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The Other Daughter

by Lourdes Dolores Follins


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

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

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

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

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

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

Subject: Re Leon Follins

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

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

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

Hi Lourdes,

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did your mother go?”

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

“So, you lied,” he responded curtly.

“What?”

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

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

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

 “Um…no, I forgot.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?”

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

“Follins, you said?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great!” Yida exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head. “Seriously?”

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

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

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

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

“Your father was so loved!”

“Your father was a dear friend!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BIO

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

Amen Sure Thing

by Mindela Ruby


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

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

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

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

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

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

Brain tumor

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

A message box pops up: “Upload unsuccessful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tell her.

“What is your medical excuse?”

“Brain tumor.”

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

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

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

“When did you find out about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A grand mal seizure?”

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

“Of course,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

“Not much, sorry” I say.

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

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

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

“At Kaiser?”

“Yes.”

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

“You stay positive, Mindela.”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t mind,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God bless.”

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

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

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

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


BIO

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

Wonderful Vacation

by J L Higgs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#         

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

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

#

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

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

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

Barely able to nod, I accepted the belated gift.

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

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

“Who was it?’ whispered my wife.

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

#

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right then a thunderclap exploded directly overhead, causing us all to jump.  A lightning bolt immediately followed.  As my wife tightened her grip on my forearm and gestured upward with her head and eyes I looked up.  The shelter’s roof was made of tin.   Perfect.                       

#

When the shuttle bus arrived we all scrambled aboard.  Having dodged the threat of getting fried a la giraffe, we were happy to be safe and relatively dry. 

“How many stops until we’re back?” asked my son.

“Ours is the third one,” answered my wife as the bus pulled up to the first one. 

The people waiting in the parking lot’s shelter building quickly boarded and took seats.  Then the shuttle headed toward the lot’s exit.  After we’d gone about 30 feet we stopped.

“Look at all the people,” said my daughter. 

Looking out the shuttle’s window, I saw a horde of people heading towards us. As they reached the parking lot, many were getting in their cars, starting them up, and pulling out, clogging the exit lane.  Because of the storm, the resort had just closed its water park.     

#

Creeping along, it took an hour for us to finally exit the parking lot and continue on to the next stop.  There, everything went off without incident.  We then resumed our trip until we stopped for a red traffic light.  Shortly after stopping, the light turned green and the shuttle driver pressed down on the bus’ accelerator.  The shuttle then shuddered and died.  

“Uh-oh,” said my son. 

Well, at least we’re not in the intersection,” I said, seeing the look of exasperation on my wife’s face.

Finally, on the driver’s fourth attempt, the bus came back to life.

“Should we cross our fingers?” asked my daughter.

“Toes probably wouldn’t hurt as well,” responded my wife.               

#

The following morning, with no trains or shuttles on the day’s agenda, we went to pick up the car I’d rented for the rest of our vacation.  I walked right up to the young woman at the reservation counter, gave her my name, and she promptly typed it into her computer. 

“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing under that name for today.”

Armed with preparedness that would put a boy scout to shame, I whipped out my confirmation email and handed it to her.

“Here it is,” she said after typing in the confirmation number.  “That reservation is for a week from today.”

Was I on Candid Camera? Or Punk’d?  We needed a car now, not next week when we’d be back home.

Despite the mix-up, the young woman assured me she’d be able to provide us with a car.  After making a phone call, she handed me a set of car keys, smiled, and spoke those inimitable words …  you know, “Have a wonderful vacation.”              

#

The days that immediately followed were uneventful.  We swam, enjoyed the amusements and entertainments the resort offered, and watched their nightly fireworks display.

As the end of our vacation approached, the kids lobbied to go to the resort’s newest attraction. Inside its theater-style building, we strapped ourselves into a model car attached to mechanical arms covered with thick black hoses arrayed like octopus tentacles.  The theater lights dimmed leaving us in darkness, a film began playing and the cars took flight twisting, turning, and tipping in the air.

About 5 minutes later, a loud pop sounded, the film abruptly stopped and the theater lights snapped on.  At that point, one of the ride’s attendants told us there’d been a malfunction but that the ride would restart momentarily.  10 minutes passed and then another attendant confessed the restart attempts had been unsuccessful and they had requested help.

Undaunted by the mishap and with us as a captive audience suspended high above the ground, the ride’s attendants then came up with an ingenious idea – playing a trivia game.  With unparalleled excitement, they began taking turns shouting out questions about television shows.  Correct answers received cheers and applause as they jumped up and down with an enthusiasm that would leave competitive cheerleaders envious.  It was beyond riveting!  A ride and a game. Talk about getting more for your money!

After 20 minutes of thrilling trivia, a loud hiss like that from an air hose filled the room and the cars slowly descended.  With the cars back on the floor, the attendants told us the ride would restart shortly. 

“No way,” said my wife and I looking at each other. “We’re getting the hell out of here.” 

Joining the stampede to the exits, we passed a group of smiling resort employees.  They … oh hell, you know what they said.       

#

On the morning of our departure, the kids were sad our vacation was ending.  Me?  I told my wife that if one more person told me to have a wonderful f#$*ing vacation; I was going to punch them. 

Suitcases in hand, we arrived at the train station and gave our tickets to the man on duty.  He eyed our bags and frowned. 

“They ain’t gonna fit,” he said.

“Excuse me,” I replied.

“The bags.  They ain’t gonna fit.”

“How can they not fit?,” I asked.  “We brought them here on the train.”  To my wife, I whispered, “What’s he think?  We tweaked our noses and they just magically appeared here?”

“I’m telling you.  They ain’t gonna fit.  Y’all try ‘em in that there thing,” he said, pointing.  “If they can’t fit in there, they ain’t gonna fit.”

With his hawkish eyes on me, I placed each bag in “that there thing” one at a time.  Sure enough, every bag fit, though mine was a bit snug.

“They all fit,” I said, smiling.  Asshole.  Too bad HE didn’t wish us a wonderful vacation.    

#

Now, being experienced long-distance train travelers, we knew what to expect – light dozing overnight.  But fortunately, this train’s teeny sleeper was a sensible distance from the locomotive.

Things went smoothly that first day, so after lunch the next day we remained in the dining car playing UNO.  With only a few travel hours remaining, the train pulled into a station.  Passengers boarded and exited, and then we continued on our way.  Minutes later, the train began slowing down until it came to a halt. The conductor announced that we’d lost power.  A few minutes after that we were once again underway.  But then, just when we appeared to almost be up to full speed, the train again slowed until it stopped. 

O Over the public address system, the conductor announced that the engine was stone cold dead. Abandoning UNO, we went directly to War, playing card after card slapping against the dining room tabletop. Broken down, we remained idle until another train reached us and could push us the rest of the way.  

Back at the station where our vacation adventure had begun, we retrieved our bags and boarded the subway to go pick up our car.

Above the clatter and squeals of the train wheels scraping along the rails my daughter said to me, “Dad?”

“Yes, hon,” I replied.

“Where are we going on vacation next year?”          


BIO

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has had over 50 publications and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Magazines publishing his work include Contrary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, Dime Show Review, Remington Review, The River, and Fiction on the Web. He resides outside of Boston.

That Heartbreaking Blues and Other Complications: An Interview with Philip Cioffari

by Bill Wolak & Philip Cioffari

Philip Cioffari’s meticulously crafted stories and novels explode like street racing muscle cars burning rubber at the starting line in search of dangerous fun, holy nostalgia, impossible love, and the exchange of dreams across the back roads of America. Cioffari casts an attentive eye on whatever appears through the wind-shield, but mainly what resonates throughout his work is the uncanny, the off-beat, and the incongruous. He is the author of the novels: If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues; The Bronx Kill; Dark Road, Dead End; Jesusville; Catholic Boys; and the short story collection, A History of Things Lost Or Broken, which won the Tartt Fiction Prize, and the D. H. Lawrence award for fiction. His short stories have been published widely in commercial and literary magazines and anthologies, including North American Review, Playboy, Michigan Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Florida Fiction, and Southern Humanities Review. He is a playwright member of the Actors Studio in New York City. He has written and directed for Off and Off-Off Broadway. His Indie feature film, which he wrote and directed, Love in the Age of Dion, has won numerous awards, including Best Feature Film at the Long Island Int’l Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Independent Film & Video Festival. He is a Professor of English, and director of the Performing and Literary Arts Honors Program, at William Paterson University.

Bill Wolak: Your latest novel is entitled If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues. Tell me a little about the blues in the title and how it relates to the rest of the book.

Philip Cioffari: The “blues” in the title refers both to the tradition of blues music, which is to say the expression of sadness, sorrow, and longing rendered via music and voice into a beautifully crafted, aesthetically pleasing form; and also the personal blues all of us, in one way another, feel at various points in our lives. In my book, specifically, it is the blues of adolescence that accompanies the search for self, love, and the sense of belonging to a world we don’t yet understand. The actual title comes from an African-American folktale about two mythical figures, Betty and Dupree, and the love that pulls them apart.

BW: In this novel, music is evoked on just about every page, beginning with that enticing jukebox on the cover. Why did you highlight music throughout the text?

PC: Music, in this case the popular music of the 1950s and 60s, is an integral part of the characters’ lives. In a way, it is the soundtrack of their lives, spinning out from radios, jukeboxes, record players. And since my novel is basically a love story, music becomes inextricably involved with the search for love. This was the time that Rock n’ Roll (Rhythm n’ Blues) was new. For the first time, teenagers had a music that was exclusively their own. A music full of throbbing energy and passion, a parallel to the energy and longing bubbling up inside of them. Every song was a celebration. I hope that the use of music in the book helps capture some of that youthful passion and longing.

BW: The entire novel takes place in a single day. Is there a reason why you compressed the action into such a brief amount of time?

PC: I like to use a compressed time period for my novels. I find it raises the tension and urgency of the story. After all, in real life the clock is always ticking, time is running out—which, of course, adds urgency and poignancy to each moment we live. It intensifies the “drama” of our lives. So, too, in fiction: the dramatic element is heightened. I also like the idea of going deep moment by moment—that is, exploring each step of my characters’ journeys, including the silences, the moments when nothing seems to be happening, but something is happening, always. At the risk of sounding too esoteric, I like to convey the moments between moments. I like to pay attention to those small, almost unnoticeable feelings and half-thoughts. This is easier to do when the scope of the novel is shortened.

BW: You’ve been writing short stories, novels, and plays since the 1970s.  Do you tend to base your fictional characters on people you have known or have heard about, or are they more what one might term imaginative constructions–composites of several people?

PC: I don’t have one person in mind as the basis for a character. They seem to evolve out of my imagination, and, yes, I suppose if I were to break them down they’d most often turn out to be composites of people I’ve known. I don’t usually do that, though. I prefer to experience them as imagined beings.

BW: One of your characters is described as “the unofficial investigator of the mysteries of the universe.”  Is this what you set out to explore in your fiction, to examine aspects of the universe that remain mysterious?

PC: The mysteries within ourselves and within the world at large are a primary fascination of mine. I’m intrigued by the investigative process, the search for truth of one kind or another. The more elusive the truth the more compelling to me.

BW: In the short story “Turns” from  A History of Things Lost Or Broken, the female dance instructor says, “. . . the turn transports us gracefully from one state of being to another.”  Do you tend to concentrate on the sometimes banal and sometimes unexpected “turns” or choices characters make in your short stories?

PC: Moving from one state, one feeling or one condition to another is an imposition life places upon us. We’re continually in motion. We must learn to make those moves and the more gracefully we can make them, the better.

BW: As in your novel The Bronx Kill, the most typical Cioffarian landscape is set in the Bronx, in the neighborhoods where you grew up.  Why do you think you return so often to the streets, the els, the backalleys, the projects, and the mud-flats of your youth when you write?

PC: I don’t really know. What I do know is those landscapes haunt my imagination. They’re alive for me in a burning way. I never seem to tire of them. In my latest novel, for example, the dance clubs of the Bronx in 1960 had particular qualities that reinforced the cultural norms, that in some ways predetermined the social interaction between boys and girls, the difficulties and awkwardness that kept them apart. I tried to capture those environments in order to provide a context for my characters’ actions.

BW: Parts of Catholic Boys take place in a a bomb shelter that resembles a Borgesian labyrinth.  Is that bomb shelter sprawling underneath a vast apartment complex something you actually experienced as a child?

PC: There was one similar to it in the housing project where I lived. It was a fall-out shelter with long, barren hallways—what we, as kids, named “The Hundred Halls.” There were an endless number of carriage rooms and basement rooms that were dark and shadowy and mysterious. For the novel I embellished the design somewhat.

BW: On the other hand, both of your novels Jesusville and Dark Road, Dead End take place outside of New York. How did you go about researching the settings for these two novels? Or did the stories develop out of the settings?

PC: A strong sense of place is something I strive for in all my writing. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s what gets my stories off the ground. I can’t really write without having a firm physical and emotional grasp of the setting. That’s why I always write about places I’ve been to, where I’ve had the opportunity to feel what it’s like being there: the quality of light, for instance, as it changes throughout the day; the colors; the sounds; what the air smells like when you inhale. I also believe that where something happens affects the way a character behaves. In fact, often it seems my stories develop from a sense of place. In the case of Jesusville, I came across an article about a defunct religious theme park somewhere in Connecticut. I was fascinated by the photos and the descriptions of Biblical scenes that had fallen prey to decomposition and neglect. About the same time, I came upon another article about a retreat for troubled priests hidden away in the New Mexico desert. Quite suddenly a landscape formed in my mind that contained both places. Soon after, the characters began to take shape, one by one. I had to find a reason why they would all end up there, and once they arrived, how they would be affected by the stark beauty and isolation. From my visits to New Mexico, I had come away with a distinct sense of its spiritual qualities, something I rarely experienced elsewhere. I wanted to find a way to infuse my story with that spirituality, hence my characters’ search for a rare hallucinogenic plant that would allow them to see God.  Dark Road, Dead End grew out of my many visits to the southern tip of the Everglades. I found that area to be captivating. I liked the end-of-the-road feel of the place. The towns and settlements literally dead-ended against swamp. There was no escape. Once there, you had to find a way to survive, or die. Life was lived on the edge, a raw one at that. The physical world of marsh and water and forest intrudes upon every aspect of existence. I talked to whomever of the townsfolk who would talk to me. I wanted to hear about their lives, the way they saw the world, and because the history of that area had been so dominated by smuggling of one sort or another, it became a natural setting for my environmental concerns—in this case, the smuggling of illegal exotic animal species into the United States. 

