The fire that almost burned our house down was set by Dad deliberately, in a way. He had the best of intentions in mind. He was not a pyromaniac. Just a man way over his head about how to grow a garden. And what a garden we had. We counted forty fruit trees, forty. But how does a man newly arrived in Israel from Poland, having escaped the gas chambers, deal with a garden? If you asked him how to chant Psalms, or how to fire a rifle, or survive the Russian Gulag, he’d have no problems doing so. He was the guy who was brought up in European cities and escaped the Nazis’ clutches only to get nabbed by Stalin into a Gulag prison before joining the Russian military to fight the Nazis. So, shortly after he and Mom landed in Israel and he went to fight in the War of Independence, Mom went ahead and bought the house with all those fruit trees. They were going to become pioneers in the dry Mediterranean climate of their new land.
Three years later, we still had a messy yard drowning in weeds with no flowers or shrubbery, just a few skinny hens. The kind of yard one expected from two people who knew nothing about horticulture or indeed anything to do with farming. But Dad was a quick study in his spare time, which was rare; he worked six days a week in construction often away from home in the new Negev towns.
“Everyone,” he said, “painted the bottom half of the tree trunks in white lime to keep insects off the trees.” He would do that too.
Mom was a skeptic. “White paint isn’t going to keep any vermin or bugs off,” she said, examining a leaf for any noticeable signs of bugs. “This is just some ridiculous fad! If you really want to get rid of pests, spray them with the same repellants we use in the house. It kills everything.”
Dad rarely went against Mom’s wishes, but in this case, he was obstinate. One Saturday morning he set out for the yard with his paint brush, a bucket of white lime paint and barrelful of determination.
We watched with fascination as he went about his task: dipping the flabby brush in the bucket and slathering the paint on the trunks. It took him the best part of the day. When he finished, he stood back and, wiping the sweat off his face with his shirtsleeves, he eyed his handiwork. Mom feigned disinterest from the kitchen window, but my sister and I went out to inspect the job with critical eyes.
My sister bent her head this way and that way. “The paint is not even on all the trunks, and looks splattered,” she finally said.
“Yeah,” I jumped in with my six-year-old enthusiasm. “It’s higher on some trees than on others. It makes the trees look funny.”
Dad laughed and waved his hand. “Crooked, splattered, it’s like a Picasso. And anyway, it will keep the insects off, so it doesn’t matter. Now our yard is like our neighbors’.”
We heard Mom scoff from the kitchen window. “It’s not like they know what they’re doing. The blind leading the blind, if you ask me. It would have probably been better to get rid of overgrown weed, so we don’t have to worry about any critters making their homes here.” That was her say on the matter before she called us in for dinner.
I liked the white tree trunks; it gave them an eerie, supernatural appearance, like they were trees, but not trees. White trunks shooting up from a sea of weeds. And at night they reflected the moonlight and glowed in our dark yard.
The following Friday afternoon, we heard Mr. Segal, our neighbor whose yard abutted ours in the back, yell for my dad, “Shlomo, Shlomo!” he called.
Mom wiped her hands on her apron and ran outside, muttering to herself, “shouting across the yard like a peasant.” I skipped after her. “Shlomo’s just come back from work and is in the shower. What’s the matter?” Her face was shiny and red from standing over the kerosene lamp cooking.
“Mrs. Tova, a snake; I saw a snake in your yard. I’m pretty sure it was a rattlesnake.” Mr. Segal waved and pointed his hands at our unkempt yard. The overgrown grass engulfed all the fruit trees.
Mrs. Segal stood next to him in her housedress wringing her hands. “This is a vilde country. Snakes! Got in Himmel!”
“Rattlers are poisonous. You’ll have to burn the overgrown grass in your yard,” Mr. Segal said, his face lined with concern. “It’s the only way to deal with them.”
Red blotches appeared on Mom’s neck. That didn’t bode well for anyone. “Burn the yard? Are you crazy? Besides by now the snake could be in your yard. Why don’t you set fire to yours? You’ve got plenty of weeds yourselves.”
Dad came running out in his shorts and t-shirt, his hair dripping wet. “What’s this about a snake?”
Mom turned to him. “He thinks he saw something like a snake in our yard. Something yellow. It could have been anything. Oh – and we should burn our yard.” She waved her hand dismissively.
Mr. Segal huffed. “Mrs. Tova, I know what I saw: it was a snake and he rattled. It’s the only way.”
“This is crazy. Lea,” Mom said turning to my sister, “go get Moishe. We’ll see what he has to say.” Mom held Moishe, our other Russian neighbor in high esteem, when it suited her. At least he wasn’t a Yekke, a German, who gave himself airs.
Lea crossed the street and a few moments later Moishe appeared, a rake poised over his shoulder. A noodle, likely a remnant of Dorka’s Friday chicken soup, stuck to his glistening chin. And for the next half hour, Dad and Moishe gingerly combed through the yard with their rakes held up high, so that if the snake appeared they’d be able to smash or rake him. I watched from our kitchen window while Mom set the table for our Friday night meal. The aromas of the soup and gefilte fish and chocolate cake made my mouth water.
After a while Dad came into the house, his tanned face sweaty and crestfallen. “Tova, we heard the rattle, and saw the color. It’s a rattlesnake all right and we can’t risk it. We’re going to set the grass on fire. It’s way too overgrown anyway.”
Mom’s face turned beet red, and a little vein flicked on her temple. “A fire? The only thing we have is this piece of property and you’re going to set it on fire?” Mom’s voice rose as she was warming to the subject. “I’ve been through the fires of hell, and it’ll be over my dead body that I’ll let you burn our yard and home.”
Moishe stood at the doorway. “Relax, Tove’chka, it’ll be fine. We know how to do this. It’s called controlled fire.”
Mom bore her eyes into Moishe. “And where did you learn this trick? In the shtetel in Minsk, before or after they burned your house down? I won’t lose my home because of a little snake you men are too scared to kill. Here, let me have this.” She reached out to yank the rake from Dad, but he held her off.
“We’re just going to put little fires to the grass; we won’t let them get big. Close the window,” he said. He motioned to Moishe. They marched out.
Dorka, Moishe’s wife, appeared in our kitchen. “Tova, come to our house and let the men take care of this. Please.”
Mom shoved us to go with Dorka. “I’m staying right here. These idiots will burn down the house.” Tears mingled with sweat ran down her cheeks. I’d never seen Mom cry.
Dorka put her hand on Mom’s shoulder, but Mom, her eyes blazing, swatted it off.
Lea and I stayed with Mom in the house. I wanted to make sure nothing happened to her.
We stood at the kitchen window; our eyes glued to the action outside. Dad made a torch out of a long stick wrapped at one end in one of the towels he brought home from the Sinai War. Moishe doused it in gasoline and then set a match to it. Yellow flames leaped out and Dad let the flames lick the tall grass.
Mom turned to us. “Go to Dorka; I’m going out there.”
“No, Mom, don’t go,” Lea pleaded.
“Go, go.” Mom shoved Lea and me aside.
We stayed at the kitchen window. I clutched my stomach, but stayed glued to my spot, mesmerized by our burning yard.
It didn’t take long before little fires were sprouting everywhere, enveloping the tall grass around the fruit trees. Dad lit one patch, Moishe another, and Mom followed and dumped a bucket of water onto the flames, a hiss followed. Smoke filled the air. Soon it was hard to make out the three figures as the whole yard was shrouded in haze, and an acrid smell pierced our nostrils. More neighbors came round, gawking, offering advice on how to best keep the fires under control. I kept my eyes on Mom. She seemed to have a hard time dousing the flames with her two buckets. By the time she refilled them, the flames came alive again. At one point it looked like they would consume her and Dad and Moishe.
The hens made a racket, something awful. Someone shouted, “Watch out. The flame’s getting close to the house!”
Dorka yelled, “Don’t just stand there – go get more buckets.”
I caught a glimpse of Mom. She seemed crazed. Her hair was matted and plastered onto her red, glistening face. I couldn’t see Dad or Moishe. I gasped for air, and Lea told me to get my asthma inhaler, but I didn’t budge. Two men appeared with more buckets. Mr. Siegel managed to get an extra-long hose that got water from his yard to ours. He aimed it at the wall of our house facing the yard.
Finally, it was over. All that remained was smoke. The gawkers and helpers went back to their own homes.
“Did you find the snake?” I asked.
“There was no snake,” Mom said, wiping her face in her dirty sleeve.
“The snake got burned to a crisp,” Dad said. “We found his skeleton.”
Mom glared at him. “I’m going to shower first. You’ll have to take a cold shower,” she said as she stormed inside. Dad put away the buckets and rake and followed.
The air was thick with gray smoke, and the stench clung to our noses. Lea and I surveyed the yard. It looked ghostly. The white tree trunks were white no longer, but they had survived – fruit trees sprouting in a field of ash.
Judy Stanigar was born and raised in Israel. Her short story, Fruit Trees Sprouting in a Field of Ash, draws on her childhood there. When she was a teenager, she moved to the United States with her family. She attended Columbia University and worked as a psychotherapist for many years before turning her life-long passion and love of books into writing.
The only response
to a child’s grave is
to lie down before it and play dead.
Black boys getting shot in Harlem—that’s certain,
waiting like a germ between our taste buds for the chance to begin a plague. The news
reports in a six-sentence quip, and all is revealed: street party, crossfire, shot in the head.
Pity, to be 13, black and poor in New York’s only home
that welcomes such folk, its skyline dotted with decrepit roofs and
a quick buck. We keep our mouths closed, though we sigh (“Not
again.” “No, not again!”) when we hear of the boy’s demise. They
won’t report this the next city over—let alone the next state.
How many bullets have reduced a black body to mere flesh&bone?
In an instant, we board the subway, our hands around pocketbooks
with force as we traverse, in and out and underground,
the network of tracks like sutures across our shoulders,
linking the city and our lives: Lord, please, let it not be our child.
Kids getting shot in colonial New England—
Wait. What? The news yanked out our tongues
and wrapped it around spreadsheets and pizza stones,
calling out to our little ones in a hollow timbre,
their fresh bodies close, breathing their bubble gum,
breathing scabbed knees and muddied shoes. If only
the killer had gotten counseling. If only gun laws were
just so. Our minds wrapped around what-ifs
until the worst of us remained convinced it was a hoax.
Surely our precious 6-years-olds are not slaughtered with
automatic weapons—these bodies, this pink flesh.
Something else must explain it: conspiracies, trauma actors,
the media! We always blame them, rolling out blankets
to snuff out what burns us: Lord, please, let it not be our child.
Do children get shot in that corner of the world? In the city of
flowers? It is, by all means, extreme: summers boil, winters
witch-tit cold, dust, hail, and when the gunmen crash through
the doors, it’s another kind of storm brewed in the landlocked valley,
stirred by the impossible wind that descends the peaks.
One hundred plus children, gone. Children—dead and gone. The
smartest ones barricaded the door, a lesson in physics: Angle of
crossbeam? Density of wood? Not enough to stop men from
crashing it down in praise of God. In the city of flowers,
workers load the ambulance with blood stain. In the city of flowers,
mothers unveil themselves to wrap the wounds of little boys in pink, blue,
orange, red. In the city of flowers, the MPs hug their M16s,
skullcapped fathers scream. And the storm rages on, in the city of flowers,
in the cities of our first born: Lord, please, let it not be our child.
Kristen Hoggatt-Abader is the author of the poetry chapbook Arab Winter and the former Ask a Poet advice columnist for Drexel University’s The Smart Set. She is currently a Senior Lecturer at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in rhetoric and composition. Her work has also appeared in The Ledge Magazine, Nimrod International Journal, and Poetry Porch. More of her work can be found at khoggattabader.com
As Geoffrey made his way carefully along the rutted track in his ancient, poorly-suspended car, he wondered for the umpteenth time why McGee had invited him to celebrate Hogmanay at his remote mountain cabin.
He knew that McGee spent a lot of time there, now that he’d retired, observing mostly the several species of owls that populated the region and reporting his sightings on birder websites. For his amusement, he would occasionally make a false claim to a sighting of an extremely rare bird and offer entirely misleading directions to twitchers wanting to add to their tally.
It wasn’t as if Geoffrey had anything planned for New Year’s Eve. He’d long ago eschewed the fake bonhomie of such gatherings, where total bores got spectacularly inebriated as quickly as possible in hope of being forgiven for any indiscretions perpetrated during the obligatory midnight kissing and hugging. His wife, Grace, had taken herself off to just such an event.
McGee had rung Geoffrey to propose the catch-up. ‘Come and join me, you miserable hermit. We can reminisce and lie outrageously as we work our way through my collection of wines and single malts. You can stay overnight and we can groan our regrets over our stupidity as we work our way through bacon and eggs and Bloody Marys in the morning.’ Hearing no response, McGee said quietly, ‘Neither of us are going to see many more New Years, Geoffrey.’
Geoffrey agreed, knowing that McGee had played him yet again. Before he ended the call, he asked McGee if anyone else would be coming. ‘Oh, you will be surprised at who might be there. There’s any number of desperate women who would leap at the chance to jump the bones of a couple of desiccated old drunks,’ cackled McGee, from which Geoffrey concluded that they would be alone. Two emotional hermits mocking the idea of regeneration.
McGee emerged unsteadily from his cabin and said in ironic avuncular fashion ‘Welcome, Geoffrey, old boy.’ Everything about McGee had become grey, including his skin.
Inside, a log fire was well ablaze in a handsome stone fireplace, above which hung an obviously recently polished framed picture of the three of them in their younger days.
After a ‘dinner’ that comprised seemingly random items chosen from an expensive delicatessen, they retired to the high-backed armchairs set in front of the fire. McGee poured whisky in to crystal cut glasses.
‘Take a cup of kindness, old boy’ McGee said as he excused himself and returned a short time later holding a hand gun. Geoffrey stared at the gun in disbelief. ‘McGee, what are you playing at?’ McGee laughed and said ‘This? This is our after-dinner entertainment.’
McGee laid back in his chair and said ‘I’ve always seen you as an owl, Geoffrey. Sleepy eyes parading as wisdom, striking in the night but cowardly in the daylight, and despised for their habit of fouling their own nests.’
Geoffrey said calmly, ‘Well, it’s just as well you like owls.’
‘Oh, Geoffrey, you’re as transparent as a window pane. Do you remember when Grace left me for you? Of course you do. She said I’d become tiresome and stale whereas you, Geoffrey, were being endlessly re-invented. Do you know how much that hurt me, old boy? Of course you do. And you’re about to pay the price for that perfidy.’
‘McGee, where are you going with this?’
‘I’m going to oblivion but you are going to penitence.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Let me spell it out for you, Geoffrey. In a moment, I’m going to hand you the gun and you are going to shoot me through the heart. Then you are going to call the Police and tell them that I got drunk and went mad and started shooting randomly. You tried to wrestle the gun from me and it went off, fatally wounding me. So, I’m about to fire off a few rounds around the room to make it look convincing and then I’m going to give you the gun.’
‘Oh, yes. If you don’t make that promise, I will shoot you now and then turn the gun on myself. I know you, Geoffrey. If you promise me, then you’ll have to do it because you’re not ready to die. Besides, Amazing Grace is going to need you in the years to come and that will be your obligation. So … do you promise?’
Geoffrey was silent.
McGee shouted ‘You’re looking like an owl again. Decide!’
Geoffrey said softly ‘I promise.’
McGee turned and fired his first shot into the dead centre of the framed photo over the fireplace. That moment of distraction gave Geoffrey time to lunge, remove the gun from McGee’s hand and knock him to the floor.
He strode to the door and hurled the gun into the pitch blackness of the dense undergrowth. Before he drove away he hissed at McGee ‘I’m not your fixer.’
Geoffrey had given no thought as to what he might do in his retirement. A career public servant, he’d not just survived but thrived within the Agency and made it to the finish line with his home paid for and a secure income from his superannuation for life.
Grace had many hobbies and a wide social circle and was rarely home during the day. However Geoffrey had slowly divested himself of friends, despised his family and swore he’d commit suicide before he’s take up golf or lawn bowls.
He’d never been a keen gardener in the past but now, home alone, growing things had become an obsession, albeit one with an emphasis on orderliness and strict boundaries. Over time, his wife’s random planting had turned much of their modestly-sized garden into a jungle; a riot of randomness that offended his eye and troubled his soul.
For the sake of peace, he retained some of the roses and the odd agapanthus but the rest he unmercifully uprooted and replaced them with what he saw as useful raised beds of vegetables and fruit trees in large pots.
Having used every square inch of arable land he owned (including what had previously been lawn), he had now taken advantage of the street gardening movement to colonise the verge in front of his home. He grew mostly herbs that he imagined passers-by would gratefully snip off to add to their evening meal. He even had a pair of scissors on a string hanging from a street tree.
When Mrs. Kafoops at No. 23 was taken into a nursing home, her grandson moved into her house, along with a few of his pals, allegedly with the brief to maintain the house and garden until such time as the house was sold. The parties until dawn started almost immediately.
One morning Geoffrey stood gazing in horror at the carnage in his herb bed on the verge, clearly created by vehicles possessed by those attending the latest booze-and-drug-driven bacchanal at No. 23. He began to coldly map out his dish of revenge.
Crucial to his plan were his contacts within the building industry and local government. Mysterious deliveries of gravel and sand began appearing in the driveway of No.23, blocking their cars in (or out as the case may be). Then a ‘routine’ visit from the Council building inspector discovered termites were threatening the structural safety of the building.
When Mrs. Kafoops’ lawyer was contacted by the representative of a buyer (protected by commercial-in confidence) with a half-way reasonable offer, they hastened to accept (while quietly wondering who this nutter could be).
The grandson and his cronies vanished from the scene and Geoffrey began designing his next field of dreams.
Grace had decided it was time to go. Mere existence held no appeal. She and Geoffrey had discussed ‘the end’ many times and despaired at society’s obsession with longevity. As they sat drinking coffee outside cafes, they watched ancients on walking frames grimly shuffling their way to the chemist for more of whatever was keeping them alive.
They got the ‘fear of the unknown’ thing but could never really understand why more people just didn’t say ‘Damn this for a joke.’ Except you couldn’t. Guns not handy these days, razor blades messy for whoever found you, chemists making sure you couldn’t stockpile your potions, and just as likely to fall of the chair before you could manage to hang yourself. And, of course, the nanny state forbade such crimes against humanity unless doctors said your case was hopeless and you’d already been in agony long enough to deserve an early minute.
So Grace and Geoffrey had agreed. Whoever decided first that they had had enough would help the other one. And the Devil take the hindmost became their wry catchcry.
‘The tomatoes are just about finished’, Geoffrey said, starting their checklist. ‘The birds can have what’s left.’
‘I’ve taken the screen off the top of the fish-pond’, Grace said. ‘The bin-chickens can have a banquet.”
‘Old Charles at No. 7 will take the chickens’, he said
‘You’ll take Arfer with you, won’t you?’, she asked. He reached down into Arfer’s basket and stroked the rise and fall of the German Shepherd’s belly. He nodded in his wife’s direction. They knew Arfer would pine for Grace once she was gone.
‘I’m ready’, she said. ‘Do you have everything organised for the continuing adventures of Geoffrey.’
Grace looked at her drink.
‘Are you sure there’s enough? I want to go now. No mistakes.’
He recalled bringing back the pentobarbital from his last trip to the States and the frisson of feeling like an international drug smuggler.
Geoffrey nodded so she raised her shot glass and swallowed.
They gazed out from their ageing faces as the sun set over their journey together for the last time. Geoffrey waited, to be sure, and then slipped out the back gate to the laneway that he’d used when he came home that day.
Geoffrey had moved to the sparsely populated country town after Grace’s death ended the only worthwhile conversation left in his universe. All he craved was silence and isolation. His modest savings stretched to a small, solidly built weatherboard cottage and he’d calculated that he had enough to last. He had his castle; his solitude was his keep.
He would write, grow vegetables, chop wood and read until his silence became permanent. He would keep his social interactions to the minimum required to meet the necessities of existence but not meet the social contract to exchange meaningless drivel while he was doing so. No TV and no radio and no newspapers meant that he would be aware of Armageddon when it reached his doorstep.
He withdrew cash for his needs at the ATM. He had no computer and no email address, so most of the world had no idea he existed, let alone how to invade, and steal, his time and space.
He hoped the postal service would tarry through his remaining years, providing the conduit for his writing to reach the ever-diminishing audience for such anachronistic pursuits. Yes, he would continue to ‘speak’ but on his own terms. All mail except utility bills and rate notices would be marked ‘Return to Sender’.
Geoffrey’s only form of human entertainment these days was Julie, who delivered the mail. Well, not so much Julie herself but her reports of the never-ending cavalcade of rumours about him that circulated throughout the town.
Each weekday he’d meet her at the letterbox. Most days there was no actual mail but she would pretend to rummage through her pannier bags for show. You never knew who might be watching.
Their ‘relationship’ began shortly after he moved in to the cottage, with its rambling over-grown garden and mature, if neglected, fruit trees. He was in the process of hacking away mercilessly at a jasmine vine that threatened to engulf two of the only four windows in the cottage and create darkness at noon.
‘That was Mrs. Carmody’s pride and joy once. Loved the smell.’ He looked up to see an orange-vested woman astride a low-powered motorcycle, stuffing junk mail into his letterbox. ‘My name’s Julie. What else are you going to do to the place?’ She waited briefly and then filled Geoffrey’s silence with ‘Mrs. Delaney reckons you’re going to gut the place and tizzy it all up.’ Geoffrey turned back to his hatchet job on the jasmine and she rode off. Thus began a comfortable, if eccentric, exchange between Geoffrey’s silence and the speculations that Julie carried in her bags.
One morning, Geoffrey woke from a coma-like sleep, brought on by unfamiliar exercise, to the sound of insistent knocking. Threading his arms into his dressing gown, he girded his loins to see off his intrusive neighbour. Flinging the door open, he found the space filled by a uniformed presence with sergeant stripes on his shirt and a gun on his hip.
‘Morning. Thought I’d drop by and introduce myself.’ The face had a professional smile but the eyes said otherwise. ‘Sergeant Bill Stynes.’ Geoffrey waited.
Stynes said ‘And you would be?’
Geoffrey produced a notepad and wrote his name on it.
‘Some people in the town have expressed concerns’ he shouted, until Geoffrey pointed to his ears and gave a thumbs up sign and then in a normal voice ‘.. about your welfare and asked me to look in on you.’
Geoffrey wrote ‘I’m fine.’
‘Thirsty work, policing. Any chance of a cup of tea?’
Geoffrey shook his head.
Stynes heel-and-toed his sturdy leather shoes and the smallest of smirks appeared in the corner of his mouth.
‘See you around, Geoffrey.’
A non-committal Geoffrey closed the door.
After watching Stynes depart, Geoffrey headed outside to attend to his nascent veg patch. He knew enough to know that the spring soil, having not long come off winter, was still too cold for planting. Besides, he wanted to dig in some manure and compost to the depleted ground. And there was still the fence to repair to keep out the roos and the rabbits.
