmond L. Vesey. London: Methuen & Co., 1960. 44-45.

“To whose Highness . . . to do his Highness a pleasure.” Galilei, Galileo in a letter to a Florentine Gentleman, Sig. Vesp. In spring 1609, to arrange for his return to Florence from Padua. The Private Life of Galileo. London: Macmillon & Co., 1870. Print. 49.

“And if I know any heretic . . . imposed and promulgated.” Galilei, Galileo. “Galileo’s Abjuration.” The Private Life of Galileo. Ibid. 397.

“I wrote at the time . . . this chimera.” Galilei, Galileo from a 1618 letter to Austrian archduke Leopold in response to a request for a sample of his work. Excerpted from Sobel, Dava. Galileo’s Daughter. New York: Walker & Co., 1999. Print. 82-83.

“Alas! revered Sir . . . occupied by my own person.” Galilei, Galileo from a 1638 letter to his friend in Paris, Elia Diodati. MacLachlan, James. Galileo Galilei: First Physicist. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print. 97.

“Oh, prime cause of my sweet misery! / To gaze upon those eyes was my destiny.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 86.

 

 

BIO

Michael FilasMichael Filas is Professor of English at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where he teaches fiction writing and American Literature. He earned an MFA in fiction writing from San Diego State University, and a PhD in American literature from University of Washington in Seattle. His writing has appeared recently in Eleven Eleven, Specs, Fiction International, The Information Society, and Passages North. A native of Los Angeles, Michael now lives in Northampton with his family.

 

 

 

 

dionne 5

On Texting a Guy a Picture of the Dionne Quintuplets

by Rebecca Brill

 

 

If I sent it would he like it. Would he like it if I sent it.

Would he like it would (redacted) would (redacted) would would he like it.

Emily says he will. Christine says he will. Emily says he might. Christine says he will. My pulse says he won’t.

He won’t he won’t he won’t he won’t (he might) he won’t he won’t (he might).

My heart has an extra beat—did you know it.

Christine and Emily and me at the table—three. Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie—five. Three or one and one and one or five or one and one and one and one and one. Five on a bench in five matching dresses. Five on a bench in the year 1940. Five bows on one and one and one and one and one small heads.

When he kissed me in the chapel.

Mulch and how its smell is distinct from that of dirt.

In 1940, the Dionnes do not show signs of homeliness, as they will in adolescence, when with bushy eyebrows and stumpy calves, they might pass for Janis Ian or rabbi’s wives or my grandmother and her sisters, who ran a chicken farm out of Brooklyn and who were also five.

He is one.

I think for Halloween I’ll go as Anne Frankenstein.

He is one and I am one.

I think I’ve put on weight.

He is one and I am zero and they are five and five and five.

The old recesstime feeling of sharp stomach pain and dust particles floating in sunlight.

He won’t. He might. He won’t. Sunlight.

The Dionnes and me on a bench, waiting, six or zero or one.

Christine and Emily and me at the table. Three of us and five quintuplets and two cups of coffee and one cup of tea. A mug that resembles a bowl, endearingly. Christine offers cream and remembering I don’t take it, rescinds in a moment of knowing. It is good when some things but not all things are withdrawn.

Émilie, who is not Emily, died of a seizure at the age of 20.

At a concert by an artist we both liked but did not like enough to stop kissing.

People who would have gone mad for the Dionnes: Diane Arbus, Mengele, producers at TLC.

His tallness makes kissing hard, even on tiptoes, even in clogs.

How tall were the Dionnes and were some shorter than others and did any kiss men and did any kiss women and did they wear girdles and did they use words like fellas and did they drink gin and was height a factor in the relative ease or difficulty of kissing and if so how much of a factor.

Am I the only one who feels like plump cod when naked.

If I sent it if I sent it would would he like it.

Each new iteration of Scrabble strikes me as less coherent than the previous.

