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What’s In a Name?

by Graeme Hunter



1.  Graeme…

My parents had the foresight to pick out a name for me before I was born.  Unfortunately the name they chose was Lorna, which became a bit of a problem when I showed up with outdoor plumbing.  Maybe Mum and Dad were a bit hazy about the law of averages and thought that, already having two sons (David and John) and one daughter (Alison), they were guaranteed another girl.

But what’s the chances of me ending up married to someone who had also been prenatally misgendered?  Sue’s parents were anticipating a boy, and it wasn’t a boy named Sue – it was a boy named Roy.  In that case, it’s a bit more understandable, as Mr. and Mrs. Colquhoun already had three male children. 

So I was supposed to be Lorna, and Sue was supposed to be Roy.  I’d love to sign our Christmas cards that way, but I’m pretty sure that nobody would get the joke.  “Honey!  Do we know a Lorna and Roy?”

In giving me the name “Graeme” rather than its more common homonym “Graham”, my parents ensured that I would have to spell it out for the rest of my life.  Here’s how that works.

Person behind a counter:     “Name?”
Me:                                          “Graeme Hunter.” 
Person:                                   “How do you spell that?”
Me:                                          “Graeme?  It’s G-R-A-E-M-E.”
Person:                                   “G-R-A…” 
Me:                                          “…E-M-E.” 
Person:                                   “And what’s your last name again?”

Whenever I complained to my mum about this unnecessary complication, she told me that Graeme was the standard spelling in the south-west of Scotland, where she grew up.  And that seems to be true.  I remember being in a gift shop in Newton Stewart and seeing personalized mugs with the name Graeme, but none with its variant.  Take that, “Grey Ham”! 

In the end, it didn’t really matter which way my name was spelled, because most people called me Gordon.  In the Scotland of my childhood, that was a much more common name than Graeme (or Graham), so you can see why people defaulted to it.  When I moved to Canada, nobody called me Gordon anymore.  They called me Greg. 

Then Starbucks became a thing. 
Me:                  “A grande latte, please.”
Barista:           “Can I have your name for the cup?” 
Me:                  “Graeme.” 
Barista:           “How do you spell that?” 
Me:                  “I don’t care how you spell it!  It’s a disposable cup!” 

No, I didn’t say that.  I went through the usual spelling-Graeme routine.  When I got fed up with that, I tried using the name Greg.  But then the barista would write C-R-A-I-G.  It seemed that I couldn’t win.  Until the day a guy in front of me at Starbucks gave his name as Dave.  I had an epiphany.  Dave is the perfect disposable-cup name!  You can’t mishear Dave.  You can’t misspell Dave.  And as far as the Starbucks Corporation is concerned, I’ve been Dave ever since.

People who hear my first name can’t spell it; people who see it can’t pronounce it.  It’s not uncommon for people to phone me and ask to talk to “Grah-EEM” or “Grimy”.  Other people elect to give me a pet name.  One day my girlfriend called me at work.  The female co-worker who answered the phone yelled “Graemey!”  When I got on the line, the first thing Francine said was: “Who was that woman?  And why did she call you ‘Graemey’?”

My mother was almost ninety when she died, and to the end remained mentally sharp.  At some point, however, she lost the ability to distinguish between her three sons.  Sometimes she called me Graeme, but she was equally likely to call me David or John.  Or else she would scroll through a list of possible names, and call me Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme.  I didn’t take this personally.  I answered to David, I answered to John, I answered to Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme.  The only thing I asked was that Mum didn’t call me Lorna.   

2.         …Kenneth…

It’s a funny thing that my siblings and I all got “English” first names (Graeme is not as English as Graham, but it’s certainly not a traditional Scottish boys’ name).  Perhaps in compensation, we all got Scottish middle names (Ian, Margaret, Andrew, Kenneth).  Ian is the Gaelic version of John.  Scotland has had many famous Margarets, including Queen Margaret, who was canonized, and Mons Meg, which is a cannon.  Andrew is, of course, the patron saint of Scotland.  The name Kenneth also has an honored place in Scottish history.  According to legend, Kenneth MacAlpin was the first king of Alba, the land subsequently known as Scotland.

King Kenneth (Coinneach, in the Gaelic) was born in 810 C.E. on the Hebridean island of Iona, where Christianity had arrived in Scotland two and a half centuries earlier.  After uniting the western kingdom of Dal Riata with the eastern kingdom of Pictland, he established his capital at Scone (pronounced “skoon”), in central Scotland.  He brought with him a red-sandstone block of mysterious origins that became known as the Stone of Destiny.  Scottish kings were crowned sitting on it until 1296, when it was seized by King Edward I of England.  The “Hammer of the Scots” put the Stone of Destiny in Westminster Abbey, where it became part of the coronation chair.  Seven hundred years later, it was finally returned to Scotland and placed in Edinburgh Castle, where Mons Meg should deter any marauding English monarchs.