He was breaking up some hardened topsoil with a mattock when he heard Julie’s approach and went to the letterbox. ‘Hear that the Sarge dropped in. What’d he want?’ Silence. ‘Kevin, that’s my husband, thought it was probably just an outstanding speeding fine. Or a warrant.’ Silence. ‘Be good to see the garden tidied up. Mrs. Carmody would like that.’ And she rode off.
Of course, Julie was now the go-to person for all matters of local curiosity about Geoffrey. Although ‘fond’ would be too strong a word, she’d come to feel a little protective of him. So she took out a bit of insurance for him by starting her own rumour that Geoffrey was an avid gun collector..
Over time, the town exhausted all the possibilities that interested them and bored indifference settled around Geoffrey. He’d been relegated to a ‘character’ and that suited him just fine.
Geoffrey opened the door after a sharp, urgent rap. Two rumpled suits with unknotted ties waved badges in his general direction. ‘Geoffrey Arthur Goodman, I am Detective Inspector Thomas and this is Detective Sergeant Willis. I am arresting you on suspicion of the murder of Grace Anne Goodman on or about February 17 last year. You do not have to say anything …’
Geoffrey knew the rest and he didn’t plan on saying anything at all.
Later, in the interview room, Thomas leaned back in his chair and said wearily. “For the benefit of the tape, Mr. Goodman has waived his right to have a lawyer present. Why’d you do it, Geoffrey? Was she having it off with someone else? That would set me off. Wouldn’t it set you off, Detective Sergeant Willis?’
‘It would indeed.’ Willis responded.
‘Geoffrey, if there’s anything you’d like to say, go ahead.’ Thomas offered.
‘I suppose you want to know how we know it was murder. Don’t you, Geoffrey?’
‘You see, we were never convinced it was suicide. No terminal illness. No history of depression. So we started looking at your business trips before you retired. And we tracked down your source in San Francisco. So, you can keep calling it suicide, Geoffrey, and claiming you don’t know where she got the drug if you like. But we’re going to call it murder.’
Thomas said ‘In my experience, it’s better in the long run to just get it off your chest. Because of your age, you’ll do time in an open prison and you’ll be out in five years. What do you say?’
‘Alright, tell us again what happened.’
Geoffrey said flatly ‘It’s all in my original statement.’
‘Did you attempt to revive her?’
Geoffrey reiterated what he’d just said. He said nothing else. He knew they were bluffing; they had no information on his source. He’d found a way to get the drug she needed and he’d found a plausible reason not to be around when she took it. Thomas and Willis were on a mission to make someone pay for having the temerity to end their days as they chose. With Grace dead, Geoffrey was the logical scapegoat but they needed a confession.
Later that night, Geoffrey was released on bail. As he was leaving the Police station, Thomas snarled ‘I know you did it, Geoffrey, and I’m not letting this go. So stick that up your silence.’
After that, Geoffrey no longer appeared at the letterbox. Julie knew why. That two-pot screamer of a copper put the accusation round at the pub.
When the smell from old Mrs. Carmody’s cottage became unmistakable, Julie finished her round and rode to the Police station to tell them. As she left, she looked the Sergeant in the eye and said, ‘Happy now?’
Remember the Revolution?
and marching in the rain against war zones
that are now tourist destinations?
and maintaining rage at symbolic loss
while secretly at home with the familiar futility?
Remember sexual honesty
and sleeping with whoever felt like you
and confining safe sex to heart condoms?
and discovering the ‘real’ you
and waking each time forgetful of the revelation?
and believing decibels were antidotes to megatons
and lyrics could shield you from the newspapers?
when it belonged to rock stars
and an endless list your mother claimed to have known?
and the bloody gutters of freedom
because fascism belonged to the right? Right?
Remember social action
and sitting in smoke-filled rooms with Nescafé activists
and Housing Trust women with no teeth and less hope?
left on some private shelf
in case they portrayed you to anybody that mattered?
Remember party politics
and seeing neighbours become Ministers
only to fall in clay-footed exhaustion at the barriers?
when it was something other people ought to have and
you weren’t smoke-free, mineral water in hand and smiling at God?
and how it was never going to concern you
and then you learnt the golden rule and its defensible limits?
And do you remember when the penny dropped
that the personal was the political
and you found out you had to change?
And you decided to forget the revolution?
Now that you are gone
Now that you are gone
the cruelty is ended.
You, the speaker of many truths,
are no longer taunted
by a tongue in twisted battle
with a mind no less sharp
and arms no less caring
that could not be raised in love.
Now that you are gone,
I’ll have you near me always;
Close to mind and heart,
a constant in my chaos.
But in my selfish grief,
I want you here, and now,
so that I can understand
the true order of things.
Now that you are gone,
I will cling to calls in the night
and recall your thoughts
in my struggle for the truth.
But I would rather have the magic
to conjure you at will
so that we could save our worlds together,
even worlds apart.
Now that you are gone,
You’ll never wipe away my tears
and laugh rudely with me once more,
in this world that travels on.
I must learn to live
with not one more single hour
when you soothe my soul
and make all things possible, again.
Stopping all stations
It’s the same train.
Changing carriages hasn’t altered that.
But now the impenetrable darkness of tunnels
is neutralised by a hand reached for secretly
and the knowledge of the imminent re-emergence
of familiar faces in the light.
It is possible to disembark at the station of your choice
or, in an emergency, pull the cord
and trudge off into unmarked territory,
ignoring the shaking fists of railway staff.
But no; for the time being
familiarity is more potent than adventure.
It is still permitted to re-trace your steps
and peer into carriages where you once sat.
In some your space may even still be vacant,
amongst those who are, and will remain, unmoved.
In others your seat is now occupied and
despite the comforting smiles of those you know,
it will remain that way.
you must return to your new-chosen cubicle,
to weather report conversations,
to standard gauge concepts
and to waiting patiently
for the dawn
of the courage to get off.
The Devil Takes The Could-have-beens
Beware the wine-sodden brain flailing on,
kidding itself in the darker hours,
paying homage to could-have-been.
Beware the anger trotted out,
dusted off and laid bare to reflections in a bloodshot eye,
to spring a self-laid trap.
Let there be a new start,
urged on by forebodings of irrelevance
and eternity horizontal.
Stay away from old ground,
where every night is New Year’s Eve and nothing is resolved,
or risk seeing past comrades on distant hills,
their torch-dreams kindled by motion,
pausing less and less often to look back
at your immobile figure.
the grubby sticks of history are consumed quickly
in those parodies of hell,
the warmthless braziers of bitter reminiscence.
Forsake all wretchedness,
for you are not plundered.
Beneath your public rags lie priceless jewels,
secreted and perversely forgotten,
whose re-discovery waits on nakedness.
Choose not to wear sackcloth
and arise from your meal of ashes,
hungry for the flesh of the world
and the hard beauty of your diamond self.
carefully dusted off and swathed,
packed in the boxes
along with the more trivial possessions.
Like the apocryphal cat
they can’t be left behind.
Some you will unpack,
immediately upon arrival,
as handy conversation pieces
when old friends call.
Some will remain encased, with only
an occasional furtive private inspection
to check for silverfish and mildew.
And some will be ‘forgotten’,
but will only feign death
and, like ancient terracotta soldiers,
will wait in infinite patience
ready to ambush the present.
Doug Jacquier is a former not-for-profit CEO who lives with his wife on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. He’s a keen vegetable gardener and cook and an occasional stand-up comedian, as well as doing the best he can as husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He’s lived in many places around Australia and has travelled extensively, especially in Asia. His poems and stories have been published in Australia, the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and India. He has self-published two collections of stories available on Amazon and Kindle. He blogs at Six Crooked Highways (wordpress.com)
Blonde. Not white-blonde, or dirty-blonde, or tow-headed. Golden. His hair was a golden blonde. I’d hold my hand next to his head, match my wedding band against the color, and tell people, look, my son has golden hair. Blue-eyed. Chubby-cheeked. Laughter like jingle bells. My golden child.
Six years old. I see him in a far-off memory, but clear as day. Standing in front of the television set, controller in hand, playing a video game. He has become a knight in shining armor, wielding his sword against the monstrous dragon. Small fingers fly over the buttons, and he grunts as he pushes down, sways as the character on the screen that he has become battles his enemy. When this mighty miniature knight who is my little boy is defeated and consumed in flames, he slams the controller to the ground, screeching in anger, screaming not fair, not fair, not fair.
Now he is twenty-six years old. It is his birthday. Today. I stand next to the hospital bed where he is thrashing about, trying to bite out the I.V. There are fat white mittens taped onto his hands. This is the same hospital where I gave birth to him, where he was born. Back then the nurse slid tiny mittens over his hands so that he would not scratch his face. Arms moving all over the place. He looks like he wants to flap his wings and fly away, his father said. I tried to calm him, cuddling him, holding him to my breast, but he turned away, and he felt like a tight spring ready to pop. Now he is a young man. Is this the day he will die?
My son chases dragons. He is not a knight in shining armor, and he is not fighting an enemy. No, he has befriended the beast. He is a heroin addict, and when he is chasing the dragon he burns the powder on a piece of tinfoil and then closes his eyes, moves it close to his face, breathing in the fumes. Through his mouth, into his body, into his brain.
His golden hair has darkened to a light brown. It is long, past his shoulders; sometimes he pulls it back in a rubber band or pins it up into a man-bun. His beard is full. From a distance he looks like Jesus, or at least a version of what Jesus looks like to some people. To me he looks dirty, sick, and my heart breaks when I see him.
I don’t want to see him. But he comes to me. I want to send him away, but I can’t, I don’t. I give in. I give him everything.
Can you tie his hands down, I ask the nurse. He tells me no, it is against the law. I am worried that he will hurt himself, or me. I have a bruise on my left cheek and a cut on my right hand. Now I place one hand on his shoulder and the other on his chest and tell him, calm down, try to sleep. The plastic bags hanging above the bed are filled with fluids, to hydrate him, calm him, undo the damage that has been done by the dragon.
He is detoxing. Withdrawing. He has survived an overdose, but the battle has just begun. His brain is damaged. Toxic leukoencephalopathy.
Why won’t he calm down, I ask the nurse. His drug tolerance is very high, he tells me. We can’t risk sedating him. His breathing is not good.
My son is three years old when the pediatrician tells me, I’ve never seen tonsils this big, we need to take them out. My beautiful boy, so special with his giant tonsils. It’s why he would gag and gasp for air sometimes, why he never slept through the night. He would wake himself up, and me too, choking for a breath. What if he hadn’t? What if I had slept through it?
And here we are now. It happened. The night before last. I slept as he got out of his bed, walked to the bathroom, fell, and stopped breathing. His little sister heard him, a thump in the middle of the night. Mommy! Mommy, get up! I woke up and found my son not breathing. 911. Paramedic. Narcan. Ambulance. Emergency room. MRI. Brain damage.
When he woke up he could not talk or walk. His hands shook. The sounds coming out of his mouth were guttural and animal. His blue eyes opened wide and screamed. His motor and balance area. His white matter. Most likely permanent, irreversible. Wait and see. Wait and see. They move him to intensive care.
The nurse sits still and quiet on the other side of the bed. The small room is filled with machines that click and beep and hum, flash numbers and symbols on screens. So many tubes and wires attached to my son who shifts and twists and turns under sheets and blankets.
His father is not here. We divorced soon after becoming teenage parents. He moved to the West Coast, I moved back home with my parents, and when I called him yesterday to tell him what had happened he said, too bad. Do I blame him? Do I blame us? Yes, and yes. Him for leaving, and me for everything else.
I have been standing for hours. I am exhausted beyond knowing. My husband walks into the room. He stands behind me, puts his hands on my shoulders, tells me to go home, he’ll stay. He tells me our daughter is with his sister, so I can relax, rest. I’ll stay with our boy, my husband tells me. But he is not your boy, I think. He is my boy. He’s mine.
My son was five years old when I met my husband. I was cutting hair back then, and I fell in love with his thick, dark, curly locks before I knew anything else about him. Just a trim, he’d say. Once a month for five months, and then he asked me for my number. He had just finished dental school. He lived in the town where I worked, which was not far from the town where I lived. I had gone on a few dates with some old high school friends over the years, but this was different. He was someone brand new.
A year later we married. Then it was the three of us. My husband and my son got along; they grew close. My husband disciplined my son, firmly but lovingly. Like father and son? I don’t know. I was an only child. I was practically a child when he was born. I grew up because of him. He existed because of me. He was mine, nobody else’s, not ours.
I tell my husband that I can’t leave my son. He tells me I must. You look like death, he says, so I grab my coat and my bag and I leave. I find the restroom and as I squat over the toilet seat my thighs shake. Wipe. Stand up. Wash my hands.
When I was thirty-five I became a mother again, this time to a baby girl. My husband was so happy; we had a child. My son had just gotten his learner’s permit. Six months later he had his driver’s license and my husband bought him a nice and safe used car. I won’t blame my husband. Let’s blame the car. My son got behind the wheel of that car and took off. A key turned, and suddenly, my son was gone.
My car. Where did I park it? I didn’t. I had pulled up behind the ambulance at the emergency room doors and left it there, running. It comes back to me, a nurse saying she’ll have someone from valet services get it. Later, as I stood on the other side of a curtain while a doctor and two nurses were working on my son, someone handed me a ticket. The back pocket of my jeans. When did I get dressed? It had been the middle of the night when my daughter had screamed for me and I had found her kneeling next to her big brother who was lying on the floor of our upstairs hallway. Our daughter saved him, my son.
No tip for the valet, and did he give me a dirty look? I don’t care. I drive toward home on what feels like autopilot. I do not see roads, stop signs, traffic lights. I see my son. In court, in handcuffs. Standing there, next to three of his so-called friends, unshaven, unwashed. They’d gotten into a fight with two other young men who were selling them weed. He was seventeen. We got him out. We sold that car.
I pull over at the corner of Main and Cooper. I go inside the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine. Back in the car I call my sister-in-law to check on my daughter. She is fine, I am told. Go home and rest, I am told. I will bring her to you after dinner.
I can’t go home yet. I pull onto the parkway, just to drive, to be anywhere except in my life. But my life is stubborn and intrusive. Visions of my son over the years in various states of stupor. One year of college and that was it. Several jobs, none he could keep. Rehab, twice. Thirty-thousand dollars, times two. Still, he was not an addict. Not to me. I told myself he was drinking, smoking pot, maybe taking pills. He didn’t use needles, he didn’t shoot up. He was just doing drugs. I’d done drugs. Didn’t everyone do drugs at one point or another? Then he disappeared for a while. Gone for a month. He called. I drank. My husband said maybe it was good, that he’d learn some responsibility. Our daughter asked when her brother would visit.
When he did come home it was not to visit, but to take whatever he could from each of us. Money, jewelry, even his sister’s Beanie Baby collection. My husband changed the locks, but my son found a way in. I think back to that one awful night, the two of them at each other’s throats. Call 911, my husband yelled. I should have.
A car horn, loud and insistent. I have swerved into the other lane. I need to get off the road. I take the next exit and head home.
We stayed up that whole long night. My daughter, after the terror of witnessing her brother and father beating each other, finally cried herself to sleep around five in the morning. I kissed the top of her head, those thick, dark curls like her father’s. We are ruining her, I thought. My son and I.
My son’s face that night. Blemishes, cuts, sores, the sallow tint of his skin, his cheekbones so sharp they looked like weapons. My husband, eyes red, crying, exhausted. Somehow, by early afternoon, the three of us were in the car, headed to a new rehab facility. For another month my son was safe.
I pull into our driveway. I look around to see if any of the neighbors are about, but our cul-de-sac is deserted, everyone else at work or school or running errands.
Corkscrew. Wine glass. A sip. Another. I am alone in our home. My son is in the hospital. He has brain damage. Will he get better? Will he die? An anger, stronger than any emotion I have ever felt, fills my chest, rides up through my throat, burns in my eyes. I finish the first glass of wine and pour another, head upstairs, bringing the bottle with me. From my top dresser drawer, under my bras, I pull out the bottle of Klonopin. I swallow two with another sip of wine. I need to stop thinking. I need to sleep.
Instead, I walk to my son’s bedroom and open the door. The sour odor slaps me in the face. Clothes, garbage, clutter everywhere. The curtains drawn closed. I sit on his bed, his dirty sheets. I let all of this happen. I made this. I created this person. I blame myself. The anger is for me.
I begin my search. I am determined to find every bit of whatever he has hidden. Then maybe I will be able to see him. My golden child. Squares of tin foil with burn marks in the center. Tiny, empty plastic bags. Straws. Pipes. Empty cigarette packs.
Under his bed. In his closet. I open every drawer, pull dusty books off shelves and rifle through the pages. I tear posters off the walls. I look inside photo frames and video game boxes. I find remnants. Dustings of white powder. Marijuana seeds. Empty pill bottles with the labels ripped off. Lighters that no longer light. Matchbooks without matches. He must have been so empty to try so desperately to fill himself.
But now he can get better. I sip my wine. My son is in the hospital with brain damage, but he is alive. The doctors are cleaning him. The drugs are leaving. I lift the bottle and pour more wine into my glass. Another sip. Brains are resilient, aren’t they? Brain cells are malleable, isn’t that true? There are therapies and treatments. Miracles.
Sitting on his desk chair I notice a tear in the box spring of his bed. I walk across the room and sit on the floor. I poke my hand around inside. I feel a plastic bag and pull it out. Several folded packets of yellow and pink paisley patterned paper. I take one out of the bag.
I go back to the desk to unfold the paper. I see the powder; it is fine. It reminds me of the cocaine my first husband and I used to do. I remember the feeling, the first hit, another, and I remember the fun, and I remember how it made me need more. But I was never an addict.
I take another sip of my wine. Another. The bottle is empty. I am feeling relaxed now. The anger has dissipated. I should take a nap. I should leave the room and go to my bed and sleep. Instead, I pour the powder out on the desktop. I reach for one of the straws I’ve found. Without making neat lines, without thinking about anything, I put the straw into the small pile and lean over it. Straw in my nose. I snort. Once. Then again.
I slide to the floor. My eyes are closed. I am lying on the ground. The sun shines. A breeze blows. The grass feels scratchy against my back. Then it is dark. I hear someone calling Mommy! Mommy! The voice is distant. It is high-pitched. It is in my ear. I open my eyes and see his golden hair glistening in the moonlight. It is late, I whisper. Let’s go home, I say.
Vicki Addesso has worked in various fields over the years, full-time and part-time. In between family life and bill-paying endeavors, she works at writing. Co-author of the collaborative memoir Still Here Thinking of You~A Second Chance With Our Mothers (Big Table Publishing, 2013), she has had work published in Gravel Magazine, Barren Magazine, The Writer, Sleet Magazine, Damselfly Press, The Feminine Collective, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and Tweetspeak Poetry. A personal essay is included in the anthology My Body My Words, edited by Loren Kleinman and Amye Archer. Her story, Cinnamon and Me, published by Sleet Magazine, has been nominated for a 2022 Pushcart Prize. You can follow Vicki on Twitter @VickiAddesso.
“Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed.”
In 1970, annual numbers for children being
placed for adoption in the US increased to a
peak of 89,200, then quickly declined to an
estimated 47,700 in 1975.
In 1970, the dominant psychological and
social work view was that the large majority
of unmarried mothers were better off being
separated by adoption from their newborn
“In most cases, adoption was presented to
the mothers as the only option and little or
no effort was made to help the mothers
keep and raise the children.”
62% of children adopted through private adoption
were placed with their adoptive families within a
month of birth.
Researchers find that generally children adopted
before the age of six-months fare no differently than
children raised with their biological parents.
68% of adoptees are read to every day as young
children, versus 48% of children who are not adopted.
73% of adopted children were sung to and told
stories to every day, compared to 59% of
children who were not adopted.
There is a recent news photo from
Afghanistan of a crying baby still in diapers
being passed from a set of parent’s hands
over razor wire to another set of hands
belonging to an American soldier.
There are no photos of all the children
taken, stolen, snatched, beaten away from
their parents’ grief in countries all around
the world, including times of slavery.
There are no photos of children being sold,
given away by their parents to traffickers
because of poverty, greed, despair.
Sometimes children are passed into hands
that will protect them, feed them, clothe
them, love them, and sometimes into
hands that will abuse them.
First it wasn’t personal in that I had never met you; the decision was made long before you were born. Know I love you but I couldn’t give you what I wanted you to have. I hope you received those in abundance!
Were you born in Illinois? Or are you searching for someone born in Illinois? Adopted.com is proud to offer an Illinois state adoption reunion registry where you can meet by mutual consent without having to open records. We have provided a form on this page for you to check your matches. If both parties want to meet then you can find each other on Adopted.com! Adult adoptees who are 21 years or older are able to request a non-certified copy of their original birth certificate.
Find Birth Parents Guide
Describes how adoptees can conduct research about their birth families and prepare for reconnection. Search and Reunion in Domestic and International Adoption [Webinar]
Center for Adoption Support and Education (2018)
Discusses reasons that adoptees choose to search for birth relatives, outlines the search and reunion process, and describes common relational dynamics present during reunions.
Yolanda Wysocki has an MA in the Study of Human Consciousness, and two BA’s. She retired from a career in Social Services, Counseling, and Life Coaching in 2020, and is now pursuing a creative and spiritual life focused on writing, photography and meditation. Although she has been writing—poetry, bits of fiction, interviews—for several years, discovering creative non-fiction last year felt like a perfect fit. Her second- ever-to-be-published essay was recently published in Stories That Need to be Told 2022. She lives in the Portland Oregon area.
From the poet who had the office three doors down, Roy stole A Green Bough by William Faulkner. This happened the day the poet moved out to start work at a university down in Virginia, where he would be teaching less and receiving better pay. There was a going-away party in the lobby of the English Department, with light refreshments. An ice cream cake, bowls of chips. Feeling vaguely sick to his stomach, Roy had bypassed all that. Well-wishers offered to carry boxes from the poet’s office down to his Audi. Roy, who envied and despised the poet, volunteered to help.
At one point, Roy found himself in the poet’s office alone with a box of books, the lid open, and he noticed the cloth-covered binding of the Faulkner book. He extracted it. Along with the poems, were mounted, modernist style illustrations. The paper was thick, the edges ragged. On the very last page, he was startled to see William Faulkner’s signature, written in blue ink, the letters quite small. A limited-edition book, just 360 copies made, the inscription said that. Roy made a stop by his office. He shoved A Green Bough into his laptop bag, hoisted the strap over his shoulder. Then he closed the lids of the box. In the faculty parking lot, the poet had a cluster of admirers gathered around his Audi. Roy guided the box in next to the others in the opened trunk. Roy then waved in the poet’s direction and said, “Hey, good luck!”
The poet dramatically walked over with his hand extended. He said, “You take good care, Roy. You are a great man.” Patronizing, as always. Everyone in the department knew that the poet had slept with Roy’s lover, Fiona. Roy ambled in the direction of his Hyundai Tucson. He thought that the poet could be suspicious of his help . . . open the box flaps. Wait a minute! You there!
Roy started his car, peeked once in the direction of the poet holding court by the Audi and drove away from the faculty lot. Fiona, who was still a graduate student and teaching composition classes, wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours. He made a bourbon and water, placed A Green Bough on his desk. A lovely book of poems. He wanted to chide the poet for having such a wonderful edition amongst his office books. Some people. Roy went to eBay to see what type of money this edition might fetch. Close to $1,200. It turned out this was the final collection of poetry published by Faulkner during his lifetime.