BW: How and when did you first conceive of Love in the Age of Dion, the work that propelled you from fiction to theater and finally to film?

PC: It began as a title for a short story: “Love in the Age of Dion.” A spin-off perhaps from the Garcia Marquez title, Love in the Time of Cholera, though I can’t be sure, of course.  Ideas generate from so many sources. In any case, there it was: a title in search of a story. For several years it rattled around in my head, yielding nothing more. I was a professor at a state university in New Jersey, teaching creative writing, publishing stories in commercial and literary magazines. This was 1998. That fall, the story came to me: Frankie, a man whose second marriage has just fallen apart, returns after twenty years to his old neighborhood in the Bronx, in search of his first love, hoping to re-capture what he thinks of as the best days of his life. The neighborhood he knew has changed, but his old hangout, a working man’s bar where he drank his first beer, has survived: same bartender, same songs on the jukebox, memories for the taking. He spends the evening there with Eddie, his best buddy from the old days–who never left the neighborhood–and a woman who happens to be in the bar that particular evening.

BW: After you had the basic plot and a setting, what was happening in your writing at that particular time to change the trajectory of the piece?

PC: During this time I was studying playwriting at HB, an acting studio in Greenwich Village. I’d begun the class as an exercise, a way to develop my ear for dialogue. An editor at Doubleday had read a novel of mine and made the observation that I told the story mostly through narrative, using dialogue sparsely. Till then I’d never thought much about it. Narrative came naturally to me, so I’d indulged myself. But her comment made me realize I was insecure about writing dialogue; unconsciously, I’d been avoiding it.

BW:  So studying playwriting became a strategy to hone the dialogues in your fiction?

PC: Yes, but I debated the issue a while. Why was dialogue so important? Jim Harrison, after all, had written Legends of the Fall without a single line of dialogue. On the other hand, so many best sellers relied heavily upon it, and one couldn’t deny it greatly enlivened the pace and feel of a scene, to say nothing of its use as a tool for revealing character.  Writing plays seemed a likely way to get over my unease.

BW: Did you ever publish the short story “Love in the Age of Dion?”

PC: For some reason, I never sent the story out. Instead, over that winter break, I wrote it as a one-act play. Shortly thereafter, it was produced at the American Theatre of Actors in New York City and, though I was reasonably satisfied with the outcome, I thought it ended abruptly. My lead character, Frankie, storms out of the bar once he learns his old buddy has no intention of taking the trip down memory lane with him. I wondered what would happen if Frankie didn’t walk out, if he stayed to confront the past as Eddie remembered it, unglamorized, thick with pain.

BW: What was your connection to the American Theatre of Actors?

PC: With the American Theatre of Actors, I simply submitted three one-act plays. I had heard they were open to producing plays from new playwrights. They called and offered to do two of them–one of them was the one-act version of “Love in the Age of Dion.”

BW: How did you modify the original ending of the one-act version?

PC:  By writing a second act. Basically, I made Frankie hang around and deal with the situation. That, in turn, led him to a place he would never have reached if he’d simply run off. The final result was a full-length version that had four characters, one setting.  Ideal, from a producing point of view.

BW: Where was the original two-act version of the play first produced?

PC: It was first produced at the Belmont Italian American Playhouse, an equity theatre in the Bronx, where it played weekends—Thursday through Sunday—from October, 1999 until June, 2000, an almost nine-month run.

BW: Before they produced your play, did you have any involvement with the Belmont Italian American Playhouse?

PC: My only prior involvement with the Belmont Playhouse was that I’d been attending their plays for a number of years. I was impressed with the quality of their work–the actors were superior, as was the director Dante Albertie. For a small theatre they managed to get many favorable reviews from the NY Times, the NY Daily News, and the NY Post. I knew they would do a good job with my play and that I would be honored to be produced there.

BW: Why do you think the Belmont Italian American Playhouse was so enthusiastic about producing your play?

PC: In many ways it was a perfect play for them. It was set in that neighborhood, it made reference to Dion, the local hero, it had the urban flavor and sensibility that they liked. I thought, if they don’t like it, I’m in big trouble.

BW: After its run at the Belmont Italian American Playhouse, did you have any possibilities to move the play to an Off-Broadway theater?

PC: At that point, several producers took interest, with plans to move it to Off-Broadway the next year, but 9/11 intervened and, in the wake of that disaster, the plans were scrapped. However, I was fortunate enough to have an enthusiastic and devoted cast who helped me stage a backer’s audition at the Chelsea Playhouse in Manhattan. Again, there was interest. Drea De Matteo did a staged reading of it before she was lured off to L.A. to star in the sequel to the TV series, “Friends.” Ed Asner liked it enough to offer to do a staged reading of it–as the bartender–the next time he was in New York. There were murmurings again from producers, and again nothing came of it.

BW: Is this about the time that you made the transition into directing?

PC: The play lay fallow for several years. During that time I’d been gaining experience as a director. I’d been taking classes in directing and, as luck would have it, a position as director opened at my university; I began directing in our black box theatre. I favored contemporary comedies, especially the work of Christopher Durang, whose plays were so different in tone and mood from the kind of plays I was writing. From directing students, I went to directing Off-Off Broadway where I was both writing and directing. There’s a school of thought in theatre circles that says playwrights should not direct their own work, but I longed to do both. I didn’t want to be angry at someone else for “ruining” my work, or for misunderstanding my intentions. If the production turned out badly, I wanted no one to blame but myself. 

BW:  At that point in your career, you had been writing and publishing fiction for a long time.  What prompted you to begin the daunting task of transforming the play into a film?

PC: At this time my fiction was at a standstill. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block so much as writer’s plateau; I couldn’t reach higher ground. It was the fall of 2004 by then, and as the end of the year approached, I grew quite despondent. New Year’s Eve I was hiking with my friend Bill, a TV producer, when he suggested I make a movie. “You’ve got the script,” he said. “You’ve got some great actors, and I can hook you up with a Director of Photography.” As a bonus, he offered to serve as producer. He’d made this same suggestion several times over the years, but I’d always found the prospect overwhelming. I didn’t think I could pull it off. There was so much I didn’t know. I’d never been to film school, never made a short, never even been on a shoot. It seemed too much of an effort, too great a chance for failure.

BW: So what intrigued you that New Year’s afternoon about Bill’s proposal?

PC: Maybe it was the cold, grey bleakness of the day, or the prospect of the long winter months ahead without any writing ideas on the horizon. Or maybe it was simply the rut I was in. Time to try something new. The next day I began writing the screenplay. In addition to the four characters in the play, I added Carmel, a friend of the sole female character. She was mentioned in the play but never appeared. For the film version I knew I needed some comic relief, as well as someone who could offer an objective view of the conflicts between the main characters. Carmel was the answer. I also had to “open up” the play. I wanted to get the characters out of the bar so I added outdoor scenes: on the street, in a playground, at the beach. In the play the events of the past are simply narrated, but in the film they could be dramatized fully and more effectively as flashbacks. And I forced myself to rely more heavily on visual images to replace some of the dialogue.

BW: One of your most courageous acts in the making of the film has to be that you invested your own savings in the project.  Could you explain how you managed to finance the film?  

PC:  I knew the only way I was going to have complete control over the creative content was if I financed it myself. So I exhausted my savings account. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds. We kept expenses to a minimum. Most people worked for nothing or for deferred compensation–so if the movie gets distribution, I’ll owe them. Those who were paid worked for reduced wages because they liked or had some interest in the script, or needed experience.

BW:  What was the first, crucial step that got this project off the ground?

PC:  In the months before the shoot, there was a never-ending list of things that had to be done.  The first of them was scouting locations. In early February I began looking for a bar. Finding one, one that looked “right,” was crucial, since two-thirds of the script was set there. Without one, there could be no movie. The script is set in the Bronx, so I began there. Always a fan of authenticity, a Bronx bar for a Bronx movie seemed to me the right way to go. But this would be no easy task. Because the story is set in two time periods—1966 and 1992—I needed a place that hadn’t changed much over time. I also wanted one with character, with a lot of dark wood, old-fashioned mirrors, ceiling fans, an old jukebox, maybe even sawdust on the floors. And I needed one with a dance floor, and one large enough to accommodate my cast and crew—about twenty people—and all our equipment.  Over a period of four months I must have looked at more than a hundred bars. I began at the Bronx/Yonkers line and worked my way down upper Broadway. I went to City Island, Arthur Avenue, Pelham Bay, Morris Park. Most of the bars I looked at had at least one disqualifying attribute: it was too small, or lacked character, or had been modernized. With those I liked, money was the problem. Given my budget, no one was willing to close down for the two weeks I needed. They’d been spoiled by shows like “Law & Order” which came in for a day or two and paid thousands of dollars. A few places offered to let me shoot during their off-hours, between 4 and 8 a.m., an impossible situation for my actors, who had day jobs.

BW: How did you end up selecting the bar?

PC: Time was running out. I wanted to begin shooting in early June, and it was already  May.  At that point I had only one possibility. The Shannon. A dive bar under the El in Pelham Bay. The owner, a short-tempered 84 year old Irishman, was willing to close down for ten days so he could attend an Irish music festival in the Catskills. The price, $4,500, was something I was willing to pay, but the place had problems. For one thing it was small, tiny, and for another thing, we’d have to deal with the noise of the #6 train rumbling by every ten minutes or so. But worst of all, every inch of wall space and every shelf behind the bar was filled with Irish memorabilia—leprechauns, photos of the River Shannon, four-leaf clovers, you name it. My story was set in an Italian neighborhood. Which meant we’d have to spend at least a day dismantling the place and substituting Italian-American artifacts, and at least another day restoring the original décor, hoping the curmudgeonly owner wouldn’t notice upon his return.  So with less than two weeks before our shoot date, I intensified my search. I looked in Brooklyn, Jersey, even Manhattan, which I knew would be prohibitive cost-wise—all to no avail. In a last-ditch effort I went back to the Bronx, to a section near Mosholu Parkway where I hadn’t yet looked. I checked every bar along Bainbridge Avenue and was about to give up. There was one bar left, Gorman’s, on the corner of 204th and Webster.  I was so discouraged by that time I was resigning myself to dealing with the leprechauns.  But I pushed myself on. The place was, if not perfect, the best I’d seen. Old mirrors with dark wood trim and blue, fluted lights, an old-fashioned black and white tiled floor, ceiling fans. A throwback to an earlier time, a genuine relic. And luck was on my side. The bar was closed for the summer, he informed me. He kept it open September to May for the exclusive use of Fordham University students. Within minutes we reached an agreement. Three thousand dollars for three weeks of shooting. He was happy for the unanticipated income; I had a place to shoot my movie. And not a moment too soon—a scant ten days before we were to begin shooting.

BW: What was the next step after you had nailed down the bar?

PC: During the four months of my pub quest I was doing a hundred other things as well, not the least of which was putting together my cast and crew. My guiding principle was to find the most natural, ordinary-people types—the guy or girl you’d find sitting next to you at an outer borough bar. As with writing, I believe authenticity is the ultimate goal. For my two male leads, I decided to use the actors who starred in the play—Jerry Ferris and Tod Engle. Though not well  known, they were excellent at their craft, and they played well together. For my female lead I went to Christina Romanello, an actress I’d seen in a play a few years back. One of my habits was to keep on file the headshots and resumes of actors I’d seen perform, and whose talent I admired.  For the role of Carol, the long-lost first love, who would appear only in flashback, I wanted a certain look. I couldn’t describe that look, but knew I would know it when I saw it. I placed an ad in Backstage, the newspaper for aspiring actors, and received more than four hundred responses.  Sorting through the head shots of these women, one more beautiful than the next, I came upon the photo of Marta Milans. I knew immediately she was the one I was looking for.  Her audition bore that out. She was so moving in the portrayal of a woman with a broken heart, able to bring herself to tears in such a deeply felt and believable way, that she left those of us watching her speechless. For the supporting female role, my comic relief addition, I placed an ad on Mandy. com, an Indie filmmaker’s website. The woman I finally chose, Bridget Trama, unsure of the role at first, eventually came to exceed my expectations with her performance. And last but not least I found my bartender through a referral. Jack Ryland was the most experienced of my actors, a veteran of Broadway. Though hesitant at first—he wasn’t keen on making the trip from Manhattan to the Bronx—he finally signed on. And again, not a moment too soon: three days before we began shooting.

BW: What was your rehearsal schedule like?           

PC: We had time only for five or six rehearsals. We worked on rendering the material in a truthful way, and we did some basic blocking—most of which had to be re-done when we were on set.

BW:  Where did you find the rest of the film’s crew?                               

PC: During the rehearsal process, Victor and I were also busy putting together a crew. He was able to bring in hard-working and dedicated film students to fill the roles of gaffer, grip, and script supervisor. Again, I used Mandy.com to find a Sound person, an Assistant Director, and an Art Director. I trusted my instincts—did they have experience? Could I work with them? Count on them? Would they accept the wage I could offer? My brother-in-law doubled as line producer and production manager, and my sister volunteered to make sure we had enough to eat and drink on set.

BW:  How long did it take to shoot the film?                                                

PC: We shot the movie in seventeen days in June. I was free for the summer, but most of the cast had day jobs, so we filmed nights and weekends. The first ten days we spent in the bar, beginning about 6 p.m. The first few hours were consumed with setting the lights and getting the actors made up; shooting began about nine o’clock. Each day I re-wrote the scenes for that night’s shoot, mostly cutting dialogue. I had to keep reminding myself of the sparse language of film. 

BW: Were there any unexpected problems during the filming?

PC:  For each night of the shoot, Murphy’s Law applied: what can go wrong, will go wrong. For one thing, we hadn’t counted on the loudness of the buses that bullied their way down the avenue every fifteen minutes or so, or the salsa music that blasted from the open windows across the street. Nor did we anticipate the thumping noises that emanated from the apartment above the bar—the superintendent’s children having their innocent fun running or jumping or bouncing balls or beating their dolls to death against the floorboards. So many sounds we pay little attention to in ordinary life, but when you’re filming and need absolute quiet the smallest sounds assume the proportions of an explosion. Naturally, I pleaded with the super to control his children. As for the buses and salsa, we simply had to work around them.                                                                 

BW:  Your nights of filming in the bar sound exasperating.  How did the outdoor scenes go?