When I started to publish scientific papers, I used the name ‘Graeme K. Hunter’.  I included a middle initial to distinguish myself, for indexing purposes, from other Graeme Hunters.  One day a female colleague asked me: “What’s your middle name?”

I said:  “If I told you that Kenneth means ‘handsome’, what would you guess my middle name is?”

“Hmm … Kevin?”

But Kenneth does mean ‘handsome’.  Is that nominative determinism, or what?

3.         …Wyness…

Unlike my siblings, I got a second middle name.  My mum explained that Wyness was her maiden name.  But her full name was “May Baxter Hunter”, so wasn’t Baxter her maiden name?  Or what about Welsh, which was the surname of my maternal grandparents?  On the other hand, why did everyone call Mum “Winnie”?  Was that short for Wyness? 

I still hate being asked the security question “What is your mother’s maiden name?”  Whatever.  Pick a number.

It took a long time for me to learn the whole story.  My mother was born to a single mother, Ella Wyness, and named May.  When she was fostered by a family named Baxter, she was given their surname.  During the Second World War, May Baxter worked in a munitions factory.  There she made friends with Doreen Welsh, whose mum and dad became surrogate parents to my future mother.  May never had the surname Welsh, but I was brought up to believe that Doreen’s parents were my grandparents, so you can see how the confusion arose.

I don’t know why Mum decided to give me Wyness as an extra middle name.  Although it must have been obvious to her that, at age 36, this was probably her last kick of the can.  Unfortunately, I didn’t like the name Wyness.  I could claim that I already had enough problems, having to spell out Graeme all the time, and apparently not being handsome enough for a Kenneth.  But the fact is I just didn’t like the sound of Wyness (wino? whiniest?), and was uncomfortable being the only person I knew who had two middle names.  So at some point I just stopped using it.  As noted above, my moniker in the world of professional science was Graeme K. Hunter. 

The last vestige of Wyness in my life was my U.K. passport.  Three years ago I had to renew that document, and decided to ditch the dubya, which required convincing the Passport Office that I hadn’t actually used the name Wyness for a number of years.  That was fairly easy to do, since I’d gone W-less on my Canadian passport for a long time.  Now the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, like the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario and the City of London, all know me as Graeme Kenneth Hunter.

And my mother didn’t live long enough to see the day when I finally dropped her (real) maiden name.

4.         …Hunter

Hunter isn’t as quintessentially Scottish a name as Macdonald or Stewart or Campbell (I included Stewart because, if you put a Macdonald and a Campbell together, they’ll get into a fight).  But there is a tartan.  Quite a nice one, too; I have a Hunter tartan tie that I wear on formal occasions. 

If there’s a tartan, there must be a clan.  The Hunters didn’t play a big part in Scottish history; they weren’t bold seafarers like the Macleods, fierce Highlanders like the Gordons or border reivers like the Douglases.  The name Hunter doesn’t even appear on many clan maps of Scotland.  But there is a place in Ayrshire called Hunterston, and that is indeed the ancestral seat of Clan Hunter.  There’s even a castle.

In August of 2009, David and I were driving to the seaside town of Largs to scatter the ashes of our late mother, May “Winnie” Wyness Baxter Hunter.  David remarked that he’d been hiking in this area and had come across signs for Hunterston Castle.  Since Mum wasn’t in a hurry, we decided to take a detour.  After a few false turns, we came across two stone pillars bearing the words ‘Hunterston Castle’.  We drove down the roadway marked by the pillars until we encountered a sign that said: “Strictly no admittance.  Clan Hunter business only.” 

OK, bit of a mixed message there.  On the one hand, “strictly no admittance” seemed clear.  On the other, were we there on “Clan Hunter business”?  Do you automatically become a member of the clan by virtue of having the last name Hunter, or do you have to join and pay a fee?  We decided to go on.  What’s the worst that could happen? 

The road ended at a large manor house.  No-one was around, so the obvious next move was to knock on the imposing oak door.  David pulled birth order and made me do that.  As he sat in the car, I took a deep breath, grasped the ancient cast-iron ring and knocked it three times against the ancient strike-plate. 

I expected the door to be opened by an ancient, wizened retainer dressed in a black Victorian frock-coat.  In fact it was a youngish man in casual clothing.

“Hi!” I said brightly.  “My brother and I were hoping to see the castle.”

“I’m afraid it’s not a good time, old chap” he replied in an English accent.  He’s the head of Clan Hunter and he’s English?  “Bit of a flap on at the moment.”

“We’re Hunters,” I added helpfully.

This seemed to do the trick.  “Look, I’ll give you the key,” the laird said.  “Just let yourselves in.” 