By the time Fiona arrived at their apartment, he’d hidden the book in a drawer, under a manuscript he’d written years ago. Fiona had, at best, a cursory interest in his writing. A Green Bough would remain his secret. Roy mentioned that today was the poet’s last day, and he’d even carried a box down the car for him. More than once, she had already apologized for sleeping with the poet, said it was due to her colossal insecurity. Roy and Fiona had dinner at their kitchen table, and he picked at dried-out barbecue chicken she’d brought from Whole Foods. He asked why she hadn’t stopped by to see off the poet. She’d already said goodbye, that was her response. He could see he shouldn’t say anything else about it. Roy had been hoping to impress her with his equanimity.
He didn’t come across the book he’d swiped for another year and a half. He still lived in the same apartment, though Fiona had left. After she completed her master’s, she was offered a job at a small college in Kentucky, and she wanted to head off for there by herself. He’d felt happy with her, and when they split, she said they should be grateful for the time they had together. Before she moved out, Roy asked her if she still had feelings for the poet. She said the poet had opened her eyes, but she wasn’t in love with him any more than he was in love with her. “Don’t blame him!” she’d said. “I just want more than this.” Roy wanted to respond that the poet had once referred to him as “a great man.” But the poet had probably said that because Roy hadn’t punched his lights out.
Roy adored Fiona, her gray-green eyes, the way she danced around the apartment to Tame Impala or rapped along with Megan Thee Stallion. He liked waking up with her and especially when he awakened to find their limbs intertwined. He took delight in the sound of her voice. Life in the apartment hadn’t been the same since she left.
At the college, the poet had been replaced by a professor who primarily focused on the intersection of narratology and game studies. A short man with a neatly trimmed beard, a man who instead of a first name, preferred to be referred to by a letter (L). Not long after L joined the faculty, his wife had a baby and subsequently L would duck out of a meeting or cancel a class because of “the baby.” Roy supposed there might be something seriously awry with the baby, though when L’s wife, Ginni came by the office, she would have the baby in her arms or in one of those backpack carriers and the baby would be laughing and drooling like babies did. Obviously, L would rather be home with his wife and child as opposed to sitting in a room listening to a dean talk about dropping enrollment rates. L seemed a minor talent if that. Roy didn’t dislike him.
Roy came upon the purloined Faulkner edition because of a notion he had about his own manuscript. It was time to look through it again. Who knew, it might read now like a dream. He might’ve been too hard on himself in a previous evaluation. It always took courage to read it. He had to use both hands to lift out the huge stack of pages and, below it, he spotted A Green Bough. He eased the stack of manuscript pages on the corner of the desk and reached for the book. He brought his fingers across the cloth cover.
He sat at his desk and turned the pages of the snatched edition. Outside the window, in the front yard of his apartment complex, were the pair of century-old black cherry trees. Their autumn leaves sparkled with ruby and gold. He tried to picture his life ten years in the future. Would he be in the same apartment, doing the same job? Twenty years? By then, would he have dumped that god-awful manuscript in the garbage? He didn’t want to live a life filled with regrets. Like A Green Bough. This wasn’t his book. Bitterness had gotten the better of him there.
The poet’s university was two states away, a morning’s drive from here, four hours maybe, if I-81 stayed clear. If Roy returned the book to him, how would that go exactly? Would he just tap on the door of the poet’s office, step inside and explain himself? I took this book from you. I didn’t mean to, I guess. But maybe I did mean to. Would the poet make a fuss? Turn angry? Or would the poet mostly be relieved? Would the poet surprisingly concede that he was an asshole, and consequently things like this were bound to happen? It was difficult to imagine what the poet would say because the poet was so capable with words. This was true when he’d been at Roy’s college. People had looked forward to the things he said, the way he expressed himself. They’d held onto his words.
Roy certainly didn’t want it getting around that he’d pinched the book. If he told the poet the story, the poet, who had left behind fans at Roy’s school, might spread it around. The chair might catch wind—could Roy be fired for this? He immediately understood it was possible. Again, on the corner of the desk, he eyed his own manuscript. The chair wouldn’t attempt to save him. Roy could mail A Green Bough to the poet. He could write a note, make up a lie about how it had come into his possession . . .
Lame, all of it. Default settings: pettiness, mediocrity. Wasn’t it time to break loose? It struck him that only thing to do would be to return A Green Bough in person. But did he need to speak the truth about how the book had come into his possession? What would Roy do if he were to be fired? Move back to Saginaw, scratch and claw for a living? Should he just stick around in his college’s town, try to hang on to his apartment, put on a green apron at Whole Foods?
How would the poet react? Roy kept coming back to this. He had a collection by the poet somewhere in this apartment. When the poet had first arrived at Roy’s college, there had a reading in his honor. Roy and Fiona attended that together as one of their first dates. Afterward, they’d each bought a book, the poet’s most recent collection, and stood in line for him to sign it. When it was their turn, the poet reached up to shake hands with Fiona. He said his first name after she said hers. When Roy said his name, the poet said, “Yes. Hello.”
Roy located the poet’s collection after searching his apartment. He skimmed the pages. Some of the poems were about growing up in rural Indiana. There were a couple about his grandfather who had Alzheimer’s. One had to do with losing his virginity to a middle-aged librarian and then to celebrate pan-broiled sunfish filets for her, but he got preoccupied with thoughts about what had just happened to him, he burned the fish and they wound up eating dry Lucky Charms from the box. This was not a vindictive person. This was not a person who would aim to get Roy fired. Out in the world, the poet seemed careless and spoiled. But the person who authored these poems had a heart.
Roy made the drive to the poet’s university on a sunny and chilly Thursday morning, a day when he had no classes to teach. He started south on I-81. The poet would be keeping office hours from 2-4 in the afternoon. Roy had checked on that with the university’s English Department. He’d hung up without saying why he wanted to know or who he was. The project made him feel strange and he still wasn’t certain as to what he would say to the poet. He listened to a jazz station on his Sirius radio. Life felt different to him on the drive. This was the whole point. Something else could happen, he needed to get booted from the path he’d found himself on. His parents had been factory workers, the last of the line at TRW Automotive. They lived in a modest, wood-frame house on East Genesee Avenue. They hadn’t turned into any thieves. He wanted to be the type of man who could correct a mistake. He drove on 81 through western Maryland, down to northern Virginia. Traffic was clotted, but he had given himself plenty of time. No doubt, he wouldn’t be back to his own apartment until after dark.
His used the Waze app on his phone for directions to the university, and then a school map to locate the English Building. The campus featured colonial-style buildings with terracotta roofs, lawns turned olive by autumn. Near the library, he discovered a parking lot for visitors. Once he’d switched off the engine, he remained behind the wheel. It was still a few minutes before two. He reached for the padded envelope riding in the passenger seat and pushed out of the car.
He pulled on his corduroy jacket and then carried the padded envelope at his side. The poet’s office was on the second floor. 263. Roy made a turn down a hallway in the direction of where he believed the poet’s office to be and there stood the poet in the hall, with his head bowed next to a tall, skinny male student in dreadlocks. Roy came to a stop. Classes must’ve just let out because a stream of students funneled past him. He shuffled closer to a section of the wall. The poet noticed him then, gave a nod. Then, he looked in Roy’s direction again, frowning. Roy smiled in a helpless way. The poet said Roy’s name and then held up his index finger. The student continued speaking, but he could see the poet had business. “Yes,” the poet said. “That’ll be fine.”
“Thank you,” the student said,
The poet turned in Roy’s direction and let his shoulders drop. “What on earth?” he said. He put out his hand and Roy reached forward to shake with him. “Are you here to see me?”
“Well, goodness . . . I’m right here.” He gestured to an open office doorway. He waited for Roy to step inside and after he did this, Roy wondered if the poet would close the door after them. He did not.
“Here,” Roy said, holding out the envelope as the poet passed by on his way to the desk. The poet, who must have been confused to some degree at least, opened the envelope while still on his feet.
“I don’t believe it,” the poet said. He held A Green Bough in one hand, had the envelope in the other.
“I wanted to return this to you,” Roy said. “It’s been in my possession . . .”
“Thought this was long gone,” the poet said. “Thank you, that’s very good of you . . . can’t believe this, actually. You don’t have any other business here?”
“How are you?’ Roy said. “How’re they treating you?”
The poet laughed softly. “It’s okay.” He placed the book on his desk. “You know how it is.”
Roy hoped he knew what the poet meant. Anyway, he said, “I do.”
The poet tapped at the cover of the book a couple of times. “I bought this in a bookstore in Montreal. I had to have it, spent every buck I had. Then . . .” He turned to Roy at this. In this moment, it seemed as if the poet were about to ask for an explanation. The poet might believe it had something to do with Fiona. That Fiona had pilfered the book and Roy was covering for her now. He said, “I’m trying to figure out when I last saw this.” His expression didn’t appear unkind.
Roy said, “It’s a beautiful book. I would have done the same thing. If I’d seen it . . . in Montreal.”
“Yes. So unusual,” the poet said. “Would you like a cup of coffee before you head back? We have a lounge area.”
“No,” Roy said, right away.
“I guess we never know . . . we up wake one day, and we think we know what will happen in that day, but we don’t know. Such a thoughtful gesture, I suppose . . .”
“It was a nice morning to drive,” Roy said. “I like Maryland . . . and Virginia.” In the next instant Roy wanted to say something about Fiona. That she had moved out earlier this spring and was working in Kentucky now. It was never going to work out between Roy and Fiona, but if the poet had left her alone maybe she would have stayed the summer, anyway.
“Yes,” the poet said.
“I’m going to head back,” Roy said. He found himself swallowing.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Roy backed up a step. They didn’t have to shake hands again.
“Everything all right, Roy?” the poet said. He could sense there was more to it.
“Fuck you,” Roy said, his voice just above a murmur.
In a voice as quiet as Roy’s, the poet said, “Fuck you, too.”
Roy stayed in place for another moment. He departed the office. Hands in his pockets, he walked purposefully up the hallway. Outside the building, he glanced around, hoping to recall the lot where he’d parked his car. He felt adrenaline eeling down his back and shoulders. Overall, it had gone all right. Now, his mind was a bit crazy and wanted to get away from there as fast as possible.
On the clogged highway again, Roy had an image of the poet in his office turning the pages of the returned book. Trying to decipher exactly what Roy’s visit was all about. Was Roy covering for a deed done by Fiona, the spurned lover of the poet who in search of a memento had decided to steal a treasured book of his? Or, in the scuffle and shuffle of moving, had the poet himself somehow misplaced the book and through a series of events Roy had not only discovered the book but knew who its owner happened to be and out of his profound respect had driven all this way? Or, out of nothing more than spite, had Roy stolen the book and eventually come to regret his actions?
It seemed probable to Roy that the poet would land on the truth.
And now what would happen? Who would the poet tell the story to? Would he be upset at the chain of events that brought A Green Bough back to him? Demand an investigation? If the poet contacted Roy’s English Department would the chair have to pursue action? If so, would Roy confess? Resign? Roy tried to imagine a different life for himself . . . hello, Amazon warehouse worker! Have gave a quick salute to the horizon.
He could work at an Amazon warehouse, live ironically, at the far end of what he’d once dreamt for himself. What was likely to happen, that’s what he wanted to know. The poet, glad to have his book back, wouldn’t say a word about it. Everyone had already moved on. The poet would conclude that Roy was a sad, desperate, bitter man. This even though Roy had driven two states over to return a book. If only Roy hadn’t said, Fuck you. But he understood he’d made the trip so that he could say it. The color of the sky began to change as the sun sank for the western horizon. He reminded himself not to be impatient, that he would be back in his apartment soon enough. In the morning, it wouldn’t take long to prepare for his classes. He was using the same syllabus he had the previous fall.
When the traffic finally loosened, he began to feel hungry, ravenously so. Could he claim at least that today had been a step in getting on with his life? At the very least, he deserved better than fast food, yes? While going just over the speed limit, he managed to do a search on his phone. Hagerstown loomed just ahead, and he found the name of a diner there, on Eastern Boulevard. Incredible Eggs.
Inside, it turned out to be a something of a hipster joint. Young people, opened laptops, music by Arcade Fire. A waitress who might have been the age of either of his parents brought him a laminated menu. She poured him a cup of coffee. “What’s the most expensive thing you have?” he said.
“Crab cakes,” she said. “Twenty-six ninety-five, without the sides.”
“I guess what I mean is I’m really hungry.”
“We have the Big Bad Salad.”
“A lot of food?”
“You’ll be here till midnight. Twelve ninety-five.”
“I’ll go for that.”
“Want me to tell you what’s in it?” she said.
“It’ll be fine,” Roy said, holding the menu over to her. “Bleu cheese dressing, on the side.” After she walked off, he turned to the window and watched the traffic out on the street. It was dusk by then and the sky had turned the color of ripe plums. The poet had said, Fuck you, too. He had that ready. He’d seen right through Roy.
Roy wondered about the next drive he’d take—would it be down to Kentucky to surprise Fiona? It would be terrific to see her, but that wouldn’t go well, far worse than this had. It didn’t take a minute for him to understand that. The relationship felt more over than ever. For Thanksgiving, he might make the eight-hour drive for Saginaw through Youngstown, Akron, Toledo, Detroit, Flint. He’d nicknamed the drive from his college town to his hometown “The Rust Belt Limited.” He and his parents would watch the Lions game on TV with the aroma of his mother’s cornbread and sausage stuffing in the oven. The Lions would sometimes luck into winning one.
The waitress brought his dinner, which paused these images. The salad came in a big white bowl. A mound of lettuce, two whole boiled eggs, red onions, tuna fish, feta cheese, spinach, chicken, pine nuts, watercress. “Why, I will be here all night,” he said, in a good-natured way.
“Enjoy,” she said and slid the bill near the saucer that held his coffee cup, then stepped in the direction of another occupied table. After he unwrapped his silverware from the paper napkin, he saw the knife and spoon had water spots. On one of the fork tines, there seemed to be a bit of crusted something. He didn’t need to bother the waitress. For a moment, he scraped at it with his thumbnail. Then, he began to eat.
Andrew Plattner lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Earlier this year, Mercer University Press released his story collection, Tower. He has published stories of late in New World Writing Quarterly, October Hill Magazine, Litbreak, Sortes Magazine and The Spotlong Review. He has taught fiction writing at the University of So. Mississippi, Emory University, University of Tampa and Kennesaw State University.
The Sundown Café’s For Sale sign had hung so long in the mountain sun that the details had faded into illegibility. The plywood boards nailed across the doors of the Thunderbox Theatre were weathered to shiny silver. I drove past, imagining the street returning to life for half a minute, like a TikTok video. A multitude of teens outside, milling around the sidewalk, slouched against the wall, leaning on the green transformer boxes, smoking weed. The thump of electronic dance music shaking the arched upper floor windows. Young men in from the ranches in their cowboy boots, eyeing girls in tie-dyed tees and fishnets. Antiques stores, voracious for customers, stacked high with old gas pumps and unidentifiable iron implements salvaged from the farms.
My thoughts—half-memory, half-dream—cut abruptly. Morningside’s present main street came back into view. No ravers, no shoppers. Two dusty trucks parked akimbo across four marked spaces. A hunting outfitter with a vinyl sign Over The Counter Elk Tags Sold Here, a gas station, and an electronics store. The rest of the street was a brick façade with nothing behind except collapsing roofs.
I drove on. The scenery quietly transformed into red rocks and lofty pines with wide open green pastures between. Mom’s ranch house hid in a stand of Blue Spruce with a chicken run at the side. She’d lived here forever, growing up in the shell of the town before the rich Detroit musician arrived, liked what he saw and built his Colorado ranch. The whole town briefly resurrected itself around the unlikely core of an electronic dance music festival and its masked producer.
I parked the 4Runner beside her pine needle-blanketed truck and checked my appearance in the mirror. I’d shaved the beard. I wanted to give her the best chance of recognizing me. Mom had no phone, otherwise I’d have called ahead. I rang the bell, waited a beat, then pushed the unlatched door. The hinges must have sagged over the years because the door swished reluctantly inward, scraping the linoleum.
“Mom? You here?”
No answer. I stomped my feet to alert her as I walked to the front room. I found her sitting in an armchair with a wool throw over her lap. She had no book. The lights and TV were off. For an instant, I was afraid she was dead, mummified like Norman Bates’s mother in Psycho.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said without any hint of surprise, and moved her spindly hand off her knees to touch my face. “You didn’t tell me you were coming.” She dropped her hand and sat up straight.
I noticed she didn’t say my name. The neighbor who phoned me last week said she no longer remembered his, said I should be prepared for it. Truth is, she never much said my name. I was always ‘the boy’ to her.
“I’ll make coffee,” she said, pulling off her throw and standing up. Her legs were much thinner than I remembered. As she stood, she tensed her leg, pointing a slipper toe towards the floor, disguising a tremor. I noticed her hands shook.
I gripped her elbow, helping her sit back down. “I’ll make the coffee,” I said. I asked her how she liked it. I’d never made it for her before.
Dad left her, with me in tow, twenty-four years ago, after the Thunderbox Festival packed up for the season and he had nothing to look forward to besides manufacturing more ironwork “antiques” to sell to tourists. I was just a little kid, and I understood in an inchoate way that we were going to California, where the festival’s hardcore ravers came from. But in San Clemente there were no raves. Dad never looked back and I wouldn’t have either, until Stan, Mom’s neighbor to the north, told me she had fallen sick.
“Not sick like cancer sick,” he said over a phone line with an echo that made it hard to speak because our voices came back to us a half second later. “It’s like, y’know, senile dementia.”
I’ll dement ya, the echo retorted.
I could have ignored Stan, but Yassie from Mom’s dental office phoned later. Whether she and Stan colluded, or she was just concerned Mom hadn’t been in lately, I don’t know, but she used the same image. “Not cancer sick,” she said, “But when you come, she might not recognize you.”
When I told her my Mom was still in her sixties, Yassie said it comes on fast if it comes on early.
I didn’t know if I’d recognize her either, but I was still her kid, so I made the trek out of duty, not expecting too much.
The pot was only half-brewed when Mom appeared in the kitchen. She had come to life, as if plugged into a USB port. Her eyes were alight, and she stood straight.
“The coffee smells delicious,” she said, as I filled her cup. It did not rattle on the saucer; the tremor had gone. “Did you find any cookies?”
“No,” I shook my head. “Not even Girl Scout Cookies.”
“No Girl Scouts around here. Morningside is literally a ghost town. I’ll make something. It’ll have to be margarine. I don’t have no butter.” She put her cup down and opened the pantry door. “You know, for a while it was different. The town swarmed with people back then. When DJ Klaviatura came here, everybody wanted to be here. They came in droves. Stinking clouds of what-did-they-call-it, skunk. Smelled like it. And X.”
“Ecstasy. Don’t pretend you’ve never taken drugs.” She stirred batter in a stainless-steel bowl with a cracked wooden spoon. The smell of raisins wafting from it carried me back to my childhood. She was making scones.
“I’ve never even seen Ecstasy for sale,” I said. “I think it was a Generation X thing. No pun intended.” She sure seemed to be all there. If anything, her canny intellect shone bright, like the filament in an Edison bulb. No sign of the dementia they’d warned me about. “Mom, why did DJ Klaviatura come here? I remember the big charity yard sale thing for the kids and the bounce house, but…you know, I was five when we left.”
“You don’t remember the festival he started?” She put the baking sheet in the oven and closed it. “He was a DJ. He’d toured all over the US. I guess people told him about skiing in Vail when he played Red Rocks. Then someone told him about a ski lodge in Morningside County, a Futuro house –”
“A Futuro house. They’re from the sixties. Like a flying saucer on stilts. Remember Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still? I have a postcard of it on the coffee table somewhere. It overlooked the ski slopes. DJ-K bought the Futuro house and Hernandez’s ranch and moved the house down the mountainside to the pastures.”
“I remember the ski lodge. Like a jelly doughnut, with oval windows all around the edge?”
Since I had an excuse, I checked out the piles on the coffee table, assuming the worst—that there would be unpaid bills or medical alerts. But the heap comprised election flyers, shower modernization offers and partisan local papers, the usual junk mail detritus. The room itself looked lived-in, but not hoarder-level untidy. Maybe Stan or the woman from the dentist’s had been checking in on her? It seemed unlikely. Dad said the neighbors didn’t get on with her after she started hanging with DJ-K’s posse. I got the impression country folk could do a good shunning when they put their minds to it.
“DJ-K cleared his land,” she continued. “He brought in Texas Longhorns, got a cowboy hat, shuttled in all his Detroit techno friends. Morningside was deserted back then. The founding fathers bet everything on the silver mine, and lost. The loggers never cared for the town—the roads are bad. If the Williams family hadn’t sequestered the mine’s steam train, there wouldn’t have been no reason to ever come here.”
“How do you sequester a steam train?”
She shrugged. “How should I know? But the bankruptcy trustees never found it. The Williamses built a scenic track alongside the river at the bottom, got the locomotive running and tourists bought tickets. Those were the town’s only visitors.”
“What about the Conestoga Cowboys Annual Festival?” I didn’t remember going to any cowboy festivals when I was a kid, but I scoured Morningside’s webpage before I set out, and it touted the festival as the town’s major attraction. Horse-collar races. Pan the stream for gold (ages five to fifteen). Deep fried turkey legs. Funnel cake.
“The Festival of Donner Parties and Indian Massacres? It didn’t exist ‘til 2010. All that ‘Americana’ horseshit is about fifteen years old. Don’t let anyone tell you different. People swear their great grampaw did some crap when he was a boy and everyone believes ‘em. Pow, it’s a tradition.” She sipped her coffee, then added as an afterthought, “The Oregon Trail didn’t even come through Colorado.”
The Oregon Trail computer game? I searched my memory of the beloved educational program and realized Mom meant the town had appropriated the game’s ethos for money. Once DJ-K had gone, the town dreamed up an origin story to replace its lost tax revenues.
“Magic happened when DJ-K came to town. Before that man arrived,” she said, “Morningside had six stores and cafés serving farmers, hunters and maybe a few skiers. Some get lost every year and end up here.”
The scones in the oven smelled heavenly.
She went on, “He opened the Sundown Café and people kept flowing in. He started the charity gift shop, with the autographed mugs. Second year he created the festival, the rave. He got it permitted for three thousand attendees. Soon, thousands of people were here all summer. RVs everywhere. Lord knows how they got them up the 4X4 road.” She leaned on the kitchen counter as she talked.
“Did you set a timer?” I asked.
“Don’t need no timer,” she said. She opened the oven door. The scones were golden, fluffy and full. She put them on the counter to cool.
She continued, “They bought curios, more than your father could make in the off-season—he had to get new antiques sent from China. The Sundown was always full, winter and summer, snow or no. DJ-K opened that pop-up Thunderbox Theater and people drove from as far away as Denver to dance there. The outfitters shop got remodeled as a hipster clothing store.”
I poured more coffee and bit into a scone. It was delicious.