PC: The outdoor shoots were more enjoyable, though I’d been dreading having to deal with so many more forces out of our control. After so many nights in the bar, it was a relief to get out into the bright sunshine. And the problems we encountered were largely of my own making. The Mayor’s Office of Film Development never returned my calls, and I was too busy to chase after them. Hence, no permits. When we shot in the subway, we kept changing trains every ten minutes, whenever we suspected the conductor was on to us. This was three days before the London subway bombings, after which security became so tight on NYC transit lines we would surely have been arrested, our camera confiscated, and we would have been subject to heavy fines.                                                                      

BW: So all the outdoor shoots went well?

PC:  No, we weren’t as fortunate on our playground shoot. We began early Sunday morning, thinking we could get in and out before anyone noticed. There was only one five-minute scene we needed to shoot. Things went well for most of the morning. We had maybe twenty or thirty seconds of script to shoot when the Parks Department showed up in the person of a brawny, no-nonsense woman who told us to pack up immediately and clear out, or else be subject to arrest.  We packed up immediately and cleared out. But we had to finish the scene. While the cast cooled off in our rented air-conditioned van, Victor and I drove frantically around the Bronx in search of another playground that would match the one we were forced to leave. We found one some twenty blocks south, in a poor neighborhood where dealers were plying their trade and junkies were shooting up near the swings. Within minutes we’d attracted a crowd of several hundred who lined up along the fence to watch. The part of the scene we were shooting involved a fight between a white man and a black man. The tension building in the crowd was palpable; a few of the actors were getting nervous, but I insisted we stick it out. We finished the scene and moved on. Our last day of shooting—and our biggest challenge—took place at the beach. It was a scorching hot day and we had several emotionally intense scenes to film. When we had scouted the location, the place was quiet, ideal for filming, but not so on the day of the  shoot. The beach, it turned out, was on a direct flight path to La Guardia airport a few miles across Long Island Sound. Jets came roaring over us every sixty seconds. We had to constantly stop the actors—sometimes in mid-sentence—and hold until the plane passed over, then begin shooting again. What amazes me to this day is how flawless the actors were, able to stop and start without losing focus, without dropping a line,  without losing the emotion of the moment.

BW: How would you compare the process of writing fiction to the process of filmmaking?          

PC: There’s a tremendous difference in the way you fix mistakes. Movie problems are also much more varied. If you make a mistake in fiction, if you don’t like the way a sentence turns out, you simply erase it and do it again. If you make a mistake filming, it costs a considerable amount of time–hence, money–to re-shoot, so you’re continually under pressure to get it right as quickly as possible. In fiction, your sole concern is with words and making them serve your creative imagination. In film, your creative impulses are held hostage by so many annoying and frustrating technical and practical concerns. Case in point: many scenes in the script were set at night. Well, night lighting was too prohibitive in cost and time, so those scenes had to be converted to daytime. In fiction, you want rain, you put in rain. In low-budget Indie film making, forget about it. Who had time to wait for a rainy day, or the equipment to get it lit properly?  And always, every minute of every shoot, the curse of Murphy’s Law is hanging over your head. Yet I consider it one of my personal triumphs that I learned to make whatever adjustments were necessary, that I learned to convert obstacles into advantages, that we always found a way.

BW: How would you describe the kind of pressure you were under while you were shooting?

PC: For those seventeen days I lived in a zombie haze. Part of that was physical exhaustion. I wasn’t sleeping much, nor sleeping well. I had no appetite. After our night shoots which wrapped up between one and two a.m., I would drive the cast into Manhattan, making my last drop-off at close to four in the morning. Then I drove back to my apartment in Jersey. When I fell asleep, my dreams were anxiety-ridden—about camera angles and dialogue changes, and lighting and sound problems for which I could find no solution.  And part of that zombie haze came from mental and emotional overload. Too many details, large and small, to remember, but all of them necessary—from making certain the actors were staying truthful on camera to wondering if the dinner would arrive on time; and though my small crew was the most devoted and helpful a director could hope for, I was the one, finally, responsible for getting the movie made, for making sure it was the best movie we were capable of. I don’t want this to sound like a complaint. I wanted to be in control, that’s why I wanted to both write and direct. And the control freak part of my personality reveled in this.

BW: Do you have any regrets about what happened during the shooting of the film?

PC: I can’t say I had as much fun on the set as I might have liked; I was too busy for that, but I have to say when we finished shooting on that last day, the sense of peace and accomplishment was like nothing I’d ever experienced.                                                                              

BW: Of course, shooting the film is only half the battle.  What was your experience of mixing the film like?

PC: The technical process of taking what we’d shot and turning it into a movie began soon after we finished shooting. A film is made on the cutting room floor, the cliché goes. I remember what Jack Haigis, my editor, said the night I dropped off the twenty-two hours of videotape we’d shot. ‘The first thing we have to do is see if we even have a movie here.” What he meant, of course, was whether the collection of individual scenes was       sufficient to make a complete and integrated piece, with a beginning, middle and end.          

BW: How did you find your film editor?

PC: Jack was one of the more than two hundred and fifty editors who responded to my ad on Mandy: Indie filmmaker seeks experienced editor. Low pay. Sorting through the resumes, I recognized his name immediately. He’d edited two of my favorite urban dramas: Straight Out of Brooklyn, and Graves End. When I sent him the script and he agreed to take me on, I was overjoyed. By day he worked at a full-fledged editing studio in Manhattan, and by night he worked out of his apartment in Westchester. Each morning I’d go through the raw footage, select my preferred takes, and bring them to him in the evening. We worked this way for several months. I got to see the film take shape in bits and pieces until finally one night he declared, “We have a movie,”  and we went out for pizza and beer to celebrate.

BW: What remained after you had mixed a rough cut of the film?

PC: Jack added the music.

BW: Was the film ready for viewing at this point?

PC: Yes, so I arranged to screen it at my university before a small audience of colleagues and students. What had appeared to be minor imperfections on a TV-sized monitor loomed large and egregious on the big screen. There were radical, jarring discrepancies in lighting and color from scene to scene. Some scenes were under-lit, some over-lit. The light in the bar was too bright, more appropriate for a luncheonette than what was supposed to be a gritty beer and shot night spot.  In short, it looked awful. I was thoroughly embarrassed, overwhelmingly depressed. It seemed that eight months of effort had ended in failure.     

BW: What did you do?

PC: I brought it back to my editor. “Not to worry,” Jack said. “That’s what post-production labs are for.”Several months and several thousand dollars later the film finally looked presentable. The lab was able to make the lighting and color look natural and consistent. They were even able to add shadow to the bar scenes to give them a moodier and more appropriate feel. At last I had a ninety-minute version of the film that I could watch without cringing, a version which didn’t distract from the skillful work of the actors and the story I wanted to tell.

BW: What is your goal for the film now?     

PC: The ultimate goal of this process is, of course, to find distribution, preferably theatrical or TV distribution first, then distribution in the home DVD market. The route to this, if you’re not well-connected in the film industry, is via film festivals. The process is roughly akin to publishing in literary magazines before a big house decides to take you on.

BW: Have you entered it in any film festivals?

PC: I chose not to submit to the top-tier festivals like Sundance and Tribeca, which receive three to four thousand entries per year and where one is competing against movies with big stars and multi-million dollar budgets. I opted for the smaller festivals, the truly independent festivals which receive a mere one to two thousand entries, most without big name actors.  I was fortunate that in the first festival I entered, the Long Island International Film Expo, my film won the Best Feature Film award. What a thrill to sit in a dark theatre and watch an audience of strangers react to your work.  Love in the Age of Dion went onto win a Best Actor award and a nomination for Best Director at the Hoboken International Film Festival, a nomination for Best Film at the Staten Island Film Festival, a Best Director Award from the NY Independent Film & Video Festival, and was an official selection at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and the New Filmmakers New York series at Anthology Film Archives.

BW: One of your early experiences in the film industry was as a movie reviewer for Penthouse Magazine.  How did you come by that job and what did it involve?

PC: Penthouse had bought several of my short stories and basically liked my writing. They knew of my interest in movies and asked if I’d like to review films for them. Of course, I accepted. Being a movie reviewer seemed like a dream job. In reality, I became quickly disenchanted. For one thing, going to the movies became a job and an obligation rather than something freely chosen for pleasure. I had to see whatever was out at the time, usually two or three movies a week, many of them mainstream Hollywood movies which held no interest for me. My tastes ran to more obscure independent or European movies that often were not well known enough for the magazine to want to print a review. But I will say I liked being able to attend advance screenings which were held in plush screening rooms in Manhattan. They made sure we reviewers had popcorn and soda, whatever we needed to help us enjoy the experience.

BW:  Over the years, which filmmakers would you say have exerted the most influence on you?

PC: I’ve always been drawn to the gritty, urban realism 50s dramas like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” or the Hecht-Lancaster productions of “The Bachelor Party,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” and “A Hatful of Rain.” I loved the American New Wave films of the 60s and 70s, especially Bob Rafaelson’s movies, “Five Easy Pieces,” and “King of Marvin Gardens.” And, of course, I’m a great admirer of the Italian and French New Wave, especially the work of Da Sica, Visconti, Antonioni, Fellini, and Truffaut, to name a few.

BW: Do you have a favorite film?

PC: Hard to pick a single film, but certainly in the top tier I’d put “The Deer Hunter,” “The Bicycle Thief,” and the aforementioned 50s film, “The Bachelor Party.”

 BW: Over the years, you have maintained a regimented writing discipline.  Could you describe your daily writing routine?

PC: I write usually 3-6 hours in the morning, seven days a week.

BW: Which short story writers, novelists, playwrights, and poets do you think have had the greatest influence on your writing?

PC: Certainly Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Paddy Chayefsky, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. And newer writers like Kem Nunn and Newton Thornburg and David Rabe.

BW: Who were your most inspiring teachers?

PC: Certainly Anatole Broyard (fiction) and Claude Underwood (Acting) at the New School. M. L. Rosenthal (Poetry) at NYU, and William Packard (Playwriting) at HB Studio.

Philip Cioffari’s Website:
www.philipcioffari.com

Works by Philip Cioffari available on Amazon.com:
If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues
The Bronx Kill
Dark Road, Dead End
Jesusville
Catholic Boys
A History of Things Lost Or Broken


Bill Wolak is a poet, collage artist, and photographer who lives in New Jersey and has just published his eighteenth book of poetry entitled All the Wind’s Unfinished Kisses with Ekstasis Editions. He has published interviews with the following poets, writers, and artists: Anita Nair (India), John Digby (United Kingdom), Dileep Jhaveri (India), Gueorgui Konstantinov (Bulgaria), Naoshi Koriyama (Japan), Sultan Catto (United States), Ilmar Lehtpere (Estonia), Jeton Kelmendi (Kosovo),  Yesim Agaoglu (Turkey), Mahmood Karimi Hakak (United States), Srinivas Reddy (United States), Chryssa Nikolakis (Greece), Philip Cioffari (United States), Yongshin Cho (Korea), Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis) (Canada), Jami Proctor Xu (United States), Stanley H. Barkan (United States), Annelisa Addolorato (Italy), and William Heyen (United States).

California Fugue

by Teresa Yang


C is for ceasefire, as in “Cease, fire!” As if, like telling the universe to stop expanding, we could command the many California wildfires to stop burning.

Taken another way, ceasefire might be a brokered truce between Mother Nature and man, our encroaching development like a stray hair irritating her eyes, one that she decides to brush away or scissor off entirely. A ceasefire, though, does not resolve conflicts; it’s a mere time-out for both sides to recover their breath, or plot new strategies. Breath restored, mankind might grudgingly accept the stark reality of climate change – that, yes – cigarettes do cause lung cancer and maybe that extra cell phone that fell out from your husband’s backpack and his mysterious absences don’t mean he works for the CIA.

A is for awakened. It’s three in the morning and the phone is ringing. Brain disoriented, I think, don’t the robocallers know it’s the middle of the night? But I pick up, prepared for Serenity Haven to say, “Your mother didn’t suffer; she went quickly.” Instead, it’s my neighbor warning us of a threatening newborn fire and the immediate mandatory evacuation. I check my phone and there are NotifyLA alerts wallpapering the dark screen, texts and emails growing like the fire.

Though I have an evacuation list, it provides little comfort. All I can think about is my blood pressure, the one I’ve been diligently monitoring since the other day at the doctor when it was on the cliff waiting to be rescued by a diuretic. The list is in English and Spanish, in descending priority order, created and honed after the last recommended evacuation. I had to consider need versus want. I need to pack sweats and tennis shoes, clothes you wear after your house has burned down. I need to pack my underwear, those hard-to-fit bras and the bikini panties that hide a stomach like a quick finger wiping escaping cake batter, the underwear that cannot possibly be bought online without trying it on first, the underwear whose purchase I’ll have no patience for after my house is gone. I want to pack my mother’s leopard coat, given to her by her mother-in-law, the one she wore so fashionably in those Kyoto wintertime black and white photos. No one needs a leopard coat. I want to pack my thirty-five photo albums, in chronological order, the ones I’m saving to show my future grandchildren. My daughter laughed later, saying, “But Mom, they’re all digitized.” I want to pack their scrap books, Mother’s Day cards made by kindergarten teachers and, later, poignant ones where my son wrote messages he was too reluctant to say in person.

L is for loss, tangible and intangible. There is the obvious potential loss of the house which we just remodeled, for the third time, a few years back. This was the we-will-die-here remodel, the one where I corrected all the features I disliked from the outset but couldn’t afford to change before, the one where I finally got the soaking bathtub. I treated the bathtub like the beach, sand to be admired from afar, and stepped into its pool only once to assure myself it wouldn’t collapse into the living room below. Our dream remodel also produced the great room, one where the kids could hang out with their friends under my watchful eye. Sadly, the kids had their own apartments now and could hang out unobserved. This was the remodel that promoted the washer and dryer from its spidered existence in the garage to its own laundry room, now that we were doing less laundry than ever. This was the remodel where I got my walk-in closet, the one I would’ve been happy to evacuate into and live out of.

Half the house remained unused, freezing in winter and boiling in summer. We considered renting out that portion but soon realized we would need to add an extra kitchen. We had lived in that area of the house throughout the better part of our remodeling year. All the furniture had been put in storage save for the essentials. With one functional bathroom and no indoor staircase, we walked up and down outside to get from the bathroom to the kitchen. It reminded me of our first apartment and I wondered why I thought a washer and dryer would require its own room.