He disappeared inside, came back with a giant cast-iron key, and directed us to the castle.  We’d actually passed it on the way in, but it was hidden by trees – a square Norman tower, in good shape considering that it dates from the fourteenth century.  David and I unlocked the door and start wandering around our ancestral home.  Unable to figure out how to turn on the lights, we were dependent upon what little sunlight filtered through the narrow windows, but that only added to the atmosphere.  There were suits of armor, racks of medieval weapons, hunting trophies, a dining table and chairs with the Clan Hunter crest.  For half an hour, David and I were the lairds of Hunterston Castle.  (Well, he was, being older than me).

I’ve always liked the name Hunter; it has a rugged, outdoorsy connotation.  In her 2020 novel ‘The Mirror and the Light’, Hilary Mantel wrote: “Hunters, it is said, live longer than other men; they sweat hard and stay lean; when they fall into bed at night they are tired beyond all temptation; and when they die, they go to Heaven.”

Picture the scene: I show up at the Pearly Gates and there’s St. Peter.  He’s holding the naughty-and-nice list.

St. Peter:         “Name?”
Me:                  “Graeme Hunter.”
St. Peter:         “How do you spell that?”



BIO

Graeme Hunter is the author of ‘Vital Forces’ (Academic Press) and ‘Light Is a Messenger’ (Oxford University Press).  His personal and hybrid essays have appeared in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly and Talking Soup.  He publishes the blog Opera Through the Looking Glass.  For further information, see www.graemehunter.ca.





Sports of Sorts

by Thomas Backer



            After reading Pogo, Katzenjammer Kids and a few other comic strips in the newspaper, I turned to the sports page to check on the number of hits by Richie Ashburn and the new won/loss record of the Phillies pitcher.  They won the National League Championship in 1950 and my support at age eleven.  I could care less about anything else in the paper and neither did most of the adults and other kids in our small town.     

            The following summer mom and dad took brother Joe and me on vacation for the fifteen hour drive to Washington D.C. and a side trip to Philadelphia for a double header with Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, their aces, pitching.  The immaculate field and the cavernous stadium put me in Oz.  The largest crowds I had seen up to that time were those that attended our annual church picnic for the turtle soup and taking chances on a quilt.  The roar and foot stomping of these baseball fans intimidated me at first but I soon started yelling and jumping up and down, losing some of my salted peanuts.  

            Dad pulled on my shoulder to sit me down.  “It’s only a baseball game, son.”

            I looked up.  “Oh dad, it’s much more than that.  It’s my best dream come true.”

            Other events of my childhood fade away but not that one.

            A couple of years after that game, Curt Simmons, a lefty, slipped and fell using his power mower, a newfangled machine he had recently purchased, severing several toes on his left foot.  He tried to pitch again but he couldn’t forcefully push off the mound with his injured left foot so he gave it up and the Phillies got off on the wrong foot too.  Brother Joe got my goat by gloating over the success of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and the rest of his Dodgers.  

            We played softball at recess and practiced fielding grounders and pitching baseball in our spare time, including “burn out,” where we threw the ball as hard as we could until one of us quit with a sore paw, but the first organized school sport we played was basketball.

*

            Our small town of Ferdinand did not have a high school or gym so we played against teams from other small towns at a gym belonging to a nearby Benedictine monastery.  Father Edwin, bland looking and speaking just above a whisper, coached our sixth grade team.  We called him Sleepy Jesus because he often fell asleep during the silent reading portion of our religion class.   We played roughhouse basketball like in games after school: fouling the other team, pushing to get a rebound, always grabbing for the ball.  During our first game against another school, Father Edwin called us into a huddle.  Leaning over, hands held together in prayer, he had us do the same and pleaded, “For the love of the Lord, behave yourselves.  The object of this game is to put the ball in the basket.”  Well, to make a basket you have to first get the ball and the only way to do that was to fight for it.

            The following year our crew cut, athletically looking seventh grade coach appropriately called Crapper, had us always walk on the balls of our feet.  He overheard some of us having an animated conversation in his Volkswagen van on the way home from a game.  At a stop sign, he turned to ask, “You boys talking about girls?”

            I said, “Yeah, I think Peggy Brockman is the best looking girl in our class.” 

            Another player snorted.  “Whoop de doo, Bonnie Schaefer has her beat six ways from Sunday.  Blue eyes, curly hair, what more could you want?”

            Crapper smiled a wicked smile.  “They all look the same underneath.”  He turned to continue driving.  

            Did he mean that looks don’t matter?  Wholesomeness counts more than looks?  Or did he mean girls with no clothes on?  Seemed like a sin to even think about that but scuttlebutt had it that sin didn’t seem to be a subject that Crapper concerned himself with.   Our pastor, Father David, his round florid face looking stern, called each of us boys one by one to his office at the rectory before our seventh grade Confirmation.  He supposedly tried to explain sex but in such vague terms that he seemed to mainly say that I should consider the priesthood.  If Crapper, full of it as usual, had commented on sex in his naughty way, Father David’s discombobulated discourse ranked as only the second time any adult had ever said anything about the subject.  We had begun noticing girls but not in terms of sex, which became this tantalizing but never talked about topic except by older boys who made it clear that we didn’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.