She carried on describing how the town sprouted like spring grass around DJ-K and his dance festival. “Barbers, tattoo parlors, a store selling iguanas and snakes. Glowsticks, whistles, pacifiers, crystals, sage bundles, second-hand LPs.”
“Vinyls,” I corrected, gently.
She nodded her head a couple of times, as if thinking how to go on. “And then he died. One minute he’s playing music for thousands at Coachinga…”
“Coachella,” I reminded her.
“Next, he’s in a coma. Then dead.” Her voice sank to a throaty whisper on the last word.
I guided her to the chair in the living room and put a plate with the remaining scones on the coffee table.
“He used to perform wearing a giant teddy bear head. A Mylar foil deal. It was 120 degrees in the dance tent in the desert. The heat and the drugs did something to his brain.”
I was five when Dad hustled me out of Morningside. DJ-K ran six of those annual festivals in the town before we left. I realized Dad might have been telling the truth. She had loved the man.
I got up to clear away her plate and cup. She didn’t hand it to me. She just let the plate lie on her lap. The flood of memories had dried.
“People didn’t want autographed mugs after DJ-K died?” I prompted.
“Denice—” she paused. “Denice, his wife, made a go of it, but she couldn’t do the music for the dancers who came to the raves. The café got a few hunters, but they tend to stick to their own kind. She sold the saucer house to a Silicon Valley tech bro for next to nothing and went back to Detroit.” Mom sighed so loud it bordered on a hiss. It made me jump, but when I looked out the kitchen door, she was okay, just mired in the past.
I switched on the lamp that stood on the ironwork end table. “You should get a cellphone,” I said, thinking about when I’d come back again. I could bring butter.
“A what?” She had closed her eyes and leant back in her chair.
“If you get a cell you can talk to people. There’s an electronics store in Morningside.”
“There’s nobody I want to talk to.”
“Should I come back soon?” I asked.
I strode into the center of the room where I could see her face. She jerked suddenly and I thought her tremors were back, but it was surprise.
“I’m your son,” I said soothingly. “We just ate your homemade scones together, like when I was small.”
She picked up her throw and shook it out to cover her legs, then rested her hands on her skinny thighs. She pursed her lips in a look of mild disapproval, as if the world never failed to disappoint. “Sure.”
I didn’t know if she had answered my question about future visits or acknowledged I was her son. Whatever magic I’d brought that briefly roused her mind guttered out. I rinsed the crockery and baking sheet and went out into the pine-scented yard, yanking the obdurate door closed behind me. The sun set between the mountains in a scarlet blaze. I left before the hairpin bends became undriveable in the approaching dark.
Born in the UK, Lyle Hopwood immigrated to the US, where she worked in clinical laboratories as a director of regulatory affairs. Reading was not enough for her, so she decided to join the conversation. She has had short stories published in magazines including Interzone, Eldritch Science, Edge Detector, Back Brain Recluse and others. More are coming soon in IZ Digital, Aurealis and BFS Horizons. Her short stories have also appeared in two German anthologies. She lives in Southern California with a holographer, her herptiles and her collection of Kalanchoe.
Margaret King enjoys penning poetry and flash fic. Her recent work has appeared in MoonPark Review, Levatio Magazine, Nightingale & Sparrow, and Great Lakes Review. In 2021, she was nominated for a Pushcart for her eco-flash fiction story “The Sky Is Blue.” She teaches tai chi in Wisconsin. She is also the author of the poetry collection, Isthmus.
So many annoyances had piled up—so many bewildering medical documents, so many well-meaning but annoying people calling, texting, knocking. The speech was two days away, and Monte hadn’t written more than Hello, I’m Monte Thompson.
Recently he was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia. In lieu of a cure, his neurologist prescribed many steps that might keep Monte’s brain staying on that plateau for as long as possible. One of the steps was to keep talking, to share his story at a meeting of the local association of The Memory Team.
Monte was nervous. His capacity for thinking and writing was slow these days, and his speech had become a bit halting. He found himself grasping for words that were just out of reach, feeling like a slug, a slug with cognitive difficulties. Anyway, it was worth a try. A few months ago, people called him a hero for what he did on his last day at work. He was proud of the job that he’d held for many years as a writer and editor, and the only person in the company who could provide voice-over narrations. It was a tough time. He couldn’t find the words he needed to talk to his doctor, or the guy who mowed his lawn, or a server at a restaurant. Who knew ordering tacos could be so hard? He was getting used to writing scripts for most conversations, face to face or on the phone. If he didn’t have a script, the outcome would be a mess. The presentation for The Memory Team group would take forever to write.
That day he began scribbling, slowly, and he decided on three topics: neurology, orthopedics and employment. Then he was disturbed by the thump of the back door. It was Cable, Monte’s nephew, bringing home two six-packs, chips and guacamole. He had the ability to distract Monte in small ways that caused big distractions. Cable lived with Monte because Cable didn’t like his father who lived in Los Angeles. Cable found a job as a bartender in the thriving city of Bristol Springs, Missouri. He kept reminding Monte what the neurologist said: Keep talking. Both of them were grappling with Monte’s dementia.
“Hey, Uncle, I got this idea for a way to write your speech. Start with the first thing that happened that day, then the next, then the next. You know what happened.”
Monte started with getting fired by the big boss, leading to an active-shooter incident and his big breakdown, all on the same day. He felt like he shouldn’t talk about certain workplace events; he didn’t know everything. He was running away, or hobbling away, on his finicky new titanium hip. He didn’t understand what the gunplay was all about. Monte led his team across the greenway to a wooded area beyond and over a fence to safety. They made it, with the help of his co-workers and his old rope ladders that he’d used at work for lunchtime workouts, back before his hip had acted up, eventually leading to pain and hip replacement last year. As he scribbled, he realized how much he’d been through in just the last year or so. What a mess! One good thing was that the hip felt better now, but the aphasia and other brain stuff were way messier.
Another interruption: Tori, Cable’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, hastened back to the house to fetch the phone attachment she needed for her customer-payment system. She was sharp-witted, a speed-walker, striding with a purpose. Her hairstyle was two-fold. On one side of her scalp, she had an undercut. Over the rest of her crown, she had long hair gathered in a ponytail with a streak of blue violet. Tori had originally worked with Monte at their old place of employment. He’d been fired and she opted to quit after the bullets whizzed by. Who could blame her? She had multiple part-time jobs now and was, in Monte’s opinion, too curious about his condition. She had unending questions. She and Cable seemed to want to mess with his business. She kept asking what he had.
“My brain is compromised due to dementia.”
“The kind where you can’t find words.”
Then she always wanted to talk about that horrific day at work.
“Do you have PTSD? Flashbacks? Nightmares?”
“No, no, and no.”
“I still think about it. Do you need help? What can I do?”
“Tori, you’re a nice person, but I’ve had enough. You’re an enterprising hustler in the gig economy, but you’re going on, chattering like a four-year-old.”
“Oh, sorry. I’d better get going.”
After he shooed Tori away, he went back to his speech. Monte liked Cable’s idea, and he ran with it, although it was slow going for the slug.
— — —
Monte was nervous as he entered the big room for the monthly meeting presented by The Memory Team. Tori told him that being nervous is good, up to a point. He glowered. After the preliminaries, Monte began with, “Forget Alzheimer’s or any kind of dementia. Just run your life the best you can, and do what you want as much as you can.”
Then somebody in the crowd shouted, “Easy for you to say.”
That ticked off Monte, all things considered. “Yeah, and I can say that, too.” He looked at the people in the chairs and continued to discuss his disorder. “FTD is an umbrella term for a number of brain disorders, not a bunch of florist shops,” which got a few snickers from the chairs. “Disorders like Alzheimer’s and Primary Progressive Aphasia.” He went on to explain that he was in the early stages of PPA, and he emphasized that he was thankful for this time when he could still do things almost as well as before, but more slowly and sometimes forgetfully.
“Whatever stage of your disorder, make the most of it, because you may lose what you have at any time,” he said. “Don’t mope!” That launched another laugh. Then he looked down at his pages with the three topics. Beginning again, he said, “And now, to the story of my strange and scary incident at work.”
After he described each part of the rush to safety, there was a swarm of questions about the exodus, and a heckler popped off, “You sound like a disgruntled employee, some sad sack who got the shitty end of the stick. Why are you talking about all this stuff that happened one day at work, and nobody got hurt except maybe the boss?”
“I don’t want to talk about that part of the incident,” Monte said.
“You sound like a fraud.”
“If you say so,” Monte said. Next, he summed up and finished with “Don’t mope!”
He hoped to break free from the gaggle at the podium and move to the refreshments, but he was caught. Cable gave him a thumbs up from across the room. Conversation covered short-term memory, difficulty with finding words, and spelling issues. As Monte was getting ready to leave, he saw a tall woman approaching, with a white mane of hair like spun candy.
She reached him with congratulations. “I like that title, ‘Forget Alzheimer’s.’”
“I wanted to say more, but I forgot. This is what I get for becoming a senior citizen.”
“I’m a senior citizen, too,” Monte said.
“I have more seniority than you, Mr. Thompson. Oh, I’m Nova Grimes, a writer who can’t write much anymore.”
“What kind of writing?”
“Novels of love, dissension and redemption—or revenge,” she said with a smirk.
“I used to write stuff for outdoor magazines. I’m the trail walker who can’t walk very far anymore, and I’m also the voice-over guy who can hardly talk.”
“You were reasonably fluent up there.”
“I had a script,” Monte said.
“How did you get here?” Nova asked.
“My nephew drove me.”
“My daughter Abbey and my granddaughter Celeste drive me around. Otherwise, I’m housebound.” She quickly thrust a business card into his hand. “Text me. Call me, please.”
Monte looked down at the cookie selection and when he looked back, she was gone.
— — —
For a few days, Monte examined Nova Grimes’ card, repeatedly. He thought about her being in the publishing world and himself a newly retired marketing scribe. What was it that she wanted from him?
Writer of original stories and novels
Editor of books and periodicals
He googled her and found many pages of real work, but the references stopped three years ago. Monte decided he couldn’t lose anything but a few minutes of texting. She seemed to be a reasonable person. Nova replied, thanking him for contacting her and praising him on his talk and the way he handled that heckler. She asked Monte to call the next day, around two o’clock, if he were free to chat by voice, not fingers. Texting, they chatted about being retired, and Monte asked what more she wanted out of life. She replied, “I want good conversation, that’s all.” Before she logged off, she wrote, “I just want to expand my horizons.”
At the appointed time, he called and they chatted about horizons—beyond visits to church, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and Walmart. Abbey set strict rules for when Nova was alone in the house: Don’t use the stove, don’t use the space heater, don’t answer the doorbell, and don’t go outside, all so she wouldn’t get lost or burn the house down.
“It seems a bit much,” Monte said. “Are you on your own, ever?”
“They both work at the noodle company. Sometimes Celeste comes back for lunch. Abbey calls all the time to check on me. It drives me crazy.”
“And what about your writing and editing?”
“That’s a long story. Maybe we can meet and talk about it.”
“Or, how about an early afternoon movie?” Monte, thinking he could persuade Cable to do the driving to Nova’s house, then to the movie complex, and the reverse afterward. “Think of what you want to see.”
— — —
As Monte and Cable arrived, Nova, wearing a long velvet top, slim tie-cuff pants, and sandals, presented her choice: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Celeste offered to be the driver and chaperone, but Nova said that wasn’t necessary. Celeste could hold down the fort at home.
“Working around Abbey: That’s kinda adolescent, don’t you think?” Monty said. “All those rules?”
“I’ll tell you,” Celeste said. “One night when Gramma was still living alone, she went on a long walk and Mom couldn’t find her. Mom was scared then and she’s scared still. She doesn’t want her to be on her own.”
“Why not just text Abbey to let her know where we’re going?” Monte said.
“No, we’re going, and nobody else needs to know.”
At the enormous complex, Nova took Monte’s hand as he steered her out of foot traffic in the middle of the hall. He said, “Just to make sure, this isn’t a date, right?”
“No, not a date! I was holding your hand so I wouldn’t lose you, that’s all. Isn’t it great to go somewhere other than a doctor’s appointment?”
After another few paces, Nova paused at the women’s room. Monte said he’d wait for her if she wanted to stop in. As he loitered, he thought about the time that women used in the bathroom and his mood went from puzzled, to a little annoyed, to worried and then to terror-stricken. Feeling ridiculous, he stopped a woman about to enter the ladies room, and he asked the stranger to look for a tall, skinny, elderly woman with long white hair. Monte did not see the woman who he stopped, and he had not found Nova. He went through the building with growing panic. Then, in an explosive glimpse of puffy white hair, he saw Nova and went to her. Nova was whimpering and Monte was sweating, his heart pounding. They seized each other in a smothering clutch.
“Where were you?” Nova asked.
“What happened? Where did you go?”
“Going to the movies is harder than I thought it would be.”
“I think I know what happened,” he said. “There are two doors for the bathrooms. You went out the other door, and you expected me to be right there.”
“Really, two doors?”
“Keep holding my hand.”
They found the right screen with plenty of time to chat about losing and finding each other, and feeling small in the massive maze.
Monte said, “You know, back there at the ladies room, I wanted to shout out your name, but my brain hadn’t uploaded your name yet. That’s really bad. Sorry.”
“Hey, I get it. One time, I looked at my daughter, and I didn’t know who she was. It was for just a minute. She was really worked up about that. So was I. Since it happened once, it might happen again.”
They were silent through most of the film, until the scene where Billie is thrust off the stage and the police arrest her. Nova shouted “bastards!” Another voice yelled a refrain,“cops!” At the end of the film, with Billie in a hospital with liver failure, Nova expelled a soft groan.
When they left the complex, Monte was getting fretful about Cable’s timing. They needed to get back before Abbey did. Grimacing, he said, “We could be late.”
“So what? Don’t worry about Abbey. I’m still the big mama in that house, even though I’m all messed up.”
When they arrived at Nova’s house, Abbey’s car was in the driveway. They approached the front door. Loud angry voices emanated from inside.
“That’s Abbey and Celeste,” Nova said.
“You OK?” Monte asked.
Nova nodded and told them, “Stay here!” But Monte got his foot in the door before Nova could shut it.
They all entered and faced Abbey’s rage. “Hey, here you are, little miss delinquent with your juvenile shambles of an escort. Who’s that lunkhead, the wingman?” She glared at Cable and continued. “What were you doing? You could be one of those pathetic faces on the evening news. You could be wandering into another state. You could have been hurt!”
“Oh, Abbey, we went to a movie.”
Celeste was trying to say something. Abbey told her to shut up. Cable also was silenced. Monte looked back and forth as the women went at it.
“You shut up, Abbey,” Nova said. “Nothing happened. I’m not gonna sit here all day. Your rules are good for you, but not for me. I want more from the rest of my pitiful life.”
“All of these things that I’ve put into action—the security, the rules, my calls—are for your protection, Mom,” Abbey said. “Who’s your boyfriend? Don’t tell me.”
Nova sent out a peel of laughter. “I don’t have a boyfriend. Do you, my dear?”
Celeste barked, “Gramma can do what she wants!”
Abbey said, “Sure, she can, and I can scrape her off the pavement. And as for you, baby girl with the nose ring, you lied to me. You let Gramma out of the house with that baboon!” She paused for a moment to shove Monte and Cable out of the house.
Monte hopped into Cable’s pickup and they drove the short distance in silence until Cable slapped the steering wheel and said, “I really feel a whole lot better now that we’re outta that fuckin’ cat fight.”
“It was my idea,” Monte said, shaking his head.
“To get into a cat fight?”
“No! The movie. It was only a movie.”
— — —
The next day, Cable was supposed to pick up his dad at the airport, but he’d forgotten about it. Larry and Monte were brothers, though not particularly close. Larry was flying in from LA for a long weekend. Monte shook the car keys in Cable’s direction and told him that he might be late. “For what?” Cable asked. “Oh, shit, my dad! But I need to get to work!” The Error Code Bar was celebrating its grand re-opening after a year of being shuttered.
“Get your ass outta here. I’ll call for a limo for your dad. He’ll want first class.”
Monte understood the reasons for his visit: to be sure Cable was gainfully employed, and to check on Monte’s health. The only enjoyment Monte could see having his older brother around would be to make a few ridiculous remarks at his brother’s expense, like when they were kids. Monte always thought of Larry as a dull blowhard, bragging about his business and getting nosy about other people. He’d made it big in the tech world and seemed perpetually disappointed in Cable. Larry hadn’t been in contact much with Monte since the diagnosis, either. He expected a less-than-happy visit. He checked Larry’s flight; it was thirty minutes late.
Once he arrived, the peaceful lull was broken; Larry barged in, grousing non-stop about the flight. Monte toted his bags up to the spare room, noting no twinges from his hip, grateful for last year’s hip surgery. But what happened to traveling light? Next, Larry was asking for wine and something to eat.
“How about cheese and crackers? No wine. Cable might have a bottle of Jim Bean.”
“So, that’s something anyway. Why didn’t you pick me up?”
“I don’t drive anymore,” Monte said. “Not for a couple of months now.”
“I probably could drive, but I don’t want to. If I get stopped by a cop, even for just a broken tail light, my speech might be blocked, and the cop might think I’m stoned or drunk.”
“Are you messing with me?” Larry asked.
“In a sense,” Monte said, enjoying Larry’s confusion.
“You said you had that aphasia thing.”
“Oh, yes, aphasia, she’s my girlfriend.”
“Why are you saying such idiotic things? Is it dementia or what?”
Monte laid out the jargon, the cognitive faculties that would be degrading over time, and that there was no cure. “Too bad you weren’t here for my speech.”
“Any clinical trials?” Larry asked.
“Yes, but somebody would have to drive me three-hundred miles every month to participate. If I want to go somewhere, it won’t be to a research center for scientists to gather data for five years, and for what?”
“What about your work trauma thing?” Larry asked. “Flashbacks, trouble sleeping? Also, have you thought about selling your house and moving into an independent living place? It’s a seller’s market, you know. ”
As Monte tried to keep up with Larry’s barrage of questions, Tori came in the back door, dragging a tote bag. She looked totally drained, sweaty and tired. She and Larry greeted each other. Monte forgot for a moment that they’d met last year.
“What happened to you, little lady?” Larry asked.
“Tori has four jobs, and this one’s in a branch bank,” Monte said.
“Yes, very busy,” Tori said, trudging back to her car. Returning, she transported her bounty of a big take-out carton from Wingin’ Chickin and placed it on the table.
“Thirty-six wings. Save some for Cable. I’m not sure when he’ll be home.” She found the beer and the Jim Beam and brought it all to the table.
“Wonderful,” Larry said. “You really understand hospitality better than my brother. I really mean it.”
Larry ate twelve, Monte six, and Tori four.
Larry asked about her jobs and how she tracked her income and expenses.
She reported about personal shopping, pet sitting, balancing the books for food-truck owners, and working in a bank during off-hours. “I always get paid immediately because I have a card swiper on my phone that funnels my money direct to my bank account. Nobody can say, ‘Oh, I don’t have it on me right now.’”
“What do you do at the bank?” Larry asked.
“If you really must know, I scrub floors and toilets.”
Larry persisted in asking her about her resourceful approach toward work, droning on and on. Tori seemed to like the attention. Monte found it annoying.
Later in the evening, Monte didn’t want to listen to Larry, so he went to bed. After a few minutes, he was awakened by Cable’s entrance and the charged voices of both Larry and Cable. Monte could heard them arguing. It was a little after midnight. Larry had knocked back the rest of Cable’s bottle of Jim Beam, and there wasn’t much beer left, either. Cable was peeved and went upstairs, stomping hard; Tori followed, and their raised voices made sleep almost impossible.
— — —
Before breakfast, Tori told Monte that Cable found an old bottle of Percocet pills in Monte’s bedroom and was ready to help himself. That’s what the fight was about. She was still livid. “Opioids! He’s a likable guy, but he doesn’t have good judgment. He’s not for me.”
“I’ll deal with that,” Monte said.
“Don’t tell Larry. Cable has too much on his plate now.”
“My fault. I should have dumped those pills long ago. Those were from my hip surgery. Cable is really stressed about his dad and his new job, but no excuse.”
Later in the morning, Monte went with Cable to get groceries. They sat in the pickup and sorted out Cable’s problems in a way that made both feel good. Cable apologized and assured Monte that he would stay on track to help Monte with the things he couldn’t do anymore.
When they returned they found Tori and Larry at Monte’s desk, pouring over his medical and financial documents, and looking up the value of his home according to Zillow. Larry was pontificating about the gig economy and advising Tori how to successfully move into the corporate economy. Monte was absolutely furious.
“What the hell are you doing with my stuff?”
“We were only trying to help,” Tori said. She avoided Monte’s glare and had the grace to look a bit guilty.
“Is this the snooping economy? Whaddaya say, big brother? Hey, Tori, you know everything from Larry about the schmooze economy and the boot-licking economy. How about the go-away-and-don’t-come-back economy!” His hands shook as he tried to gather up various papers from the desk.
“Uncle, I don’t blame you, but just chill. Dad, why do you have to keep doing this shit?”
Tori turned to Cable and said, “Larry has some good ideas for my employment.” She turned and left the room as Cable stood there shaking his head, not knowing what to say.
“This is fucked up. So, now what?” Monte asked.
“We really need to talk about things once you’re willing to listen,” Larry said. “Not that you ever will though. At least Tori gets what I’m saying.”
“I’ve listened long enough. You need to listen to me! I’m done with this.”
Cable helped Monte collect his documents and put them in a briefcase. Then Cable suggested he and Monte take a walk around the pond at a nearby park to calm down a bit. Getting out of the house would be good.
When they returned, Larry’s luggage was gone and Tori’s belongings that she’d had in Cable’s room were gone, too. A short note was on the kitchen table propped up with a juice glass. In Tori’s handwriting, the note said, Taking UAL to LAX. We tried our best. Bye!
“What? Isn’t this weird? Larry and Tori? This makes no sense.” Monte said.
“Really screwy, for sure,” Cable said. “I get my dad; he’s been like that all the time. But Tori? Yeah, my fault. Anyway, I gotta go to work.”
Monte noticed a text from Larry: “Will call you soon.” He wanted to send a snarky reply, but that would start another dustup. He wouldn’t reply. He needed peace and quiet.
— — —
Monte tried to reach Nova every day for almost a week with no response. Cable told Monte that he was moping, and he agreed—moping about the crap from Larry, which Monte understood as issues that he needed to deal with, but it just bugged him that he couldn’t reach Nova. With a stroke of brilliance, he called Celeste. She told Monte that Nova was under the weather but she would be up for a visit any time, cleared by Abbey.
So, Monte asked Cable for a ride to Nova’s place, once again.
During the drive, Monte recalled some fragments of things Nova had said about losing parts of your brain and about which disease was worse: Alzheimer’s or word-loss disorder. Either way, you could end up in the same place.
“Wow, that’s really depressing,” Cable said.
“Well, it’s my world now,” said Monte. “Just trying to get a handle on things.”
Once they arrived, Cable announced he would stay in the pickup.
“Hey, Abbey’s just protective,” Monte said. “OK, that ‘wingman’ comment probably still stings. So stay here. I’ll be out soon.”