Christine and Emily and me at the table and I am the only one in a raincoat, which is yellow and which I consider a mac because that word brings me such delight, as does sitting at the table, which at one point was mine, and which before that was Sarah’s, and which before that was people’s whose names I don’t know, probably men’s, but I seldom think of men or remember men’s names, which are passionless and pedestrian like types of wrenches, except for the name of (redacted), which is truly inspired and which plays in my head on a loop in the form of “The Name Game,” a song I thought I hated but which it turns out I adore.

But then, maybe this was not my table. I wonder, do they switch them out year to year for variation’s sake.

Redacted, redacted, bo-bacted, banana-fana fo-facted, fee-fi mo-macted, redacted!

His hand on the small of my back. I don’t think the small my back very small. I admit it is nice when adjectives are nouns also.

How did the Dionnes take their coffee and did all take it the same or did each take it differently and did Annette take cream and did Yvonne take sugar and did Cécile take cream and sugar and how many sugars and is sugar quantified by teaspoon or tablespoon or cube or packet and when were sugar packets invented and when was Splenda invented and what is the difference between Splenda and Equal and Sweet’N Low and which is the one that kills you and did Émilie take nothing and did Marie take milk and when the milk went bad did she take cream or did she take nothing and how did she like it and how did she die.

Christine is like my sister, but once she was my lover. This is disgusting but also erotic, as is every friendship between two women who do not yet believe they are women.

Did some take it black or did all take it black and what is the cost of coal these days and what is the formula for a permutation and am I the only one who remembers arithmetic melancholically.

The black down on her thighs.

Would he like it.

How at 12, when I first got my eyebrows waxed, my vagina twitched, as if knowing it were next.

Would he like it and can some tumors be drained and where is the “send” button and what do goyim want with doilies anyhow.

Sisters I have loved: The Roches; Joanna and Klara of First Aid Kit; Kate and Laura of Rodarte; pubescent Mary-Kate and Ashley; the Lerman twins from elementary school; Marcia and Jan and Cindy (but most of all Jan); all three of Russ’s daughters; the beautiful, fatherless Franco girls from camp; the twins in both the Hayley Mills and Lindsay Lohan versions of The Parent Trap; Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters; Debbie and Susie Schwartz, the indistinguishable and pretty mothers of two kids in my class; Lillie and Jane on Louie; anorexic Mary-Kate and Ashley in frumpy, unsmiling elegance; the Marx Brothers, whom I consider sisters on account of their intoxication with one another and penchant for cuddling; the Kardashians; the Brontës; the Lisbons.

Multiples are not the anomaly they used to be thanks to advances in fertility treatment.

 

Would he like it and how does he take his coffee and are cotton socks sufficient and does he like rhyming games and why as a child did I put clay in my ice skates and is “cathartic” overused and will he and will he and does mortar still exist or is it just from the bible.

When Beyoncé sings, I don’t know much about algebra but I know that one plus one equals two, it is frustrating because that equation is arithmetical. Poetic license should be suspendable or revocable.

Truths I have known: Sometimes you must skip a class to masturbate about a classmate from the class you are skipping. Text messages can’t be rescinded.

At what rate do hearts beat and shall I write him a note and shall I birth him a child and shall I birth five and one and one and one and one and one and who here has known the pleasure of having cream rescinded.

Annette and Cécile are still alive but are they still five in five dresses and if not what are they.

 

 

BIO

Rebecca Brill is a senior at Wesleyan University. She is double-majoring in creative writing and gender studies. She is currently the editor-in-chief of Stethoscope, Wesleyan’s student-run press, which last year published her book, Oh Lord Prepare Me, an experimental memoir. She has also worked for Wesleyan University Press and Cleaver Magazine, and freelanced for a variety of publications.