            Ferdinand finally got a high school in 1950, with me still in seventh grade.  They enrolled only freshmen and sophomores to start with but our basketball team played against varsity teams from other small towns in the area.   

            The Frank Heidet Machine Shop distributed a calendar for that year listing our town‘s population as 2000.  They must have included cats and dogs because the official census said 1,252.  Our population still outnumbered the residents of the towns we played but their juniors and seniors stomped on our young team without mercy.  Selvin lost its post office earlier that year of 1950 but their Netters defeated us 80 to 24.  The U.S. census did not list a population for Otwell until 2010 and that as 434, declining to 396 in 2020, but their Millers beat us 68 to 29.   The Bluebirds of Birdseye, which even today has only one intersection and trailers vastly outnumbering houses in the area, won the final game of the season 70 to 20. 

            Our guys did, however, come close to winning against the Folsomville Fearless.  

            On the school bus going with other students to the game, I joined in yelling “Goodnight Irene Goodnight,” “Peg o’ My Heart “ and “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”  At bottle number forty-seven, the bus driver pulled over, stood and turned to face us with murder in his eyes.  “If y’all can’t keep a lid on I’m goin to turn this damned thing around and you can forget about me drivin you to any more games and not nobody else is dumb enough do it neither.”  

            Since he resembled the old time comedian, I said during the hush, “Okay, Fatty Arbuckle, drive on, take away anything you want but not our basketball games.”  He gave me an index finger and a piercing look but turned and held down on the horn as he got back on the road.  He eventually pulled into a lane with a farmhouse and large barn.  That seemed odd but we entered the barn to see a basketball court only a little more than half the size of a normal one.  Eight rows of seats lined the one side of the “gym” with a pot-bellied stove that smelled like puke beneath the visitor’s section.  Probably one of the Fearless did that deliberately earlier in the day.

            Our star player, Leon Wenholt, used a one handed pump shortly after crossing the center line but it hit the ceiling, twenty-five feet above the floor, each time.  A referee called it out of bounds and gave the ball to the other team.  We yelled, “What!  How much are they paying you?” and similar appropriate remarks but the referee gave us a threatening look, as if he might call a technical foul on us, so we kept our cussing quiet for the time being.

            Our three girl cheerleaders ran onto the playing field during the first break in the action, wearing saddle oxford shoes, bobby socks and pleated short skirts as they jumped about, shaking their blue and gold pompoms and yelling out their theme song:

                        We are the Crusade girls

                        You’ll like our hair in curls.

                        We wear our dungarees 

                        Away above our knees

             The playing field ended two feet from the wall at the side of the gym opposite the bleachers.  At the start of the game, a student brought out a stepladder and the scorekeeper mounted it to sit on a small ledge ten feet above the floor.  He then marked the score with chalk and an eraser on a small blackboard.  At halftime the student brought the ladder for him and he got down to get a bag of popcorn he brought to the game.  He got back up on the ledge when play resumed but an errant ball headed his way, causing him to throw up his hands, along with the chalk, eraser and his popcorn.  The custodian tossed him the chalk and erasure, swept up the popcorn and headed for the trashcan.  The scorekeeper yelled, “Give that back!  The floor’s clean.”  The custodian turned to glare at him and, arms akimbo while holding the dustpan, gave him a I-may-look-like-a–fool-but-you’re-a-worse-one and tossed the popcorn in the trashcan.  The irate scorekeeper called for the ladder, got down and stomped off, thumbing his nose at the custodian.  They coaxed a younger kid to take his place and he seemed to mount the ladder with a certain amount of trepidation. 

            All of the fans, and especially ours, filled the small space with a deafening roar, constantly booing the referees with insinuating epitaphs such as, “You’re so crooked they’re going to have to use a corkscrew to get you into your grave!”

            The sports writer for the Ferdinand News described the rough and tumble of the game.  “Nearly all foul ball plays ended up on the floor and the game was not unlike a football meet.  The players couldn’t get out of each other’s way and, before the game was over, the referees called a total of 47 fouls, sending five players to the showers.”  The referees always called the foul on the defensive player, never charging on the offense, except when there occurred an oddity that has probably never happened elsewhere.  The sports writer continued, “Near the end of the game, one referee finally caught a boy charging but the other referee called it a foul on the boy in his way, so each was given a free throw and each charged with a personal foul.” 

            The sports writer summarized the game as a “heartbreaker” since Folsomville squeaked by with a score of 39 to 37, the only game our Crusaders lost by less than twenty points. 

            They offered no concessions but a hand printed sign said, “Stop at Mr. Leslie’s Grocery Store after the game for a cracker and slice of baloney sandwich for five cents and a Coke for ten cents.  Look for the U. S. Post Office sign as it is located in the back of the store.”  People in the area called Folsomville “Lick Skillet.”  At least we didn’t have to do that to get a snack. 