Abbey’s door-bell camera sounded Monte’s arrival. When he stepped into the living room, Abbey gripped his shoulder and apologized for her previous outburst. “I’m glad you came, but take it easy.”
With a gentle knock, Monte entered Nova’s room. He found Nova in a chair with a book in her lap, possibly sleeping. “Hey, Nova,” Monte whispered. “How are you?”
“What are you reading today?”
“Sorry, I’m not grasping who you are.”
“Oh, I was with you when you yelled ‘bastards!’ in a full theater.”
“I did?” Nova said. “I did!” She looked up at him and grinned. “Monte!”
“Yes, it’s me!”
“Now Abbey will let me go places with people we know, if I keep in touch. Juvie stuff, but better than nothing. She decided you’re OK.”
“How did that happen?” Monte asked.
“Celeste bombarded her with all the good stuff she found about you online, those outdoors articles and the speech at The Memory Team.”
“How does Celeste make it from the doghouse to the penthouse so quickly?”
He sat next to the bed as they chatted about the movie. She did seem pretty wiped out. When he went back to the living room, Abbey asked him how Nova looked.
“I’m not sure, she might have just been tired,” Monte said. “Anyway, she had a laugh.”
Back in the pickup, he told Cable about his visit.
“So, what you’re saying is, it was good, but maybe watch movies at home,” Cable said.
— — —
Next morning, Monte made a protein breakfast of eggs and sausages. He asked Cable to take him to the beginning of the rail trail. It was a great day for a hike and he wanted to make the most of it. Cable said he could drop him off, but he couldn’t pick him up until later. The bar was changing its decor and Cable would have to work a double shift. Monte was OK with that; he had packed plenty of water and a few energy bars. The day was sunny and his hip wasn’t giving him any trouble. It was so calming, being outside. After a while, he went off the trail onto a hilly path, just to see where it went. In no time, he ran into a guy riding an ATV. He hopped off his four wheeler and accosted Monte with a threatening stance. He told Monte that he was standing on his land and he needed to leave. Spontaneous conversations were the worst for Monte. He was jittery as he hoped words would pop out. He started to talk but every lane of speech was blocked. There wasn’t any script for this! He made an about-face and went back to the trail, shaken by the encounter. He hoped he wouldn’t see that guy again.
Monte didn’t check his phone until lunch, when he found a long text from Larry telling him that he and Tori would come back later that day, and apologized about the invasion of Monte’s documents. Tori also sent voicemail apologies.
“We went to LA for a little fun and I ended up getting a job there in mobile banking, thanks to Larry,” she said. “I got just a week to pack, fly and find a place to live. Isn’t that great!”
At first, Monte was annoyed with Larry, then thought he should learn to be more amicable. After all, Nova was working through family issues; he could, too.
As he finished his hike, he called Cable to see when he would be able to pick him up.
“Not yet. Stay at the trailhead and hang,” Cable said.
Monte sat on a stump for a while, then strolled around the area, noting a stream, a run-down house, and a highway sign decorated with bullet holes. Weirdly, a stretch limo rolled slowly up to the trailhead. The doors opened and piling out of the vehicle came Larry, Cable, and Tori. They seemed excited to see him.
“Hey, we’re on our way to the restaurant of a great country club, Three Sycamores,” Larry said. “We’re all going.”
Monte was sizing up Larry, wondering how he could so easily help Tori but not his son or brother. What was going on? At least Larry came back. Maybe he was going to be reasonable after all.
“Hey, how’s the hip?” Cable asked. “I took a long dinner hour. I brought you clean clothes. You can shower at the clubhouse. You’re really ripe.”
“Monte, smile, OK?” Tori said. “What did you see on your walk?”
“A grumpy guy. I tried to talk to him. It wasn’t pretty.”
“Well, keep talking,” she said. “I looked up aphasia.”
“Yeah, I know about that, too,” Monte said, as they climbed into the limo.
Ed Peaco is a writer of short stories and a freelance writer of articles about music. His work has appeared in The MacGuffin, Alabama Literary Review, Santa Fe Contest, and other journals. During the COVID years when musicians were locked out, Peaco had very little to write about for an article. However, music can be funneled into the short story, such as Langston Hughes’s “Dance.”
I’d had little contact with my father in the year since my mother’s death. I would have had none at all if my sister Carly hadn’t phoned me on three occasions to tell me how he was coping with his grief – a phrase that always irritates me for some reason – and to invite me to drop by her condo in San Francisco for a drink. She said he would be there. And there he was, sitting on the ivory-colored sectional that she must have paid at least six grand for, each time with a different woman.
The first was Claudine. Stocky, French, and with a bosom that preceded her like the prow of a ship, she had been our cleaning lady for years and was married to a seaman from Liverpool until he died of lung cancer. She knocked over a vase on the mantlepiece back when I was in college and snoozing on the couch one hot afternoon, Intro to Calculus on my lap, and I awoke to a stream of Liverpudlian invective.
The last time I’d seen her was at the memorial service, where she sat in the front row dabbing her tears and gazing up at the portrait of Mom in a pink ski jacket that Carly had had transferred – nicely, I must say – onto a cloth banner that swayed softly in the breeze off of Richardson Bay.
Was she still cleaning the house for Dad, making him little cassoulets he could keep in the freezer, even an occasional tarte tatin? Vacuuming the carpet around the LazyBoy where he would lounge watching Fox News after a day perfecting the teeth of Marin County adolescents, with a double martini and a bag of Doritos? He could do worse, I thought, hanging up my jacket.
I try to look smart when I’m seeing my sister. She told me once that I dressed like a slob, and she may have been right. So I went to the consignment store in town – back when stores were still open when they wanted to be, and you didn’t have to be a dentist or a barber to be essential – and some older man who was my size and had a modicum of taste had died, fortunately, so I got some lightweight trousers and a blue sport jacket for summer and three Massimo Dutti T-shirts that, even if I say it myself, make me look quite dashing. With Mom gone and no girlfriend right now, I listen to Carly.
The second woman was Eva. Lean in that feral way that women have, with impeccably cut silver hair, Eva had been married for years to a wealthy cardiologist and lived nearby. She had been hovering since he died – felled, fittingly, by a heart attack – waiting for Dad to be freed from his current marriage so she could slide him like a piece of quiche into the next.
Eva would be seated at the kitchen island, her lovely legs crossed, during our annual Christmas party, when the mansion was home to five fully decorated Douglas firs – my mother, God love her, being no stranger to vulgarity – when I drifted in, the underachieving son looking for a grilled prawn or two, as though she were the lady of the manor, slicing the salami or buffing the red wine glasses.
The third one was Jean.
“Is he seeing Jean?” Carly was in her kitchen trying to open a bottle of Pinot Noir. It amazes me that Carly, the smart one, the achiever, the one that causes Dad to nod sagely and his brown eyes to glaze over when he speaks of her, can prosecute a wrongful death lawsuit but not open a bottle of wine without a mess.
“Let me do that,” I say, gallantly, in my Massimo Dutti shirt.
Her long brown hair is loose, not wound up in a bun in typical I-brook-no-nonsense fashion. Is she in playful mood? She is a smart woman, my sister, a little driven perhaps, and I watch her take me in as she does now with a sort of perpetual despair.
“It’s OK, I’ve got it. And yes, he is seeing Jean, as you so coyly put it. As would seem to be his right.”
“I know. I know.” There is a platter of cheeses on the marble counter, sweating in the warm June air. Cambozola, Manchego, Cheddar, Gruyere, and a couple of creamy French ones that only Carly will ever have heard of.
“What about Eva?”
“That was short lived. As I thought it might be. There’s not a lot there.”
“And there is with Jean?”
“Well, there’s more, I guess.” She sighs. “I don’t know, Brian. This is new for us all, isn’t it? Especially him. Seeing him with someone else still upsets me. I have this weird sense that Mom is looking down at me saying, Are you going to put up with this? But what can we do? We can’t expect him to stay single forever. He hates being alone.” She raises her eyebrows. “He’s even talking about signing up for eHarmony.”
“Omigod!” Online dating. Somehow you never picture your parents doing anything like that. But I can see him at it, gazing out of computers across the land,, good-looking for his years, affable, well off, still has his hair, not thin any more but doesn’t have that belly men get, good listener, droning on about restaurants, movies, travel, walks on the beach. Sex.
She hands me a glass of wine with bits of cork in it. “You need to go and see him now and then and stop blaming him for Mom’s death. You have to accept what’s happened, Brian. He misses you. I think. You’re the son. That kind of thing matters to him. You could advise him on this stuff, other women, how to behave if he ever meets someone he doesn’t already know.” She puts plates and paper napkins and olives and nuts on a tray, and we look at the two of them sitting stiffly on the sectional – the joys of open plan – like soldiers peaking out at the enemy.
Dad is wearing a short-sleeved shirt Mom bought him years ago and what look like cargo pants. What next? A man bun? Tattoos? He’s an orthodontist! I remind myself, picturing him fishing around in the closet, wondering what to wear for a date with Jean, his wife’s best friend, whom he’s never liked anyway. And I feel sorry for him, a little, having to start again with the whole shebang. Finding someone new.
“She’s someone he knows,” Carly says, sotto voce, as we head in. “She’s been around forever.”
She even looks like Mom. A little taller but the same stocky build, the thick blonde hair, the heart-shaped face, the sweet smile. People used to think they were sisters.
Journalism was still a career all those years ago when she and Mom drove out from Toledo, Ohio, in an old red Mustang that had been my grandfather’s. Before the Internet changed everything. The job still had some status, a future even. Jean had a Bachelor of Arts degree, the right progressive politics, and she had no trouble getting entry jobs with local newspapers or NGOs, always with the hope that one of them would lead to something better.
But it never happened. Things would start out well, the job would seem like a good fit, she was sure this was it, but then it would end. Either the job wasn’t for her, or they’d decide she wasn’t for it. She failed to meet deadlines. And she was chronically late. Not just now and then, with reason, but often enough to suggest a resistance to turning up on time, anywhere.
“They’ve let her go!” Mom hung up the phone in the kitchen one weekend morning, blue eyes wide in dismay, looking at us all seated around the breakfast table. “I’m not surprised! She was late again this week. Why does she do it?” – she clasped her forehead with her palm – “and he’s finally said Enough. Now, of course, she thinks she’s been mistreated. But he’s been warning her for weeks!”
Dad and Carly and I ate our scrambled eggs and bacon and hash browns quietly, the clouds drifting across a pale blue sky. We’d been hearing about this for weeks, seen it coming. Instead of seeming a villain, the boss had been earning my sympathy. I pictured him in a shabby office somewhere off Market, Jimmy Stewart with thinning hair, smoking, sleeves rolled up, working always to a deadline. And there was Jean, arriving late again.
“She doesn’t want to work,” Dad topped up his coffee. “She wants to be a lady of leisure. Always has. That’s what her mother was, and that’s what she wants to be. Feminism is all very well, but some women just want a life of ease.” He paused, expecting Mom to object. Then he went on.
“Would you hire Jean?”
But short as her stint with Bob had been, it changed her life. That was where she met James, charismatic James, James of the golden crowns, one on each side. You couldn’t miss them amongst those impeccably white, even teeth, golden flashes whenever he smiled. And James smiled a lot. “$2500 at least, each of them,” said Dad.
James had an MBA from Berkeley, four young kids, and an angry wife. He was a corporate exec with one of the big oil companies, with a couple of pals in low-level crime. Drugs were available, as were women. But by the time Jean caught on to this, she was smitten. James was Black. He was racy. She was hoping once they were married – she was pregnant already with William – and he discovered the steady pleasures of suburban life, he’d dump the dodgy pals and stay home at night.
And he did get an expensive divorce from the angry wife, and take up golf, and make a lot of noise about being a father to William and Genevieve (who came along later, by which time he and Jean were married). But the marriage was turbulent from the start. There were always other women. This led to rage and despair and threats of divorce from Jean, followed by apologies and promises and devotion from James, as he threw himself loudly into family life. And for a while, a kind of shaky domesticity would reign up there in the split-level.
We happily fell in with this, Mom in particular. Driving home after a barbecue or a party at their place, Dad would announce grandly that James was ‘Okay’ after all, he’d done well for himself, while Affirmative Action may have helped, and we’d all been too quick to judge the marriage. Even Jean’s left wing politics weren’t that bad if she didn’t drone on too long.
We were fooled, of course. It always came to an end. There’d been someone else all along. It was all so different from the tidy white bread life we were living.
“Do you still blame your father for what happened?¨
She is still on the plump side. Zoftig, they call it. James is in New York now with his third wife, a sitcom actress twenty years his junior. I wonder vaguely what lockdown has done to a career in sitcoms. There is a butterfly pin on her dress, and only now, as I’m helping her on with her jacket, do I recognize it. I am taken aback and shouldn’t be. Dad will have been getting rid of Mom’s things. And why not? Who knows? Maybe it was a gift from Jean.
“Not as much as I did.”
Mom listened to Dad. And this was not the first time she had fallen asleep in a bathtub in a hotel in a foreign land because she’d taken too much Ambien. But this time Dad had fallen asleep too, in his pajamas, watching Bridge Over the River Kwai. The combination of big dinner, lots of alcohol, hot bath, and Ambien had been fatal.
“You know, Brian” – I heard a lecture coming. No matter how old you are, there’s always a lecture coming – “your Mom always did what she wanted. I know. And I’ve known your Mom for decades.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
She didn’t seem to hear me. “People do foolish things all the time. We can’t blame your father for something your mother persisted in doing.”
We look at Dad and Carly on the balcony, admiring the roses. She has inherited the gardening gene.
“Did you know it had happened before?” I say.
“In Istanbul. But he got there in time. Same thing: big dinner the night they arrive, too much to drink, late back to the hotel, she’s anxious about the next day and her shoulder hurts, so she takes a hot bath. She did it all the time. He stays awake – he’s supposed to – she calls out to him now and then, he can hear her in the tub. Only this time he didn’t. Stay awake. No one was told then either. Just Carly and me. Not even you.”
We are silent.
“I know I sound bitter. And you’re right. She did what she wanted. But he is a doctor, Jean, a medical man. And she listened to him, she always did. Remember that time in Disneyland? The Ambien should have been stopped. Somehow. She took it like it was Aspirin.”
I feel exhausted, suddenly, tired of talking.
“You know what I hate most?” I’d never said this before, not even to Carly. “That she died in such a dreadful way. Did you know one person a day dies – drowns – in a bathtub? In the States. One a day, on average, 355 a year. As though it makes any difference, whether you die crossing the street or in a bathtub.”
“I’ve got bad news.” He was calling from the hotel. Then he stopped, and I thought maybe something was wrong with his cell phone. But he was still there, l could sense him there on the line, and when he didn’t say my name, I had this weird sense that he’d forgotten it, momentarily.
Hearing his ghostly voice at that hour in the darkness of my room, I wished suddenly that I wasn’t thousands of miles away, that I’d taken this one last trip with them. That I was sitting there in the hotel breakfast room with its morning buzz, a café au lait steaming in front of me, in one of those sturdy white cups they use, Mom across from me with a sly wink if Dad were to make one of his stupid comments about the French.
I pictured the dentists and their spouses yakking about whether to go to The Louvre or The Pantheon or do a Bateau Mouche on the Seine, where to meet for dinner later on, and letting Mom know if the rooms were big enough (never) and the showers hot enough (rarely), and annoying everyone, certainly the French and the English, with their loud American ways.
I pictured the waitresses scurrying in and out with the pots of coffee – Decaf, Hazelnut, Viennese, Expresso – and filling up the trays with sausages and bacon and scrambled eggs and scalloped potatoes – we’re in France! – and the bowls of fruit salad, the croissants, the brioches, the blueberry muffins in their wire baskets, and those little silver bowls with the strawberry jam.
“Brian,” he said, bringing me back to the dimness of my room. “I have bad news, I’m afraid. I’m so sorry. Your mother died last night. Here. In the hotel. She drowned in the bathtub.”
It is three months now since I saw him at Carly’s, and it is the end of summer. Lockdown has been eased, so I drop in late one afternoon. Covid worries him, but I’m young and I’m skeptical. I wear a mask. I do as I’m told. But that’s it.
It is warm still but the day has a bite that seems to come from nowhere, that has me thinking of dead leaves on gravel, of cold, wet, winter.
I knock gently, firmly. I am family. When there is no answer, there is a split second of panic. But he is only 62, I say to myself. I let myself in and call out in the hallway. What if he is cavorting with Jean in the bedroom or the shower or worse, cavorting with someone he’s met through eHarmony, someone twenty years younger. Like James. There was no car in the driveway, but who knows?
On the island in the kitchen, where Eva would swing her lovely legs, are the remains of a ham sandwich – he never would eat his crusts – a can of Stella Artois and a bag of Doritos. The big carved wooden bowl – the Nigeria trip? – that for years displayed mangos and papayas and other exotic fruits, now holds s bunch of bananas, a jumbo pack of KitKat, and a pair of binoculars that have been knocking around for years.
Mom had the living room windows replaced two or three years ago, and Claudine must have been at them of late with Gallic zest, for there is not a streak to be seen. I look across Raccoon Strait at Angel Island, green and lush as always, and I think of Carly for some reason. What goes through her mind these days when she stands here and looks at this view? Does she think of the girl she was growing up in this house? Does she have moments when some part of her would would give it all up to be that girl again? Certainly not.
I can see him down there among the roses. He was always the gardener. Mom had no patience for it. They would go to the nursery once every year in spring, and she would buy impatiens, petunias, lobelia, maybe a gardenia, and he would buy a single rosebush, for her, usually a David Austen. The last one, the summer before lockdown, had been Vanessa Bell.
“Are you still seeing Jean?” I call out, heading toward him across the lawn.
“No. I’m not.” He straightens up and grins at me above the bushes, secateurs in hand. “It’s great to see you, Brian. It really is.” The old, crooked smile. He’s gained some weight.
To my surprise, I’m disappointed. I haven’t forgotten that day at Carly’s. They would be an odd couple, my father and Jean, but those are some of the best. Mel Brooks and Ann Bancroft. Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti.
“Do you have time for a cup of tea? Better yet, a glass of wine?” He looks off to the west. “Is the sun over the yard arm? What does that even mean?” He shakes his head in bemusement. “What is a yard arm? I have a nice Chardonnay in the fridge. I just opened it last night, and I only had one glass.”
“Sure. I’ll take a glass of a nice chardonnay.”
We go up to the deck and sit down with our Chardonnay and some Doritos looking out over Raccoon Strait.
“Brian,” he says. “What is this farce you have to go through if you don’t want to live the rest of your life alone?” I don’t know where he’s going with this, so I sit tight with my Chardonnay.
“She says I came on too strong for her. When I kissed her in the hot tub. That I behaved inappropriately. That’s the word these days: Inappropriate. Inappropriate for what? A meeting of the United Nations? A sex club?”
“We had gone to this restaurant in St. Helena. It was a bed and breakfast place, too, nice place. That’s why they had the hot tub. And it was her idea. After dinner, which was good, she suggested we try the hot tub. Can you imagine me in a hot tub? Your mother hated anything like that. We’d had some wine, of course, and I had a brandy and she had Drambuie, I think it was, and we were feeling mellow. So we toddled over to the hot tub and there was no one else around, so we disrobed and got in. And then after awhile I tried to kiss her. I did kiss her. Fulsomely, as they say. Isn’t that what hot tubs are for?”
And now, she isn’t returning my calls or answering my emails. I don’t know what she’s so upset about. She’s not an ingenue. She knows what men are like. Good Lord, if anyone knows what men are like, it’s Jean. I have gone from ‘Prominent orthodontist, newly available!’ to ‘Harasser of dead wife’s best friend.’”
“Don’t worry about it, Dad. It’ll blow over. Women are in a strange place these days. #MeToo and so on. They want men to behave better.”
“I get that. I support that. But do they overreact at times? I assumed that if we were going to a hot tub, she was open to a certain kind of behavior.”
“They do. Sometimes they overreact a little. But they’ll sort it.”
“This may seem odd to you, to someone of your generation, but I was never unfaithful to your mother, not once. I married her and that was it for other women. They just didn’t interest me. Not even a one-night stand, at one of those dental conferences in Cleveland or Miami, where women were all over the place.”
“Did you just come on too strong?”
“I must have. I can be clumsy. I don’t know what they want. Maybe they don’t either.” He looks off into the distance.
It had rained last night, an indication of cooler weather to come. He’s let the lawn go, I’m thinking as I sit there, the grass is getting long. I could come by and do it for him every couple of weeks. Keep track of the women in his life, give him some tips, as Carly would say. Go easy on the lunging.
“Do you remember that time years ago,” I say, “when Mom and Jean took all of us kids to Disneyland? By train. Overnight. It was the Coast Starlight Express that ran down the coast. You dropped us off in Oakland, and we got into Anaheim the next day. We stayed in this Godawful motel with hideous green carpeting that was filthy, and the furniture was crap, legs broken, that kind of thing. And Carly got sick. She had a cheeseburger with onions and chips and a coke and two pieces of lemon meringue pie. And she threw up. On The Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“I don’t. I guess you had to be there.”
“Anyway, we wanted to stay another day, and it was okay with the motel, of course – Who would want to stay there? – Jean was okay with it, and Mom phoned you to say we were staying another day, and you said No. You wanted us to come back. And Mom went along with it. I never understood why. Why you said No, and why she went along.”
I had to get it out, once and for all.
“If you could be so sure about that, so sure that Mom would do what you said, why couldn’t you do that in Paris? With the Ambien. Take it from her? Hide it. Do something. Just not let her have it when she was taking a hot bath late at night after lots of alcohol?”
He sighed. “Brian, you have to stop blaming me for your mother’s death. She did what she wanted. Not always but in recent years. She loved running those trips, that’s what you forget, or maybe never knew, that she was good at it. Very good.”
We watched as a lone sailor tacked his sloop into the wind and headed away from us toward Richardson Bay. Then he slapped his knee briskly, glad the moment was over. “I’m trying to be more likable, Brian, a better man, less of a bully. That’s why the thing with Jean was such a shock.”
He was right. I was going to have to let go of my bitterness. Mom had chosen how she wanted to live, fatal as it had turned out to be. I had to make peace with that, with the randomness of life, its chaos. I looked at him sitting there with his hapless expression and the nutty notion that he could change. Who does that? I had never been close to my father. I’d always been a Mommy’s boy. I guess I resented his favoritism for Carly. But what parent is perfect? Can you have two kids and not prefer one to the other?
And looking down at the rose garden he was so proud of – maybe it was the Chardonnay on an empty stomach, I’d had no lunch – I seemed to see the whole business newly, the mess ups we human beings are so good at, our foolishness: Mom and her determination to keep doing something well past the point of wisdom, Dad in his pajamas snoring on the bed while Alec Guinness strutted about in Burma, Jean’s breasts floating in the hot tub like rubber cupcakes, and finally the lunge in for the kiss.
And I imagined Mom smiling up at me, as always in the lingering days of summer, her dress a shaft of pink among the roses, the lawn behind her sloping down to the water, shaking her head in sorrow and disbelief: What a stupid way to die.
As it turned out, Dad is a new man these days. Maybe not as I expected but then, I’ve never never lost the woman I love, never had to start all over again.