 

 

 

 

 

Denis Mulroony

Sucking Air: Above-Ground Pool Chronicles

by Denis L. Mulroony

 

 

In the summer of 1984, my father purchased for our family an above-ground swimming pool. The pool was placed in a corner of our backyard and was, as the law required, surrounded by a chain link fence. Its width was fifteen feet; its height was four feet, and in the height of usage, it was filled from dawn to dusk with the friends, enemies and acquaintances of my two brothers and me. With the exception of the Moreno family who had an in-ground pool, ours was the only one in the neighborhood.

The two pools could not be more different, however. The Moreno’s lavish watering hole was a bean-shaped masterpiece that would have made a Vegas casino owner jealous, and except for an assortment of professional landscaping, it assumed the majority of their entire backyard. At one end of the pool sat a circular hot tub whose overflow of steaming goodness spilled into a shallow end of four feet and warmed the entire body of water to bath-like temperatures. This wading area gently sloped into a spacious deep end that sunk to ten feet. Overlooking the crystal waters was a diving board with a legendary spring, and overlooking the entire scene was a sprawling deck complete with lounge chairs, barbecue grill and eating area. While the beauty of the Moreno pool was unquestionable, gaining access to it was another matter.   Mr. and Mrs. Moreno regulated admission as though as it were an elite country club and their two sons had no problem following suit, relegating our paltry construction as the place to be during the summer. While the Moreno’s oasis was an elite, serene, and controlled swimming experience, our four-footer was akin to a Chuck-E-Cheese: poorly supervised and a little dodgy.

Every summer since its genesis, our pool was overflowing with kids, their bikes littering our driveway, towels scattered around the lawn to dry, and looking back, I can say with total confidence that at least half of the kids in Parsippany peed in my pool at one time or another. My parents, in their typical laissez faire approach, did not care who was using the pool as long as they weren’t floating face downward in it.

As to how the pool was used, however, they had a few straightforward rules that were followed to varying degrees of obedience. My mother’s only decree was that the pool was hers from 3:30 to 4:30 each day, no exceptions. During this time she would float around the pool reading Danielle Steele, her torso on a raft while her legs drifted behind her. Meanwhile, my friends and I watched the clock and filled our time playing prison-rules basketball. By the time 4:30 hit, ten to twenty little hands gripped the chain-link fence as five to ten noses poked through the openings. My mother’s departure down the ladder corresponded with an army of ten year olds flinging themselves over the side of the pool like it was D-Day.

My father, on the other hand, whose patience was usually to a fault, possessed several hot buttons regarding his favorite, above-ground child. They were as follows: no food in the pool; no “whirlpooling”[i]; no wave pool[ii]; no wrestling, no jumping off the side of the pool; and most important, no screwing around with the filter. It serves as no coincidence that in the hours my father was working, these specific activities filled the majority of our days. We filled our bellies with sandwiches and chips, whirlpooled until we were nauseous, wavepooled until we were sea sick, wrestled, chicken-fought, marco-poloed, shark-and-minnowed, and jumped/dove/splashed until he returned from work, at which time we innocently practiced swimming laps and lightly tossed Nerf balls to each other.

Despite our resistance to authority, there was one rule that was followed at all costs: no screwing around with the filter. During the summer my father’s day started and ended with a calculated check of the pool’s mechanics. He would arise at the crack of dawn to turn on the filter for the day and then lovingly place two chlorine tablets into its basket. Upon his arrival home from work, he would return to the side of the pool to empty the basket of any debris and check the ph levels of the water. The checking of the ph levels was an intricate routine that required intense concentration and no interruptions of any kind; we were forced to stand completely still and utterly silent for the entire proceedings. My father, with the focus of a geneticist on the brink of discovering a new genetic strand, would fill both tubes of a tiny plastic beaker with pool water. He would then remove two little bottles whose chemical contents he would carefully drop into each tube. Once filled, he would cover the tops of each tube with his fingers and shake vigorously. It was then time for the reading. At this point, he would take his glasses out of his chest pocket and place them onto his face; simultaneously, he would bend down into an absurd crouch and hold the conjoined tubes against the sky with an extended arm to get an accurate reading. If the color of each tube matched the desired color of the code in the middle, then swimming could resume; if not, the pool would have to empty until the next day as it was deemed unsafe.