            Ferdinand got a gym two years later and I sat on the bench as a freshman but had high hopes that, with practice, I could gain a starting position.  Too cold to play outside, my fellow benchwarmers and I wanted access to the gym and thought that the janitor or somebody would let us in.  We banged on the doors and windows without success but then I noticed an unlocked window just under the roof near a downspout so I climbed the twenty feet to push the window open and squeezed inside to then let the others in at a front door.  

            Father David, the pastor who found out about everything, called home the next day to tell mom of my reckless behavior.  Mom put her hands to her sides and gave me a discouraged look.  “Father said breaking and entering is a felony but for my sake he isn’t going to press charges.  Why would you do something like that?  Basketball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

            “It isn’t?”

*

            I didn’t try out for the basketball team the next year and turned my attention to baseball.  I served as batboy for our hometown Cardinals, who played teams from the area.  We especially wanted them to beat Jasper, a much larger town whose fans called us the Ferdinand Twinkies.  We hated their guts.  Having pitched ten scoreless innings, Nig Schriener, called that because of his dark complexion, knelt on one knee in the on-deck circle.  In his mid-forties and his last season, he looked plum tuckered as he leaned on the upright bat.  He spit tobacco juice in the direction of their pitcher.  “I’m tired of looking at that ugly bastard.”  He pointed his bat to center field and hit a home run to win the game.  Babe Ruth had nothing on this guy.

            Making the baseball team during my junior year in high school I sat on the bench but did get to play the day after the prom.  Most of us junior guys from town, a few country jacks and a bunch of seniors had an after the prom party at the St. Meinrad Conservation Club, just an open concrete building with a roof.  Two seniors had asked older brothers to get us three cases of beer and four guys agreed to drink only three each so they could get the rest of us home.  A few girls showed up but left early.  

            Several guys who had starting positions on the baseball team called in sick the next morning so the rest of us had to fill in at those positions for our game against the Cannelton Bulldogs.  Blurry eyed and weaving a bit, we looked forward to the last out that would end our misery.  We had only eight players so Dickie Lee, the water boy, had to play right field.  He had to borrow a glove from the other team and let one through his legs but managed to not fall down as he ran after it. 

            The next morning, Sister Therese, our homeroom teacher, stood to the side of the room, looking down, arms folded in front of her and not saying a word.   Sister Frederica, the principal, burst into the room and slammed her hand on the teacher’s desk.  “This is a Catholic school you ingrates.  No senior prom for you.  I don’t like to punish the girls as well as the boys but I know that some of you girls attended this disgraceful and disgusting affair and the innocent will have to suffer along with the guilty.”  She pointed her right index finger across the lot of us.  “Father Bede will hear confessions at the end of the day and all of you miscreants will admit your degree of guilt in this sordid sin.”  She slammed the door as she left.

            So what, I thought.  She can flush her prom down the toilet for all we cared.  Just don’t take away baseball. 

            In our senior year I started at third base.  During that year I sometimes got on base due to walks as I scrunched my small size over the plate to shrink the strike zone and the other team made errors but I got only one hit.  Joe Todrank pitched for the Holland Dutchmen.  At the end of an inning, as I walked to the dugout, he strolled to the mound, cocky as ever, and said, “You’re Larry’s brother, aren’t you?”  I gave him a quizzical look but nodded.  “You’re up.  Take the first pitch.  It’ll be a nice one.”  Right down the middle at medium speed, I hit it into shallow center field.  Felt pretty good standing on first base as my teammates cheered in amazement.  I didn’t advance to second base and none of the rest of us even got to first as Todrank could smoke em and even threw a nasty curve.

            In another game, the Dale Golden Aces had an exceptionally good player named Reinhardt, hard as nails.  During one at bat Reinhardt blasted a screaming line drive at me.  As I walked in at the end of the inning and coach LaGrange jauntily strolled to his position as third base coach, he smiled and winked. “ You’re not supposed to duck when they hit a ball at you.”   Yeah, sure, stand still and get a big hole in my head.

*

            A classmate told me that when he went on his honeymoon he took his bride to eleven major league games in ten days, traveling from city to city in the Midwest and along the East Coast.  Perhaps she took knitting with her, but when they got back home, she said, “I will never go to another Major League game the rest of my married life, which may not last very long at the rate we’re going.  Baseball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

            He said, “It isn’t?”  



