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My Most Constant Lover

by Miriam Edelson

 

 

I am never truly alone in this place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

“I’m No More Rabid than Usual”

by Catherine Moscatt

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m no more rabid than usual”

 

 

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

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historic(!) Rugby

by Tim Miller

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because life goes on, except in Rugby.

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

Cochina de Mierda

by Jennifer Jordán Schaller

 

 

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

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

                        Only old women wear brown.

                        Pink is for little girls.

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

                        French manicures are classy, like Jackie O.

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

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

That is so tacky.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

Who Is Jackie Brown?

by Rachel Scott

 

 

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

Tishomingo Blues
By: Elmore Leonard

“What’s this?”

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

 

 

White Man on Indian Land

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

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

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

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

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

 

Role Playing

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

A Literary Life

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

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

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

1988, pp. 67-70.

 

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

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

 31-62.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Kathryn Harrison Interview

 

While reading a Los Angeles Times review of Kathryn Harrison’s new book, On Sunset, I was immediately fascinated by the story of someone growing up in a large whimsical Robert Byrd house on Sunset Blvd., yet never experiencing the life around her. She was not so much trapped as she was protected from a Los Angeles of the 1960s by her over-protective — somewhat eccentric — well-mannered grandparents. She lived a life that most children dream of, living in a beautiful affluent neighborhood, but she rarely ventured out from her home other than to attend school. Quite a story. Shortly after reading the review, I contacted Kathryn, who now lives in New York, and she graciously consented to an interview for this issue.

Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels Envy, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, Thicker Than Water and Enchantments. She has also written memoirs, The Kiss and The Mother Knot, a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago, a biography, Saint Therese of Lisieux, and a collection of personal essays, Seeking Rapture.

Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, and other publications.

Her latest book is On Sunset: A Memoir. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children. She is currently working on a novel.

 

INTERVIEW:

 

What made you want to write about your childhood at this time in your life? Is this something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?

It’s taken me this long to recognize how unusual a childhood I had.  I had to have raised a family immersed in American culture before I could regard my childhood in contrast.

Mine took place 100 years before I was born; it began with my grandparents’ parents, who were more alive to me than my classmates.  The unexpected child of teenagers, I was brought up by my mother’s parents, who like most old people lived in their pasts, and took me along.  They were both wonderful story-tellers, with dramatic pasts, and there were days I spent hours enthralled by my family’s history.

 

How long did it take to write this book? Was it conceived as a tribute to your grandparents?

The writing itself took about 18 months, the research preoccupied my youth—all those hours of listening to family stories.  I was lucky enough to inherit countless photographs, letters, diaries, and objects, as well—which allowed me to include illustrations, which makes for a richer experience.  Grownups like pictures, too!

It wasn’t intended as a tribute, but my feelings for them, my missing them as much as I do decades after their deaths, it was inevitable that the book turn out to be, as a couple of critics observed, a love letter.

 

You grew up in a spectacular Robert Byrd designed home — a lavish, quirky, sprawling ranch style home. I’ve seen photographs of the exterior and interior, with the lush grounds and swimming pool. It must’ve been like living in your own private oasis, hidden in the middle of Los Angeles.

It was.  I’m sure if I were to return to that garden it would seem small: it would have to, because my 50-year old memories include no property lines, Sunset, my internal landscape, is limitless.

 

There were times in your childhood when your grandparents were around to watch and raise you, and other times when you were on your own. How did you feel living in such a large home and being somewhat isolated from the rest of the world?

People comment that mine seems a lonely childhood, but I don’t remember it that way.  For me it was a mythic time of safety, over which my grandparents ruled, benign dictators.  I was a solitary child, shy and bookish—way too bookish according to my grandmother, who called me a bluestocking.  I took it as a compliment, although it was not meant as one.  I was happy left to myself and my overactive imagination.

 

You couldn’t really walk out the front door and down the street to a store, being such a busy boulevard without sidewalks. But you probably wandered around the neighborhood at some point.

I didn’t actually.  I saw the neighbor boys’ house, but there was truly no access to anyone else’s: no sidewalk, no wandering.

 

What was your school life like? Did you have close friends, a best friend? Did you enjoy spending time at your friend’s homes? What did you do on weekends? Were there pool parties at your home?

I had a best friend, Francesca, whose greatest appeal was that she was also being raised by a flighty young mother’s European grandparents.  I lived among families in which there were few divorces.  No one else had a single mother and absent father, no one but Francesca.

I didn’t like being at other children’s houses, not when I was a young child.  I never slept over; I was always scared of being left in the care of other children’s parents.

I loved school.  I was a teacher’s pet, often closer to teachers than classmates, perhaps because I spent so much time in the company of people many years my senior.  Weekends were blighted by ballet and Christian Science Sunday school, at least during the years we lived on Sunset.  I was always in the pool, and usually by myself.  By the time my grandparents were in their 70s, the pool party years were waning.

 

It seems like a lot of your outdoor activities were spent shopping and dining. Department stores were quite elegant back then. How do you remember them? What were some of your favorite restaurants?

I didn’t like shopping.  The stores were elegant indeed, and there was an abundance of customer service — too much of it as far as I was concerned. I was a tomboy who didn’t want the dresses I was buttoned into.  The salesladies struck me as part of a conspiracy to ruin my real outdoor life, largely spent climbing trees.

My grandparents were Victorian, and thus I was to be seen and not heard, excluded from any restaurant that wasn’t casual.  I remember Hamburger Hamlet, where I was allowed to leave the table to ponder the extremely odd little dioramas that hung on the wall that ascended alongside the red carpeted stairs.  One was captioned, “Get thee to a Bunnery.”  There was also Uncle John’s pancake house, where children were given black mustaches cut out of cardstock, with two prongs to insert into your nostrils.  They hurt, which was one more reason not to put one on.  I didn’t go to restaurants that required reservations.

 

Have these memories always been with you, or did some memories come back to you while writing this book?

Always.  I have damnably good recall, especially for emotionally charged situations.  My mother’s problematic and erratic presence made me a vigilant child, always paying attention.

 

Were you free to move about the city and take in the unique qualities of Los Angeles? Were you more in tune with the local culture at this time?

I was raised to form myself in opposition to American children and culture, which meant I lived in 1900.  Outside the door was the pool and the garden, inside there was Shanghai and Alaska.

 

Your grandparents also lived in a home on Hilgard across from UCLA?  When did they move into the home on Sunset Blvd.?

My grandparents worked with Robert Byrd who built the house on Sunset in 1951.  They lived there for 20 years.

 

I love this line in the book. It seems to capture the essence of your world. — “I live where I can’t be followed, where I don’t need and wouldn’t bring other children…”

I was very protective of my magic kingdom.  I knew no other child would respect its boundaries.

 

What are you working on now?

A novel set in Vienna in the 1920s,

 

Any advice for writing a memoir?

Lean toward discomfort.

 

What is your daily writing routine like? What do you do for fun and recreation?

I’m a morning person, so I am at my desk by 6 or 7.  I work until I go to yoga class around noon, as I do every day.  Then I might put in a few more hours—it depends on how full-tilt I’m going.  I’m a homebody with a night life that is currently mostly going to class, as I’ve begun psychoanalytic training.  A long-held dream I can satisfy now that my youngest is in college.

 

Are you involved with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.? How much time do you spend on the internet each day?

Not with any of them, so they take up no time.

 

What are some your favorite books currently?

At the moment it’s all Freud, Klein, Winnicott, Lacan …  Not everyone’s leisure reading, but I’m fascinated.

 

You mentioned that your grandparents worked with Robert Byrd — in what capacity? Were they friends?

My grandparents worked with Robert Byrd to design the house they wanted.  It looked like an out-sized Tudor ranch house — L.A. qua London  — with a lot of playful details.

Byrd was a renowned architect at the time, and my grandparents had the money to be extravagant. They didn’t for long, but in 1950 they could request any fancy, or luxury:

  • Windows made of bottle bottoms.
  • Actual bird houses built into the house, under the eaves.
  • My mother’s bedroom had a copper-hooded fireplace, with a delft tile hearth.
  • The living room fireplace had a wood-box built into an adjacent wall, with one door inside the house and another outside, so you didn’t have to carry wood through the house.  In Los Angeles, we burned a cord of wood every “winter.”  My grandparents hated to be cold, and the flagstone floors had hot water pipes running underneath them, so with a flip of a switch, they were soon warm beneath your feet.

 

On Sunset: A Memoir

In the tradition of The Hare with Amber Eyes and Running in the Family, a memoir of the author’s upbringing by her grandparents in a fading mansion above Sunset Boulevard — a childhood at once privileged and unusual, filled with the mementos and echoes of their impossibly exotic and peripatetic lives.

“Stunning … This is Kathryn Harrison in top form.” –Augusten Burroughs

“Transfixing… Fairy-tale fascinating, profoundly revealing of cultural divisions, and brilliantly and wittily told … Harrison’s entrancing look-back casts light on resonant swaths of history.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist 

“Evocative and tender, this delightful memoir pairs the distant past with a safe and sacred time in the author’s young life.”
Publishers Weekly

 

For more information:

http://www.kathrynharrison.com/

How to Change Your Name

By Jayelle Seeley

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Eye

by Deborah Morris

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who was that?” asked Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Uncommon Hero

by Jeffrey James Higgins

 

Mohammed Habib is a hero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

A Turkish Coffee Reader

by Ana Vidosavljevic

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

Female, Age Twenty, In Need of a Diagnosis

by Eimile Bowden

 

 

“Female, age twenty-four, experiencing nausea, sweating, and excruciating pelvic pain.”

Sounds like a burst ovarian cyst.

“Let’s do an ultrasound to look at her ovaries.”

Called it.

“Male, age forty-five, suffering from migraines, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound,

and says he feels like he’s ‘living in a movie.’”