The intangible losses are tougher. This was the place where I learned about nurturing and growing things – children, dichondra, and homemade apple pie with green fruit from the yard.

I is for information, too much and not enough. It’s an endless, anxiety provoking loop, which we watch for fear of missing out, waiting to hear that Arnold’s house, or mine, has burned down. It’s watching the governor, or mayor, in real people clothes, out of their bespoke suits, talking to us like our next door neighbor, which they’re not.

F is for fire, now so common that we’ve given them names. But, like most names, they’re easily forgettable. We should name them Lucifer, or possibly Dante.

Once, when my son was three or four and I was at work, we had a kitchen fire. The first thing my nanny did was take him outside, next to the pool. “Wait here, puppy,” she said. In the chaos, she forgot about the fire extinguisher; instead, she soaked the small rug next to the sink and threw it onto the stove top, killing the fire. He didn’t know how to swim at the time, but wide eyed, he stood glued to the grass.

O is for objects. I’ve long since given away the things that don’t spark joy, like the matching picture frames my mother gifted one year, the ones with too-happy Disneyland fake flowers. I had to wait until she no longer remembered she had given them to me. Now I’m left with twinkles of joy everywhere, like pastel macaroons or hidden chocolate, so many fragile, difficult to pack treasures that I love. I take none of it, unwilling and unable to select my favorites. It’s like asking me to identify which child I love more. Instead I take the cash, several thousand dollars in twenties and Ben Franklins, hidden inside Dennis Lehane’s dark book, Mystic River. I pack my mother’s pair of black and grey onyx bookends that sit on the floor and accent the black fireplace like the beauty mark she used to embellish on her pale cheek. The heavy bookends could come in handy for protection, I think.

I take my jewelry, all of it.

R is for the many reasons that fire reigns now, climate change chief among them. It’s not just the one or two degree increase in average temperatures, but like a two or three pound weight gain, it’s that resultant bloated feeling where waistbands strangle and zippers suffocate. It’s the cascading effect: the extremes in temperature are greater, the devil Santa Ana winds howl that much stronger, the rains become torrential, or the air desiccates in postmenopausal dryness.

It’s the faceless corporations, utilities who didn’t maintain the electric infrastructure, their only remedy with all this power is now to turn off the power.

It’s the explosion and implosion of the California dream, man inhabiting Mother Nature’s backyard, the one wired to burn periodically to allow renewal and regrowth. Only now those areas are crowded with housing developments, Costcos, and grammar schools. And we still have a housing shortage. Yet in my neighborhood, the homeowners refuse to consider the building of “granny flats,” additional smaller units on the lot for, well, grandmothers or other orphaned people. We joked that we had already built our own granny flat in the unoccupied half of the house.

N is for Nola, my sole remaining friend from high school. I’m always the one to suggest we get together. We meet halfway between her home in northern San Diego county and mine in Los Angeles, always at the same Pan Asian restaurant, always ordering the noodles with the secret sauce. I am surprised when I receive an unexpected text from her asking about my well being. I agree with my dad – there’s nothing like old friends.

The texts keep appearing like electronic ash. Why are people awake at this time of night? Busily packing, I don’t answer. Like tracing shell companies, one nearby friend who had sent increasingly worried texts finally texted her son in Hong Kong to text my son in San Francisco to track us down in my silence. People I hadn’t communicated with in months reached out.

Although I was disappointed not to hear from my friend Constance, whom I considered a sister once, not having any myself. She used to live in the very canyon that was now burning. We drifted apart as our children grew up and she became more religious. Once I hinted she was too religious. If you’re at all religious, you know you can’t ever be too religious. Maybe she was traveling in the jungles of Borneo, I hoped.

I is for insurance – like a deadbeat husband, it’s nice to say you’re married, but really, what good is he? When the specter of earthquake became an actuarial certainty, earthquake insurance turned into its own entity and cost, separate from the homeowner’s policy. And now that fire is so commonplace, will it also have its own classification and price tag? No matter, the premiums have already doubled or tripled, or worse yet, entire policies cancelled. Even insurance companies can participate in our “cancel culture.”

A is for air mattress, the queen size one I decide to buy at Target. I pick the cheapest one only to realize after opening the unreturnable box there’s no pump. The evacuation will likely be over by the time I manually inflate the mattress. After another trip, armed with the electric pump, I proudly assess the makeshift bed. Despite its size, it’s not meant for two people. Newton’s immutable third law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – means that every time my husband moves, I am lambasted by a tidal wave of motion. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, we pump the other queen mattress.

I chide myself for not packing the chairs-in-a-bag we used to lug to soccer games, for there is no place to sit except the dirty floor and the clean bed. With only two changes of clothes, but lots of underwear, I can either sit on the floor in my underwear or put on my flannel pajamas and sit on the air mattress. One day I did take a shower and got in bed at 4pm. I suppose I could’ve picked up a soccer chair, but it would’ve been another reminder of loss, of trying to live in the past, so many wonderful hours spent watching my children from the sidelines.

F is for the fortunate and the fucked. Even the lucky ones, like Lebron James, cannot find shelter. “Man, these LA fires aren’t no joke, “he tweeted. On Twitter, besides some personal invitations that he be their house guest, he was told to check out the Four Seasons in Hong Kong, or to contact the Chinese embassy. Then there’s the man who wondered, anonymously and publicly, how he could save his Lamborghini. The internet might be an even more dangerous place than fire infested California, a place where Lamborghinis, or their owners, could be destroyed.

The unlucky ones are the people whose homes have already burned down once, who have been living in a FEMA trailer, who have experienced serial, multiple evacuations. They’re the ones whose entire town was nearly destroyed, like the ironically named Paradise. They’re the ones without fire insurance, worse off than the people who discover their policies might only rebuild half a house. They’re the ones, elderly, perhaps alone, perhaps diabetic, unable to drive, whose power has been off for a week, looking at their dwindling food supply and wondering: What’s worse? Take a chance and eat the unrefrigerated week old delicatessen turkey? Or mix my white processed sugar with water so I don’t starve? They are the ones too old, too sick, too tired, too dead to resurrect.

They’re the ones who can’t plunk down $350 a night for a hotel room, while the fortunate complain, as one man did on Nextdoor, that an overabundance of caution precipitated the mandatory evacuation notice and, not only does he want to be reimbursed for his $350 nightly expense, he bemoans he can’t be relaxing on his outdoor hammock. The unlucky ones cannot buy air mattresses.

The unlucky ones are the housekeepers, gardeners, and day workers who haven’t been notified by their employers and, for fear of losing their job, go to work anyway, the ones who can’t afford a day without pay.

U is for united, as in firefighters united in a singular cause. They come from everywhere – even tiny Coronado, home of the famed hotel, sent a battalion. Even prisoners, excepting the convicted arsonists, can volunteer in exchange for a few dollars a day and the possibility of better accommodations or a reduced sentence. It’s dangerous, sure, but sometimes less dangerous than the stuff inside the prison, one inmate said. I like being outside, another remarked.

Just think – if our government could work together like the firefighters and fight a common cause rather than each other. Doesn’t the “United” States mean just that?

G is for gossamer, which Merriam-Webster defines as “light, delicate, tenuous,” like goose down or cobwebs. It’s contemporary life, our network connected by fine, sometimes invisible, electronic threads. Is Constance in Borneo or has she really cut our sisterly string? It’s our cobweb, easily blown by a strong Santa Ana, hopefully without us on it, leaving us with the herculean task of remaking yet another delicate and destructible web. It’s our luck, whether we sleep on goose down or cobweb, the commonality being that neither has a solid foundation.

U is for uncertainty. I used to give little thought to the risk of fire, but now uncertainty has become a chronic condition, like hypertension or arthritis. It’s not so bad, I think, sleeping on the air mattress, eating microwave food, watching the news on my phone. I like this urban living, where we share common walls, a parking garage, a cramped elevator. I can listen to my neighbors’ music, their sneezes, their arguments and their rapprochement afterwards. My one friend regrets selling her house in the flats, saying she never had to experience this type of fear. As for unloading her current house in the hills, she says, “I actually don’t have much to miss.” My other more adventuresome friend says I cannot compare my home to “geriatric health metrics.” Life is all uncertainty; only in death do we find certainty.

E is for ending and elucidation: the moment I walk in the door, I know I am home. This is where my beloved closet is, one that can be recreated elsewhere but one that I don’t want to recreate anywhere else. I feel alive here, amidst the green and blue of the outside and the memories inside. Even as the air is shrouded in smoky particulate fog, there is clarity now where the fugue once smoldered.


BIO

Teresa Yang is a dentist in Los Angeles. Besides dental articles, her work has appeared in HerStry, Mutha Magazine, As It Ought to Be Magazine, Potato Soup Journal, and Little Old Lady Humor. She is currently working on a dental memoir about the secret life of a lady dentist.

Rejuvenation in Fragments

by Jennifer Worrell


Seven years ago, I left a job I thought would be a perfect fit. I turned down an opportunity to work in a grueling catering position—one that could further my burgeoning career as a pastry cook—to work in publishing.

A great deal less taxing physically, working as an assistant cookbook editor not only combined my love of food and books, but provided a chance to sit on my duff at a desk instead of massaging my sore knees every night. Once at the mercy of a fluctuating schedule, my new status as a nine-to-fiver meant designated writing time on nights and weekends.

Though ultimately not the dream job I envisioned, I found contentment in editing copy and testing recipes. The prospect of increased authority, selecting and organizing content, and development of a project from start to finish sparked my ambition toward promotion. Unfortunately, this was another dream about to burst: After a few years of satisfactory routine, my situation changed from pleasant to blandly tolerable to appalling.

Accustomed to working on a dozen or more projects in various stages, I was assigned increasingly fewer until I was down to one or two. Co-workers refused to look in my direction when I passed and ignored me when I said hello. I admit my share of faults: frequently tardy to meetings; often too focused on line edits and not enough on the bigger picture; easily the most introverted person in the department. Dozens of moving parts and my reliably lousy memory assured I’d slip up on a detail here and there. I assumed these flaws caused the change in attitude towards me, yet my reviews ranked positive every year, with only minor suggestions for improvement.

Within four years, Mr. Kennedy*, our editor-in-chief, promoted me to editor. But the head-scratching derision continued. Side-eye glances and stifled snickers followed me through the halls. Clearly some teammates did not agree with my elevated position.

In my first new project meeting as editor, I brought an older book from the warehouse as a sample, but accidentally chose one with one-inch larger dimensions than indicated on the client’s spec sheet. An embarrassing mistake to be sure, compounded by the project manager overtaking the meeting, erasing my voice from the room.

As the common denominator in this equation, I started to believe I deserved all the negativity and questioned Mr. Kennedy’s decision. Still I received no official reprimands, no one-on-one meetings, no specialized training, no demotion.

I dug in my heels, refusing to quit. One day everything would click. Experience would culminate in success. I refused to believe anything less.

The company downsized over the last year of my tenure, repeatedly decimating every department. One afternoon, my cube neighbor slammed a box on her desk and started packing. Another victim of layoffs, she was further infuriated by my obliviousness: While Mr. Kennedy cut her loose, the CEO convened everyone else in his boardroom to disclose the news. All, that is, except me.

I inferred only one meaning to this ostracism: my imminent demise. Why else would they have excluded the person who sat six feet away from their latest victim? I stormed into Kennedy’s office and demanded that if I were next, I’d prefer he get it over with. Instead of hearing the words I both feared and welcomed, I received a look of shock. He insisted my head was never on the chopping block. A beloved member of the team was let go, and again I was spared, with one less advocate on my side.

A more confusing, defeating situation I could not imagine. Why retain an employee they treated as sub-par? If they recognized some potential, why allow me to linger on the cusp of mediocrity? Such bizarre behavior felt like gaslighting.

Unsettled and directionless, my motivation tanked. Pulling into the parking lot, dragging myself up four steps and wending my way through cubicle town, felt like a heavier burden every day. My passion to write fizzled until I rarely picked up a pen.

Though I was safe for the moment, I knew it wouldn’t last. I submitted my resume to any company that fit. A few weeks and interviews later, I accepted an offer while sitting in my car in that same parking lot.

#

Quitting jump-started my motivation to write again, with more than a few pieces finding their way into print. But it took six years to write the manuscript I’m querying now, squeezing in words on lunch breaks and weekends. When I think of how I could have completed a manuscript while I passively waited for my situation to improve, instead of squandering time on Facebook, I still feel a little sick.

Driving back from a research gig for my second novel, I noticed a fence around the old publishing house. The company had moved to a neighboring ’burb a few years ago and the property had been vacant since. A simple brick shoebox, it could have been transformed into any number of businesses. Instead, it was in tatters.

I whipped into a side street and left the car running in the parking lot next door. I tried to get closer through the secret staircase between the two lots, but that too was destroyed. It didn’t stop me from ducking between and under the construction fences to get a better look, my breath halting as if I stood in icy water.

The canopy over the front door hung in rags. Part of the roof had caved in. Pipes jutted out of the remaining walls, and twisted wires dangled motionless despite the breeze. The few remaining windows were reduced to jagged shards. A single plastic blind hung in an empty frame and snapped against the metal.

I peeked into what used to be a rather spectacular vestibule. A gaping hole replaced the tropical fish tank. A pile of rubble filled the waiting area, a pristine porcelain sink from the lobby bathroom upended like a hat. And hanging above it all, the crystal chandelier, perfectly intact.

I haven’t met a ghost and don’t intend to seek one out, but I felt a presence in this grave-still, dusty lot. The fences were tall enough to keep noise out and me from being seen from the street, yet I had the sense of being watched. From the surrounding condos, I wondered if anyone noticed me from their second-story windows. Or was I as invisible as I was six years ago?

Though the outer walls were depleted, I could make out where the art design room used to be. My “office” was on the other side and one cube row north; I could still walk it in my memory. I felt a strong urge to touch the column that separated my file cabinets. Witness my space stripped down to a bare cement floor. Breathe in the absence.

I wanted to smash the remaining windows until the parking lot glittered like diamonds.

Asbestos remediation warnings kept me from venturing closer, as did the uncertain stability of the roof. The last thing I needed was a rusty nail jamming into my sandal or a scrap of metal slicing my calf.