BIO

Tom Backer had fun growing up in the small town of Ferdinand, Indiana.  After obtaining a PhD in History at the University of Cincinnati, he taught that subject for 43 years, mainly at a college prep high school but including two years at the International School of Kenya.  Upon retirement he took classes in Creative Writing at Northern Kentucky University and, with encouragement from Blaise Weller, he began submitting.  The Barker’s Voice published a poem called Cheezee, describing a horseshoe game and a theft of cheese.  Two fiction stories appeared:  “Goodwill” in aaduna describes an unsuccessful attempt to help two homeless people and openarstsforum listed “A Small Town” where hijinks in a bar led to an accusation of witchcraft.  Creative Nonfiction stories include two in aaduna: “Fear,” about a carjacking in Los Angeles, and “Slick,” describing teenagers on the loose.  Wilderness House Literary Review also presented two: “The Elephant Trap,” where his brother and he played a trick on Grandpa and got punished, and “Carly: a Christmas Carol,” describing the loss of his local boyhood hero.  Sortes Magazine published “The Circus,” where he and other kids put on a circus in his backyard.



Mailable Motorcycle Art:
Two-Wheeled Postcards from Around the World

Story & Photos by Paul Garson

Redlands, California 1900

Postcards were utilized as means of advertising more than a hundred years ago as demonstrated by his example printed by a California shop offering both bicycles and motorcycles.

Before there was Twitter and text messaging there were postcards. Tons of them. In fact, many millions have been posted from almost every country in the world, the appearance of postcards stretching back more than 150 years. While there’s no special term for collecting motorcycles, postcard collecting and their research has one… Deltiology. And at last count it happens to be the third largest collecting hobby in the world, next to coin and stamp collecting.

Naturally when you have postcards you have the postal stamp. The first, known as the Penny Black, was printed by England in 1840 while privately produced postcards that included images first appeared in Austria in 1869 and the die was cast, the phenomena of illustrated postcard skyrocketing in popularity around the world. The first colored postcard was introduced in 1889 while images of the newly erected Eiffel Tower helped to greatly expand interest in postcards. The first cards showing real photographs began appearing in 1900.

In 1906 postcards benefited from another boost with the appearance of the Eastman Kodak foldable camera, amateur photographing booming and the resulting images transferable to postcards. In 1908 the U.S. population was listed at 88,700,000. In that same year, some 678,000,000 postcards were mailed within and from America. The era was called the Golden Age of postcards, but that all faded  a bit with the advent and spread of the telephone as a means of rapid communication, but then the introduction of color postcards bumped it back up. The advent of the Internet and today’s electronic cards have had an impact, but postcards, recognized as an art form unto itself, still remain popular, especially with collectors who have nearly 150 years of postcards to choose from and a bunch of them motorcycle related including the following.

As a motorcyclist of some 40 years, I focused on postcards with images that spoke (or bespoked) to me over the years, some of which follow…no stamps needed.

1908Embossed Postcard – Made in Germany – Mailed in the U.S.

This special embossed color postcard was postmarked from Cuba, Missouri at 5:00 PM Sept. 7, 1908 by a person who signed her name Jannine to a Miss Edith Barker of Millers Falls, Massachusetts. The depiction of a wicker sidecar is accurate as many similar “chairs” were built to carry family and cargo. As for the “P F” on the gas tank, no reference could be found to link it to a real motorcycle made in Germany or the U.S. and its may the initials of the artist. The card itself was apparently printed in several different languages and sold internationally.

1910 – 86, 414 British bike riders have registered their machines. By this year 31 U.S. motorcycle companies are in still in production, although several have fallen by the wayside

1913 – Bike registrations in England have jumped to 180,000, nearly a 100,000 added in the previous three years.

 1914 – WWI French Postcard – “Missed!”

The caption in both French and English relates to a motorcycle courier outrunning

German sentry’s rifle shots as he speeds on his mission through enemy lines. The artist’s name is listed…de Carrey apparently excerpted from another work titled “The Mirror.”     

France is rich with its own motorcycle history with literally hundreds of manufacturers, most of whom have come and gone, but many leaving exceptional machines.  One famous mark was the Gnome et Rhône originally known for their aircraft engines. During WWI, some 100,00 of their 9-cylinder Delta and Le Rhône 110 hp rotary designs powering the majority of all aircraft in the early years of the war.  Even larger engines powered WWII aircraft. In 1920 they introduced their first motorcycle, the Gnome et Rhône 500 cc while various other models were produced up to the early 1950s,

World War One French Postcard – On Leave a Soldier delivers flowers to his ladyfriend via his Rene Gillet. Tank on rear may be extra fuel or gas for the headlamp.  The R G’s first appeared 1897, V-twins by 1904, eventually the side-valve 750 and 1000cc machines popular with the French army.   

1915 – WWI U.S. Army Motorcycle Sidecar Mounted Machinegun Trooper

While the iconic Harley-Davidson first appeared in 1903, the company began supplying the U.S. military in 1915, it solo mount and sidecar machines gaining experience during 1916 when some 20,000 U.S. troops under the command of  General John “Black Jack” Pershing were granted permission by the Mexican government to enter their country in pursuit of the bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa. While they never caught up with him, even with their Harley and Indian motorcycles that could go where heavier vehicles could not, the American army learned valuable lessons including those concerning the new “Motor Mobile Infantry” and “Mounted Infantry.” Oddly enough their quarry, Pancho Villa, was an avid motorcyclist himself, preferring the Indian.