Concussion. It’s a concussion.

“Sir, have you hit your head recently?”

“Well, I work in construction and I was-”

Thought so.

“Female, age sixty-five, discomfort while urinating, lower back pain, and-”

UTI turned bladder infection. Easy.

“Take a urine sample.”

Classic.

I love hospitals, especially a late-night trip to the emergency room. This one is no different, it brings me the same amount of twisted joy as any other unexpected hospital visit. I run my fingers over the thin sheets that cover the lumpy mattress as I listen to the symphony of machines and voices that only a medical institution can provide. I hit the jackpot with this room; it’s near one of the nurses’ stations so I can eavesdrop on my fellow patients’ cases. There is a soft knock on the wall and my curtain opens. The nurse rambles off my symptoms and I nod along with her, even though she isn’t looking for my approval.

“Female, age twenty, experiencing nausea, vomiting, migraines, and general body aches. Not pregnant, blood work looks fairly normal, but she is a little dehydrated and we should keep her on fluids.”

“It looks like a bad case of the stomach flu,” the doctor responds with a sigh.

I knew it.

“Sounds good!” I reply.

The nurse pushes her eyebrows together but doesn’t ask. The doctor leaves the room quietly with a friendly but bored smile. He’d rather be examining someone who swallowed a screwdriver or a patient with a tapeworm from an exotic vacation.

I try an old joke of my father’s to lighten the mood.

“Well, at least you don’t have to amputate.”

The nurse glances at me and presses her lips into a long thin line. This nurse doesn’t think I’m funny. I bet she thinks I’m an asshole for trying to joke about something like amputation. Maybe she’s seen people lose limbs or is an amputee herself. It’d probably make it worse if I asked about her limbs or lack thereof.

She hands over papers that have the Answer, and marks where I need to sign. The Answer paper is always explicitly clear. I can depend on its thorough explanation of the visit and diagnosis, followed by neat bulleted lists of home remedies and treatment options. There is no room for vagueness or unclear messages. There is only permanent black ink on clean white paper and I am comforted by its clarity, it’s definiteness and assuredness. I tear off my copy and hand the signed portion to the nurse who does not think I’m funny.

 

 

BIO

Eimile Bowden is a recent college graduate, pop culture enthusiast, and avid supporter of the arts. This is her first published piece.

 

 

 

Perspectives

by Deanna Mobley

 

 

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul.  I wonder how much truth is in that statement.  When I look at my six year-old daughter, her goodness and innocence reflect in her eyes and in her smile.  But when I look at my reflection, at my eyes, all I see is the tired, middle-aged woman I have become.  Time has slipped by, dragging me in its wake.  I feel as if I have accomplished little with my life other than raising my children.  I try too hard to be what everyone else wants, to meet their expectations, and I let my dreams and desires flit away.

Oddly, this is readily apparent each time I ride in the car.  I often drive in silence or listen to an audiobook with my younger daughter.  When my older daughter jumps in after school, she immediately claims the aux cable connected to the stereo.  She fiddles with her phone for a minute and music fills the car.  If my husband drives, he immediately turns on whatever music strikes his fancy.  My older sons were always quick to tune in their music.  I don’t mind most of my family’s music.  Over the years, I have even grown to like some of it.  Yet, sometimes it would be nice if they asked me what I wanted.  The only problem is, I don’t know what I like anymore.

Rediscovering oneself is a difficult task.  I am no longer the shy, awkward teenage girl that I was twenty-five years ago, tormented and teased for my hand-me-down clothing, too scared to stand up for myself.  Nor am I the young mother of twenty years ago, trying to balance an infant and a new pregnancy while working full time.  I have moved past those stages of life, but sometimes I feel as if my identity is still based on my younger selves.  It is time that I start understanding not only who I am now, but also who I want to be.

I like to run.  I started about four years ago as a way to build endurance before my black belt test.  In the winter, I usually run indoors on a treadmill.  I watch a show on my tablet or, more recently, read class assignments.  I prefer to run outside early in the morning.  Few people are out that time of day, and I enjoy the quiet time to reflect on my life.

The path I follow marks the outer edge of a park in the center of my neighborhood.  Early in the morning, the streetlamps cast circles of light on the ground.  Just as I reach the end of one circle, the next one is always there waiting for me, unless of course it’s burned out.  Then I must brave the darkened path, hoping the path is clear of debris waiting to trip me up.

As I reflect on my life and my identity, I feel as if I am running in the dark on a gravel path.  I grope along, relying on the small amount of ambient light to show the way, scurrying from one circle of light to the next.  I am not one to engage in much introspection, especially not for others’ perusal.  I prefer to keep my self-doubts private and unacknowledged while I pretend that all is well.  Yet, writing inspires me to meditate on my failings and on my achievements.

 

A few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to visit our local art museum with my six year old daughter Khrystalle.  She wanted to play in the hands-on gallery of the art museum, the Experiencenter.  I sought inspiration.   I admire artists’ ability to express their thoughts and feelings through a visual medium, and I hoped that their example would help me to find the words I needed to express my thoughts.

The theme of the Experiencenter was performing arts.  A low wood platform formed a stage against the back wall, and a wooden wall painted to resemble theater curtains was attached to it.  Wooden doors in the center opened or closed to change the stage’s scenery.  Khrystalle rifled through the costumes hanging on hooks near the stage and tried on a burgundy velvet dress with gold trim and laces in the front.  The dress flowed to the floor, and the sleeves were fitted to the elbow and then flared as they reached her hands.  With her hair in a bun, she appeared very elegant.  I told her she looked like Celie from the Castle Glower Series by Jessica Day George.  Khrystalle informed me that she was a queen and handed me a kimono and a scarf to wear.  Then she walked around the stage, lost in an imaginary world, while speaking a quiet monologue.

How easily and confidently she slipped into her chosen role, with little thought for all that was happening around her.  I, on the other hand, felt embarrassed to wear a child’s costume and slipped out of the kimono and scarf as soon as more people entered the area.  As I watched my daughter, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s statement from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.”  I play various roles in my life, depending on the circumstances and the need.  I question whether I am simply a product of my roles or if there is more to me.

 

The lower level of the art museum contains some exhibits depicting African art, as well as Native American and Oceanic art.  Among the displays are a variety of masks.  The masks vary from simple wood masks to the elaborately beaded elephant mask and costume of the Bamileke people.  Many of the masks played vital roles in the cultures’ religious ceremonies.  As I examined the masks, I considered the masks found in our society.  Masks not used for religious purposes but to hide who we truly are.  Maybe we hide behind our makeup or our clothes, or behind our economic status.  I think even the roles we fill can become our masks.  But what are my masks?

I rarely wear makeup, except maybe for a special occasion.  I dress comfortably, usually in jeans and a t-shirt, or a sweater for winter.  I am not hiding behind my clothes or my makeup.  But what about my roles?  Are they my masks?  I submerged myself into my role as a mother for many years.  I was trapped in a box.  I could stretch and feel the sides hemming me in.  Every once in a while I poked my head out, just to see if the world still existed.  For a few short months, I took an art class at a local community college, and I was free.  Then, I didn’t have enough money to continue, and I felt myself slowly sinking back into my box, this time a much smaller box.  I finally broke out of my box by taking martial arts classes and earning a black belt.

Occasionally, I retreat into my role as a karate instructor.  I did this just last week, when my nieces and nephews were visiting at my house.  One of my nephews came into the family room carrying my sheathed sword, saying that it was fake.  I immediately grabbed it and showed him that it was real, not sharpened, but still real enough to injure someone.  Then I talked to him quietly but sternly, just as I do my students that are getting into trouble.  “This is my house,” I told him.  “You may play with the toys, but do not touch the weapons or the computers without permission.  Do you understand?”  He replied, maybe a bit defiantly, “Yes.”  I looked him in the eyes and said, “Yes,ma’am?”  After a moment’s thought, he finally gave me a “Yes, ma’am.”

I wonder who I would be without my masks.  I like to imagine that I am a strong, confident woman, though maybe a little too outspoken at times.  But is that who I really am, or is it just a façade?  Maybe I am really a shy little girl that is too ashamed to admit it.  Some of the words to Delain’s song “My Masquerade” run through my mind:

Take off your mask

The world will see

The freak in you

The freak in me

I am not sure if I want the world to see my true self.  I’m not sure if I want to see my true self.  What if I am not who I think I am?

 

I am looking at things the wrong way.  My perspective is off.  A couple of years ago, I grew frustrated that the toilet in our downstairs bathroom rocked.  I knew if it continued, it would leak and rot the floor.  I called the plumber and arranged an appointment, then I called my husband.  “It doesn’t rock,” he said, “I just used it this morning.”  “Yes, it does,” I insisted.  We argued back and forth, each of us insisting we were right.  When my husband arrived home from worked, he called me into the bathroom and grabbed the sides of the toilet.  “It doesn’t rock,” he repeated.  I grabbed the back and front of the toilet and rocked it.  “Yes, it does,” I said.  We were both right.  The toilet did not rock from side to side, but it did rock front to back.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven R. Covey shares an experience from a business class in college.  The professor passed out to half the class a line drawing of an old woman.  To the other half, he passed out a line drawing of a young woman.  After they looked at the drawings for a while, he showed the class a picture that combined both line drawings.  The half of the class that were given the drawing of the old woman could only see the old woman in the picture, and likewise for those that had the drawing of the young woman.  They argued about what they saw, even going so far as to insinuate the other portion of the class was stupid.  Then someone got up and traced out the woman they saw.  Eventually, each half of the class began to see the picture from the other group’s perspective, but it took work to adjust their viewpoint.  It reminds me of Obi-Wan’s statement to Luke, “So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”

At the beginning of this essay, I stated that I felt as if I have accomplished very little other than raising my kids.  That is not entirely true; I looked at my life from only one perspective.  I only saw the toilet that rocked one way or the drawing of the old woman.    When I am honest with myself, I acknowledge that I have accomplished a great deal.  Just helping five kids grow into confident, successful beings is a great accomplishment. However, it is difficult to appreciate the full picture while bogged down in the day-to-day minutiae of living.