Like an absurd joke, bricks propped open the side entrance. I wanted to reach up and gently close it. The building might be half down, but it would be me who shut the door for the last time. 

I settled for hovering around the site, soaking in the scene, leaving no proof I was ever there.

#

Seven years have passed since I gave myself permission to breathe. I’m at home in my new surroundings at a university library, respected and valued by colleagues. I’ve earned a seat at the table on a team where everyone’s voice matters.

Co-workers nudge me about my manuscript, update me on calls for submissions, and include me in conversations about the writing life, even if our respective genres have no connection. Work is no longer synonymous with torture; the common denominator re-defined.

The publishing house lives on at its new location. That part of my past only dimly enters my mind; less a significant detail than a narrative blip.

But seeing the old workplace on its last legs, bones poking through the mangled flesh, is the way I want to remember it: nothing more than a foundation and a handful of stories.


BIO

Jennifer Worrell got hooked on writing stories in kindergarten using mimeographed prompts. Her supplier, Mrs. Davenport, kept a stash of the Purple Monster handy for a quick fix. Though she kicked the habit for a short time, Jenny’s writing problem has spiraled out of control. But don’t worry. She can quit whenever she wants to. 

Primarily a fiction author, she’s working on two novels and a stream of short pieces in multiple genres. You can find out more at JenniferWorrellWrites.com or on Twitter or Facebook @JWorrellWrites.

Judith Skillman Interview by Janée J. Baugher


Janée J. Baugher: As an undergraduate in the 1970s, you had a rich introduction to poets and politics.

Judith Skillman: Yes, as a student at University of Maryland, I studied with Rod Jellema, Ann Darr, Reed Whittemore, and others. The visiting poets at that time included Galway Kinnell, Tess Gallagher, Stanley Kunitz, and others. Because UM didn’t yet have an MFA program, I studied English Literature with an emphasis on creative writing. Supportive criticism was not in vogue then. Peers in workshops would make statements like, “This poem is shit.” Whether or not someone’s poem is crap, it takes a thick skin to continue to write after feeling eviscerated by your peers.

Richard Brautigan came to Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) when I was an undergraduate. His anti-war poems were so resounding at that time. I was politically active when I was young, joining campaign groups, manning the phones, wearing buttons, and handing out fliers. Working at campaign headquarters in proximity to Washington DC was exciting. When my daughter Lisa was born and only a few months old my mom and I went, all dressed in white, to the Women’s Rights March at the Washington Monument. I was a feminist then, and a member of NOW, for which I did freelance work.

As a child who had to go down into the bomb shelter during the Cuban missile crisis, I have been aware that the world could go nuclear since I was nine. I won’t forget the trauma of walking down to the underground cafeteria carrying my blanket and lunch. One can barely watch three seconds of news before being reminded of the brutality of mankind.

Since moving to the Seattle-area, I’ve had the privilege of taking workshops from Beth Bentley, Patiann Rogers, William Stafford, Madeline DeFrees, David Wagoner, Jana Harris, Marvin Bell, David Wojahn, and Andrei Codrescu, to name a few. At Port Townsend Writer’s Conference in 1995 I met the illustrious Jack Gilbert. We kept up a modest correspondence for a few years. He taught me that when you revise your poems, it’s good to be aware of the difference between fancy and imagination, particularly with associative material. Fancy is contrived, whereas the imagination is defined as the “mind’s eye.” Fancy fits under imagination, and not vice versa. Although it’s employed under the verb, fancy is a “faculty of the imagination.” We want leaps that follow a subconscious thread. We don’t want to impress the reader (s/he doesn’t exist when we’re writing, anyway) with ostentation, showiness, or flamboyance. Keep it understated—that’s a good measuring stick with which to judge images that run rampant. Prune adjectives—another way to resist the ornate. Write from feeling, not from intellectualizing or over-thinking. Pay attention to your dreams and the songs that get stuck in your head.

JB: In our digital age, I wonder if “letter to a young poet” correspondence relationships are still happening. How much did you gain as a writer, for example, with your epistle relationship with Jack Gilbert?

JS: I learned so much from Jack. He was single-minded in his passion for writing, and lived a monkish life, rarely leaving the cottage at Centrum where I was his neighbor for a month. After I gathered up the courage, I showed him a poem, which was, I think, about deer—there were many deer in Port Townsend—he pointed to a few lines in the middle of the piece and asked me pointblank “Is this fancy or imagination?” I remember being both puzzled and fascinated by the question. So we talked about the quality of fancy and how it differs from the imagination. He took it upon himself to teach me this lesson, which has become extremely important as years go by. Fancy is contrived. Jack had an eye and an ear for whatever is fake, forced, strained, artificial, affected, or put on.

While I was under his informal mentorship, Jack spent not a small amount of time discouraging me from continuing to write poetry. He said that there was no point in it, as so few poets would get a job even at the community college level. Yet he continued to support me in my work, as we exchanged letters over the course of ten years or so. I have saved these for their truthfulness. I learned something of his “métier”—to write a poem a week while enjoying the “meanwhile.” For him, the idol of so many poets and non poets alike, the act of writing was one of communication with a wide audience while living a solitary, frugal life.

I recall, when I saw his kitchen table, that there was a letter from The New Yorker soliciting his work. I asked incredulously “Aren’t you going to send them something?” To my surprise, he replied with a shrug. This was not an act. It was the gift of a great poet bestowed upon someone struggling for recognition—a gesture that said everything I needed to know and to remember. The writing is what Gilbert was after. Sitting with his feelings and letting them percolate and finding out what was in there that had resonance; what could become a surprise or the hidden meaning in a broken relationship. It was not the acquisition of a reputation, fame, or fortune. This despite the Yale Younger Poets Award, and the fact that he told stories of walking around with Pound in Italy. He spoke much of his wife Michiko, whom he mourned with an altar on his dresser in each place he landed. This self-imposed reclusion despite having been nominated for the Pulitzer at the same time as William Carlos Williams made him truly unique.

JB: How does a person leap from being a student of poetry to having published eighteen poetry collections?

JS: When I had my first child, my mom was very supportive. She said, “Babies sleep a lot. Why don’t you enroll in law school?” So, after I attended one semester, I turned to poetry, which people are wont to do. Anyhow, shortly after I quit school and began writing, I made a decision. “I’m a poet,” I began telling people. I turned to magic realism, the fiction of Borges, and lapped-up the language of Mark Twain. I wrote poems and was, therefore, a poet. Simple as that.

JB: Is poem-making for you like creating sand mandalas? Normally, I wouldn’t mention obsession, but, given how prolific you’ve been throughout your life, what would you say about the compulsion to writing thousands of poems?

JS: Making is the thing. Poets write the same poem over and over, similar to mandalas. What lasts? Why do we do the things that we do? This isn’t something one needs to overthink, nor should one. The War of Art is a book that, for me, explains the necessity of overcoming one’s resistance to succumbing to one’s innate passions. Why do we have so much resistance? It seems that the “maker” in each writer does have a war to fight, against her/his own inner critic.

As humans we are especially self-critical. The internal voice demands to know why on earth the “I”—that is, the ego—would expend itself to serve the self. There has to be some gain, right? Some recognition for all the work that goes into creating a unique package of words—a poem, a novel, a memoir, or a screenplay. A piece of visual art, or sculpture—even an entrepreneurial endeavor. What is the pay off? I learned a lot when Tibetan monks visited my son’s college (Reed College, Portland, Oregon). They spent a number of days creating beautiful mandalas of sand. My son played pool with one of the monks each evening. Parents came on the day these works of art were to be thrown in the river that flows through the campus. There they would turn to milk, all color gone, nothing left to identify any one of the particular, unique pieces.

Poem-making is the same process. We bring the inner beauty and magnitude of our thoughts out on paper. The exquisite moments of that are personal to the extreme. Will anything come of this act? Will the endeavor last? This is not for the maker to decide, nor to concern him or herself with. It is an act of relinquishment.

Obsession plays a part, as in, possibly, OC syndrome—in that a writer may not feel grounded unless they are playing and replaying some incident in thought, and mimicking this by repetitive behavior. For me, the act of writing poems (and I have dabbled in fiction and essay writing, and written reviews as well) is a welcome respite from the daily grind. Simply sitting still within one’s writing place, whether it is a corner carved out of another room or a room of one’s own, stills habitual thought patterns. Reading and mulling over events become a kind of practice that yields, at times, unexpected results. Sometimes I find myself sitting very still and a strong feeling wells up. It may be uncomfortable. Life is full of grief, for instance, though we prefer to talk about the weather. There are the numerous transitions our children go through, aging parents, financial problems—you name it.

So the compulsion to write poems, while it resembles other repetitive acts, is completely different. In the act of feeling and subsequently writing down what comes to mind without censoring that material, some seed appears. Perhaps the would-be poem remains a fragment. That’s fine. Fragments can be pieced together or lead to sequences. If the internal censor can be vanquished from the room, the act of piecing words together based on either a form or free verse or associations (I prefer the latter) can lead in surprising directions. Connections may not be clear at the time. It’s a form of day dreaming, or, perhaps, in the best case, of dreaming awake.

JB: Some writers have spent a lifetime writing about the mundane, but you’ve found artistic fodder in the subject of trauma. Robert Frost reminds us, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Is it trauma’s dramatic occasion, its personal significance, or its intrinsic tension that interests you?

JS: My personal traumatic experiences go as far back as I can remember. My childhood tonsillectomy, for example. Instead of getting ice cream I vomited three bedpans of blood, and had to stay overnight in the hospital alone. Parents did not stay with children in the sixties! I had hallucinations of spiders; climbed out of my metal crib and wandered down the hallways only to be stiffly reprimanded by a nurse. As a writer writing of tragedies, it’s curious to me how and why I remember these sorts of details so vividly. I barely remember my graduations from high school and university, but those imagined spiders from my childhood still haunt me…

So your question is salient. I would say all three of these come into play—the dramatic occasion that lingers or malingers in the mind, the personal significance, and the tension and/or angst provided by the memory. It demands to be exorcised. I am not sure why my happier memories aren’t stronger. Somehow it’s the wounds that want to come out of the closet when I write. I have tried to change this. Public readings about unpleasant events—these poems are not leavened by humor in the slightest—leave me feeling the audience is not only getting depressed, but I am too. Of course there are exceptions. But by and large, perhaps because of expectations that may have set me up for an easier path through life, my attraction to the trauma has not diminished with the years.

JB: While writing-through-trauma isn’t new, the current zeitgeist is making the mode even more relevant and necessary. While we usually don’t think about the biographical elements of Robert Frost’s poetry, the fact remains that he was a man long traumatized by his loved ones’ diseases, mental illnesses, and sudden deaths. “Home Burial” is a remarkable illustration of that gulf that exists between people caught between the dead and the living. Do you feel as though you’re a poet who writes through tragedies and trauma?

JS: Yes, and there’s so much to unpack. I’ve tackled topics from childhood illnesses to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Rimbaud was right when he wrote, “Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.” I think artists of every discipline, compared to the average person, have more acute sensory awareness. Often this manifests in a heightened sensitivity of the body. For example, Wordsworth has a poem about chronic insomnia; it’s his third night without sleep and he invokes God. Sleeplessness erodes confidence. Insomnia is both humbling and insistent, as is chronic pain. One feels one can’t trust the body, its impulses when young, and its ongoing ever-increasing sensibilities and foibles as we age.

JB: Your treatment of writing-through-trauma is resolute and understated, and the mystery is palpable. You span subjects such as illnesses, disease, depression. W.H. Auden was precise when he wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong.” In your Journal of American Medical Association poems, there’s surprise in the juxtaposition of beauty and pain. There’s something ethereal beyond or somewhere within the imagery of tragedy, trauma, suffering.

JS: The fact that MFA writing programs may be offering a new track, writing-through-trauma, is interesting. One of the first “trauma” poems I wrote was “Written on Learning of Arrhythmia in the Unborn Child”. The title describes exactly when this was written—after an ultrasound late in the first trimester of pregnancy, when my then unborn third child had an arrhythmic heart beat. The uneven heartbeat became just the tip of the iceberg, as a subsequent ultrasound revealed that she only had one working kidney. The title “Written On Learning of….” might be an inherent preface for each poem written out of a traumatic experience.

I believe the authenticity of the work depends upon a sliver of disengagement from actual events—an ability to detach, even if just momentarily, from the object or subject of one’s shock. After shock comes fear, and that seems more ordinary. Perhaps by ordinary I mean that fear in the context of daily necessities can become uncomfortable, but subject to avoidance. Daily routine presses onward, and any space one might have for contemplation is lost. By its nature, shock includes a surreal element, but this can make it easier and, in fact, feel safer, to look away from the abnormality of the experience—to discount strong emotions and move on with problem solving. Of course, at the time, I was in a state of shock, as prior to this I had two healthy children by natural childbirth. That is not to say they didn’t have any problems, but the early illnesses they experienced were garden variety compared to this set of issues.

JB: So, while that poem, “Written On Learning of Arrhythmia,” published by Poetry over 30 years ago was your first trauma-related poem, it certainly wasn’t your last. Is it true that for the last 25 years you’ve had over 25 poems published in the Journal of American Medical Association?

JS: Yes. It was at the time of my third child’s major surgery, which required an eight-day stay at Children’s hospital in Seattle, and she came home with tubes in her kidneys and bladder, that I wrote “The Body Especial,”—my first poem published in JAMA’s Poetry and Medicine column. The subjects of my JAMA poems have included, diagnoses such as Hashimoto’s disease, Epstein-Barr, post vitreous detachment, tinnitus, spasmodic torticollis, traumatic brain injury, shingles, serum sickness, and diagnostic procedures such as mammograms, echocardiograms, and biopsies.

While I have had personal resonance with this list of subjects, my first concern is honoring the energy of the moment in which I write. When various maladies are diagnosed, words get involved and that becomes exciting. There is the challenge to discover not only what the word holds, but what the body is holding onto. Our bodies know more than we do about how events in our ever-changing environment influence our lives. I found the term “Spasmodic Torticollis” very funny even as I experienced the pain of a wrenched neck. It does sound like an Italian dish, so the poem’s first line was a found line.

JB: As a poet who battles chronic pain, you’ve mentioned to me the importance of having read Sarah Anne Shockley’s book, The Pain Companion. Will you discuss the correlation between intellectualizing and managing your pain with writing about it imaginatively?