Despite my father’s concern for a clean and safe pool, the structure itself was a veritable deathtrap, capable of killing children in multiple, painful ways. I am proud to say that my friends and I did nothing to decrease the odds of a watery grave in any way. There were several factors that made swimming in our pool so treacherous. The first was the side of the pool, a four-inch piece of aluminum that capped off the walls. As two of our favorite games required jumping into the water (sharks and minnows[iii] and the golf tee game[iv]), our use of this precipitous high wire was frequent. Due to its frail construction, walking around the side of the pool was tenuous as it wobbled and shook with every step one took. Falling into the pool was obviously not a concern; however, hitting the land was another story. For reasons unknown to me, my father decided the best surface material for the area surrounding the pool was jagged rock. I am not sure if this reverse-moat was his attempt to keep us permanently out of the water or in it or if this was his feeble attempt at Medieval landscaping. Nevertheless, many people had the unfortunate experience of falling away from the water and tearing up their feet, legs and arms on the crags below.

Chemical and viral disease was also a threat at the pool. Every year during the last week of June, after we begged him for a month and the Morenos had banned us out of theirs, my father would announce that it was finally pool season. The next Saturday morning the Mulroony clan would make their way through the fence and gather around the pool in silence as my father gave directions for pulling the cover off. It should be noted that while in-ground pools, during the winter, are as empty as the a realtor’s soul, an above-ground pool remains filled with water and requires a floatation device and a cover, both objects designed to keep things (animals, leaves, garbage) out of the pool and thus maintaining the clarity and quality of the water. It should also be noted that this is only a theory, and every June when we took that cover off of the pool we were greeted with the blackest, most malodorous water I had ever seen. As my brothers were assigned to bleaching and hosing off the vile pool cover (a job I always questioned the assignment of two people for), it always fell to me to brave the murky, freezing water and skim out everything that had found its rest at the bottom of the pool.

It remains, to this day, the most horrifying experience of my life.

The memories of skimming the black, death water are understandably blurry. I remember shivering, dry-heaving, and crying as my brothers laughed at me from the lawn. My skinny, pasty-white frame stood in dire contrast to the oil spill we called a pool as I struggled to lift the leaves to the surface and dump them over the fence with the skimmer. Ultimately, leaves were the least of my concerns. It never failed that every year at least one animal would, for some inexplicable reason—part of me thinks my brothers put them there—choose our pool for its final resting place. I know this because during the formative years of my life I spent several Saturday mornings stepping on the rotted carcasses of squirrels, birds, rats, mice, and in an instance that elicited instant and violent vomiting, a possum. After locating the critter with my feet, I then had to fish them to the surface and dump them over the side of the fence as well. In these moments of horror, tears streaming down my face and sick gathering in my throat, my father would offer to take the skimmer and do the job from the outside the pool, causing me to always wonder why he made me get in the pool in the first place. Despite an intense phobia of dead animals and road kill that persists to this day, I suppose I should be happy I never got malaria or trench foot from the experience.