At the art museum, Khrystalle and I visited an exhibit on origami.  The last room of the exhibit contained a single large sculpture that initially reminded me of a distorted version of the domed jungle gyms that used to be found on playgrounds.  The sculpture was created from panels of stiff paper, maybe cardboard, riveted together.  From the end, the piece seemed almost like a snake, with undulating curves undulating reaching over my head.  At home, I looked back at a picture of my daughter and me standing in front of the piece. Instead of misshapen playground equipment, I saw wings spreading out to either side of us, as if we turned into a bird soaring through the sky.  Because I initially focused only on the details of the sculpture, I failed to recognize the beauty of the piece, just as I am unable to appreciate my life when I focus only on the parts.  I write about looking behind my roles and stripping off my masks, but now I realize that they are a part of me, a part of my identity.

 

In the middle of the glass exhibit, a curved metal framework sits on a pedestal.  An obtuse glass triangle, about six inches thick, hangs point down from the framework.    The smooth, clear outer layer of glass provides a window to see the inner beauty, bits of color embedded within.  I still see a tired, middle-aged woman peering out at me from the mirror.  But behind the exhaustion, behind the age, lurks a lifetime of experiences, bits of colored glass that help define who I am.  My experiences, my beliefs and faith, my choices, and my roles and masks work together to form my identity.  When I step back and view the whole picture, I realize that I do know who I am.

 

 

 

BIO

Deanna Mobley is the mother of five children.  She has worked as a karate instructor for five years and is also an independent study student at Brigham Young University.  She plans to eventually write stories and novels for children and young adults.  Aside from writing, Deanna also enjoys reading, knitting, and playing with her family.  This is her first publication.

 

How Author Eddy L. Harris Changed My Life

by Patrick Dobson

 

My favorite travel writer and friend, Eddy L. Harris, wrote books that changed my life. Maybe I read them at the right time or his messages hit me in the heart for who I am. Perhaps parts of his stories resembled my own life’s narrative. I think, at bottom, his writing affected me in these ways and many more.

I first ran into Harris’ second book, Native Stranger: A Black American’s Journey into the Heart of Africa, while poking around in the travel narrative section of a book store in Laramie, Wyoming. At the time I attended the University of Wyoming. I took grad school so seriously I contemplated suicide and nearly put myself into the mental hospital. I was only sober a year after having alcohol in my blood constantly for the previous sixteen years. My girlfriend had a baby, my daughter, just three months before I took off for Laramie. And there I was, a single father, baby in Kansas City, son of working-class people who prized a regular job over education, convinced I was a failure before I even started. I was frightened all the time. But I had to prove myself. I sought redemption like starved animals fight for food.

So, I overcompensated. I read hundreds of books for my studies—326, actually. “A” grades weren’t good enough. I needed to shine and I pressed myself. I was not a decent student. Focus escaped me. I gobbled text after text, absorbing vast amounts of information. But I lacked and missed the importance of the contemplative moment, that time when a scholar sits back and thinks about what he or she has read and organize it into a digestible narrative. I was like a library without a filing system.

Along with all the books I read for my studies, I read travel narratives and travel memoirs. I took stacks of them out of the university library. I swallowed them whole, one after the other. I dreamed of far-away places. Bruce Chatwin took me to the Tierra del Fuego and Australia. I learned the beauties of Afghanistan from Robert Byron. Brian Newby ushered me through Waziristan and down the Ganges. I rode the Blue Highways, traveled with Charley, and floated the Missouri River with Apikuni. Paul Theroux, that snotty and dismissive bastard, impressed the hell out of me—and I read all his books.

Then, Eddy Harris took me to Africa. It was a pivotal moment for me. Fear soaked my being. The weight of my dissolute past smothered me. Learning what adults are and what they do proved harder work than anything I’d done before. In Native Stranger, I accompanied Harris as he went from the north coast of the continent to the southern tip. Between these points, he encountered all the heartbreak and love of a place that is not one but many—lands, peoples, and, unfortunately, oppressive regimes. More importantly for me, he showed himself becoming a different, more mature, and loving person.

I burrowed into the library shelves and surfaced with Harris’ first book, Mississippi Solo: A River Quest.  The river intrigued Harris, a St. Louis native, not merely because it was the river of his youth but because it was also the river of his history. He began his trip as the Mississippi does, in the small waters in the north. The river took him into the heart of the South, where black men don’t travel the river, where white men carry guns and grudges deadly to black men. The river, he writes, carries “sins and salvation, dreams and adventure and destiny.” If Harris’ story isn’t about facing fear, doing penance, and seeking oneself, I don’t know what is. And that’s what I thought when I read the first page of Mississippi Solo. This was a book about me

Yes, I understand Eddy is black and I am white. Our upbringings could not have been more distant from one another. Our family pasts were almost opposites. I grew up in the suburbs, Eddy in inner-city St. Louis.  I possessed some advantages that Eddy did not. Eddy grew up in a gentle, loving house. Despite the violence of my childhood and the depth of my despair, I still had the privilege of degrading myself. Eddy’s relationship with his father carried him through difficult and dark moment. I don’t speak to my father. No one ever saw me at night and crossed the street.

I read as much of Harris’ work as I could get my hands on. His books South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride Through Slavery’s Old Back Yard and Still Life in Harlem, speak to me as Native Stranger and Mississippi Solo do. Here is man afraid but courageous, who knows that salvation comes only to those who seek it. They only discover they been saved by hindsight: They were delivered in the moment they stopped seeking and started living.

I’ve been lucky to meet Eddy, and I now associate the writer and his written messages with his personality. He is a good man, a kind soul, and gentle person who knows how to stand up for himself, be assertive, and command attention. He breaks through stereotypes, confounds his critics, and works all the time to remain true to himself. If he is scared, he is also courageous. He’s no one’s patsy. These things, all of them, that attract me to him. I have faith in Eddy Harris and know that his quest is a good one; not just for him, but for me and the rest of us, as well. I can call him a friend.

I am just as guilty as any white person about asking the only black guy in the room about his experience being black. To my knowledge, few Black Americans have asked white people for an all-encompassing assessment of their racial experience. In our first long conversation, I apologized to Eddy about asking the him black-guy questions. I wanted to know about him and how people treated him as a black man. Through the trials and errors of being a well-meaning and basically decent-hearted soul, I learned long ago, back in my drinking days, that a person—white, Black, Indian, Hispanic, Asian—can only tell me their experience and not that of the race. Eddy’s very conscious of being Black. He also doesn’t pretend to speak for Black people. He understands that he shares common racial experience with other Blacks, but he knows and is confident of himself as an individual struggling, working, and trying to make it on his own.

He was very understanding of me when we spoke about his Blackness. He knew that I could never know what it meant to be an outsider, the invisible man. But he entertained my questions and treated me like an equal, another writer seeking experience that would one day affect his writing. He taught me that messages of redemption, fear, sadness, melancholy, and joy, while coded differently along American racial fault lines, are universal. Being Black plays an important role in his writing. His books entail a Black man’s experience. But Eddy’s mastered the storyteller’s art. He relates tales of human emotion. His tales are American stories. That’s why his books say so much to me.

Long before I met Eddy, his writing played an important role in my life. It’s in part due to Eddy that I took off twenty years ago to walk to Helena, Montana, and canoe the Missouri River back to Kansas City. I’ve traveled extensively with my kids with the knowledge that whatever happened to us would bring us a little closer to our own redemptions. Due to his example, I wrote and published two books about my long trip and many shorter pieces about the journeys my kids and I have made. Due to his writing, too, I had the pluck to enter Ph.D. studies when I was 41, and due to his encouragement and goading, I earned that Ph.D. after long years working in other fields and doing dissertation at night when I was 52. I teach now, and often think of Eddy when standing in front of a classroom. Eddy’ example of not letting things bother him before their time has motivated me when I have had the duty and opportunity to speak in front of large crowds. Eddy doesn’t worry. He just gets up and does it. I can’t tell you how often I’ve “Eddy Harrissed” a presentation, interview, talk, or workshop I’ve led. When nervous or upset, I remember Eddy, his steady demeanor, his confidence. I take that on for myself and don’t worry about what the crowds think. I give it my best. That’s all I can do.

Eddy went back to the Mississippi twenty-five years after the journey he wrote about in Mississippi Solo. He rightly believed that his voyage would tell us more about our country, our rivers, and about being Americans. He took a talented people with him on his journey this time, including Emmy-winning cinematographer Neil Rettig, whose work has featured prominently on National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, and BBC. Joining Rettig is Emmy-winning documentary maker Mary Oliver Smith and National Geographic WILD editor, John Freeman. With their help, he produced a full-length feature about how an American man changes with time, how his perspective shifts, and how the people and the country around him transform but remain the same.

I have not seen the documentary but in snippets. Eddy’s attempting to sell the feature to a distribution company or television channel. His efforts on the film have run him to the edge of financial ruin. But he put his money to good use. The excerpts I’ve seen are professional and personal. The experts he employed on the film did their work the best they knew how. Every day, I think, this is the Eddy will sell the film and it will be available to the general public. Perhaps, some of the viewers will learn what I have from Eddy Harris. They will be better people. They will know more after the watch the film who they are, who we are as Americans.

Eddy lives in France these days. He has been able to publish in Europe, in the French language. Years ago, he found that his outlook doesn’t fit the typical Black American narrative American readers have come to expect. His success in France parallels those who have gone before him: Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. Like these Black Americans, he finds France a place where he can live outside the American racial experience. He seeks to be read as a writer and not as a Black American or merely as a Black writer.