He’s cooking, for one thing, decent stuff like Curried Prawns and Fish Stew. He’s golfing less and reading more. Last time I let myself in, there was a paperback copy of Madame Bovary on the dining table. Used, thumbed, it had seen life. Poor Madame Bovary. Even being French didn’t save her. She should have lived now. Was Claudine reading Flaubert while she ran the washing machine? In English?
“You’re reading Flaubert?” I said, taking a beer out of the fridge.
“Well, I thought I’d give it a try.” He looked a little sheepish. “A copy showed up at the clinic, and I’m always hearing it praised.”
He doesn’t watch Fox News anymore, and he listens to NPR. He says. He even misses a chance, these days, to make fun of the French, which is a good thing. He is seeing Jean again. They are planning a trip to Marseilles next year.
She phoned him a few weeks after the hot tub incident, as we call it, like Incident at Little Rock, or The Ox-Bow Incident. Maybe she felt she’d been hasty, that he wasn’t exactly Harvey Weinstein. Maybe she’d reflected on the shortage of good men around here or on how much Dad is worth. Crudely put, I know, but I don’t trust her, after The Hot Tub Incident.
And I was going to tell him that he shouldn’t either, that Jean may be a little nutty, the James years may have given her strange notions about who men are, their lusts.
Then I thought about it – without involving Carly, for once – and I decided it’s none of my business. If he wants to see Jean, why shouldn’t he? She wouldn’t be my cup of tea. Too plump, too much with the fake smile – like Mom at times – too unpredictable.
But really, it’s up to him who he sees, what he does, the risks he takes.
It’s his life.
Jenny Falloon studied English Literature at UC Berkeley and years ago wrote articles for San Francisco Bay Area sailing magazines. She has lived in Canada, the US, The Bahamas, England and, currently, Spain. Since retirement, her writing has won prizes in the U3A Javea and Xabia Book Circle. Her short stories have appeared in The Writing Disorder, Belle Ombre, Tales From a Small Planet, CafeLit, CommuterLit and Eclectica Magazine. She writes satire, memoirs, flash fiction, and short stories.
To step out from
trees onto open
steady nerve, eyes
shaded to sun’s
tense sudden glare,
thigh’s balanced to
any gust of wind,
and no reason
other than a need
to stretch out arms,
twirl in place,
to grasp freedom
to run without
yet to stand still
in awe of your
inability to exploit
your new freedom
under open sky.
Still deep red smudges
among faded frost-bit
leaves, rose petals linger,
brittle lips kissed by
a November breeze,
memories of warm
embraces and sun’s
heat. Hope clings
to the last petal when
it releases its grip
on yesterday and blows
away into next spring.
Flames swirl above
piles of brush, a last
farewell to limbs
that waved lush leaves,
green hope before
storm’s fierce gust
brought down trees’
long stand under
summer drought and
winter fury and harsh
words from frantic
hosts. Now a pile
sinks into ashes.
A gray wisp rises
into a blue sky
with a wistful
wish for peace.
Ever since atomic
bombs stopped lighting
up night skies
and blasting tiny
atolls to atoms
that glowed behind
shark eyes, I
find it hard to sleep
with all those people
determined to make
the world a better
place and America
greater than that
with nothing big
just what is in their
hands when they step
out of the shadows
as I walk by.
Richard Dinges, Jr. lives and works by a pond among trees and grassland, along with his wife, two dogs, three cats, and twelve chickens. Eureka Literary Magazine, Cardinal Sins, Caveat Lector, North of Oxford, and Poem most recently accepted his poems for publication.
“Like me to write you a little essay on the Importance of Subject? Well the reason you are so sore you missed the war is because war is the best [emphasis original] subject of all. It
provided [sic] grasps the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get. What made 3 Soldiers [written by John Dos Passos] a sweet book was the war. What made Streets of Night [written by John Dos Passos] a lousy book was Boston. One was as well written as the other. I can hear you telling me I’m all wrong. Maybe I am. Love is also a good subject as you might be said to have discovered…. And don’t for christ sake feel bad about missing the war because I didn’t see or get anything worth a damn out as a whole show, [and] not just as touching myself, which is the deep, romantic view point, because I was too young. Dos, fortunately, went to the war twice and grew up in between….”
[Ernest Hemingway to Scott Fitzgerald, 1925]
The summer sunlight poked through the leaves of the Chestnut trees standing along the wide Boulevard Montparnasse. Ernest and I sat on the terrace of the Café La Closerie des Lilas. Shafts of bright, clear light descended from above, falling on the tabletops where their reflections burned like sanctuary candles. A bottle of light, red wine sat between us. He poured me another glass.
“Congratulations, Max wrote me that he decided to publish your novel,” I said. I knew I would get no thanks. Ernest’s first novel, The Torrents of Spring, was rejected by a London publisher. I convinced him to send his second one, The Sun Also Rises, to Max Perkins at Scribner. Max wasn’t all that impressed, but I assured him that Ernest was the real thing and that it was important to get him now.
“You don’t box, do you? Ernest said. “I would guess not. The problem with you, Scott, you’re afraid to get hurt. Do you know how to tell time? “That was one thing about Ernest: it seemed he never cared about getting hurt. He thrived on risks, like he had something to prove.
He looked up at me with pupils black and wide, almost suggesting he wasn’t sure I could successfully operate a watch.
“I’m boxing with Callaghan this afternoon. We need a timekeeper.” He finished off the wine in his glass.
“Sure, sure,” I replied, “but why do you do it, why the boxing? Didn’t you see enough fighting in the War?”
“You’ll never get over it, will you?” he said while he poured himself more wine. He lifted the glass toward one of the streams of light and inspected the contents as he swirled the glass. He was right. I missed the greatest opportunity for any writer of my generation. Ernest had told me once that in war all of life is experienced in a day.
“It’s not my fault,” I protested. “It was over before I could get there. Tell me, what was it like?”
“It’s never over for those who were there. What happens to a man in war cannot be told. It must be felt.”
He stood up abruptly. “Are you coming?” he barked.
He made his way from the terrace and started walking up the Boulevard. I hurried and caught up with him.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You just had a half a bottle of wine.”
“I don’t like to drink too much before a match.”
We walked about two blocks, turned down a side street, and stopped at a pair of wooden doors. He pushed on the right one. It resisted. He pushed harder, and the worn door began moving, scraping along the cement floor. It was an abandoned warehouse. A thin canvas mat lay in the center. Ernest stepped onto it, stripped off his shirt and started throwing punches at the air.
“Do you have a watch?”
I pulled my watch from my vest pocket.
“Each round is three minutes. You say ‘start’ and ‘stop’ when it’s time.”
It was the War he was throwing in my face. I wanted to say, “where are the gloves. I’ll go a few rounds with you.” What I wanted to say and what I wanted to do were quite different. In truth, I was afraid to get hurt. Only to experience war could have made me take chances, lie in wet, muddy trenches with every nerve in my body quivering, digging my fingers into the mushy ground, the concussion of impending death exploding around me. What did courage feel like? I may never know, but I wanted to see and hear it, the kind of fearlessness that Ernest threw around so naturally.
He stopped throwing punches and walked up next to me, tipped his head to an area at the back of the large vacant space. He spoke in a near whisper, “You see that guy over there?”
I looked and saw a man pushing a broom. I looked back at Ernest.
“He’s Austrian, fought the War. He says he wasn’t on the Italian front, but I think he’s lying. The son-of-a-bitch could have fired the mortar that knocked me unconscious, nearly killed me. He’s moved his family to Paris, trying to start over. He’s one of the ones who got away, Scott.”
Wouldn’t Ernest ever stop fighting the War? Before I could answer, I heard the sound of the door scarping on the concrete floor. It was Morley Callaghan. He was carrying a duffle bag. Morley was an American spending the summer in Paris with his wife. He was a reporter turned writer and did some boxing in college. Ernest knew him back in the States. I had run into him a few times at the cafés in the Quarter.
Morley didn’t waste any time. We exchanged greetings and he opened the duffle bag and took out the gloves. Ernest grabbed a pair. Morley stripped off his shirt and put on the other pair.
“Alright, Scott,” Ernest said, slamming his clenched gloves together, “three minutes a round.”
I looked at my watch and I said, “start.” The two men squared-off. Ernest threw a few wild punches. Morley blocked them and countered with more measured blows. I kept an eye on the time. At three minutes, I yelled, “stop.” Ernest took most of the punches, but it just seemed to whet his appetite for more.
I shouted, “start,” and the punches started flying again. By the fourth round, Ernest looked like he was ready to collapse. His face was dripping with sweat; his hands dropped lower. The man seemed to welcome punishment. I studied Ernest’s face closely. It was frozen into a stolid mask. His eyes looked in Morley’s direction, but their focus went beyond his opponent’s punishing gloves. For a moment, I had thought I was looking at the cold strength of courage, but there was something wrong. Ernest didn’t appear like he was fighting to win. He was just holding on. I was sure that in his own mind, in some twisted sort of way, he believed he was winning. From what I had come to understand about him was that anyone could throw punches, but only a real man could take them.
My mind began to drift. Each bruising snap on Ernest’s skin fell on me; its sting was strangely familiar. Each blow penetrated my exterior and landed squarely deep inside me. Each strike pealed a painful soberness. The shoes of the man of the world were conspicuously covered with Minnesota mud. I stepped back. The glaze in Ernest’s eyes, his unwavering focus on the shimmering distance, chilled me. I knew now what I saw. From the ghastly ash of his fears, grew a strong, vital tree, but it did not survive from courage. It grew only from desperation.
My attention was drawn back to the match. Morley had caught Ernest with a right hand in the mouth. He hit the canvas. His lip was bleeding. His mouth full of blood. Morley turned to me. “Scott, how long was that round?”
My watch! I glanced at the time. It was just over four minutes.
Morley grabbed Ernest by the arm and helped him to his feet.
“God damn you, Scott, I knew you let that round go too long,” Ernest yelled as he pulled off his glove and headed for the bathroom to try to stop the bleeding.
“Morley,” I said, “he thinks I did it on purpose. He thinks I wanted to see him get hurt.”
“He’ll get over it.”
He probably would, but I don’t know if I would. What was I thinking? He was tired and vulnerable. I had let him down. He was my peer, a writer who created truth from worn, ragtag pretense. His disappointment in me clawed at my inner fabric, a whole cloth that I had woven in night’s darkness out of thread plucked from hope and imagination. I had never walked in the mud of Minnesota. My parents were unknown to me. I had burst into the world as a novelist at an early age. The world had quickly swept me up in Alabama as one of its highest members. This was the seminal fiction which had become the hardened, immutable character of self which I had created. I could not bear to be re-written.
Ernest came out of the bathroom. His upper lip was bulging from tissue paper he had stuffed under it. I wanted to apologize and explain it was an accident. Before I could speak, with his finger putting pressure on his lip, he looked at me. His words were loaded with accusation,
“If you wanted to take a shot at me, why didn’t you put the gloves on? You couldn’t do it, could you?”
“I didn’t want…“ I said.
He interrupted, “I don’t want to talk about it now. Meet me at Gertrude Stein’s tonight.”
I nodded and walked out.
I walked up the Boulevard to the rue Palatine where Zelda and I were living at that time. When I came in, she was sitting by the window in the pallor working on a painting.
“Home early, aren’t you?” She said.
“I thought you might want to come to Gertrude Stein’s tonight. It’s Saturday. We’ll stop at Les Deux Magots first for a drink.”
“Where were you, or shouldn’t I ask? Who were you with?”
“Ernest, watching him box.”
“Of course, who else?” She stopped painting and turned toward me.
“And he’ll be there tonight?”
“What difference does it make?” I replied. I sat on the couch straining to appear nonchalant. Zelda stood up and stood in front of me.
“You spend more time with him than me. That’s the difference it makes.” She paused, her face straight and stern, her eyes sure, and blurted, “in bed and out.”
What? What was she saying? All those rumors started by McAlmon, and now this. I got up. I was speechless. It was the worst thing she had ever said to me. I began to walk toward the door.
“Wait,” she said, “there’s something else.”
She went into the bedroom and returned with the briefcase in which I kept my latest manuscripts.
“What are you doing with that?”
“I’m coming with you for a drink.”
I didn’t understand, but I was still reeling from her remark. I couldn’t focus on anything else.
We left the apartment and walked north toward the Seine. I didn’t know what to say. Any vigorous defense that I wasn’t a fairy just gave the proposition more credence. Any divergent discussion smacked of changing the subject out of guilt. We walked in silence.
The café was crowded. We sat together at the bar. No one recognized us, and, for the first time, I hoped no one would. I hunched over. My face hovered over the cracked and stained wood of the surface of the bar. A woman, sitting at a table behind me, said in a hushed voice.” Isn’t that what’s-his-name, the guy who writes those stories in the magazines?” I turned my head just enough to catch sight of who this woman was, but the table was clean and the chairs empty.
Zelda lifted the briefcase onto the bar and opened it. I watched with interest. She removed my yellow legal-sized pad and lay it on the bar. I glanced at the open page. It was in Zelda’s handwriting.
“You’re writing another article?” I asked. “Which magazine? Are you using Harold as the agent?”
“No, I’m tired of having you added as co-author,” she replied.
“You know you won’t get more than a few hundred dollars for it without my name.”
“I don’t care, Scott, I want something that is mine, just mine. That’s what you like isn’t it? Self-sufficient women.”
“This is about Lois, again. Right?” I shuffled my feet and grabbed my drink, digging-in and bracing for the concussion of accusations.
“All those women in Hollywood had a career. They were someone, not of someone.”
I picked up the yellow pad and started reading.
“What’s this? It’s about us. What publication is this for?
“It’s a novel.“
She lit a cigarette, crossed her legs, and turned away from me, surveying the room. There was no place she could hide.
I turned and put her squarely in my sight.
“This is garbage, amateur babble. It’s about us. You used material I want to use in my next novel. You’ll ruin me.”
I slammed my drink on the bar. Some gin jumped out. It sat in a small puddle as a reminder of the frustration and, more deeply, the disappointment from which it had sprung.
“Lois’ career had nothing to do with it. She believed in me. She gave me the confidence to be who I am.”
Zelda stood up. People began to stare.
“And who am I, Scott, one of your characters whom you push around with a number two pencil, erasing this and adding that?”
I took a quick glance around. I directed my eyes straight ahead, away from the crowd. I lifted my drink and whispered. “Sit down, people are beginning to look.”
Zelda raised her voice. “Isn’t that what you want?”
She turned to the crowded tables. She raised her right hand high into the air, addressing the patrons. “I present to you the great F. Scott Fitzgerald.” She bowed and swooped her hand in my direction.
I grabbed her by the arm and pushed her back on to the bar stool. My eyes were fixed on the floor. I couldn’t bear to see the face of anyone who might have mistaken me for a desperate boy from Minnisota. Zelda took the yellow pad and began to put it back into the briefcase. I grasped her arm and tightened my grip.
“Remember, no novels. Isn’t that ridiculous ballet enough for you?”
She got up, took a step back from the bar, her eyes never leaving mine, and pulled her dress over her head and tossed it on the floor. She stood there in a white satin slip with a plunging neckline and a hem high above her knees. She began pirouetting away from the bar and knocked into a table. The glasses wobbled and wine spilled onto the sleeve of one gentleman’s sport coat. Diners squirmed in their seats, moving their chairs in anticipation of where they would be safe from her next onslaught. She stopped at a table.
“I’m Zelda, the wife of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald,” she declared, “I’m sure you know him. He would be happy to give you his autograph. In fact, it would be the only thing he’s written lately.”
She continued circling the room and arrived back at where I was sitting. She curtsied, looked at me, picked her dress up from the floor, and said, “Now, is that ridiculous enough for you.” I ordered a double gin. She took the briefcase off the bar, held it by its sides and swung it violently. Yellow pages fluttered through the air and fell helplessly to the floor. She threw down the briefcase and walked out of the café without another word. I looked down at the floor. I saw the pages I had written in the South of France during a time of betrayal, pages which were flesh and bone.
There on the floor lay Gatsby. He was as real as the person I was. He first introduced himself to me while I was living on Long Island in New York. I began to know him quite well. I wrote some pages about him and sent them to Max. He insisted that this character needed a past, a boyhood, some plausible experiences responsible for making him the man he was. My mistake was that I acquiesced and created what I thought should be Gatsby’s formative past. For some time after that he stopped visiting. The pages I reserved for him remained empty.
In that summer, secluded in Provence, I continued to try to write Jay Gatsby’s novel. Zelda was restless and resentful. She knew how to wound me. She met a French aviator on the beach and spent every day and too many late nights with him. I was convinced something happened in that time that could never be repaired. The person I had become, the person created from life-giving conviction, now had suffered a shattering blow. For the first time since the stardust of my dreams had become the sculptured rock of my firm belief, I had felt a quaking.
Where was Gatsby? Why did he leave me like this? I had gotten to know him quite well. His lofty visions for himself rivaled those of God Himself. Not even the passing of time could counter the perfection of his Platonic reality. He had met the girl of his dreams, but lost her, but, no matter, she would be his … not again…she would be his as it was meant to be when it was meant to be. I sensed, however, there was something he wasn’t telling me. It bothered me greatly.
It was on the darkest of those nights in the South of France when Gatsby came back to me. Provence settled still and quiet on that night. The easy, hushing sound of the tame tide floated through the open window. The light from the lamp on my desk reflected a warm glow on the yellow paper that waited patiently. Zelda had left earlier with Jozan, her Frenchman, and hadn’t yet returned. I was alone.
The night was warmer than usual. The slow-moving breeze from the sea was missing. I rolled up my sleeves, and sat at my desk, looking blindly through the window at the white moonlight tracing a path on the sandy beach. It was near midnight. The emptiness of the room and the stillness of the night pressed on me, and I sat immobile, paralyzed. A short, soft effort of air crept unexpectedly through the window and the paper on my desk fluttered. I picked up my pencil and wrote, “he could climb to it, if he climbed alone.”
I heard a rustling sound and glanced out the window. I thought it was Zelda returning. I heard it again and realized it was coming from behind me. I turned, and there was Gatsby. He walked around the room, nervously, his hands in his pockets, his head down as if he was thinking. He stopped.
“You know, you got it wrong”, he said, measuring each word. “She’s not the girl of my dreams. She is my girl, in spite, of my dreams.”
I now knew what he was hiding. He had fallen out of the heavens, where in his imagination, he had aligned the stars to his whim and landed harshly on the earth. I sat again at my desk and wrote quickly, “[He] forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” I poured myself a half glass of gin, took it down in a gulp. I dropped my head into my folded arms lying on the desk and began to weep.
I picked up my manuscript lying on the café’s floor. I finished my second glass of gin and looked out the open door. The fading, soft blue of the evening had begun. The night falls slowly in the summer in Paris. In a few hours an excited darkness, which plays recklessly among the lights of the street cafés, will blend, seamlessly, with the beckoning starlight, and the city will awaken. I walked out and made my way through the growing dimness toward Gertrude Stein’s salon.
I passed through the Jardin du Luxembourg, continued walking up the rue de Fleurs, and stopped at number 27. I proceeded through the covered passageway and entered the courtyard. A flower garden occupied the center, and I circled around on the path until I came to the atelier. The hum of conversation soaked through the door.
I knocked, waited, and no one answered. I tried the door. It opened, and Alice, Gertrude’s partner, greeted me.
Gertrude Stein was an American writer living in Paris. She supported local artists and writers and was a collector. Matisse and Cezanne hung on the walls. Picasso sketches, attached by tape beneath the paintings, fluttered as I passed by them. I navigated my way through the crowd to a table set against the side wall, where I poured myself a drink. Someone was pushing their way through the crowd. It was John Dos Passos.
“Dos, have you seen Ernest?”
“Yea, he’s around here. He’s tanked.”
“I was to meet him here,” I said, wondering if he had mentioned anything to Dos about this afternoon.
“I’ve never known Ernest to carry a gun,” Dos said.
“He has a gun?”
“Right, I just thought you should know. Oh, I saw Zelda, at least, I thought it was her, on my way here. She was walking down the rue Bonaparte. She seemed to be in a hurry. I called to her, but she didn’t answer. Anything wrong? What’s going on?”
“Dos, you were in the War.”
Dos gave a short nod. His forehead wrinkle; his brows flexed down, forming a straight, dark line.
“Would you get upset if someone asked you about what it was like?”
“I wrote a God damned book about it. You read it…Three Soldiers. Everything I had to say about it is in there. No one, who was in the war, wants to talk about it. Is Zelda’s stomach giving her trouble again?”
“Zelda… her stomach? No. It’s just a…a…yes, I read Three Soldiers, but I want to know more.”
“I wrote that in the trenches. At night I wrote in the light of the artillery bursts.”
My body straightened. My head rose. My balance faltered, and a wave of excitement usurped my thinking and shot through my chest. My limbs went weak. It was the romance of it all, like a pre-pubescent girl reading her first scene which penetrated her shielded desire in the way it was meant to be touched.
Dos’ face relaxed and he looked away from me. He stared blankly into the crowd.
“Scott, forget about the war. Sometimes at the beginning of what you thought was a great event, proves itself to be anything but.” He turned back in my direction. “What’s going on with you and Zelda?”
“Dos, I need to find Ernest.”
I lifted my drink, stood on my toes, and looked around the room. I spotted him standing near the Matisse collection on the other side of the room. I slid my body sidewise through the crowd. I heard Leo, Gertrude’s brother, lecturing to Ernest, another man, and a woman.
“If you look carefully,” I heard Leo say, “you will see that Henri doesn’t paint things. Like he once told me, ‘I paint the difference between things’.”
I pushed my way through the last few people, and Ernest turned to me.
“I want to talk to you,” I said, “about this afternoon.”
His face hardened into a mask of tense skin and contracted muscles. He looked down at the drink in his hand, snapped his head up. A strained smile appeared on his face.
“I’m fine, nothing to talk about.”
I wondered where he was hiding the gun.
“Scott, Scott.” Someone was calling me from within the crowd. I walked closer. It was Alice.
“There’s a man at the door who said that he’s here to speak to you.”
“Speak to me? About what? What’s his name?
Alice pushed passed the few persons standing between us. “He said you wouldn’t know his name. He said he works at the warehouse.”
Ernest was standing behind me. He looked at Alice.
“I asked him to stop by,” he said. “I told him Scott would pay him ten francs to hear about the War.”
Why didn’t he just shoot me. It would be far less painful.
Ernest followed Alice and they disappeared into the crowd.
I was left standing alone, only the gin remained. The hum of the crowd became distant and foreign. I faced the wall, my spirit swirled and fell farther down into an emptiness where once existed inexorable expectations. From the bottom of this pit, I heard a woman scream. The room went quiet. Ice clinked against the bottom of a glass. I turned around and saw the crowd compacting itself forward. I stood on a nearby chair to see what was going on. A semicircle had formed around Ernest and the Austrian. Gertrude pushed her way to the front and stopped with a jerk when she reached the pair.
“What are you doing? she said. “Have you lost your mind? Put that gun away.”
The Austrian was pale, a sweat had broken from his forehead. Ernest was staring intently at him with the gun cocked and pointed.