JS: Well, there is a depth of fury and rage when one’s body doesn’t function normally. Often this anger turns inward, towards oneself. That is unproductive and exacerbates the condition. You have to choose how you want to relate to your pain. I can’t trust the body, and have rarely felt comfortable in my own skin.

Writing, however, helps establish a foundation for trust in reality. There is a tremendous amount of release available when one can take to a private place such as a poem with one’s feelings—the heartache engendered by trauma. It isn’t a panacea by any means, but writing holds the moment in place. By anchoring an event with words, the experience becomes externalized, and makes shock more bearable.

So while I feel rather like a magnet for trauma, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to express these events of varying kinds and proportions in the form of verse. While there is little to recommend about trauma, except perhaps the ability to empathize with others who experience it, we all live through deeply distressing experiences. Just being born is a critical condition for the human infant, who relies on his or her parents to meet each and every need for a full year, as compared to other mammals, who are born and learn to fend for themselves in a relatively short time.

JB: Writing-through-trauma seems like a method by which a writer can actually claim an event that she herself couldn’t control. By writing a script in which beauty collides with trauma, a writer can orchestrate a slowing down, a way of regaining command of a life that’s vast and unpredictable. In that spirit, talk to me about the poem, “You’ll Never Heal.”

JS: I have been inspired to write by new traumatic events that seem to spring up continually and leave scars. “You’ll Never Heal” was written after one of my children had a serious car accident. It speaks of the sensibility of a shock experience from mother to daughter. I know for myself healing doesn’t necessarily happen in the actual world. In the ideal, of course, we want and expect that restoration and exactitude: that our loved one will emerge unmarred, unscarred. The thing about poems is that verse, at least for me, can capture the moment better than autobiographical prose can.

Though they say it could have been worse,
give you ice and pills, nothing bandages
the millisecond you can’t remember

or the afterwards, a shock wave traveling
in slow motion through your knee,
your back, neck and stomach.

Though they say the limp will disappear,
you feel as if cottonwood fell to the curb
to be collected by the accident
and packed into the ball and socket.

This kind of snow never melts.
Through glass you watch the great hulk of mountain,
that part you can see, its summit clipped
by cloud, frame, pall.

(Preprinted with permission from Came Home to Winter, Deerbrook Editions 2019)

JB: My favorite Anne Sexton quote concerns her label as a confessional poet: “I often confess to things that never happened.” I wonder if “Writing through Trauma” is just the 21st century term for “Confessional” writing? What’s your take on the mode of writing-through-trauma? Do you consider your writing about trauma to be confessional? Is trauma a matter for art? While there’s an inherent autobiographical nature to writing-through-trauma, my question to you is how can writers ensure that their work doesn’t succumb to self-indulgence?

JS: I would say stick with the experience, stay true to the details, and keep yourself present to what happened. Also, follow the mood, if and when that develops. Think of a mood as a guide forward into the material that needs to be accessed and brought back into the light in order to be examined under a microscope. Use your senses, all five, and the sixth sense if it can be accessed, to avoid self-pity. Know that you are not alone—trauma is experienced every day by everyone, even if it is present as the affront of a wooden table to a toddler who is learning how to navigate a living room. When the pity and confession begin, allow yourself to feel that, but don’t engage overlong. The smallest child moves forward with mercurial changeability from crying to laughing, and in a split second is on to the next thing. That’s a good lesson.

JB: So, is that to say that your primary concern in poem-making is image development versus writing on the facts of a certain situation? Writing-through-trauma for you isn’t a means of catharsis?

JS: I think it goes both ways. The first impetus is “Let’s get this thing that feels like being slimed out of my body…let’s make it into words, because it is too awful to retain inside.” The facts are the facts and they are important. This experience happened. It was shocking and surprising. It made me feel angry, upset, hurt; it caused pain and suffering. I am still here, however, and looking out at a world that doesn’t seem to care that this happened. In fact, people can distance themselves from their loved ones who suffer—this occurs much more often than one might like to think. Pain and suffering are scary and uncomfortable. They remind others of their own pain. Clearly PTSD and its attendant emotions can become a toxic and isolating concoction.

So what in nature does this feeling-experience resemble? That’s where image development comes in. There’s an organic part to being human. We try to pretend that our animal qualities don’t exist. We have our cities, our high rises, concrete, pavement—we’ve covered civilization with a flat veneer of ‘enlightenment’. Despite this, if, when wounded by our own bodies, we turn back to the natural world, there are abundant examples of scarred trees, burnt vistas, branchings, tramplings, floods, and randomness. Many images are available to translate our feelings into words. The correspondence of image to situation may or may not ease the current situation. It is not something to be done for the purpose of catharsis. That may backfire, because any purpose can become pat, forced, studied, and artificial—again, can be fancy.

JB: Speaking of the autobiographical elements in your writing, you’ve had physical injuries, hereditary maladies, social trauma, and chronic pain, all of which have been given voice in your poetry. Will you discuss the struggles inherent to using personal pain as a subject for poetry?

JS: I’ve always had a sensitive constitution. Acute sensory awareness, sympathetic pains, feeling deeply about things, people. A propensity for worry. I’ve felt shame, guilt (some milieu-induced and some society-specific) about my chronic pain, but that never prevented me from writing about it. Trauma is omnipresent and omnipotent, which is to say that no one’s immune. I’ve done research on PTSD, and still I cannot figure out why some people are consumed by it and some people seen to be inoculated from it.

JB: In your poem, “Biopsy,” which ends with the words, “She couldn’t feel / more like a hostage / were she to don / the bee’s jacketed stripes, / the garb of the jail,” there’s a curious string of associations from needle to sting to bee to imprisonment. Do these associations come easily for you in the creative process, or do you made these conscious links during revision?

JS: They simply arrived, in this case. The associative process was working—all I had to do was get out of the way. Of course this doesn’t always happen. I think in this case the links were  internalized from having been stung by wasps, bees, and hornets some twenty times while growing up in Maryland. Physicians and/or nurses often use the phrase “This will feel like a bee sting”…again the process is dipping into what’s already there, waiting to be found.

JB: When I substitute taught your Richard Hugo House class, “Generating Associative Verse,” I puzzled over who were my favorite associative poets. In that class I realized that your poetic associative moves are the ones I most admire. One of my favorites is your punctuation-free poem, “Tiny Animals,” which has that bullet train feeling:

in blown glass on shelves
Wedgewood plates
stacked on the buffet
for company
quilted place mats
salt and pepper shaker
from Tahiti
horns of ivory
rhinoceros don’t you dare
touch else the host
will bellow
you’ll become the child
who ran into winter
jumped the fence
to fall on concrete
where a shard
entered your palm
look at the cicatrix
like a tattoo
a little leg
pulled from flesh

(Previously published in Hamilton Stone Review No. 35)

JS: It’s the subconscious that knows best, so the question then becomes how to access that part of our minds when we go to write. Sensation seems to be the driving force for a poem, especially one of an associative nature. “Tiny Animals” is one of my personal favorite associative poems also. It’s impossible to explicate why, except perhaps that when I look at it now there are concrete images and explicit warnings. The injury experienced by the ‘you’—“you’ll become the child” is a splinter from one of those “Tiny Animal(s)”—but how does the piece move from beginning to end without knowing consciously that there would be a convergence? Because it (the unconscious/subconscious part) is the best tool available to any writer.

JB: Will you talk about the image-and thread-driven nuances of associative writing?

JS: In writing associatively, it’s the subconscious that knows best what material is of the utmost importance for addressing—or for feeling our way—through a specific subject matter. So the question becomes how to access that part of our minds when we sit down to write. Dreams are poem-like; associative poems can be dream like, and are compared to Hieronymus Bosch by Richard Hugo: “When you see a painting by Hieronymus Bosch your immediate impression may be that he was a weirdo. A wise man once told me he thought Bosch had been a cynic, and the longer I thought about this the truer it seemed… Had Bosch concerned himself with the relative moral or aesthetic values of the various details, we would see more struggle and less composure in the paintings themselves. The details may clash with each other, but they do not clash with Bosch. Bosch concerned himself with executing the painting—he must have—and that freed his imagination, left him unguarded…One way of getting into the world of the imagination is to focus on the play rather than the value of words…” (from The Triggering Town)

JB: Besides the propulsion of associations through your poems, will you enlighten me about the irreducible relationship between your titles and your first lines. There’s so much happening in that white space! The poetic leaps don’t feel like leaps at all; they feel more like scaling a German wall. Here are some of my favorite title/first line combinations from your selected, The Phoenix, 2007-2013: Wind—Like pain it came and left by halves; House of Burnt Cherry—Here the martyr and the porcupine; Extinction’s Cousin—I came back for scraps; and November Moon, Past Full—Pours its dead, mimetic light.

JS: In that white space, the poems take-off, so to speak. I think that exists because of the need strongly felt in the body to write the poem. It’s more of a mood or a feeling than an idea. Ideas are the enemy of associative writing; the goal is to allow ourselves access to what’s frozen, or invisible, below the tip of the iceberg. The feeling that drives the poem’s initial impulse and its title come almost in tandem, then a huge feeling that must come out (William Stafford: “writing a poem is like getting traction on ice”). The first line may be the easiest part, because the rest of the poem is figuring out the relationship between the first line and the feeling. You have to wade through self-doubt and confusion. As David Wagoner has said, you have to become a mad person when you write, to see where the mood and the music leads you.

JB: Your poems are a rapid-fire in that I don’t ever know exactly how I got to the end of each poem and when I do get there I want to reread the thing immediately. In a 2008 interview in the Centrum Foundation newsletter (Port Townsend, Washington), you said, “The best poems are those that go through you like a bullet train.” Is that to say that good poetry reverberates? Good poetry is blurry? Will you explain what you mean?

JS: I learned this from Beth Bentley, when I studied from her at the UW. She wanted emotion in poems. She didn’t want philosophy, or even, necessarily, a lot of narrative, though she herself is a master of the narrative voice. Good poetry moves quickly. It contains images that build upon one another—the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Too many ideas spoil a poem—that’s what I came to see from bringing poems in to Bentley’s workshop. The idea contains seeds or germs; this is what needs to be developed. So yes, I would say that good poetry does reverberate in that it calls upon the senses. If there is any blurriness, that would arise from connotations that differ somewhat from person to person, but it’s a straight shot from start to finish, and when you are done reading a good poem, you feel electricity. There is then the aftermath of watching that current pass through you.

Perhaps the poems feel fast because they are not rational, and not puzzled out in logical imagery. I’m more comfortable when I’m in that trance zone—when an unusual or unique feeling leads me to where a poem is headed. These are poems that I don’t really revise. I’m comfortable with the unknown, a gut feeling that I’m an explorer, an adventurer—perhaps the luckiest gift of being raised as the child of two scientists. I love letting thought follow some half-wrought lines anywhere they wish to lead. While composing verse, I myself am suspending disbelief.


BIO

Janée J. Baugher is the author of the poetry collections Coördinates of Yes and The Body’s Physics, as well as the forthcoming academic book, The Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction (McFarland, 2020). She teaches Creative Writing in Seattle.

Pre-sale orders: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/The-Ekphrastic-Writer/

Save Me and I Will Be Saved

by Riley Winchester


It was late in the morning on a day in late December of 2010. I was in a waiting room with my mom at The Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatrics Center. One of the walls of the waiting room was made entirely of windows, and natural light lit up the room. Outside was the scene of a normal Baltimore winter: mounds of muddy snow pushed up against walls and corners; the wind was whipping and could be heard through the windows.

I was scanning through the most recent edition of Sports Illustrated Kids and I remember thinking two things. The first was I wished the magazine was the regular Sports Illustrated, not the kid’s edition, because I was thirteen years old and had been reading the regular editionfor over four years now. The second thought was of back home. I wondered if I would have been playing in a basketball game later that day if I was home, 660 miles back home in Michigan.  

A nurse called my name and I stood up to walk into the back rooms where I was to have blood work done and tests run to see if I was right for what I was getting into. It was when I stood up and made my way toward the nurse that I saw what had been around me. It was like I was in a painting, but not a Matisse or a Monet. There were kids—all younger than me—in wheelchairs, with breathing tubes, with IVs hooked into their arms. I saw heads with the fuzz of peaches, smooth heads with no hair, skinny arms and legs, bony faces, and jaundiced eyes.

Through this painting I walked, and I walked with all of my health. I had my hair, a full head of it. I had tissue and flesh covering my bones. I had no machines fixed into me, nothing external needed to provide me with life. I walked; I wasn’t rolled around by someone else’s push. My body was healthy, but I was scourged with guilt.

———

Over the course of forty years Edvard Munch painted six different renditions of The Sick Child. Each time, the content of the picture remained the same but the style changed. The picture is of a young girl, propped up on a white pillow, on her death bed. She is staring at a dark curtain. The curtain, it’s believed, is a symbol of death. By the young girl’s side is a woman, presumably the girl’s mother, who is so distraught and grief-stricken that she can’t bear to look at her dying child, so her head is down, looking at the floor.

The original version was painted with mostly whites, grays, and greens—giving it a dark hue and a somber tone. When Munch debuted the painting at the 1886 Autumn Exhibition in Christiana, critics and spectators dismissed it. They said it looked unfinished and disparaged Munch’s abandonment of line. The hands of the grieving woman, according to critics, lacked discernible details and looked like blobs. In his defense, Munch said, “I don’t paint what I see but what I saw.”

What Munch saw, and what inspired The Sick Child, was the death of his fifteen-year-old sister Johanne, who was only one year older than Munch at the time of her death in 1877. She died from tuberculosis in the Munch family home, and the memory of his sister perniciously losing her health, and ultimately her life, stayed with Edvard Munch.

Munch became obsessed with the picture, and he continued to rework its aesthetic for most of his life. He abandoned Impressionism for Expressionism, and every successive version became brighter. Munch never explained the change in brightness, but he said Expressionism allowed him to express what really stirred his mind. When writing about The Sick Child late in his life, Munch said, “It was a breakthrough in my art. Most of what I have done since had its birth in this picture.”

———

I was at Johns Hopkins to donate, not to be treated. My dad was suffering from Paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH) and had been for as long as I could remember. PNH is a rare disease found in the red blood cells that causes hemolytic anemia in its sufferers. Hemolytic anemia is when red blood cells are destroyed at a rate much faster than they are produced. Over time this is deadly, and the average life expectancy after a PNH diagnosis is only ten years. My dad’s ten years were approaching. But his ten years were approaching at an auspicious time.