Not only that, the French celebrate writers. He’s considered somebody because he writes. That’s all any of us can hope for. I keep thinking, well, maybe I should move to France, find myself a small village, and enjoy my status as someone who’s respected because he writes.

Eddy makes frequent trips to the United States. He still has close friends and family in his native St. Louis. He’s done residencies at prestigious universities, most recently William and Mary. He’s made speaking appearances in Kansas City and I’m arranging a workshop for him at the Writers Place, a Kansas City literary arts center. Whenever he’s in the states, he comes to Kansas City to visit me. It’s always a pleasure to have Eddy in my home with my family, for whom he has a great deal of affection. Due to our long acquaintance, he has lost his celebrity sheen with me and become a man, something I think he seeks to be with everyone.

When I think of Eddy, I can’t help but think just how he has changed my life. He encourages my literary efforts more than family, other writers, and my friends. I have the courage now to plant my ass in a chair, remain stoic, and fill the page from top to bottom. I am bold enough now to take the risk and put my writing out there for public consumption and criticism. I am braver and more spirited, not just in my writing life, but in my everyday activities. I am a better person for having Eddy Harris in my life.

 

 

 

BIO

Dr. Patrick Dobson has worked as a journalist, book editor, and union ironworker in Kansas City, MO. The University of Nebraska Press published his two travel memoirs, Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains (2009) and Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer (2015). He teaches American History, Latin American History, and Western Civilization at Johnson County Community College in nearby Overland Park, KS. His essays and poems have appeared in New Letters, daCunha, Kansas City Star, Indiana Voice Journal, Garo, JONAHmagazine, and other newspapers and literary magazines. His essays and travel pieces can be viewed at http://patrickdobson.com.

 

 

 

 

BookStop

by Susan Lloy

 

BookStop is a small independent bookstore on the main drag of an Atlantic city. The citizens are proud of it and boost that it is their only haven separate from the other conglomerates. So, when I came to sign copies of my recently published collection, I was looking forward to it. The region is noted not only for its beauty, but also for the warmness of its citizens. Still, little did I know what menace lurked within the confines of the BookStop’s compact rectangular walls?

The day was drizzly and I had consumed many cups of tea prior to my expedition. When I arrived a somewhat friendly attendant greeted me and to our surprise she had recently vacated the city which I inhabit. We discussed the power of the sea and like the tide it pulls you back. She mentioned she was happy to be back in the bosom of her kind.

I was informed they were in possession of three copies. However, the male assistant was only able to locate two. Making light of it, I made a joke and suggested someone must have pinched one. Neither of the two salespersons cracked a smile.

The two copies of my book were finally signed and the female clerk stuck author-signed labels on the front covers. I then did an about face enthusiastically awaiting the eager book browsers. I sold one copy almost immediately, yet, unfortunately the second copy was a harder go. All the while the buckets of morning tea were weighing heavy on my bladder. So as the hour ticked onward I attempted to converse with the staff,

“Gee … this second copy is a lot harder going.”

Not a word was returned and when I asked if I could use the staff bathroom as I was ready to burst, the answer was,

“It’s not for the public!”

 

I had brought along several colored copies of my book review. The review hosted a photograph of myself and generous ins and outs of this christened – successful collection. When a snooty South End lady sauntered in, I inquired if she had an interest in short fiction?

“Why yes.”

Half way down the first paragraph she tossed my review back with disgust.

“The inner lives of the lost, the lonely, and the mentally ill. I don’t think so!”

Another staff member rushed through the door of this tiny shop with a scowl that could strip paint off the wall.

 

She came barging up to the counter and growled that I never OK’d this with the manager. I replied that he had invited me to casually drop in to sign copies.

“YES SIGN NOT PROMOTE.”

“Well, isn’t that what you expect from me? To sell my books for you?”

“NO. We sell the books! If you want to promote you have to rent a room.”

“Yeah, but, there’s only one book here.”

I left with my full bladder thinking that BookStop is aptly named. These handlers of words and slayers of hearts don’t respect authors and will stop a book dead in its tracks.

“Oh hear ye fellow authors. Beware!”

 

 

BIO

Susan E Lloy has published extensively in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and the United Kingdom. A writer of short fiction her short story collection, But When We Look Closer, was recently published by Now Or Never Publishing. Her forthcoming collection, Vita, will be released April 2019. Susan lives in Montreal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW

by Linda Leigh

 

 

In April 2013, I was awarded a scholarship to SAIC (School of the Art Institute in Chicago). Unfortunately, I developed breast and lymph node cancer which I called The Blimp. School started in August, so I put off going until my treatments with chemo and radiation were complete. The school was very accommodating with this arrangement.

When 2014 rolled in I was ready to begin my life in the windy city of Chicago, and really excited about beginning a new and adventurous life. I started having large yard sales and sold most of my worldly goods and the rest went into storage. I said my goodbyes to apartment, family, friends and my cat Isabella, whom I raised from a kitten and thought was going to a good home (more about that later). After my train trip to Chicago I found a place to stay while I took care of my paper work at the school. Everything was verified that I was indeed ready to start the following week. Then a snag came the very next day. I was texted to come to the school immediately. It was discovered that my high school transcript did not have my graduation date on it and I was told without that document I could not attend. Unfortunately my high school in New York is now defunct, and the school now has an office for graduates to call and request their transcripts. At this time the school was closed and would not be open until September. Also the office would have to request info from the state to get that information for me.

Needless to say I am now homeless. Now I live in the elements. What does that mean when you don’t have immediate housing and may have to live on the streets? Actually, when I was asked by my granddaughter if I was homeless I looked at my daughter who was about to cry and said, no, I live in the elements. I then asked my daughter if this sounded better? She replied, yes. The journey will be memorable from how I got here to wherever it takes me.  Family and friends do not keep in touch nor have they come to visit. Lots to think about. But I am a very resourceful person and will definitely make the most of the situation I find myself in.  I will dance through these mirrors and windows and come through stronger and more informed.

•  •  •

A  Good Day

As I listen to a young girl’s poem or spoken word about how she got over her depression, and it being a good day, I thought back to a time that I rarely talk about — the moment I had a dark day.  Although I have never gone to the point of harming or killing myself, I do remember back in the fall of 2012 when I fell into a dark hole and could not climb out.  I actually sought help at a facility in downtown Los Angeles that a friend had recommended.  They had me do different tests and some talking and found that I was basically okay — nothing more, nothing less. But I knew it was something.

I remember it was a Tuesday in November I decided I would Love my depression, yes, I said love it like I did chocolate or a friend or a lover. When it descended upon me I told it, good to have you.  I love you, thank you for being here.  After taking a shower and getting dressed for class I walked to the door and could not open it to go out. I walked back into my room, got into bed and said, I love not having to go out, and I love you warm, cozy bed with my covers and sheets and pillows, thank you, I love being here.

I thanked my apartment and rejoiced in the fact I was in a dark hole loving it as much as I could. And finally one day after two months of this madness I realized it was gone almost as quickly as it came and that was a very Good Day.

•  •  •

Women in the Down Below settle their disputes by being overly aggressive, loud, and squabbling up in each other’s faces.  They put hands on one another.

In the Up Above angry bursts are not as confrontational but are settled by nippy, hurtful and sarcastic statements.

I listened to two young women while I was waiting for my train to arrive.  The women were both Asian and a Caucasian man.  They started talking about a co-worker who had cut and colored her hair.  Their conversation went like this “Did you see her new do?”  Asked one of the women.  The other replied,” Yes, and she was so proud of it.” First woman: “I know. I didn’t know what to say.  So I said, you got your hair cut.  I just couldn’t tell her how bad the color and cut was.” “I know,” replies second woman, “she was so enthused and happy about her hair.”  They giggled and seemed to be enjoying the moment in all its dishonesty.  I watched them and listened intently to them the whole time not caring if they noticed me watching them. I thought, what a sham.

In the Down Below, people are more intense, their anger is explosive but they are very honest in their opinions.  They may be quick to strike out at anyone at any time. At the same time there is so much more living than I’ve ever seen clothes, food, advice to get help and services.  Everyone seems to have a hustle; selling one cigarette for fifty cents, clothing they may have gotten for free goes for one dollar or more; candy and sunglasses even food … Cooking in covered and uncovered skillets. The side of buildings are used without thought for a bathroom while drugs are peddled freely on almost every corner and in front of buildings including the Police station. And trust me, no one does anything about it.

Everyone has a story, some are more horrifying than others. Like the women who’ve told me about their mothers and/or fathers that molested them as children, then put them on the street at eleven years of age for prostitution or the mother that gave her daughter up because she was too dark. All types of people live on Skid Row — educated college professors, business persons, chefs, lawyers, accountants, singers, actors, and of course the Vets, as well as the less educated or non-educated.

At the URM (Union Rescue Mission) where I now reside, I am treated with respect by the other women and the director. Actually, she did something for me she never did for anyone else. I had some boxes that needed to go into storage, and she let me leave them in her office and she personally put them in storage for me.  The women who ran the storage area also made sure my things were not rummaged through, and because my hair was starting to grow back from the chemo they would call me Mrs. Cosby (because of the color). I sleep on the fourth floor. It is like a large dormitory for women, about one hundred fifty, and you are assigned a bed which you get to sleep in every night if you follow the rules.  At night I had women who would ask to sit on my bed and tell me stories about how they were treated as children. Like the mothers and fathers who raped them at very young ages and then put them on the streets to sell themselves at eleven so their parents could have money for the Candy Man.  This revelation was shocking for me because I grew up in a very loving neighborhood where the children were monitored and loved. So this information was new and I began to look at black people in a different awareness always thinking we as a people would never treat our children with little or no respect or regard for their welfare. Another woman revealed to me that she was given up at birth because she was born too dark to a mother that was very fair and had three children before her that were the same color as her mother.  She told me how they were reunited when their mother was dying and asked her to help with the funeral cost and for her church to bury her mother.  And she did even though they, her siblings never communicated with her except at this time.