“Cosa hai da dire?” Ernest asked, his eyes daring the Austrian to answer.
“Niente, Io ho fatto niente.”
“Where did you learn the Italian? In Austria? No reason to speak Italian in Austria.”
“Yes, some Italian and some English.”
“Bullshit,” Ernest yelled out. “You learned it at the front.”
“No… I was not at Italy.”
Ernest stepped back, lowered the pistol and fired a shot into the floor. A flash ripped from the barrel; a crisp bang bounced off the walls. Alice stooped down and covered her head. Shrieks erupted from some of the women in the room. The first line of onlookers stepped back. Some standing behind stumbled and were caught by others behind them. Smoke floated around the room, and reality seeped from the odor of gunpowder. I stepped off the chair, squeezed my way to the side of the room, and pressed my back on the wall.
The Austrian’s arms, extended in front of himself, were shaking. He flipped his hands up as if to shield a bullet which may come at any moment. Ernest again pointed the gun in his direction. The Austrian fell to the ground, covering his head with his arms. His entire body was quivering. He tried to speak, but his breathing was too rapid, and his mouth shook so much that his words were just bursts of empty air.
Ernest, with his arm extended and the gun trained on the man, stared down at him and asked, “How many children do you have?”
“Three,” the Austrian mumbled.
Ernest yelled out, “Scott, where are you?”
I remained silent. He yelled louder, “Scott, where the hell are you? I thought you wanted to experience the War.”
Yes, I wanted to know the War, but from the bottom of a trench, holding on to the moist security of the firm and trusted earth.
“Get up here, Scott.”
I started toward the action. I reached the front but stopped far enough away. I had heard stories how soldiers had to wipe the blood and body parts of their comrades off their faces.
“Scott, it’s up to you. Do I shoot him?”
I took a step closer. Ernest was wobbling, his head bobbing.
“Why is it up to me?” I answered. “Why would I want an innocent man to be shot? A man who’s done nothing to me. A man with a family, a man who had the misfortune of being dragged into this bizarre mess. I can’t stand to see him suffer anymore.”
Ernest turned toward me; his arm with the gun was still extended. He walked closer. He reared his head back, put his arm down, and grabbed the pistol by its barrel. He thrusted it at me. I took it from him. His head swayed back, and, with his body wobbling side-to-side, he focused his glazed eyes on mine, and said, “Now you know what war is about.”
I want to die, Sheila, and in my own way. I used to have my daughter and my poor lost Zelda. Now for over two years your image is everywhere. Let me remember you up to the end which is very close. You are the finest. You are something all by yourself. You are too much something for a tubercular neurotic who can only be jealous and mean and perverse. I will have my last time, though you won’t be here…I wish I could have left you more of myself. You can have the first chapter of the novel and the plan. I have no money but it might be worth something…I love you utterly and completely.”
[F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1939]
The train began to slow. I heard the door between the cars open and the conductor walked past. He continued to the front of the car and grabbed the back of a seat whenever the braking caused an unexpected bounce or shove. I braced my foot on the back of the seat in front of me, resisting the forward movement. The station appeared and the conductor announced my stop. I disembarked and hailed a taxi.
The driver dropped me at the Garden of Alla on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. The Garden consisted of a dozen or two of newly constructed bungalows, which sprouted up around a main house. The bungalows served as temporary residences for many of Hollywood’s celebrities and writers. Their comings and goings frequently landed in gossip columns, and their nearsighted, unbridled doings brought an air of frivolity to the place, and too often, the police. I often wondered if someone misspelled “Allah”, or, if God had refused to lend his name to the establishment.
It was only a few days that I had been in Hollywood. I spent most of my time alone. Zelda was still confined to Asheville Mental Institution in North Carolina. On my first day in the Gardens, I needed cigarettes. I walked a short distance up the block and entered a drugstore. There was a couple sitting at a table near the counter. The young man turned to the girl and held her face gently. She ran her hand through his sandy hair and pulled him close. Their lips met sweetly, and soon, they were lost in passion. People began to stare. A chill ran through me. A clammy sweat crept over my body. People and objects began to recede. I reached out and held onto some shelving, holding tight. I pulled hard, and harder, trying to bring myself back. There was a crisp snap, and I fell. I sat on the floor, and for all my efforts, I held only a piece of the shelf in my hand. The young couple was gone.
I spent most of my time at the Studio working on a script. After a few days, I had had enough of the stale, humid air in the cottage on the Metro lot, and I decided to stay home and write. The truth was, no matter how many words I put on the page, I never really wrote anything. It was all gone: the azure tide of the Mediterranean fading into the tenderness of the night, love that vibrated like a tuning fork struck on a star, and a green light marking the dock of the orgiastic future. All gone. What could I do? I needed the money. I continued to churn out scripts, blueprints from which directors and producers built their dreams, and, without reserve or chagrin, their wealth.
In the late afternoon I took a walk in the light of the fading promise of the California sun. When I was midway down the block, five or six cars, swerving and rumbling, rounded the corner. They paraded up the street, recklessly, some side-by-side, others trailing closely behind. The caravan stopped at a bungalow across the street, not far from where I stood. Men and women alighted from the cars. I recognized a writer from the studio, Bob Benchley. He noticed me staring.
“Is that you, Scott?”
I couldn’t ignore him. I pushed myself toward the crowd.
“Scott, come over here. Why don’t you join us? We’re celebrating a good friend’s engagement and, you know, it’s Bastille Day.” A wide, smirking smile appeared on his closed lips, his flushed cheeks bouncing up like two red balls.
I forced a smile and nodded.
“Oh, I want you to meet someone,” he said. He called into the crowd, and a young woman, a bit tipsy, stepped forward.
“Merriam, this is F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
He turned in my direction. “Merriam wants to be an actress. I’m helping her get her start.” He opened his eyes wide and raised his brows. The woman looked at me. Her face was still, her eyes glaring. She seemed shocked that I was still alive.
Bob grabbed me by the arm, and we entered the bungalow. The small drawing room was filled with laughter, erupting loud and abrupt, conversations mingled together into a sonorous hum, men and women gathered in smiling groups, and I sat in a chair in the corner. I lit a cigarette and the smoke swarmed around me.
Through the haze I caught sight of a woman, a decade or so younger than I was I guessed, clinging to the arm of a man dressed in a waistcoat I had seen adorning the stiff and royal in Europe. I heard him addressed as Marquess. The woman stood proudly at his side, her head raised, her hair golden, and her slim body moved with a sophisticated sway. Her smile, manufactured and undirected, beamed by the virtue of her association with a marquee, and, unmistakably, by her arrival as a woman of society.
It was a few days later when again I met the woman with the golden hair and sophisticated sway. She and I were guests at a Writers’ Guild dinner dance at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. Her name was Sheila Graham, a gossip columnist. She belonged to the class of finest people who had swept me up years ago in a country club in Montgomery. I had learned she was engaged to marry the Marquee, nevertheless, I found her interesting, and in a most scandalous way, exciting.
We sat alone at our adjacent tables. Everyone had gone to the dance floor. She didn’t notice me watching her. I got up and walked around the back of our tables. I stood behind her, and asked,” Would you like to dance?” She looked at me over her shoulder, smiled, took my hand, and we began to dance. No one had felt so right in my arms since a young, southern belle melded into my dreams.
As I held her in my arms, my thoughts wandered back to the familiar flicker I had seen from Catherine’s terrace that night in New York when the heavens had fallen. The dream-laden stars had lain before me like the fading embers of a temple filled with prayers burned beyond recognition. As we moved smoothly across the floor, I was struck by the realization that what was started by imagination and dreamed into reality had faded and fallen even farther away. Gatsby lay buried in the stillness of a dusty warehouse. In Paris I had struggled to write my next novel. I had reached down, time and time again, into the ash of a once successful writer to the find words, but all I came upon was the gin, the crooked floors of the Montparnasse cafes, and flirtations I re-scripted in my mind into genuine approval. Death lives in many twisted forms. Had I lost Zelda? Now, in the city of fantasy and oversized opportunity, I would rise again, but I knew I could no longer climb alone.
Sheila’s younger years and familiar, golden hair pulled on the hands of time. I reached out to her from the dizzying downward whirl. I thought she could give me all I needed to start again. However, it was sometime later that I discovered, in fright and panic, there was something Sheila did not have. It was Zelda’s alone to give.
The Marquee was called back to Britain for a while, and, in spite of her pending nuptial, Sheila and I began seeing each other regularly. In fact, she ended her engagement, and she and I behaved in the manner of the infatuated. We danced at all the clubs and spent the nights together. We shared our lives in all the known ways of a couple, and in a way that I had never imagined.
Sheila always had to keep up appearances. Her column had made her a target in Hollywood. When your career is taking shots at anyone who’s worth writing about, that is anyone who fell off the straight and narrow of the sinuous Hollywood line, you needed to keep your guard up at all times. She could make or break any up and coming actor. All she needed to do was to ignore him. Then he or she would come pounding on her door, giving her dirt they just dug up in the back lot from some jaundiced garden put there by an avarice producer or studio head. However, in spite of her high profile, there was something about Sheila which ran deeper. Below all the sophisticated mannerisms and cordial voice, I sensed a tentativeness, her movements were sharp and stiff and her words measured. What I saw was a little girl, a vulnerable little girl.
I lived in Encino and Sheila had an apartment in Hollywood. Photos of her family hung on the wall in the parlor. The picture of her sister, Alicia, appeared as a woman of her late teens. The photo was possibly taken at her debut into society. Her father and mother, shown together, bore the stately dress of the time. The mother was bound tightly at the waist, her long dress bunching at the rear as a proud protuberance of excess, popular with the British aristocracy of the time. Her father sat dominantly strait, his hands folded in front of him and his moustache, adorning a straight upper lip, painted a picture of a captain of industry and family.
My favorite photograph was of Sheila at an early age, dressed in a simple, white dress standing next to her older brother. He was decked out in the fashion of a part-time sportsman and a fulltime pursuer of leisure. There were photos of an aunt and uncle or two. One of the uncles stood beside an Aston Martin with the top and windows down, resting his elbow on the opened door frame. His smile invited anyone with sufficient means to join him for a day of carefree roaming.
Sheila and I left my house in Encino, where we had spent the night. She was driving, and we were en route to her apartment in Hollywood. I wanted to know more about her. Maybe it was the writer in me seeking to find whatever it was which made a character come to be who he or she was. Or maybe I just wanted to hear more about the aristocratic way of life, reaffirming my place among my peers.
“Tell me more about your sister?” I asked.
Sheila lifted herself slightly off the seat, seemingly, to settle more comfortably.
“There’s not much to tell. Like me, she went to a boarding school in North England and married a few years after she had graduated from Cambridge.”
Sheila gripped the wheel higher up, bringing her hands closer together, as if she needed more control.
“I don’t think I saw any photos of her husband. Did I miss them?”
She kept her eyes directed on the road. “No. It was a short marriage. Divorce you know.”
“Oh, sorry to hear that. What is she doing now? Hope all went well.”
She didn’t answer. Maybe there was some affair, and she didn’t want to go into it.
We rode in silence for a few minutes.
“How did your father make his fortune?” I asked, instantly regretting the topic, thinking that perhaps I might have touched into another sensitive area.
Sheila turned the wheel hard. We jerked to a stop on the side of the road. She was in tears. She bent her head down on the steering wheel. She was crying steadily, gasping for air.
“Your father,” I said, putting my arm around her shoulders, “I shouldn’t have asked. I’m sorry.”
She picked her head up. “It’s all a lie,” burst out between the sobs. She dropped her head back onto the steering wheel.
I remained silent. I didn’t want to upset her with any more questions.
“I was raised in an orphanage from the age of six. I never knew my father. My mother was an alcoholic. I have no family, no sister, no brother, no anyone. My real name is Lily Sheil. My mother and I shared a room in London with a wash woman. She had the bed and we lived on the couch. She couldn’t support me any longer and sent me to live at the orphanage until the age of fourteen. You mustn’t say anything about this. Promise me, promise. You are the only one who knows.”
“But the pictures…” I said.
I had them made by a photoshop in London.
“Even the one of you in the white dress?”
“No, it was a picture of my mother and me. I had them take her out and add a suitable brother.”
At last, the mystery of her deeper vulnerability, which I sensed in her every word and movement, unraveled before me. A valley of ash, which grew like wheat had become true and yellow through the magic of a fairytale nurtured so carefully, lived on so gaily. The Great Sheila.
I remembered the advice that Gatsby had given me on that miserable night in Provence. One could continue to climb to the top of his ineffable imagination only if he climbed alone. I wept for him and me that night. Again, a tear rolled down my cheek. I knew then that Sheila had “wed” her “unutterable visions” to my “perishable breath,” and she could never again climb alone. In the way Gatsby loved Daisy, in the way I loved Zelda, I then knew Sheila loved me.
“… It is very quiet out here now. I went in your room this afternoon and lay on your bed awhile, trying to see if you had left anything of yourself. There were some pencils and the electric heating pad that didn’t work and the autumn out the window that won’t ever be the same. Then I wrote down a lot of expressions of your face but one I can’t bare [sic] to read, of a little girl who trusted me so and whom I loved more than anything in the world — and to whom I gave grief when I wanted to give joy… It was all fever and liquor and sedatives…
“I’m glad you’re rid of me. I hope you’re happy and the last awful impression is fading a little till someday you’ll say ’he can’t have been that black’.”
[F. Scott Fitzgerald to Sheila Graham, undated]
Sheila never really understood the extent of my illness.
One night we were having dinner in her apartment. We had run out of wine, and she picked up my glass.
“No, you shouldn’t do that,” I said, putting my hand over the top of the glass. “I have TB.”
She exhaled an audible breath, air of incredulousness. She would get exasperated when I would insist that we change our seats in the theater when someone near us was a “cougher.”
“What makes you think you have TB?”
“I’ve had it since college.”
“How bad is it? What did the doctor say?” Her words challenging and staccato.
“He never said anything about it. I never told him about it. I was afraid he might send me to a sanitarium.”
“How do you know you have it?” Her voice grew to a higher pitch.
She didn’t understand the facts. I leaned forward and waited for her attention to settle coldly in my eyes. I told her the ugly truth.
“My father died from it, and don’t you know that writers are very susceptible to lung diseases. Whenever you hear a writer coughing, move away from him.”
She answered matter-of-factly. “Don’t you think if you had TB, I would have gotten it from you by now?”
“No, when I’m having an upbreak, I stay away.”
She continued looking at me for another moment. I thought she was about to say something, but she dropped her head, lifted her fork, and poked at her food. She had a serious air of concern about her. She looked up, her eyes penetrating me.
“Is that why you wear the hat and scarf?”
“The breeze can be a problem for me. It can create a chill which is undetectable but devastating to the lungs of a TB patient.”
“But this is Los Angeles,” she countered.
“You just don’t understand, do you? It’s different for me.” I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I had other problems.
Metro fired me two weeks after assigning me to write a balcony scene for a movie called, Gone With the Wind. It was my last project for the studio. I was writing some stories for Esquire, but money was a problem. It was barely enough to keep up with Scottie’s expenses at Vassar.
My difficulties, however, ran much deeper. My dream, so purely conceived and carefully cultivated, was gasping for breath. My existence, my place as a writer, was crumbling. Everything hinged on publishing a successful novel.
The magazine stories didn’t take much out of me. They were nothing more than a lot of fluff, the superficialities of life framed in entertaining words and catchy phrases. A novel was quite a different matter. It is truth which separates the good works from the great.
In the beginning years, I only needed the intoxication of youth to bring real life to the page. In the wake of time, in the crush of coursing disappointments, it took all my strength to look at what was and what is. I could face it only in the numbness of the gin. I drank steadily.
At night I would read to Sheila sections of my novel as I completed them. One of the perils of truth is that it has a way of being just that. I had entitled my new novel, The Last Tycoon. It was partially inspired by my relationship with Sheila. Her character, Kathleen is in love with Stahr. He is attracted to her because she resembles his dead wife, Minna. Unfortunately for Kathleen, Stahr is still in love with his deceased wife.
Sheila began ignoring me. She said little during dinner. She would often sit by the window, staring off into nothingness. One night, as I walked to my room to do some writing, I said, “dear, why don’t you go for a walk. It might make you feel better.” I was about to open the door to my room, and I heard in a soft, slow, voice trailing off into an inaudible word or two.
“Why don’t you divorce her…”
I stopped and dropped my eyes to the floor.
“I will, I will,” I said, never turning around. “I have had enough. She told her psychiatrists that I was insane and should be committed. I can’t take anymore.”
I entered my room. I was alone and knew instantly there could be no divorce. To divorce Zelda would be to divorce myself. We wed the first time I saw her. An unknowing fantasy stumbled out of the blue light of the night, fell into a poor boy’s dreams, and emerged into my flesh and bone. Gatsby was wrong, terribly wrong. I needn’t go it alone to reach “the incomparable milk of wonder.” Zelda needed to stop being so selfish and do what I said. Together it would be as it should be. She could give me something which Sheila never could… my past.
Sometimes the path to personal demise is built from what is perceived as unexpected opportunity. After being fired by Metro, without a salary for the first time, Walter Wanger, a producer, hired me to write a script in collaboration with a young writer, Budd Schulberg. The movie was set in Dartmouth College. Budd and I needed to go to New Hampshire.
My TB was acting up. I was running a low-grade temperature, so Sheila accompanied me to New York. From there, Budd and I continued on to Dartmouth, and Sheila waited for my return at the Weylin Hotel in the City.
I really don’t remember much. It started with some champagne which Budd and I drank on the plane. When he woke me up in a hotel room in New Hampshire, it was three days later.
“I called Sheila. I didn’t know what to do. She wants you to call her,” Budd said.
He told me I had blacked-out last night after two days of drinking. It had happened to me before. I needed to get to a doctor and stay in bed for a few days with an intravenous drip. The vomiting and nausea, the shaking, the night sweats, but I had to do it.
I arrived back in New York. The whirl around me quickened. Wanger pulled my contract, and I couldn’t stop drinking. Sheila arranged for me to see a New York psychiatrist, Dr. Hamilton. The doctor’s path and mine had crossed a few times in Paris in 1925, and he knew about my drinking. Sheila also had told him about what she considered to be my hypochondriasis.
A knock came on the door of our hotel room. I was sitting on the sofa. Dr. Hamilton entered and pulled up a chair next to me. I took the bottle of gin from my coat pocket and took a mouthful.
“A psychiatrist, I never knew what kind of doctor you were. You don’t mind if I take a drink now and then, do you? It’s much preferable to the resulting alternative.”
“The shakes,” he replied.
He opened his bag and took out a bottle of pills.
“Take one of these every six hours. It will help.”
He checked me into New York Doctor’s Hospital. We talked for an hour each day for the next two weeks. On our last meeting, Dr. Hamilton leaned back in his chair. His focus piercing me.
“This fear of having TB and your other hypochondriacal symptoms do not come from any fear of dying. Your drinking is not related to this.”
“Fear of death? Death may be what I need.”
“Of course,” he responded, never moving his head, his eyes now meeting mine. “Then you would never grow old.”
A wave of tingling started in my arms and shot through my chest making my heart pound. The tingling shot to my legs; a weakness overcame me.
“Let it go, my friend, your adolescence is over. Bury the past and let it lie in peace.”
I fumbled in my coat pocket. I put a cigarette in my mouth. My hands were trembling as I held the match. I took a drag, stood up, and ground the cigarette out in the ashtray on the desk.
“I have to go,” I said.
Sheila and I returned to Hollywood. I took a bottle of gin to my room and continued working on my novel. Stahr, my main character, continued to reveal himself to me. I began to see how different he was from Gatsby. It was what Dr. Hamilton had said that made it all so clear. Stahr had buried his past. He was a man deprived of hope. Gatsby was a man of untethered, boundless hope. His only mistake was that he invested it unwisely. It was this difference which the doctor had failed to see. It is hope that separates the beautiful from the damned. I knew I needed to see Zelda.
I told Sheila I was going to Cuba with Zelda for a vacation.
“Go to your Zelda,” Sheila told me. “I had a life in Hollywood before you, and I will have it again.”
The spinning, the chaotic downward whirl, quickened. The gin, money a constant worry, every day ripping the life of a novel from my guts, not knowing if I would ever see Sheila again, Zelda walking a thin edge, and my past fading with each breath I took. I could no longer reach out. I simply held on.
I picked up Zelda at Asheville Hospital, and we flew to Cuba. I continued drinking. There was a cock fight and I rescued one of the chickens. A group of men chased me, caught me and beat me. Zelda remained at the hotel and prayed during the entire trip. I drank. We flew back to New York, checked-in to the Algonquin Hotel. We were thrown out. Zelda went back to Asheville. I checked into Doctor’s Hospital, checked out, continued drinking, and flew back to Hollywood. My TB was back, so Sheila stayed with me in Encino. I wanted to kill her, but I couldn’t find my gun. I drank some more. I slapped her. The police came. Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post rejected to serialize what I had written of The Last Tycoon. The world was a blur.
It was all slipping further from my grasp. No one wanted to read F. Scott Fitzgerald anymore. Zelda wasn’t getting any better, and Sheila…. I needed to see her.
She consented to see me, and I met her at her apartment. She opened the door and threw her arms around me. It was what I needed.
Encino was dreadfully hot in the summer, and I found it hard to breathe. I moved to an apartment in Hollywood. My breathing didn’t improve. I even had trouble climbing stairs. How ironic, Gatsby once told me that to climb to it, I must climb alone…if only I could.
I had to stop drinking. It was the only way back to the dream-hardened path I had begun to walk so early in life. Sheila’s apartment was on the first floor. I moved in with her. I stopped drinking and wrote every day. It hurt without the gin. Every part I touched deep inside brought a beckoning memory, and when I reached out, it faded into the darkness in the way the blue of the Paris evening succumbed to the night.
Two weeks ago, on one of my better days, I took a walk to Schwab’s drugstore. I needed cigarettes. I entered the store, walked toward the counter and I began to feel dizzy and weak. I remember falling.
“Scott, where have you been? Sit down, have a drink.” It was Ernest. He looked around and spotted the waiter. “Monsieur, gin pour mon ami.”
I sat down at the table below the chestnut trees on the terrace of the Café La Closier des Lilas. Spindles of light, bright and scintillating, streamed down from the openings in the canopy of leaves moving gently in the soft breeze.
“Tell me about this new novel you’re writing,” he said. Ernest was bubbling with excitement. He was truly happy to see me.
Before I could speak, he stood up. He began waving to someone.
“Gerald, over here,” he shouted.
I turned my head and saw Gerald Murphy heading toward us.
“Scott, haven’t seen you around. Working on something new?” He dragged over a chair and took a seat at the table.
“I was just about to tell Ernest about it,” I said.
“Gertrude Stein said you must be working on something. That’s why we haven’t seen you,” Gerald interjected. “Sara and I read your last one…stellar, my friend, stellar. Sara said she thinks it could be one of the best novels of the twentieth century.”
I wasn’t sure what novel he was talking about.
The burning shafts of sun light began to glow brighter until they obliterated the space around us. I sat warm in the brilliance. The breeze lifted me. I spun and tumbled in the blinding light and came to rest on a dusty road. It ran through an empty, barren field, perhaps, a farm left fallow. Long leaf pines, their wide trunks, sparse and nestled close together, stood straight and tall on the sides of the road. The sun, hidden by the clouds, warmed the moist air, which clung to me in the way known only in the Alabama heat.