1915 – U.S. motorcycle registrations had skyrocket to an estimated 180,000. But by the 1932, of over 300 total original builders, only two will have survived: Indian and Harley-Davidson.

1917 – “Motor Cycle Scouts in Action”

The colorized postcard dated Dec. 6, 1917 was sent from Greenville, South Carolina, site of a U.S. military training camp. While the driver of the sidecar rig ducks for cover, the rifleman aims his Springfield carbine at some imaginary enemy for this posed photo.

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When the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917, Indian gave its entire production to the military, almost bankrupting itself, selling them at cost and leaving civilian showrooms bare. Harley took a different strategy, providing 50% of its production, the rest going to the public. The Harleys, powered by 1000cc v-twin engines produced 15hp. The factory prospered, many bikes also going to the Dutch and Russian military including gun and stretcher carrying models.  Harley-Davidson supplied about one third of the 70,000 machines ordered by the U.S. military, the remaining two-thirds divided between Indian and Cleveland.  Of the 26,486 Harleys bought by the U.S., some 7,000 going to England and France where they served as convoy escorts, dispatch, scouting and reconnaissance vehicles.

Henderson Four Goes Hill-Climbing – Original Photo Postcard – Apparently a Model F circa 1913-17

Three Up on a 1927 Böhmerland Attire – Original Czech Postcard

Various models of the Böhmerland were built from 1934 until 1939 in Czechoslovakia. So where did it get its “styling” cues? Well, literally out of thin Czech air. Seems the builder, one Albin Hugo Leibisch started with a clean sheet to draw up his vision of the ultimate road bike, one that could carry up to four passengers. Rear “rockets” actually house the fuel. The 37 cubic inch engine specs include bore and stroke of 78 mm × 120 mm (3.1 in × 4.7 in.), good enough to pump out 16-20 HP.

While our side of Iron Curtain called it the Böhmerlander (Böhme related to the name of Bohemia, part of then Czechoslovakia), back in its home country it was known as the Cechie. The factory was located in the Czech city of Krasna Lipa aka known as Schonlinde since it was in German speaking area of the country “absorbed” in October 1938 by Germany. Some 3,000 bikes were built, however few surviving to the present.

1940 – Finland – Love at First Bike

A rider appears well-attired for motorcycling complete with goggles, gloves and helmet although his passenger sits in a less secure side-saddle position minus any protective gear.  The colorized postcard was dated June 7, 1940 and sent from the city of Turku, the oldest settlement in Finland, and located in southwest coast of country at the mouth of the Aura River. In 1996 Turku was declared the official Christmas City of Finland, then designated the European Capital of Culture for 2011.

Only a couple motorcycle references to Finnish motorcycles could be found and one happened to be made in none other than Turku, the company being Tunturi, its history beginning in 1922 and leading to successful bicycle production. In the 1950s the Tunturi led the Finnish domestic market leader in mopeds. They are best known in foreign markets for their range of physical fitness equipment development including stationary bicycles now sold in 40 countries.

The other Finnish manufacturer was Helkama Oy best known for its bicycles (Helkama Velox), and also for umbrellas, cables for ships and communications, household appliances and some car parts. During the 1970s and 1980s a Helkama trial bike won several trial races. The company also made several mopeds that were very popular in Sweden until production ceased in the 1990s.

***

1941 – U.S. – Harley-Davidson and Thompson .45 Machinegun

As early as 1937 the U.S. military visited the Harley-Davidson factory intent on finding a suitable motorcycle for the war they saw as inevitable. Toward that end the Milwaukee company sent the head of its factory service school on a cross country tour of every Army camp east of the Mississippi, logging 200,000 miles on his Harley EL “Knucklehead.”

By 1939, the Army had compared various Harleys and Indians as well as a BMW clone produced by the Delco Corporation. It chose Harley-Davidson, but required that it could reach 65 mph, be able to ford streams 16 inches deep and not overheat at slow speeds slogging through muddy fields.

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1953 – England – Triumph Thunderbird 650cc – “The Best Motorcycle in the World” An illustration from the Triumph factory’s 1953 catalog appears on a commercial postcard.

The previous 500cc vertical twin Triumph powerplant was bored out to 650cc to appeal to the power hungry American market. Designated as the 6T Thunderbird, the name conjured up the Triumph’s stellar engineer Edward Turner during a visit to the U.S.  The new model was debuted in Paris at the Monthery racecourse where three factory riders average 92mph over 500 miles after the riders had ridden from the factory in England to the track and then back again, providing some high profile press for the new machines which was further enhanced when Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird in the “The Wild One” in 1953, although the conservative owners of Triumph officially objected to their machine appearing in a rowdy biker movie. However they did not complain about the big jump in Triumph sales that followed the release of the film. The last Thunderbirds were made for English consumption in 1966 by which time the even more famous Bonneville had taken center stage.