This is a humorous event that took place at URM, I think so anyway. A young woman comes in and announces she is going on a date with a gentleman she just met and who is really fine, well-mannered and dresses really nice. This young woman is getting ready for her big hot date. She puts on a beautiful frock (the women here have great taste and are very fashionable) and stilettos — yes, they do wear them in The Down below. Her face is made up to perfection, as well as her hair, set in long waves that cover her back, looking like a movie star. She adds one final touch, some bling earrings that dazzle and blind the eyes, then picks up her purse and exits the room. To our amazement, and it’s only been one hour, she is back at the URM taking her shoes off. A friend of hers asks what happened? The young woman starts to tell us that this guy gave her his address, and as she is walking by the tents on Skid Row, she finds it. A Tent, she exclaims, with an address and he is there waiting for her.  With a flourish, he flips open the flap and invites her in where to her amazement are two lawn chairs which she commences to sit on.  She notices that he has two coolers. He asks, “would you like something to drink?” She replies, “yes.”  He opens a cooler with drinks and offers her one which he opens and gives to her.  He then asks her ,“are you ready for dinner?” She hesitantly says yes again, and he opens the other cooler and offers her a sandwich (I don’t know what kind because she never says.) So she eats and drinks and thanks him for a lovely evening and leaves soon after.  After she has lamented about her tale of events she exclaims, at least he lives in a luxury tent and not a pup tent.

There is a white woman that lives on the streets and comes to the DWC called the Judge.  She is filthy and is foul smelling and even more foul with her mouth and manners.  When she enters the building the woman in charge of showers that day immediately takes her and allows her to have an emergency shower.  The shower monitor then rummages through the bins of clothing donations and finds her decent clothes to put on so she is ready to have breakfast.  This woman I am told was once a judge in New York and that someone had killed her whole family while she watched, and then they raped her and left.  I often wonder what she had done to make someone that crazy to do that to her.  I see her all the time now and she looks worse than when I first saw her, almost sickly.

Another white woman that comes in is from a very wealthy family. Being here is an eye opener to say the least, everything takes longer to get done, whether it is housing, medical, or transportation etc.

•  •  •

I am really tired today. I was up at four o’clock this morning. I tried to go back to sleep, but now it is five-thirty.  I take a shower, which I do every morning and evening, especially down here. The filth is so appalling that I feel grimy from walking in the streets of downtown. It’s like if I don’t get that energy off of me I will drown in it.

I am dressed and skipping out the door to the Downtown Women’s Center where I volunteer cooking for over one hundred and fifty women, and I can boil three hundred eggs perfectly with a golden yolk. Actually I went through their Set to Bake program. A group of us baked the goods that went into the DWC’s café.  The program got cancelled and Chef Carlos, told Miss Faye, the director of the day center, that he wanted Theresa, Briana and I to work with him.  When breakfast is over I will catch the bus to The Up Above, Alhambra is where I used to live before coming down here.  I will put some items in my storage so my room at the Russ won’t be overcrowded.  I try to keep things minimal, so far good job.

It is November the weather is still warm on my way home from the DWC.  I can’t believe how time has flown. There is a wedding taking place this evening at the San Julian Park. The cleaning crew has been here all day preparing the park for this momentous occasion.  I guess when you are in a community it can become your home.  My understanding is that the bride and groom met here on Skid Row.

It is seven o’clock at night, the festivities are about to start. I am watching out of the bathroom window of the second floor. A real minister is going to perform the ceremony and the guests are strutting into the park and take their seats at tables set up for this special day.  The groom has arrived with his best man, and the music has started playing. It is soft and mellow.  A songstress steps up to the stage to sing. She has a beautiful voice, full and rich.  The song ends and a pause is felt and walking music for the bridal party begins, six bridesmaids with escorts approach, very elegant.  I wish I had a camera, no one would believe this.  Oh, how sweet, two flower girls with a ring bearer come forward.  A long dramatic pause as the bride arrives and makes a spectacular entrance on the arm of a fine looking older gentleman. It could be her father, uncle, brother, or could be a friend.  Does not matter she is glowing and exquisite — yes exquisite.  It is nearing the end of the ceremony. Bride and groom exchange vows and kiss… The food is catered and smells delicious. The band is setting up, yes, a real band. The party is about to begin.  I whisper to the couple, may God bless you and may your marriage be strong especially in the Down Below. All I can say is this bride has marvelous taste.

•  •  •

This morning I got myself ready — went to the beach. While there I studied for the Food Handling test that was to take place later this week.  It is warmer than I thought it would be.  I saw a beach chair by itself and took it.  The owner, an older woman in her eighties, came back and claimed it. She was really miffed.  I laughed to myself. I knew it was wrong to take that chair.  Saw a sea lion and heard its cries.  Were the waves too harsh?

•  •  •

It is Saturday, February 28, 2015.  This is the last day of the month. This is my six month anniversary for being in the down below.  Still waiting for housing I was promised to move from the Russ to the Rosslyn Hotel.  Leslie, the SRO coordinator, told me that I am moving on January 23.  She informed me that my background check had been lost and they have to submit a new one.  I have waited three more weeks and now it is February 24. Finally, I have met with the  Housing Authority and I am told everything looks good.

I cannot believe that I have been living in the Down Below for two years, so much has happened in a short span of time. People come and go like soft waves, whispering as they touch the sand on the beach, or the touch of fingertips that barely meet.  Here in the Down Below life appears to be tenuous at best. I have my apartment at the Rosslyn Hotel. It was such a big deal to move in here and it turns out not so big.

Walking the downtown section of Los Angeles CA, from Fifth and Main streets to Fifth and San Pedro, can be an experience unto itself which I try to do very Monday, Wednesday and Friday on my trek to the L.A.M.P. On any given day the streets from San Julian to San Pedro can be clean or littered with garbage, urine and or excrement and the odor can knock you into space. Hell you might even see a person you thought was asleep but was really dead.  Sometimes the streets are overcrowded with tents with more women and families are moving in every day and Asians soon will be the new majority in the Down Below.

•  •  •

This morning my sister-in-law Nellie, died from a rare form of cancer, she was sixty-four years of age.  She leaves behind my brother, her husband Albert g. Leigh III, her son Albert G. Leigh IV, his wife Olga and their three children Dyanna, Albert G. Leigh V and Peter. Christina Leigh Rueckner her daughter, and her husband Franz their two children Karsten and Liezel and her youngest son Brian Leigh, his wife Charlotte and their two children Tatiana and Tyler

When my father Albert G. Leigh, Jr.  made his transion, his six children realized we were now the front line — meaning, the next to go.  We also speculated on what would happen if one of us made our transition.  And what it would feel like.  Never did Nellie cross our minds. She was not even on the radar.  She being always healthy and in control. it took all of us by surprise.  How appropriate (relevant) she left on Valentine’s Day with her loving family surrounding her.  Good bye Nellie you are much loved and in our hearts you remain.

My heart is sad.
I missed you before you even took flight.
I knew it was inevitable,
But I prayed for a miracle.
But the heavens wanted you more.
Your job for now was through maybe a lesson or two.
You have made me wake-up to the fact that
tomorrow is now.
Living in the moment and doing what is needed for
me right now—not then, not later.

•  •  •

                                          Nellie
My heart is sad
            I missed you, before you even took flight.
                        I
                                    Knew it was inevitable.
            I prayed for a
Miracle.
                        But the heavens wanted you
                                    more.
            Your job,  for now is through.
Maybe,
                        a lesson too.
            You
                        made me wake up to the
                                    fact
            that tomorrow is
                                    now.
                        Living in the moment
            doing
                        what is needed
                                    right now
and
            Certainly not later.

(poem done two different ways)

 

For the past three weeks I have been sick with a bladder infection. The first two weeks I had no idea what I had.  Week one could not get out of bed, and the mere energy of the television made me weak as if my energy was being pulled through it.  My favorite shows on PBS are the mysteries and they were a no go.  Very interesting those electrical currents from the television and what they can do to you.  The second week I thought I had contracted African trymarosamiasis.  I somehow mustered up all my strength and dragged myself to see the doctor and found out I had, a bladder and intestinal infection.  Antibiotics were prescribed and the infection cleared up.  I could not even visit the L.A.M.P. and work on my projects which is where I had my first attack of being sick.  The second attack occurred at the Star Apartments’ art show.  Interesting, in this condition I could not see anything surrounding me in this environment — not clutter, dirt, grime or the people piled up in their tents. They are all a blur on my lenses.

In my listless state of consciousness all I thought about was what is really important to me and realized I really wanted to teach meditation. o I proposed this idea to Hayk at the L.A.M.P. and to La Shalle at the Rosslyn where I live. Both classes are scheduled to start very soon. I have recovered from and have a clearer vision and more vitality to do this work.  I am encouraged to move forward and to perform the Forgiveness Meditations to the Earth at the beach.  I have schedule one for the 26th of June at nine o’clock in the morning. Posted it on Facebook. I’ll see what happens.  I am really looking forward to this event.

•  •  •

Another thing that has taken place in my coma-like-state is that I realize my family has never supported me in my endeavors, although I have been there for them.  I am the constant one that makes arrangements to go to everything, including things that their friends might be involved in.  Well, I vowed that I would not attend my sister’s birthday party since she has not come to visit me — not one time.