My dad had been on the bone marrow donor registry for over four years and couldn’t find a full-match donor. Fortunately, however, haploidentical bone marrow transplants were gradually becoming more accepted in the medical field. In haploidentical transplants, the bone marrow of a half-matched donor is used. Because of developments at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, half-match donations were now safe and came with very few side effects. The Johns Hopkins Hospital was the first American hospital to perform haploidentical transplants, and at the time it was the only American hospital to perform them.

The half-match in a haploidentical transplant is typically a family member of the bone marrow recipient. For my dad, this meant he would be receiving bone marrow from either his mom, his dad, his brother, one of his two daughters, or me—his only son. In the fall of 2010, the other potential donors and I were tested to see whose DNA closest matched my dad’s. Our blood was drawn in an outpatient lab at a Spectrum Health Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was then shipped to another lab to be examined. I remember thinking the whole process felt very casual and almost mundane. We filled a vial, no bigger than the size of a fat crayon, with blood, and that was it. A life was at stake and one of us would be responsible for it. But it didn’t feel like it.

The tests came back and I was the closest match. Years later, I learned I was always going to be the match and the tests were done only to ensure my DNA wasn’t an anomaly and somehow severely different from my dad’s. In haploidentical transplants, the ideal half-match is young and healthy, as the recipient should receive the healthiest bone marrow possible. This eliminated my dad’s parents and his brother. Also, the donor should be the same sex as the recipient, otherwise hormonal issues can arise. It’s possible to do cross-sex transplants, but they’re avoided if they can be. This eliminated my sisters, leaving only me left. Yet I didn’t know any of this at the time, so I was surprised when I learned I would be the donor. In the end, however, it was always going be me and it was always going to be at Johns Hopkins.

———

On my way to the nurse, a young girl in a wheelchair stole my attention. She was maybe five years old, and she wore nothing to cover her bald head. She had on a little purple dress, and in her hand was a stuffed monkey, which she held closely. A doctor was talking to her and her parents, who were standing beside her. The doctor knelt down and asked the girl if it would be okay if she came back on Christmas Eve for more testing. She didn’t hesitate. She said, Yes! And she was happy to come back whenever, she said, because all her friends were there. Her parents didn’t object, and an appointment on Christmas Eve was settled. As I approached the nurse, she greeted me. I followed her through a set of doors, leaving the waiting room behind, and down a hallway.

After a standard checkup of my height, weight, and blood pressure, I was sent into another waiting room where I was to wait until the doctors were ready to run blood tests on me. This new waiting room was designed specifically for kids. There were Rubbermaid tubs filled with Legos and other toys, small tables—with the tops brightly graffitied and etched into—that had coloring books and colored pencils on them, puzzles, picture books, and a TV with an Xbox 360 plugged into it. I turned on the Xbox and the TV as I waited for my name to be called again. I hadn’t yet started playing a game when a boy, around seven or eight years old, walked into the room. He wore a hand-knitted hat on his head and had a bandage on his cheek.

Before him or I said anything, he picked up an extra controller that had been on one of the small tables. I asked him if he wanted to play with me, and he shook his head yes, but he remained silent. It was a hockey video game, and I set it up to where we would play each other. In the game the puck dropped, and we started playing. No goals were scored, and very little time in the game had passed, when a new nurse came in and called my name. I paused the game and stood up to leave. The boy finally spoke, and he asked me if I was leaving. The question halted me. I wasn’t prepared; all my mind could think of was the truth. I could make no excuse or give no palliative answer. I told him, plainly, I was sorry and that I had to leave.

———

Bone marrow is spongy tissue found inside the bones that produces hematopoietic stem cells. Red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets develop out of these stem cells. Sometimes, hematopoietic stem cells turn cancerous or defective, slowing down or completely stopping the life-providing function of bone marrow. A bone marrow transplant is then needed to replace the bad bone marrow. It wasn’t until 1956 that a bone marrow transplant was successful. Doctors had been attempting transplants since the early 1900s, but Dr. E. Donnall Thomas was the first to perform the operation successfully. He extracted bone marrow from a healthy boy and gave it to the boy’s twin, who was suffering from leukemia.

The process hasn’t changed much since Thomas’s successful transplant in 1956: Bone marrow is extracted from the donor’s hip bone using bone marrow harvest needles—which closer resemble a drill bit than a needle—and then transplanted into the recipient’s bloodstream. It’s a safe process for the donor. Health concerns usually only arise in the recipient after the procedure, when their body is adjusting to the new bone marrow. 

Despite knowing the safety and efficacy of the procedure—doctors from Michigan to Johns Hopkins had all informed me of it—I had feelings of trepidation when I saw the needles that would be stuck into me, that would be driven into my hip bone, and that would suck the healthy marrow from me. But I was already at Johns Hopkins, I reminded myself; there was no going back now. And I had seen and been surrounded by so many hurting people, hurting kids, whose bodies were determined on destroying themselves from the inside out. It wasn’t fair to them. I had to do my part at Johns Hopkins.

———

The bone marrow transplant happened in early January 2011, and it was a success. After the transplant, when the anesthesia wore off, I woke up miserable and confused. My vision was sandy, it felt like a steel band was wrapped tightly around my head, and my mouth was so dry and coarse that I wondered if a small rodent had crawled into my mouth and died while I was unconscious. There were thick, bone white sheets hanging from the ceiling, separating me from the others who were also recovering in the same room.

The first thing I heard was the voice of a young boy who was talking to his dad. From the sound and timing of his voice, I could tell he was in the bed next to mine, to the right. He told his dad he wanted pancakes and he asked him when they would be able to eat them next. The dad promised that as soon as the boy recovered and was ready to leave the hospital, the first thing they would do is go out and eat pancakes. Shortly after he said this, the dad made the promise again, to make sure the boy knew.

I was supposed to lie in the hospital bed and recover for only two hours, but I stayed for over six. The surgery was harder on my body than I anticipated, than even the doctors anticipated. My body was weak, and every time I tried to stand and walk—walking was the true test to see if I was ready to leave, I was told—my legs gave out and I had to be caught by a nurse. To use the bathroom, I had to wrap my arms around a nurse and my mom and be guided to the toilet. At the toilet, I had to be held up by my mom because my legs couldn’t support my body.

As the hours went by, a new nurse was assigned to me—the original nurse’s shift had ended—my stomach started accepting food, things in my head became clearer, and my legs felt strong again. Finally I was able to walk on my own, and the nurses said I was okay to leave. I held onto a four-legged walker and shuffled, my mom beside me to catch me if my legs failed again. When I left, I could still hear the boy talking to his dad, but he was no longer talking about pancakes.

———

I spent many hours in The Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatrics Center. I watched kids go into rooms to receive treatment, have their bodies prodded with needles and filled with radiation, swallow prescribed pills at calculated intervals throughout the day. During these times, I often found my mind stuck on a passage from a book I had read shortly before I left for Johns Hopkins: The Catcher in the Rye. The passage is from when Holden tells his sister Phoebe about a recurring dream he’s been having.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

I wanted to be the catcher in the rye at Johns Hopkins. I wanted to stop all the sick kids before they went to receive treatment. I wanted to tell them they didn’t need it because I could help them. I wanted to give my kidneys to the kids with Wilms tumors. I wanted to give my liver to the kid with hepatoblastoma. I wanted to give all my bone marrow to the kids with leukemia. I wanted to give my eyes to the kids with retinoblastoma. I wanted to give my brain to the kid with brain tumors. I wanted to give my heart to the kid with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. I wanted to give myself to every sick kid until there was nothing left of me—until there was nothing left of me but there was all of them.

And with every kid I would say, Take it, take this! You can do more with it; you will do more with it! But I couldn’t. Like Holden, all I could do was think about it. All I could do was think and not do. 

———

I left The Johns Hopkins Hospital and was pushed through Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on a wheelchair, because I still couldn’t walk at full speed or for long periods of time. I left with my grandparents who had also been staying at Johns Hopkins. Our seats were upgraded to first class because of me. One of the airline workers saw me, a young teenager in a wheelchair, with two elderly people and she kindly told us our seats were now in first class. I was able to walk onto the plane, so I walked through the corridor that connected the terminal and the plane and found my seat in first class.

For a strange reason that I cannot explain, it felt good, at the time, to leave Johns Hopkins having experienced some pain and discomfort. Perhaps it was a combination of guilt for being healthy and feeling that I had done nothing for the kids, that I had even abandoned some, who I had so badly wanted to do something for. Of course, I couldn’t have done anything for them, but even at thirteen—an age where I should have known this, and I think I did know this but still told myself differently—I felt that there was something I could have done, even if I didn’t know what it was.

But I had done something at Johns Hopkins, and it was the reason for my pain and weak legs and fatigued body. I donated bone marrow to my dad; his PNH was cured and he was healthy. My grandparents still had their son, my mom still had her husband, and my sisters and I still had our dad. None of that would have been so if it weren’t for what I had done, but I wasn’t thinking about that.

———

Abraham Jacobi was born to impoverished parents in a small town in central Germany in 1830. Jacobi was a sick child from birth. In fact, he was so sick and his parents were so poor that they were advised by a doctor to not spend any money on treating the infant Jacobi, because there was little chance he would survive into adolescence. His parents listened to the doctor, but Jacobi survived. In his early twenties, Jacobi earned his Doctor of Medicine but shortly after was arrested for his radical political beliefs. After two years in a Cologne prison, he escaped and immigrated to New York, where he set up an affordable pediatric clinic.

Jacobi found success in America. His clinic was visited by many and he gained popularity in the medical field as both a physician and a pioneer in the field of pediatrics. In 1859, he published Midwifery and Diseases of Women and Children—the first medical text to take an earnest interest in treating sick children. Jacobi was one of the first physicians to understand the importance of treating sick children differently than sick adults, stating, “They are not merely small adults.” He was also the first physician to emphasize bedside pediatrics. Before Jacobi, the treatment of children was often emotionally distant due to high mortality rates among sick children and an overall vein of pessimism in pediatrics—losing multiple patients a week was normal for a pediatrician in the nineteenth century.

By the end of his life, Jacobi had written over 4,000 pages, collected in eight volumes, on pediatrics. He wrote on the etiology of diseases in children, the treatment of children, the philosophy of the pediatrician, and the necessity of pediatrics. In addition, he opened pediatric wards in hospitals across New York, and he served as the first Chair of the Section of Pediatrics of the American Medical Association. Today, Jacobi is known as the Father of American Pediatrics.

But even the Father of American Pediatrics could only do so much for his patients. The first pediatric disease Jacobi became interested in was diphtheria—a bacterial infection in the nose and throat—and he’s credited with inventing the indirect laryngoscope to examine children for the presence of diphtheritic membrane. Jacobi was considered an expert on the disease by his medical contemporaries. But at the age of eight, Jacobi’s only son, Ernst, contracted diphtheria. And, for Jacobi, there would be no saving Ernst. By the time the disease had been discovered in him, it was too late. Ernst Jacobi, the son of Abraham Jacobi, died at eight years old.

———

We landed in Grand Rapids and I was wheeled through Gerald R. Ford International Airport in one of their provided wheelchairs. Every time I caught someone’s attention and they looked at me for longer than a second with a stare of sympathy, I wanted to stand up. I wanted to stand up and tell them I was fine and I didn’t need them to feel bad for me and that there are kids all over who you should feel bad for but I’m not one of them. There are kids who you should feel bad for and I was with some of them but I couldn’t do anything for them.

I was wheeled up to the doors of the airport where there was an area to drop off the airport’s wheelchairs. I found a spot for my wheelchair and left it there; I was eager to abandon it. It was early in the morning, around 4 a.m., and outside everything was bright and lit up by streetlights and headlights from cars and buses. My grandma offered to help me walk as we looked for the car. I told her I was fine and I could do it on my own.

In the car, going south out of Grand Rapids, I started to feel different. It’s a source of stress and physical exhaustion to be in an environment like I was in, and now that I had been out of it for some time, I could feel myself recovering. I didn’t think I left Johns Hopkins a victim of any kind or that I had been unfairly exposed to something I shouldn’t have. I thought I had seen something, something unpleasant, and there were things that could come of it. What they were, I didn’t know, but I knew they were somewhere.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have known what those things were. That no matter what you do, you’ll always wish you had done more or think you could have done more, so it’s best to find pride in the things you have done and be kind to yourself. That hurt isn’t transferred like currency, and you being hurt won’t abate anybody else’s hurt. That you can’t make the world better all on your own, but you can start small, do what you can, and hope it makes your part of the world better. That when you sit and try to think about the big, profound things, your mind will get hung up on the little things like a stuffed monkey or a hand-knitted hat or pancakes, and then you’ll realize those were the big things all along. And a lot of what you learn will sound familiar, and that’s because it is; it’s not new, they’re old platitudes. But until you find something real to attach them to, they’ll never make any sense.

———

On the way home, we stopped at a McDonald’s drive-thru because we hadn’t eaten since we left Baltimore and no other restaurants were open. We waited a long time for our food, very long for being the only customers. It was quiet in the car—there was no radio playing and we were too tired for small talk. When our food finally came out, my order was wrong, and my grandpa said his coffee was cold. But none of these things seemed important or worth talking about, not now.


BIO

Riley Winchester lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He recently graduated from Grand Valley State University, where he earned a B.A. in History. His work is forthcoming in Waymark.

A Survival Guide to Christian College

by Rachel Belth



Dear Meredith,

I hear you are thinking about attending my alma mater, a staunchly Baptist university in the plains of central Ohio. There are a few things I didn’t tell you during our conversation yesterday. For example, what you may not realize now is that eventually, you’ll crack, some small or large or medium-sized part of you. The place is a little bubble of Christian perfection. You can only take so much of girls with clear skin and name-brand shoes and perfectly curled hair even coming in out of the wind. You can only take so much of polite boys with trimmed scruff and pomaded haircuts who hold doors open for girls. Sure, for a lot of them it’s a façade, and sure, there are some awkward, frizzy people like me—I’m just talking about how it feels. How it felt to me.

You can only take so much of required Chapel—every student band perfectly mixed without a single missed note, the worship leader reading an applicable Bible passage while a guitar or keyboard plays emotionally in the background. Not to mention university-mandated room checks (when your RA goes through your room once a week while you’re away, to check for illicit substances, which for Baptists includes alcohol). It really does a number on your faith.