A young girl stepped out from the dark, barrier of pines. She had the most beautiful whitish-pink skin. Her auburn hair was bobbed with enough audacity to send it into large curls, bouncing recklessly. It was Zelda, young as the day I had met her.
“Scott, I’ve been waiting for you. Come on we have a long way to go.”
She linked her arm around mine. We continued walking. The dark pines became fewer, and pink dogwoods gathered on the sides of the road. A sweet smell soon swarmed around us as the dogwoods were joined by the crape myrtle, whose gentle branches, sprouting purple flowers, hung over the road and watched silently as we passed.
Don Donato received a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard University, College of Extended studies, in 2019. His graduate interest was studying the writing of the Lost Generation living in Paris in the 1920’s. In addition to short stories published in various journals, Don has written a novella, In the Faded Blue Light, in the voice and style of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the form of “memoir.”
Don Donato: Dod401@Alumni.Harvard.edu
I have a bad habit of imagining disasters that won’t ever happen,
wasting time brewing up a storm for us to weather
just for the chance to emerge at sunup holding hands,
smiling, having proved ourselves impervious and deep-rooted.
I’ll admit I didn’t plan for an inland hurricane that struck as we slept
apart, tearing through my plans like a trailer park.
Without your laugh to chase it into hyperbole, the beating of branches
against shaking windowpanes just sends me running for the bathtub.
I sit, shivering, waiting for the inevitable is it raining where you are?
that tells me you’re watching the weather channel for me,
that you feel everything tilt when our pine tree finally topples,
heaved-up roots leaving an altar-sized hole outside the north window.
When I wake, hours later, blinking alone under an unexpected sunrise,
there’s only the silence of a wind that’s blown itself out.
It drives Grandma insane; she swats at Grandpa’s hands
when they spill change into the fruit basket,
shuffle playing cards under his sweating coffee cup.
She chases him across the house with a mop
and still can’t keep him clean:
the whiskey hiding in the top cabinet
and the Marlboros cached in the defunct Toyota
are their own type of stubborn stain.
There just isn’t enough time in the day—
doctors in the morning,
dishes in the afternoon,
and then it’s dinner
and you’re starting all over.
The clock over the stove stopped years ago
and she swears she’s been living the same minute over,
stuck in the breath between
the punch of the spray bottle
and the swipe of the rag.
He just laughs and laughs,
begrudges her wrung red hands
and her endless litter of candy wrappers,
the peppermint smell of her nervous mouth
as he leans in to kiss her quiet.
Of course, in the next year’s silence, she finally catches up.
She beats the clock back into motion
and suddenly the minutes won’t stop.
Without the abating curl of cigarette smoke
the air is overwrought with the smell
of her favorite sage soap.
The truck spends a week at the detailers.
The cabinets hold only Comet and Windex,
casserole dishes on loan
and coffee cups wiped dry.
Bouquets drop withered petals on the kitchen floor
and Saturday seems a fine day for sweeping.
What else is there to do?
It’s a start, at least, my mother sighs.
The clueless gardener, summoned in desperation,
rips through vines and kicks something up
into the french door, leaves it fractured and frosted-looking,
hanging like a held breath behind the venetians
that we can’t exactly look out of anymore.
Once dirty work’s done there’s a relief
in surveying the empty agitated earth,
though victory doesn’t feel quite like we expected
with the irises beheaded and weeping indigo,
Great-Grandmother’s hydrangeas dethroned
for daring to sleep through winter.
Victory doesn’t feel like victory when we realize,
too late, that neglect doesn’t kill fast enough.
Guilt is perennial.
Next thing we know it’s summer and we’re sweating again,
on our knees unbraiding lantana and thistle
under an indifferent sun.
It never ends, my mother laments.
Green and dying and ever-narcissistic,
the garden curls away from us.
With no deference to our hands
it rots and flowers and folds in on itself,
antic and unconquerable.
Previously published in Sparks of Calliope, August 2022
Phoebe Cragon is a student pursuing a degree in English at Centenary College of Louisiana, where she is Literary Editor of Pandora Magazine. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Sparks of Calliope.
Published by Faber | ISBN: 978-0-571-35292
Though it is not always true to suggest that from adversity comes great literature, there are many instances where extreme circumstances have led to a deluge of writing, good, bad and indifferent. Obvious examples, such as the first world war, from which emerged some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century providing a visceral and lasting impression of the horrors of conflict, were vividly expressed in the works of Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and Erich Maria Remarque to name but three. Later conflicts were equally well documented by writers such as Laurie Lee, George Orwell, Norman Mailer and Stephen Wright. What all of these works have in common is the ability to demonstrate the futility of man-made tragedy and what Hannah Arendt with great prescience described as the “banality of evil”.
While the causes of disease and infection are often less easily defined, responses to plague and pandemic have given us a rich vein of literature over many centuries. The fourteenth century writer Giovanni Boccaccio in his great work “The Decameron” captured the fear of the Brigata as they sought to escape the ravages of plague, much as he had done with his movements across Italy. Three hundred years later in his “Journal of the Plague Year” Daniel Defoe provided a vivid account of life during the epidemic that ravaged London in 1665. In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Katherine Anne Porter explored love and loss during the influenza epidemic of 1918 that claimed more lives than the first world war. Later writers including Gabriel Garcia Marquez in “Love in the Time of Cholera” in which the lovers Fermina and Florentina provide a personal response to the fear of disease, and Albert Camus who provides vivid descriptions of life under lock-down in the French Algerian city of Oran, have provided rich accounts of earlier times of pestilence.
It was then, only to be expected that a modern global pandemic, and more especially one that has taken place in the glare of the world’s media, might attract the attention of today’s writers. In the UK, poets, including Simon Armitage, Roger McGough and Hollie McNish reflected on the impact of Covid-19 on their own lives. As might be expected, it is this personalisation of a devastating period of history that has led to much of the writing to emerge thus far from the experiences of the last few years.
The Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk in his latest novel “Nights of Plague” has adopted a refreshingly different approach. By deftly mingling fantasy with history, he has created a Mediterranean story located on a fictional island during the declining years of the Ottoman empire. Pamuk is of course rightly renowned for his interplay of the imaginary with reality. His Museum of Innocence is a real place located in his native Istanbul but contains artefacts linked exclusively to characters from his imagination. In his latest work Pamuk has created the island of Mingheria and even provides his readers with a map to show its location off the Northeast shoreline of Crete, one of the many real places that figures strongly in the text.
Through the telling of a slow burning tale that perfectly captures the tedium of life under quarantine, Pamuk interrogates the very nature of a disease that challenges the understanding of the scientists of the day; Dr Nuri Bey a quarantine expert and the most sympathetically handled character in the bookt, struggles to interpret the ravages of the disease that engulfs Mingheria. In his efforts to deploy a logical approach to tackling the devastation that surrounds him, the doctor comes to appreciate that the island’s population are looking for easy answers that have minimal impact upon their daily routines. Trading a fine line between the diplomacy that will keep the local politicians on side and the implementation of scientifically justified measures to tackle the plague, he presents as a conflicted man under considerable duress. Here, Pamuk has created a character with whom anyone who has witnessed tensions during the management or mismanagement of Covid-19 will immediately empathise. With a subtle combination of humour and commentary, he also demonstrates how seemingly rational individuals quickly descend into a world of pseudo-science and mystical mumbo-jumbo in their response to situations they don’t understand. The carrying of religious texts and the use of untested potions in an effort to ward of the plague demonstrates irrationality akin to the notion of injecting bleach to tackle Covid-19.
As the book progresses Mingheria gradually falls further into a state of decline. Debates around the efficacy of quarantine and the ways in which this may be enforced dominate several chapters. The tensions that develop between central characters, with politicians reluctant to take advice from scientists and religious leaders defying the laws of the land, have a familiar ring. But it is the eventual political collapse towards anarchy, with the overthrowing of democracy through varying forms of insurrection that many readers will be led to consider as being on the cusp of fantasy and reality.
An exiled Princess, who turns out to be one of the most grounded characters in this book, is forced to reconsider many of her relationships. Not least that to her trusted bodyguard, a man who starts out as a humble major, but through circumstance, scheming and personal manipulation of the tragic situation, eventually assumes the role of supreme dictator of the island. Unsurprisingly he comes to a sad end. Here again, Pamuk plays with our emotions as a once sympathetic character is revealed to be a despot who loses the trust of the fictional people who surround him, and thereby also alienates the reader. The theme of an attempted overthrow of democratic institutes and the ease with which an ordered society descends into chaos will certainly resonate with many who read this book.
Pamuk has always had the ability to create places and situations that are both vivid and tense. In this latest novel, as in “My Name is Red” and “The White Castle” he demonstrates the influences of the once powerful Ottoman empire, and the ways in which along with other imperialist ventures these are invariably doomed to gradually fade. He is equally adept as demonstrated in books like “Snow” at weaving social and political commentary and reflection upon modern day incidents into stories that resonate across cultures. At times there are aspects of “Nights of Plague” that seem repetitious, with characters who are indecisive and at times inept. Conspiracy theories and false prophecies abound. But then, perhaps these are phrases that may be aptly used to describe the period of our most recent global pandemic.
Richard Rose, November 2022
Richard Rose is a UK based writer and university professor. His most recent books include “Breaching the Barriers: Short Stories and Essays from India” and a collection of poetry “A Sense of Place”. “The Artist’s Model and Other Stories” will be published in early 2023.
The Other Mother– a multigenerational, multi-perspective narrative–is as poignant and nuanced as its structure is unique and transpicuous. A moving family drama organized into seven books with seven chapters each, the mix of points-of-view shatters the heteronormative, nuclear family, emphasizing the complexities and vulnerabilities of motherhood.
The book begins with The Son – Jenry Castillo: a Cuban-Black piano prodigy and freshman at Brown University on an essential quest for his biological father, Jasper Patterson. A premise not uncommon, but one that quickly turns to the other mother, title encapsulated in the novel’s driving force. Upon meeting his grandfather, Winston Patterson, a tenured History professor at Brown, Jenry learns that Jasper’s sister, Juliet, raised him as a young child with his mother, Marisa, her ex-partner.
Confused and angry at his mother for having kept this secret, Jasper grapples with having two mothers. The following books provide retrospective accounts of what transpired between Marisa and Juliet; ultimately Juliet didn’t feel passionate about Marisa and chose to focus on her career as a touring pianist and composer. Feeling rejected, Marisa took Jenry back to Miami where her parents live for the next eighteen years, cutting Juliet off entirely. Juliet looks desperately for them, but her search peters out as her career takes off. In each account, characters are interwoven and connected.
In Book 3: The Father, Jasper battles with AIDS but dies in a lake accident at the family cabin. Juliet falls into alcoholism and leaves Marisa. Winston, The Grandfather, hid from Juliet that he kept tabs on Jenry’s childhood through mementos and letters, as well as his financial support to Victor, The Other Grandfather, Marisa’s father, who hides his regular correspondence with Winston about Jenry from Marisa. With Winston’s support and presence (albeit from a distance), Jenry inevitably comes to Providence to study at the same university both his mothers did and to meet his “other family.” Hence all the lies, secrets, and betrayals unravel.
Harper achieves characterization equally flawed and just. The story is laced with an overarching theme of doing what is “right” to protect someone, but later learning that the protection was merely self-preservation, deferring and avoiding the potential pain of losing that someone again. Harper delicately illustrates the variations of doing right by yourself and others out of “love” that sadly ends up hurting those involved. Choosing to leave your partner because you can’t love her the way she wants; keeping your child away from their other parent because you’re a package deal; hiding what you know from your daughter so she can beat her addiction and succeed at her talent; secretly corresponding with the man who can give your grandson a better future; never telling your son that his biological father isn’t whom he thinks. So many circumstances, so much at stake, so much risk in telling the truth, and yet when the truth comes, it sets everyone free.
The narrative presents all sides–every truth and fabrication–creating imperfect characters and messy relationships. Welove in different ways. What can feel like betrayal, Harper reveals: “Relationships are complicated. People. Families. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. When you’re a child, you can’t see how much work it involves, just keeping everyone connected.”
Through compelling and complex character dynamics, Harper integrates larger themes on race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Successful men in their fields–from Winston’s and Victor’s perspectives–struggle being Black in America, and with the disillusionment of emigration, respectively. They try to reconcile their children to themselves, questioning lifestyles that severely defy theirs, or refusing to understand, either due to a generational gap or a cultural norm being breached. From Jasper’s, Juliet’s, and Marisa’s points-of-view, the struggles of being gay, the physical implications in Jasper’s situation, the inability to fully see oneself as an equal parent, the estrangement and rejection from family in which the riff between daughter and mother feels eternal.
Grief underlines the narrative collectively. Whether because of separation, the death of a loved one, or an unfulfilled desire, grief allows the reader to sympathize greatly and deeply. Juliet’s sorrows and struggles are constant, causing her to give up her one true love: music. Her character arc is the most prevalent and responsive in that she learns to put family, love, and partnership first; it keeps her sober, married and faithful to her present partner, Noelle, and their future family with their adopted son, Jonah. Harper lyrically describes grief, loss, longing, regret, and guilt in an array of similes and metaphors, for example, “The guilt feels like a wool scarf knotted around his neck, one he will wear for the rest of his life.”
The descriptive language–raw and visceral–in the sections that pertain to Juliet are the sharpest. Harper uses musical terms to define Juliet’s feelings and mental states. She conveys Juliet’s fears and desires about Jenry–the intensity, the real stakes now that he’s back in her life and how she’s desperate to not make the same mistakes.
Juliet’s perspective drives the narrative, while other sections, although rich and beautifully detailed, distract from the main plot. Jasper’s account seemed a stand-alone section, pertaining less to the arc than defining his relationships. Yet the structure of the book would’ve been sacrificed (its seven-seven order) without the last three books: Winston’s, Victor’s, and The Other Son – Jonah’s. The history in these sections confused the facts around Jenry’s birth. They also made the rest of the story predictable. If much of the story had been told in the present, it would have allowed for more interesting conflicts between characters. By the time we get back to the present from historical sections, we have already forgotten what knowledge certain characters possess and their feelings towards certain events.
The ending shifted tonally and didn’t involve or give credit to Marisa, suffering from cancer––or Victor, who played a big role in Jenry’s upbringing. It seemed to alienate them, closing Marisa’s arc with a scene of her discouraging Jenry from continuing at Brown since his first semester was difficult, and then resigning that her son will inevitably grow closer to Juliet because of their shared talent, and possibly her family. We only get the conclusion that Jenry still has a good relationship with his mother and her parents, Victor and Ines, because he is flying to Miami on Christmas Day in the last chapter.
At the heart of this story are choice, belief, and freedom. What we choose directly or indirectly affects others, especially when that choice is about them. But what we believe has the power to eradicate whatever choice we made that resulted in something damaged or undesired. When Juliet finally believes that she is Jenry’s mother, she is freed from the guilt of her past and the eighteen years she lost. When Marisa sees Jenry play prolifically at the school’s Winter Contest, she believes that he has always been connected to Juliet, despite their long separation and that they don’t actually share blood. Even when the two mothers choose not to tell Jenry that Jasper is not his real father, it is a choice they once again make to protect him—but it’s Jenry’s belief that he is biologically connected to Juliet and Winston that allows him to thrive and to accept his life now. Winston’s belief that Jenry is his actual grandson helps lessen the grief of losing Jasper, as he feels there is still a part of him alive in Jenry.
“This whole thing is about belief,” Harper writes. “—not fact, not proof—and in that way it puts her and her father on the same side. She believes Jenry is her son, and her father believes he is Jasper’s son—it doesn’t matter that neither is correct in any technical issue. The belief is what matters, and what they do with it—the life they live as a result of it.”
Harper’s novel will engage fans of generational sagas and family dramas where long-buried family histories and secrets are unearthed, and where past choices explicitly affect the present and future of others in a snowball effect. The novel excels at revealing motherhood—or parenting––truly: falling in love with a person you’ve helped to create, and, in doing so, loving yourself in ways you couldn’t imagine; knowing you will sacrifice absolutely everything for them.
The Other Mother is a respectful, generous nod to same-gender couples, single parents, and adoptive parents. Family is not the people you simply inherit but the people you choose.
Julz Savard is a Filipino-American writer from Los Angeles. She has a BFA in Creative Writing from Ateneo de Manila University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She works for a nonprofit as a Communications Manager while completing her first Young Adult novel. She has been published in Lunch Ticket, Chalk Magazine, and Meg Magazine.
Texas Review Press, 2022
Replete with visceral images of his native Arkansas, James Dunlap chronicles intergenerational, male trauma in his wonderous poetry collection Heaven’s Burning Porch (Texas Review Press, 2022). A remarkable achievement in storytelling and poetic lyricism, Dunlap’s poetry features striking appositives and gut-wrenching revelations of childhood malaise and spiritual angst. The book’s central mood, ominous and melancholic, looms over each page like a blood-encrusted axe teetering on a high shelf, keeping me on the edge of my seat.
It would be hard, if not foolish, to overlook the craft decisions Dunlap employs throughout Heaven’s Burning Porch. Most notably, he weaves carefully constructed descriptions reinforced with consonance and similes. In “The Dark Herd,” Dunlap talks about his father and dead animals, another unnerving, impressive motif in the book:
Daddy razzes my hair too hard and he smells like corn cobs and gin,
puts up his calloused palms for me to punch. He grabs me up and heaves me
over his shoulder like a stringer of dead rabbits.
The image of a boy dangling “like a stringer of dead rabbits” is shocking enough. But sound repetition, like a symphonic, hypnotic refrain, makes the images and their connotations even more memorable—unless, of course, such repetition is overused.
Beautiful sounding verse for its own sake can have a wonderful effect on a reader. But drawing deeper connections between sound and sense—personal narrative and musicality, for instance—can be for both writer and reader exhilarating and even aspirational. Notice in “The Dark Herd,” for example, the repeated L-sounds: in “smells” and “callused” and in the double similes “like.” Dunlap not only wishes to showcase consonance but to make his images and their similes stand out.
Some critics, however, may argue that Dunlap uses too many similes, that they stand out too much. I would disagree with those critics for one key reason: the similes are nonetheless formidable—refreshing and clear. In fact, I value Dunlap’s figurative language and its profound impact on the reader’s imagination. Similes appear frequently throughout the book; many of his sentences end with direct similes introduced with the word “like.” In “Elegy,” too, Dunlap uses awe-inspiring similes to place readers in a literal landscape with a captivating mood:
There is so little light left in the field. April rain
rubbing its velvet antlers on the windowscreen,
wind in the trees like the rasp of a hog’s punctured lung,
fog over the ground like a herd of talcumed horses.
In addition to the dreamlike comparison of rain to antlers, Dunlap imparts intoxicating tension through hyperbole: the stressed UH-sounds in “punctured,” “lung,” and “talcumed” used in his creative comparisons of wind and fog to a rasping hog and a gathering of horses, respectively.
Another poem with a captivating mood is “Front Porch Picking: 2 am: Summer,” in which Dunlap sets a scene with memorable images:
The wind, the night, falling away star-threaded, in bone-fanged fields.
Childhood porch, childhood sorrows to attend with.
Bats trawling through bottomless dark, stitching the twilight with wires of blind noise.
I’m here for the inventory of my sickly estate: the heat-killed pig in the back sty,
his head split to the thrapple rotting to clusters of shining blackberries,
his head a hive for bees picking his tongue clean sweetly, crystal strands
of drying maggots braided down the rainwater light of not-yet-morning.
The poem’s transparent, precise diction grounds the reader in a scene with heightened psychological stakes. In fact, a lot of the settings in the book embody Dunlap’s anxiety and consternation. As incorporated in “Front Porch,” words like “bone-fanged,” “sickly,” and “maggots” brilliantly reflect Dunlap’s emotions.
Dunlap’s vulnerability is apparent. From a narrative standpoint, his relationship with his father and grandfather captivates me: even though these determined male figures helped to raise Dunlap, Dunlap’s imaginative, critical perspective allows the reader to empathize with him and his gradual transformation from a disillusioned child to a brilliant adult writer. In “Night of Effigies,” he discloses:
I’ve lived my whole afraid my daddy’s shortcoming
are somewhere pumping through my own blood. The empty, impotent rage,
the brain fever—I want to shake loose of it. Momma said shooting stars
were pieces of heaven’s burning porch crumbling and falling to earth.
I’ve spent years sick and wanting to leave.
Dunlap attempts to reconcile his past with his present. His sense of longing and nihilism makes the poetry collection feel even more human, more dynamic. Dunlap does not completely loathe his family but instead wishes to forge a life not dominated by the demands of others, including of his own kin. In “Boy,” he remarks:
Sometimes I think my daddy doesn’t know joy
and doesn’t understand why I think my body is made of chickenwire
because it bows but doesn’t break.
Dunlap, too, does not wish to break under the weight of the past. Gender expectations can be, for instance, a sign of tradition and survival, a way to show loyalty and integrity to a community. But when one dares to challenge or at least question such expectations, one can face solemn consequences for better or worse. Forced to kill animals, for example, Dunlap challenges the strict gender norms imposed upon him by his father and grandfather, the latter he addresses in “We all Live Leaner More or Less”:
I don’t trust you, I don’t trust you, grandpaw
taught me the persuasiveness of the back of a hand,
how knuckles are harder than anyone expects.
A prayer is no good if you beg
a man that live on his knees will die on his knees
and when you have to die pray to god you die in the night,
pray to god nobody sees it.
Even though strict gender norms have aided human survival for ages, Dunlap’s book seems to ask: “When do male gender norms cease to be helpful and start to become hegemonic, a way to perpetuate toxic masculinity and intergenerational shame?” Dunlap attempts to answer this question not by preaching at readers but by reimagining his life.
In addition, Dunlap infuses raw emotions in poems about other people who, too, struggle to be happy while still holding on to their faith, religious or otherwise. In “Beatrice and Cloy’s Essay of Night,” Dunlap talks about the titular couple and the despair that lingers below the surface of their marriage:
Cloy didn’t know she smoked in the bars and out in the shed, leaned between ricks of firewood
and hanks of hog-casing strung up like Christmas lights. And each Sunday she prayed a little less.
Dunlap interweaves essay-poems with his own personal narratives to make his traumas feel even more relatable. The long lines in his essay-poems are meant to carry a lot of essential information about the characters, including Beatrice’s conflicted religious faith. Ironically enough, shorter lines would make the information feel even more cumbersome. Therefore, expansive imagery and narrative nuance often require an expansive form to make the content more readable and diverting.
I love James Dunlap’s Heaven’s Burning Porch. The music, images, emotion, and figurative language help to make Dunlap’s poetry collection fantastic. One of the best poetry books I have read all year, Heaven’s Burning Porch deserves to be read again and again.
Jacob Butlett (he/him) is a Best of the Net-nominated poet pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry). Jacob’s creative works have been published in many journals, including The West Review, Colorado Review, The Hollins Critic, The MacGuffin, Lunch Ticket, Into the Void, and Plain China.