Saturday, June 18, has arrived. I’m going to the party dressed and heading out the door to catch the Gold Line to Pasadena.  It is somewhat overcast today but warm.  I arrive in Pasadena. It is sprinkling. I’m cheered up even more.  My sister sent Uber to pick me up. We make it to Altadena and it is raining. She lives next to the mountains.  I walk into her house and the setup is magnificent, and my niece has catered the event.  There are so many people I haven’t seen in twenty to thirty years, and they had their children and grandchildren with them.  I had the best time. I am glad I did not sit this one out being stubborn and missing this glorious day.  There were tents set up in case the sun was beaming on us.  It turned out very useful for all this rain.  A trio played music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. People danced while the children got in the pool on huge swans and flamingos floats.  Close to two hundred people came to wish Gloria a happy birthday.  It really shows how much love she has given over the years to so many people.  Thank you for a wonderful day and evening.

•  •  •

Another busy day.  Arrived at the doctors’ office at 7:35 this morning. I hope to be out of here by eleven I have a poetry class in the building next door.  It is now 8:30. I came early because if you don’t you may never be seen by the doctor.  So many people in the waiting room, which is too small for the amount that are here today.  Oh, God, kids are crying and cell phones blare their crazy obnoxious sounds.  There’s a sign that says, no cell phones — turn them off. Otherwise, you have loud and argumentative conversations clamoring all over the room, especially here in the Down below.

Finally, numbers are being called. Oh, yes, you are given a number in order to be checked in.  Of course someone will come and get you take your vitals.  Hoping my weight reflects how my clothes are fitting a lot looser.  It is nine o’clock and I am still sitting, waiting, hoping I am out by eleven. I will be fine. Cheeze they have only called one person’s number and I am number 13.

•  •  •

On July 4, 2016, I awaken several times during the night. Damn those folks with their fireworks. Wasn’t it enough that City Hall had a big splash?  I tried going back to sleep and awoke at 8:30am.  I am late. wanted to leave house at 7:00am to go to the beach.

Oh well, slow start should I go or should I stay?  That is the question. Go get ready open the door step into hallway.  Door closes and locks. That settles it. I make way to the elevator today. It is the express, no stops to other floors.  I have to get out of Down Below, it’s smothering. Up Above is cleaner and cooler.  I make my way to Metro 7th street station and find I have to wait twenty-two minutes for Santa Monica train, and this is not even the weekend. It is 10:00am, and wait, oh good, they are changing the Long Beach train and changing it to Santa Monica, now all those people have to leave the train. Too Bad.

How am I feeling? Not sure I am ready for this. Great, a young black man is arguing with his sister on his cell phone … who wants to hear this crap? Not me! Who cares? He doesn’t have a car and wants someone to watch his children, and man, is he giving this person hell.  Thank God, he and his girlfriend finally depart and it is QUIET!

Okay, here you are — end of the line — Santa Monica Pier. New question: Do I stay here, or catch the 534 bus to Will Rogers Beach? Okay, stay — experience something new in this part of the world. Found a spot to enjoy my time here.

Wow, it’s getting crowded already. Did I make the right choice?  I am finding I do not want to be around a lot of people today, and it seems they are all in this one space near me.  This is a big piece of seashore, why are they converging here?  I am trying to relax and enjoy this moment, but it is busy here. A Mexican woman, brightly dressed, shouts in a  sing song voice — Mango, Mango. Oh man, another vendor, this time it’s a man shouting buy his umbrellas and beach pails and small surfer boards.

What time is it — can I really stomach this?  Relax and breath, that is what I tell myself. At least you are not sitting in that heavy energy in the Down Below.  What’s going on with you? I have to ask. Reflect on what you are feeling. Do you feel like your space has been invaded? I chuckle. Okay, look at all the people arriving now.  Wow, the waves are bigger and people are having fun and enjoying the waves thundering over them, laughing.  The children’s laughter washes over me like the waves they gleefully jump into.

I notice this woman whom I saw earlier with her partner.  The toddler with her is tentative going into the water. She gently leads him in and smiles.  I watch. She is heavy in weight with many tattoos.  Earlier I think, did I judge her? I watch her now and feeling much emotion that the people here are just in the moment not caring about what the television or other media say they should look like or be.  Somewhere deep I feel a connection with humanity so profound it moves me to write, least I lose this ennui.  How beautiful we are when for a few precious moments on, one is thinking about how we are big booty and bust; at this time with the waves thundering against their wonderful bodies they are in the thrill of the moment. I need to get away from the Down Below more often. The reflection they generate is not full and complete. Ha ha, my imposed deadline to leave the beach at 12:00pm has now come and gone.  I am more relaxed now and not ready to leave.

I walk on the sand, happy that the sun is not bearing down and scorching the earth. I walk-on.  Actually, feels kind of cool.  On the train ride back I watch my thoughts and I really don’t want anyone sitting next to me, so I scoot my bag over just enough to make it uncomfortable for someone to sit. Space issue again?  Finally arrive at 7th street. Why am I rushing almost like? (Need to find word).

Trying to get home out of the streets of the Down Below.  Hush, hush, your minds take your time breath.  I noticed the streets are cleaner; what, no urine smell? I glide, taking in my environment.  Today is a good day.  There is peace inside of me.  Lunch is calling what should I eat.

 

Children run to
Thundering waves
Their laughter and the sound of the surf
Are One

•  •  •

Children rush to the water
            Thundering
         Waves washes over their
            Bodies
         Resounding laughter mingles
            Laughter
         Rushing sounds of the waves
         children’s voices become one
            and
         there is tranquility
         inside of me

 

 

 

BIO

Linda Leigh was born in Queens, New York. She enjoys creative writing and poetry. Ms. Leigh now resides in Los Angeles and is an accomplished artist, her works are displayed throughout California. She is also very involved in Social Justice in her community.

 

 

 

 

 

—————————————————————————————————————————

NEW SERIES FROM

The Skid Row Zine Writing Group

Ivy Pochoda Introduction

 

In 2009 I moved from my hometown of Brooklyn to Los Angeles, a city that is still both familiar and unknowable to me. Accustomed to walking or riding the subway, I found I couldn’t visualize the city’s shape even as I moved along its streets and freeways. I still can’t. But driving to and from my Echo Park apartment back then I was struck by something else that surprised me: all the ways in which people lived out of doors—the tent encampments, permanently parked camper vans, makeshift shelters of many materials all improvised for living in the elements. They made Los Angeles, amidst its evident wealth, even more mystifying, gave it a texture I hadn’t expected, a secret soul.

Two years later I moved just east of Downtown to the Arts District which was just beginning its rapid gentrification. Skid Row sits between Downtown and the Arts District. As I drove or rode my bike past its sprawling community of tents, shelters, medical and social services, murals, missions, and churches the initial impression of chaos eventually gave way to a pattern of communities each with its own character. Here were activists; here were artists; and here were the hopeless and the helpless in various associations of their own. I began to see the shape and depth of the neighborhood though I could not have imagined how much more it would mean to me one day.

One evening I emailed the Lamp Arts Program, a multi-discipline studio affiliated with The People Concern, one of Los Angeles’s largest social services agencies, and offered to give a course in creative writing. I did not know what to expect when I turned up for my first class. Would the participants be lucid, intelligent, capable? The truth is they were all of these things and more. Each of them was on a journey and they each showed up with a story to tell whether it was drawn from experience or summoned by wild inspiration. Their work is remarkable—it’s profound, smart, and quite often funny.

We meet once a week. (I am not always in charge of the sessions these days as some of the participants have stepped up to run the class.) We do warm up exercises and in class writing assignments. Some participants are working on longer projects: chapbooks, one-act plays, essays, and short stories. And out of these meetings, we formed Skid Row Zine—an independent magazine dedicated to the voices and stories of people living in and around Skid Row.

 

Our first piece from the Skid Row Zine writers group:

UP ABOVE and the DOWN BELOW by Linda Leigh

 

Ghost Girl

by Emmie Barron

 

 

Do you ever have those moments when you wish you could freeze time, if only for a little while? Moments when you just feel so completely happy and secure and whole? These moments come and go for me; what comes in between are raging storms, storms with a numbing chill that destroy me from within.

There are days I can’t get out of bed. I’m irritable and empty. My dirty laundry sits in a heap on the floor, and my garbage reeks from the takeout that’s been sitting in it for days. My body has no energy, no purpose. In my moments of clarity, however, I finish my homework, clean my room, update my family on my life–all things I should be doing everyday, or, at least, more often than I do.

My family doctor first diagnosed me with major depressive disorder around December of my sophomore year of high school, the year I lost thirty pounds in the span of a month. Busy with their own lives, my friends didn’t notice I only ate two carrots for lunch. They also didn’t notice when I left the lunch table early, without a word, and sat in the bathroom for twenty minutes. Or maybe they just didn’t care.

“I want you to take ten milligrams of Lexapro every night before going to bed,” my doctor had told me, putting me on my first antidepressant. “You may experience some side effects, such as increased tiredness, dizziness, or headaches. This is just your body adjusting to the medication. If it doesn’t go away, please give me a call.”

In March of my sophomore year, I told my mom I wanted to kill myself. That was only the beginning of a downward spiral.

“Oh, Sweetie,” my mom said, frowning, looking up at me from her iPad that probably had Facebook pulled up on it. “Don’t say that.”

My family didn’t understand. They tried to, though. My dad had a lot of social anxiety as a kid, and he always told me stories about how he wasn’t one to go to parties and would rather be alone in his room, listening to music. He tried to relate his own experiences to mine, which I always appreciated, but it’s impossible to understand what depression feels like unless the person has firsthand experience.

Sometimes I’d get into a depressive episode and remain in bed all day, not even getting up to eat. My room always looked like a tornado came through–dirty clothes littered the floor because I couldn’t even muster the energy to throw them down the laundry chute. I didn’t even bother making a path out of my clothes, electronics, and art supplies to get to my bed; I just stepped on my belongings in the hopes that I wouldn’t break anything.