At no time was death nearer than when my brothers and their friends would join us for a swim. I am amazed that no one ever had to be carted away to the morgue, myself in particular. While my ten-year-old friends and I leaned more toward organized pool games, my brothers’ teenage friends expressed an interest in acrobatics and violence. Together, they formed an illegitimate family of sadistic circus performers whose routine consisted of grabbing me and throwing me as high as they could into the air with little or no concern to my safety, the aluminum side of the pool and the rocky terrain constant hazards. As I was both slight in build and submissive in nature, I was the perfect carnival prop and was recklessly flung eight to ten feet in the air or simply tossed between two of them. On the rare occasions that I protested my use as a projectile or as they inevitably grew bored, their activities would turn even more sadistic. While their friends preferred chicken fights[v] as an aquatic alternative to torture, my brothers omitted the competition element and went straight for the payoff, simply dunking me under the water in fifteen second bursts (like skipping the main course and eating dessert first). As I fought under the water on those afternoons, struggling to escape to the blissful sky above and earnestly praying for gills, I was never quite positive that they wouldn’t actually kill me.   Having never really been shown any affection from them in the ten years prior, I was pretty sure that they dreamed of a world without me in it- the couch would become bigger by 33% as would the rations of cookies, ice cream, and chips; my room would become a personal gym/love den where they would bring their unwitting teenage girlfriends who had no idea they were cold-blooded conspirators.   I suppose that the only thing stopping Leopold and Loeb was fear of retribution from my father as my water-logged corpse would undoubtedly clog up his precious filter. Ironically enough, the only thing that sucked more air than the filter during those years was my lungs, in-between dunks from my brothers.

As was the custom, my father insisted that we close up the pool each Labor Day, regardless of the weather. Despite our protests, we dutifully inflated the ineffective floatation device and fastened down the plastic cover to the aluminum sides of the pool with water-filled milk cartons. The entire process took about half an hour, longer than a game of sharks and minnows, neater than a wavepool, tamer than a romance novel and less fun than attempted murder. As I peered into the crystalline waters, the site of my near-watery grave, I always got so sad, not because I almost died there but because for nine weeks we really lived. For our father, it would be ten more months until he resumed his love affair with the filter; its affection would be replaced with various projects at his basement workbench. My mother would devote herself to three months of Christmas preparations and two months of holiday cleanup. My brothers would return to high school, sports, girls, partying and when time permitted, the contemplation of patricide. As for me, I usually rode my bike to the Moreno’s house with my fingers crossed and a baby-blue golf tee in my pocket, hoping for a few more days of summer.

 

[i] “Whirlpooling” or “Whirlpool” was a game where the inhabitants of the pool circled the perimeter of the structure in the same direction at the same time, thus simultaneously creating a vortex and pissing off my father to no end. My father claimed the whirlpool effect caused the filter to, as he put it, “suck air”.

[ii] “Wavepool” was a similar game only in the propensity to cause the sacred filter to “suck air”; it was played by simply grabbing any floatation device and making the biggest waves you could. It was accompanied by hooting and hollering and usually ended with the garden hose being inserted into the pool to reestablish a water level above the filter line and prevent air to be sucked by it.

[iii] “Sharks and Minnows” was a game of skill and strategy where one person begins as the shark and treads water in the middle of the pool while the minnows stand perched above the water. The object of the game is to jump into the pool and swim to the other side without being tagged by the shark. If you were tgged you fulfilled the shark role as well. This continued until there was one minnow left. (Potential for filter clogging: minimal)

[iv] “The Golf Tee Game” started with everyone standing on the side of the pool. One person held a baby-blue golf tee in their hand and jumped in to place it on the bottom of the pool. Everyone tried to get it first as it floated to the surface. As with any game, score was intensely kept and physical contact was encouraged. (Needless to say, this game was a lot more fun at the Moreno’s house.)

[v] “Chicken Fights” were gladiatorial contests where smaller, younger victims were placed on the shoulders of larger people and pitted against each other until one of them was thrown under water. Punching, scratching, pulling and pushing were the rule.

 

 

BIO

Denis MulroonyDenis L. Mulroony is a part-time writer and full time educator with twenty years of experience as a teacher, coach and currently, a high school principal. He earned his D.Litt. from Drew University and his undergrad from King’s College.  He is an eager writer and essayist who hones his craft whenever time allows (usually after his wife and kids go to sleep). Denis’s creative non-fiction has been published in the Atticus Review, Inkwell.org, FortyOunceBachelors.com and Survive Parenthood Magazine. He only uses his middle initial for writing purposes and when trying to compensate for being less-than-photogenic (see author photo).

 

 

 

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