Of course, I must remember who I’m talking to. You’re pretty, big eyes and soft hair, always so gracefully dressed from your flats to your loose scarf. You’re generous of spirit to everyone you talk to, and you speak so earnestly of your love for your parents, your sisters, your God. You seem fearlessly innocent, as if anything dirty in the world would bounce off you without leaving a mark. I try to be surprised by nothing, but I sincerely can’t but believe you’ll be fine.

So, let me re-phrase: what I didn’t realize when I was your age was that eventually, I’d crack (in a small-to-medium-sized way). It was a philosophy professor with a beard and a baritone so epic that everything he said carried the finality of absolute truth, and it was J.L. Schellenberg’s argument of divine hiddenness that collapsed my faith finally like the last brick of a Jenga tower.

I’m sure your faith is stronger than mine was. But if you do crack, here’s what you need to know. What you can get away with:

  • You can cut off the middle finger of your winter gloves. Like those fingerless gloves with the pullover mitten tops, but just for the middle finger.
  • Similarly, you can paint your fingernails lime green except for the middle one, painted red. It will totally go over everyone’s heads. People will even compliment you (“I love your nails!”). You can choose to point it out (“You realize which finger is painted red, right?”) or smile smugly and say, “Thanks.”
  • You can brew kvass in an old coffee syrup jar. Nobody will notice even though it smells distinctly yeasty. You can keep vodka in a travel-size Jack Daniels bottle in a box under your bed. You can probably keep a whole liquor cabinet under your bed, but I wasn’t brave enough—you can get expelled for that.
  • You can scrawl Russian swear words on your arm with a Sharpie, a temporary tattoo. Maybe дерьмо (that is, bitch). Not so much because you believe yourself to be one, although you do, but because you can flaunt a word that everyone would be shocked to see in English.
  • You can keep the handful of Band-Aid wrappers in the trash, right on top. You can keep on your dresser—right there sitting on your perfume bottle—the Bic razor you so tenaciously wrested from its plastic casing, wedging it between the laundry room laminate and the heel of your stoutest pair of pumps, between the carpet and the back leg of your desk chair, leaving tufts of blue between the blades. You can slice the skin on your lower left abdomen where no one will see and worry. (You can cut your arm and most people won’t notice, but those who do will get hysterical when you tell them not to worry, it’s not that big of a deal, so it’s best to keep that stuff hidden. Except, of course, for the razor blade, which you can keep in plain sight.)

What you cannot get away with: throwing your converse against the cinderblock wall, again and again until all the frustration is out and all the swear words have been muttered. Your RA, a peppy girl who flatirons her blonde hair and wears a lot of pink, will hear and come to the door concerned, and she will not believe you when you say everything’s fine.

Or maybe it will be your friend across the hall who hears you, who knows pain better than you do, and she’ll sit on your roommate’s chair and wait for you, even though she doesn’t know what’s going on because you can’t find the words yet.

Maybe, in the thick of this, you will try to write a poem, and you will send it to a friend for feedback, but instead of commenting on its cadence, he’ll ask what’s going on because he knows you’re not OK and that’s more important. And you’ll tell him what you can, even though you still haven’t found the words. You’ll wait for them to stack in the air between you and they still won’t come. And he’ll say things to help that won’t. And he’ll hug you as long as you need him to, which will not make everything better but will begin to help and will comfort you even years later, after you have begun to find the words.

Whatever university you choose to go to, may you find friends like that.

It seems horrendously inappropriate to be telling you this, Meredith, so innocent. To think, my story, benign as it is, may be the first block in your Jenga tower. That is not what I want for you, and I don’t want that responsibility—please let this story bounce off you. But if your faith does crack or crash altogether, I hope you’ll find peace in the rubble. I hope you rebuild, if that’s what you want, or burn it, or learn to carry the mess along with you. Any of those can be beautiful options too. And if you find any new ways of flipping people off or cursing them without them knowing, please tell me; I still enjoy doing that.

Stay strong.

Best,
Rachel

# # #


BIO

Rachel Belth is an instructional designer, creative nonfiction writer, and poet. Her work has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, Crack the Spine, and The Critical Flame, among other places, and she volunteers as a copyeditor at the literary website Identity Theory. She holds a B.A. in Technical and Professional Communication. She writes from an east-facing window in Columbus, Ohio.

Smoke: A Memoir in Ten Puffs

by Dennis Vannatta


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

Puff One

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

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

Puff Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Like I said, he had hard hands.

Puff Three

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

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

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

            Let’s move on.  And quickly.

Puff Four

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

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

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

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

Puff Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puff Six

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

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

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

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

Puff Seven

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

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

Puff Eight

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

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

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

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

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

Puff Nine

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

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

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

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

Puff Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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


BIO

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

Fasting

by Cliff Morton


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn you Pete! Damn you and your hospitable nature!

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“And?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup,” he said, nonchalantly.

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


BIO

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

The Power of Poetry:
An Interview with Chryssa Nikolakis

Bill Wolak and Chryssa Nikolakis

Chryssa Nikolakis was born in Athens, Greece. She graduated from the University of Athens, Theology Department, with a Master’s of the Arts; she also received a Master’s Degree in Literature from the Hellenic Open University. She also holds a Diploma in Translation and Subtitling (British Council). She has published literary studies in many scientific-theological journals. In 2017 she published her first poetry collection Sea Gate (Ostria). Her stories and poems have been published in anthologies such as Short Story Anthology 2017-2018 (Ostria 2017), Colors of the Soul (Ostria, 2018), 4th Anthology Collection (Dianysma 2017), Calendar 2018 (Vergina), Conversations with Cavafy (Ostria), and Conversations with Kazantzakis (Ostria). She primarily deals with literary criticism about poetry, prose, theater, and fairytales. In April 2019, her first book of fairytales, Boy and the Dragon, was published (Aparsis); it was read in the “Fairies and Dragons” program of Voice of Greece (ERT). Her poems “In Defense of the Marginalized” and “Justified” received honors at the Delphi Pan-Hellenic Poetry Competition (2018 and 2019). Her poem “Redemption Time,” was awarded the 3rd Prize at the 8th World Thematic Competition of Hellenism, (2019). She writes literary reviews for many magazines, such as: FRACTAL, TOVIVLIO.NET, MAXMAG, and AUTHORING MELODIES. In May 2019, she became a member of the Panhellenic Union of Writers (PEL).

Bill Wolak: What was it that first attracted you to poetry?

Chryssa Nikolakis: Τhe emotional part. Ι was sixteen when I read Yannis Ritsos’ “Moonlight Sonata,” and that made me cry. Soon after, I started writing little poems, especially when I was stressed.

BW: Who were the first Greek poets that you enjoyed reading?

CN: Cavafy, Livaditis, Papadiamantis, and my favorite one Yiannis Ritsos.

BW: Were there any other Greek poets or poets from around the world who later influenced you?

CN: Υes, Edgar Alan Poe and Tennessee Williams.

BW: The title of your first book of poetry is Sea Gate. Can you tell me a little about the kinds of poems in that book?

CN: It is inspired by my dreams, by love, and the human condition, as well as the divine.

BW: You graduated from the Theology Department of the University of Athens. What aspects of theology interested you?

CN: The parts that interested me more than everything else were philosophy and sociology in connection to theology.

BW: How did you first become interested in fairytales?

CN: I started telling fairytales to my little daughter, Simela, and she was very excited about them. So I decided to write them down and create a book out of them.

BW: Can you tell me a little about Boy and the Dragon?

CN: Boy and the Dragon is a fairytale about loneliness and friendship. The Boy lives all alone in the woods along with the little animals. The Dragon comes, first saves and  then rescues the Boy, and together they travel all over the world. Children have to choose between money and friendship, between freedom and borders. In the end, love is the real winner.

ΒW: What other languages have you studied?

CN: French, but English has conquered me.

BW: Can you explain what you find so compelling about the poetry of Yannis Ritsos?

CN: I’m attracted by his simple way of developing his poems without any obscure allusions and polysyllabic words that some poets use to attempt to impress their readers. I also love him for the sense of humanism I find in his poems and his genuine affection for humanity.

BW: In Cavafy’s poetry, which kind do you prefer: his more objective historical poetry or his more personal erotic poetry?

CN: I prefer his historical poetry, which I think it is unique, although his erotic poems are quite dramatic too.

BW: All American students read some Edgar Alan Poe during their time in school. Did you first read him in school, or did you find him on your own?

CN: I read him on my own because he’s not taught in school. I love his way of writing and the fact that he catches the readers’ attention with the final images in his poems.

BW: Were you first attracted to Poe by his poetry or his short stories?

CN: Yes, poetry, which, of course, I find more realistic and vivid.

BW: How exactly did poetry help you relieve your levels of stress when you first started writing? Does poetry still have the same stress-relieving effect on you when you write today?

CN: Poetry is my eternal love. I will write till my last days. It relieves all my troubles and pain. I believe that poetry has the power to grace one with catharsis only because of the images and its vividness.

BW: What kind of a career have you pursued? Are you a freelance writer, an editor, or a teacher?

CN: I am a literary critic and a freelance writer; I send my work to various magazines, and they are always accepted and published. I also write fairytales as well as poems and short stories

BW: How would you describe your writing process when you are writing poetry? Do write in notebooks, journals, or directly onto the computer?

CN: I prefer to write in notebooks and afterwards I jot them down to the computer; you might call me an old fashioned person, but that’s how I function.

BW: What sort of literary studies have you published?

CN: Quite a few of them, mostly on Ritsos, on Kazantzaki’s, and a research paper on Cavafy.

BW: Have you ever participated in any international poetry festivals?

CN: Yes, this year I participated in the International Festival of Poetry For Peace in Athens.

BW: Have you had a chance to travel to other European countries or other destinations outside of Europe? Are there any places in the world that you would like to visit next?

CN: I have travelled in France, Prague, and Italy. I would like to travel in Spain, Las Vegas, and Tokyo.


Five Poems by Chryssa Nikolakis

LONGING

I want you like a fallen angel
who reached his Heaven
and drank water from the crystal spring.
I want you like a flower
that discovered the Castalian Spring
in a Jewish desert.
I want you like a lake
that yearns for its escape
to the untraveled ocean
into which to merge.

I wish I could become
light wind upon your lips 
to get the kiss of your water
though your pitcher is too small
and how can it quench me?

translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)


IMAGE

At the first glimpse of dawn
the graceful sun
spreads the summer’s conflagration
onto our bed-sheets

when winged Eros charges
through the window
to appease his hunger
as it rests his arms
on our sweaty bodies

translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)


TWILIGHT

Eternal moment
hidden in the damp sky
when I close my eyes
before the unachievable
gates shut tight
petals of the night-flower

spring distances itself
while you climb up the hill
sacrifice that wasn’t meant for you
the preacher’s voice
inside the empty church

and I still love you
my starless night sky
like the clear table
on a Sunday twilight.

translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)


THE GIFT OF PNEUMA

I laid an honorary wreath
I prayed for your name
in the church I lit a candle
and I started my frenetic
and ecstatic dance
on Dionysus’ rhythm

and I said

Heaven and Hell
you my Earth and you my Sky
barefoot I run
away from the temple
crying I raised my head up high

and I asked:

oh you, Adam’s descendants
which is your original sin?

Life is here and so is Death 

translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)


LOW TIDE, HIGH TIDE

Flood of happiness
which I feel for the first time
wild dustbowl into which I jump
fast talkative creek
water to quench the thirst of Nereids
the Centaur’s shake up amid the clouds
almost sundown, a twilight
just before the stars warm our sky

low tide and high tide
inhaling, exhaling
Love and Eros
Gods’ chosen gift
hidden into an angel’s crypt
away from unhappy eyes
faraway from an earthly sin
into the eternal manger 
of our Love

translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)


Bill Wolak is a poet, collage artist, and photographer who lives in New Jersey and has just published his eighteenth book of poetry entitled All the Wind’s Unfinished Kisses with Ekstasis Editions. His most recent translation with Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, Love Me More Than the Others: Selected Poetry or Iraj Mirza, was published by Cross-Cultural Communications in 2014.Recently, he was a featured poet at The Mihai Eminescu International Poetry Festival in Craiova, Romania; Europa in versi, Lake Como, Italy; The Pesaro International Poetry Festival, Pesaro, Italy, The Xichang-Qionghai Silk Road International Poetry Week, Xichang, China, The Ethnofest, Pristina, Kosovo, the Chengdu International Poetry Week, Chengdu, China, and the International Poetic Conference, Poznań, Poland. He has published interviews with the following poets, writers, and artists: Anita Nair (India), John Digby (United Kingdom), Dileep Jhaveri (India), Gueorgui Konstantinov (Bulgaria), Naoshi Koriyama (Japan), Sultan Catto (United States), Ilmar Lehtpere (Estonia), Jeton Kelmendi (Kosovo),  Yesim Agaoglu (Turkey), Mahmood Karimi Hakak (United States), Philip Cioffari (United States), Yongshin Cho (Korea), Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis) (Canada), Jami Proctor Xu (United States), Stanley H. Barkan (United States), Annelisa Addolorato (Italy), and William Heyen (United States).

Sozzled

by Hannah Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIO

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

Painters and Poets: A Final Farewell to My Mother

by John C. Krieg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Effie’s Head:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIO

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

Works Quoted:

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

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

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

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

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

Head of the Ulna

By Tessa Vroom

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

BIO

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

Temporary Cat Lady

by Caitlin Sellnow

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

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

“Oh, God!” I gasped.

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

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

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

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

Shayla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rudy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paploo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallagher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIO

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

My Most Constant Lover

by Miriam Edelson

 

 

I am never truly alone in this place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

“I’m No More Rabid than Usual”

by Catherine Moscatt

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m no more rabid than usual”

 

 

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

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historic(!) Rugby

by Tim Miller

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because life goes on, except in Rugby.

BIO

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

Cochina de Mierda

by Jennifer Jordán Schaller

 

 

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

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

                        Only old women wear brown.

                        Pink is for little girls.

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

                        French manicures are classy, like Jackie O.

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

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

That is so tacky.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

Who Is Jackie Brown?

by Rachel Scott

 

 

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

Tishomingo Blues
By: Elmore Leonard

“What’s this?”

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

 

 

White Man on Indian Land

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

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

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

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

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

 

Role Playing

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

A Literary Life

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

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

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

1988, pp. 67-70.

 

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

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

 31-62.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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