My walls were covered top to bottom in random shit I’d collected since middle school, including posters of different bands, drawings I’d done, and a giant tapestry of New York City. I stared at the tapestry often, imagining what it’d be like to live there. I’d wanted to write books ever since I became an avid reader in fourth grade, and my dream had always been to be a famous, successful author. Writing was an escape of mine, along with art and skating.

When I was motivated, I occasionally worked on my artwork or writing. I had too many works-in-progresses to possibly choose one to finish, so I usually just started new stories and drawings. I’d done watercolor paintings since I was ten, but lately I was getting into pencil-drawing portraits. The few that I actually finished and didn’t hate were randomly pinned to the walls of my bedroom; the rest were scattered across my floor. My writing stayed on my laptop–I didn’t even let my closest friends see any of the stories I’d start to write and then abandon.

Sometimes during my depressive episodes, my brother, Ethan, would peek his head into my room, saying, “Gem. Dinner’s ready” or “Gem. Wanna watch a movie?” Sometimes, he would just come in, fart, and leave. I drew little caricatures of him, with giant fart clouds coming from his butt.

My mom and Ethan were similar in the sense that, to them, depression was this daunting presence far off in the distance. It was something they knew existed, but that was about it. It was scary and alien to them. They were the type to always be cheerful, and when they got in a bad mood, they could just snap out of it. It was rare to see my mom crabby.

My dad and I, however, seemed to be constantly battling our inner demons, though mine were much different from his. I never really understood what inner turmoil plagued my dad; I only knew it wasn’t quite depression.

I tried to explain how I felt to my family, but it was difficult. How could I explain feeling everything and nothing at the same time? It felt as though no one could ever possibly understand. I needed someone to know how much I was hurting, though, because I couldn’t describe it, or maybe I kind of didn’t want to. I thought I was a burden, as if my problems weren’t significant enough. My parents didn’t help when they’d condescendingly say, “Oh, Gemma, your life isn’t bad. There’re people that have it much worse.”

Contrary to popular belief, people with depression aren’t constantly depressed and don’t walk around with our symptoms on display. We laugh. We perform well in school. We crack jokes. We participate in extracurriculars.

We’re coping.

Going into my senior year of high school, I felt secure. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but enough, and I got involved in clubs and activities. Being one of the only graduating students on my figure skating team, I got more ice time at competitions. There was something about being out on the ice alone that helped me forget about everything else. It made me feel alive. Skating was one of my solaces, and I was happy enough.

“One more year,” my parents would say, because they knew I needed to get out of Gladstone, a town of 5,000 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was pretty sure most people who lived there were delusional. It was the only explanation as to why so many adults in their twenties, thirties, and even forties cared so much about high school football. Plus, Gladstone seemed to produce a lot of racists. It was a town that praised Donald Trump and called gay people “faggots” as if they didn’t realize people who aren’t straight and white still deserve basic human rights. Most people who grew up in Gladstone never left, or if they did, they ended up coming right back.

On my first day of senior year, I curled my long, black hair to frame my apple-shaped face. I played with makeup a lot over the summer, having finally gotten my horrible acne under control. My eyebrows were filled in and my wings were pointed to perfection. My skinny 5’2 frame that had been recovering from my eating disorder was now filled out more. I could almost properly fit into cute dresses that desperately clung to my small but actually existent boobs.

It was a tradition in my family to get a photo of my brother and me on our way out of the front door on our first day of school, but this year it was only me; my brother, Ethan, who looked absolutely nothing like me, with his short blond hair, husky build, and long, straight nose, was sleeping in; his community college classes didn’t start until later. As we got older, our pictures changed along with our physical similarities: we went from hugging, to holding hands, to smiling and standing apart, to not even smiling.

That day, I smiled, while my mom cooed, “Gemma, you look so cute! Is it okay if I post this one to Facebook? Your aunt would love to see it. You’re gonna have such a good year. I just know it.”

My mom and I looked very similar, save for her bobbed brown hair. Our personalities were starkly different, however; I was quiet, reserved, and overthought everything, while my mom was loud and confident.

I thought I was doing okay. Getting out of bed wasn’t a huge challenge; I was eating full meals and hanging out with my friends and feeling whole. I thought this was my moment of clarity.

On Friday, October fifth, a shift occurred. It was silent but heavy and unexpected.

I went to the homecoming dance, the only one in my group without a date. My hairdresser gave me an intricate updo she claimed made me look like “a college girl,” and I did my makeup more dramatic than usual. My thighs and butt were strong from figure skating, so I wore a tight, black two-piece dress that revealed my belly button piercing.

“Hurry up,” my brother said through a fake smile as my mom snapped pictures of us together. My mom said it’d be nice to get some pictures of the two of us before I went off to college, although I hadn’t even applied anywhere yet. She and my dad had high expectations for me.

I drove myself to dinner. My friends and I ate at a small family restaurant.

“Gem, you look so good!” my friend, Jane, cried when I walked inside.

“Thanks. So do you,” I responded with a smile.

Jane was there with her boyfriend, Logan. Jane had been my friend since before I was in preschool. She was a small thing with flawless, pale skin, a tiny bird-like nose, and huge brown eyes that made it seem like she was constantly looking into your soul. Her brown hair was cut in a pixie-style, and she wore a vintage-looking lace dress. Jane was smarter than most people at our school, and she knew it. Logan was a small yet muscular guy with shaggy brown hair and bad acne. We were all in the same calculus class.

My other friend, Amanda, was also there with her boyfriend, Josh. Amanda and I went way back, too. She was the heaviest of the three of our small group, but arguably perhaps the prettiest, having long, blonde hair and striking blue eyes. She bounced from boy to boy, each one shittier than the last. I’d advise her not to talk to a guy, that he was only going to hurt her, but she’d ignore me, and I’d wait with an available shoulder for her to cry on when her relationship with the jerk would inevitably implode. It was a familiar cycle. In secret, Jane and I talked about how neither of us liked Amanda’s current boyfriend.

My friends were safe. They weren’t anyone I needed in my life, especially not at that time, but I got comfortable. Making friends wasn’t something I was good at.

When the waitress came to take our order, I said, “I’ll have the grilled chicken salad with Italian dressing on the side.”

“You need to order a burger, Gem. Put some skin on those bones!” Amanda joked. “You’re so skinny.”

“I don’t wanna be bloated later.” I forced a laugh, pointing to my exposed belly. To be fair, my friends didn’t know that I was in recovery from anorexia. Whenever someone joked about my weight, I just laughed. What else could I do?

“Gem, remember that time…” Jane started, but had to stop because she was laughing too hard to get her words out. “Remember…when we went to the buildings and you painted ‘ass juice’ all over?”

“Yes! Wow.” I started laughing.

“The buildings” were what we referred to as these abandoned buildings in Gladstone that overlooked Lake Michigan. They used to be offices for an insurance company or something boring like that and had been abandoned since the fifties. Jane, Amanda, and I would go there together in the summer to spray paint profanities in pretty purples and pinks. A lot of the locals would go there to smoke weed or get drunk. A fire pit had actually been moved inside one of the buildings. It was technically trespassing, but the cops never seemed to give a shit. It was amazing the things kids found to do in their free time in a town with no shopping mall and three McDonald’s.

“Remember when I spelled my name wrong?” Amanda said, giggling. Amanda often joked about not being smart. She felt that since Jane and I always got straight A’s and she didn’t, it automatically made her stupid.

“At least you didn’t forget your name one time during roll call,” Logan said. Jane laughed so hard she snorted.

We reminisced about the past summer, ate, chatted about classes, and stressed about college applications. I watched them talk to their boyfriends. The only time Josh acknowledged my presence was when he laughed at my joke about wanting to take shots of bleach instead of going to calc on Monday.

After we finished, I drove myself to the dance. It was held in the small cafeteria of our high school, which consisted of about 500 students. I walked in, paid $10, and immediately smelled B.O. and felt the vibrations of the speakers that blared out overplayed pop music. Uptown Funk, possibly the most annoying song ever created, started playing as I sat down at a table, waiting for my friends and their boyfriends. If you freaky, then own it. Don’t brag about it. Come show me.

I watched bodies gyrate against one another on the makeshift dance floor. Our school wasn’t known for throwing classy dances.

Jane and Logan eventually arrived, sitting across from me.

“Gem, come dance with us!” Jane insisted, trying to pull me up from the table.

Looking out onto the dance floor, I saw Amanda and her notoriously douchey boyfriend grinding against each other. She was screaming along to the song, while Josh’s face was expressionless as he held her ass and danced slightly offbeat. I remained sitting.

During the slow songs (“Bad Day,” “Sorry,” “She Will Be Loved,”) I didn’t get asked to dance despite desperately wanting some rando to come up and awkwardly ask, “Hey, uh, you wanna maybe…dance with me?” and him grabbing my hips too low, swaying to the music as though we actually liked whatever terrible song came on next.

I wanted to be noticed.

It was some weird, perhaps Midwestern, tradition to end every dance with the song “Cotton-Eye Joe.” So, as soon as I heard “If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe” blast through the speakers, I headed straight for the door. My friends were nowhere to be seen–Jane and Logan had presumably left to have romantic car sex, while Amanda and Josh were probably off somewhere breaking up again.

I grabbed my jacket off the coat rack near the entrance. As I was walking outside, the person in front of me let the door slam in my face. Whatever. While zipping my jacket to protect my bare stomach from the chilly U.P. fall air, someone’s shoulder slammed into me. I caught my balance, but my phone slipped out of my pocket and landed face-down on the cement.

The guy who walked right into me didn’t say a word; he kept walking, hand-in-hand with some chick. I didn’t recognize either of them; they were probably underclassmen.

“Great,” I muttered, picking up my phone with a new large crack across the screen. Was I fucking invisible?

Walking to my junky red Pontiac Grand Prix, I blinked back tears. I sat in my car with the radio off for about twenty minutes, staring at nothing, thinking one of my friends would come find me or text me. Nobody did.

The parking lot had mostly cleared out, except for those underclassmen who were still waiting for their parents to come pick them up. I drove off feeling numb. I imagined what it’d be like if I wasn’t me, if I were one of the pretty girls who always got asked to dance and whose friends cared enough about her to send a text, letting her know what they were doing or to see if she was even okay.

I wondered what it’d feel like to be an actual whole human being, not some ghost everyone could walk right through.

When I got home, my parents were already in bed; my brother was probably out somewhere getting trashed with his girlfriend.

I grabbed a Bud Light from Ethan’s secret stash–my first beer–and any pill bottles I owned. It felt weird–I wasn’t hysterical or anything. My eyes were dry; my mind was clear. It was a moment of clarity, a moment when I saw everything as it was. Rather, how I thought it was.

Who needed to learn calculus? Who needed to go to college to get some pointless degree? I didn’t want to get stuck in this cycle of constantly doing what I thought I should be doing, or what my parents wanted me to be doing instead of what I actually wanted to do. How would I ever make it to New York? I was just some Nobody from a town that produced a bunch of other Nobodies. And we all say we’re gonna go on to do great things, but you know what happens four, five years down the road? We end up right back where we started.

I opened the first pill bottle, pouring the contents out onto my bed. Lexipro, ten milligrams. Doing the same with the other bottles, I then counted out all the pills I had: seven Xanax, twelve Lexipro, six Nyquil, and three Vicodin.

My hand trembled as I reached first for the Xanax. I popped one into my mouth, chasing it with the beer. I grimaced at the taste. I swallowed another. Another. I started to swallow a few pills at once until I realized there were no more on my bed.

I wish I knew exactly what I was feeling at this point. Mostly lonely. But, honestly, being alone and feeling alone are two very different things; the only thing worse than being alone is being surrounded by a bunch of people and feeling alone. In a fucked up way, I felt at peace.

Crawling into bed, I pulled my comforter up tight to my neck and stared at the blue ceiling. The intro to Cotton-Eye Joe was still stuck in my head from hearing it at the dance, a strange contrast from I’d just done.

I stared at my New York tapestry for a while, my last thought being, I’ll never make it there, before I eventually drifted off into unconsciousness.

***

I couldn’t open my eyes. I tried, but I was trapped. My mind was fuzzy. Finally my eyes cracked open slightly. Everything was blurry. I couldn’t move, so I just fell back into a sleep-like state.

At about 2:00 P.M. that Saturday I was finally able to get out of bed. My dad was at the papermill because he was on call for work that weekend, and my mom had gone grocery shopping. I didn’t know where my brother was. My vision was still blurry. I stumbled down the stairs and into the living room like a drunk.

Flopping onto the couch, I tried to figure out whether what I was experiencing was real or a dream. My entire body seemed to be shaking. The gravity of what I’d tried to do hadn’t hit me yet.

When my mom came home, she saw me passed out on the couch. “Gem, what do you want me to make for dinner?” she asked, gently nudging me awake.

Seeing the look in my eyes, my mom immediately asked me what was wrong. “Don’t be mad,” I started in a small voice, “but I did something really bad.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I … I took some pills,” I said quietly.

“Your … Lexipro?”

“All of them.”

“What?” My mom was in denial for a little while, but deep down I knew that she knew exactly what I meant.

“And my Xanax.” Seeing the look of horror on her face, I paused. Then, I said in an even smaller voice, “The Vicodin, too. And Nyquil.”

My mom cried a lot that day, but my eyes remained dry.

“You could’ve died,” she half-sobbed, half-scolded me.

“I know.”

By seven o’clock that night, my body had made a relatively full recovery. I still felt numb, but I could see and walk properly. It was as though nothing had even happened.

My dad got home a little while later, and immediately sensed something was wrong. From the living room, where I stared at the TV without actually watching whichever HGTV program was on, I heard my parents whispering about me.

“Are you serious?” my dad yell-whispered to my mom. “Jesus Christ.”

My dad came into the living room a moment later and sat next to me on our squishy leather couch. “Gem…” He sighed and ran a hand through his thin, graying hair. “Gem, why’d you do that?”

“Do what?”

“You know what I’m talking about.” My dad looked much older than fifty in that moment. His worry lines seemed to be accentuated.

“I … I don’t know.”

“Did you want to kill yourself, Gemma?” he asked.

“Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

I paused before saying, “I mean, yeah. Yes.”

“Gemma, I want you to know how much we love and care about you. I wish you would’ve told us you were feeling bad again.”

“I’m sorry.” I wished I would’ve felt more sorry.

“We’re gonna get in touch with your therapist again,” my dad told me. I hadn’t been to therapy since sophomore year.

“Okay.”

My mom made spaghetti for dinner because she knew that was my favorite. I made an effort to eat to please my mom, but it was as though I couldn’t taste anything.

Ethan got home at around nine. I figured he’d want to play his Xbox on the TV in the living room, so I got up and went downstairs. Our basement was arguably the creepiest place in the house because of the seven mounted deer heads that stared at you with lifeless eyes. I sat on the couch in front of the TV, looking at my reflection in the black screen. My eyes looked almost as lifeless as the deer.

About five minutes later, I heard footsteps coming down the stairs.

“Gem, what’re you watching?” Ethan appeared at the bottom of the stairs. He walked over to me and frowned when he saw that I hadn’t even turned the TV on. “Wanna watch a movie?” It’d been awhile since my brother and I hung out. He was almost always with his girlfriend.

I hesitated before saying, “No, that’s okay.”

“Okay, well, Mom doesn’t want you to be alone so I’m either gonna sit here and watch you stare at nothing, or we can watch a movie.” Of course Mom had already told him.

I sighed. “What movie?”

“Star Wars.” He knew I hated those movies.

I laughed for the first time that day. “I’d rather die.”

Ethan looked like I slapped him. “Gem, don’t say that.”

“You always laughed at my jokes about wanting to die before!” I protested.

“It was funny because I thought you had your shit under control,” he said, exasperated. “Now every time you joke about wanting to drink bleach, all we’re gonna think is, ‘Shit, is she actually gonna do it?’ Do you know what it’d do to the family if you killed yourself?”

Stunned, I didn’t respond. Tears welled up in my eyes. It was the closest I’d come to actually feeling something like regret.

Ethan sighed and sat down next to me. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

We both stared silently at our reflections in the black screen. Finally, Ethan broke the silence by asking, “Did you write a note?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “It said, ‘I’m doing this because I hate how many people like Star Wars even though it’s objectively terrible.’”

Ethan laughed and shook his head. “You’re fucked up.”

“Thank you.”

That night we watched stupid comedies on Netflix (Napoleon Dynamite, Superbad, Step Brothers) until about 3:30 A.M.

The next day I slept until noon. After quite a bit of mental motivation, I finally got up and changed into stretchy workout pants and a sweatshirt–my typical practice gear for skating. I grabbed my skates and headed for the door.

“Where’re you going?” my mom asked, stopping me.

“What do you mean? I have practice.”

“Are you sure you don’t wanna text your coach? Tell her you’re not feeling well?” she suggested, furrowing her brow. “I can make you lunch.”

“I feel fine.”

“Gemma.”

Physically fine.” I grabbed my car keys. “Beth said she’s gonna put me on the harness today to practice my axel.” Beth had been my coach for about five years.

My mom sighed. “We need to talk about this later.”

“Talk about my axel?”

“This isn’t funny, Gemma.”

“I’m sorry.” I gave my mom a kiss on the cheek. “Bye.”

Everyone at skating greeted me as though nothing was different, but I’d changed. I smiled half-assedly at my skating friends as I headed for the locker room to put my skates on. Sitting on the wooden bench, I breathed in the stench of sweaty feet and found it oddly comforting, the familiarity of the shitty locker room in our rink that didn’t get nearly enough funding. I wiggled my feet into my skates and laced them up tight.

When I stepped out onto the ice, I could tell the Zamboni must not have been functioning properly again because of all the grooves left from an earlier hockey practice.

Beth skated up to me and said, “Go warm up. I’ll take you after Janel.”

In no mood to form coherent sentences, I nodded and skated off. I warmed up by doing a slow lap around the small rink, the cold air making my eyes water. I gradually picked up speed until other skaters around me were indistinguishable blurs I had to dodge. Tears streamed down my face from the cold that hit me like a slap to the face, but it woke me up.

I sped up, trying to not think about anything and just focus on the burn in my thighs and the air on my face. But as I went faster, the storm did, too, chasing me until all of my shit started to catch up with me. Faster.

I thought about the guys who ignored me at the dance, and instead of being apathetic and empty, I felt a pang in my chest. Faster. I dodged another skater. Faster. The storm finally unleashed its wrath, pouring down over me: My friends who didn’t really care about me that much and my family who just didn’t understand. Faster. And then the fact that I tried to fucking kill myself just to make all of it stop.

I was gasping for breath when I finally came to an abrupt stop, grabbing the edge of the boards to support myself.

I stared at my reflection in the glass; my cheeks were bright red and my hair stuck up all over. My nose was dripping. The tears were no longer just from the cold air hitting them.

I felt guilty and sad and lonely and a million other things, but all that mattered was that I felt alive.

 

 

 

BIO

Emmie Barron is currently a sophomore studying English at the University of Michigan. She has written many fictional short stories, and this is her first publication. She plans to pursue a career in writing. In her free time, she teaches creative writing to children in Detroit through a program called Seven Mile Arts.

 

 

 

 

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