1961 – England – Norton Manxman – Mayfair Cards of London – Courtesy of Norton Motors, Ltd.

The caption on the reverse of the card reads: “Every feature of the 1961 Norton was a direct development of Grand Prix racing. It was the know-how gained from winning races all over the world which gives a Norton bike race-bred performance which is second to none. By 1961 the Norton had won 32 T.T. races.”

The Manxman derived its name from the famous Isle of Mann race course, the island also home to the famous tail-less Manx cat. Norton also built the famous Manx single cylinder racers that earned the company so many victories. On November 7, 1960 the first new 650cc Norton Manxman with the vaunted Featherbed frame was launched for the American market only. It was later followed by the larger displacement 750cc Norton Atlas in April 1962 because of the American market demand for more power. However the Atlas proved too expensive to build, profits meager and the cause of growing financial problems for the company. Fortunately in 1968 the new Commando appeared to save the day, at least temporarily.

1970s – U.S. – “The Coke Machine”

An example of a limited production privately produced postcard shows the creation of Angela Johnston and David Cargill of Des Moines, Iowa. The 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead’s 74 cu. in. motor was pumped up to run the quarter mile in 12.09 seconds at 120 mph. The caption on the reverse reads, “A metal sculpture. A kinetic array of Coca-Cola nostalgia. A collage of advertising. Certainly, things go better aboard a customized Harley.”

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BIO

Paul Garson is an American writer and photographer who lives and writes in Los Angeles in a small apartment with an old rug and a loyal cat. He has written nonfiction articles—many with his own photography—for over 70 US and international publications as well as written a dozen nonfiction books. He has high hopes of being a space tourist or at least getting to Iceland before it turns into Hawaii.




Forged for Strength

By Jean McDonough



I take knives seriously. My collection is crafted by a German manufacturer that has forged blades since the early 1800’s. I know how to identify a high-quality knife, as well its specific function—carving, chopping, slicing, peeling, cleaving, cutting, or deboning—based on the size and shape of the blade. Good knives are crafted in a complex forging process where a metal alloy—ideally both carbon steel for ease of sharpening and stainless steel for durability—are melted and poured into forms. Forged knives are far superior in strength and durability than knives stamped out of thin sheets of metal.

I like the feel of a forged knife. It follows the contours of my hand and is smooth in my grip. Quality forged knives have a bolster—a band of metal in the center of the blade—where my thumb can rest above and my knuckles behind it. A bolster in the center of a knife not only offers the blade better balance, it also protects me from injuring myself when I am cutting apart the legs, wings, and breasts of a chicken for roasting.

In the dark background of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the masterpiece that memorializes Basques killed during the Spanish Civil War bombing of Gernika, there is a bird. It stands awkwardly on a wooden table between the defiant bull and a wounded horse. While birds usually symbolize freedom, this particular bird—what most critics claim is a dove of peace or even the Holy Spirit rising above a war-torn field—is trapped. It raises its head in anguish and one of its wings, likely broken, hangs down at an odd angle. I also want to see a dove. I want to believe that peace will someday overcome my own dark hours of self-hatred, but to me the bird in Guernica seems like nothing more than a lowly form of poultry, perhaps a chicken produced for mass consumption despite no comb on the top of its head or fleshy wattles hanging under its neck. There are several differences between the bird in Guernica and a dove. Both the neck and the crudely drawn legs of the bird are longer and more pronounced than those of a dove. Dove tails also tend to have tapered points while the bird’s tail in Guernica has a small plume of feathers similar to that of chicken.

What is even more convincing that the bird is a chicken, however, is the context in which it appears in Picasso’s painting; the bird—it is certainly very ugly and unrefined—stands on a table, its beak stretched toward heaven as it waits to be slaughtered. There is a searing white line—what looks like a sharp knife—that cuts across the base of the bird’s neck. The bird is about to die and no one seems to care. Like some primitive petroglyph on a cave wall, the bird recedes into the dark background of history and is forgotten, while the horse writhing in the dust and the soldier staring up at heaven are seared into the memory of those who witness Guernica. The women of the painting who are also immortalized, one fallen out the window of a burning building and the other fleeing her bombed city moments before she is struck in the back by bullets. Then, of course, there is the unmistakable agony of the weeping mother holding her dead child. Who can forget her breasts twisted into missiles or her mouth ripped into a scream? The weeping woman will be forever remembered as the pietà, the mother of God with her sacrificed Christ child, while the terror-stricken bird in the background of Picasso’s Guernica will be left to die alone.

Nobody cares about chickens.

Sometimes my thoughts are elsewhere when I am using a knife to cut off the legs, wings, and breasts of a bird I am preparing for a meal. Sometimes at the end of a long day, I concentrate more on what I have always struggled to keep alive, something so ephemeral as an endless blue expanse of possibility deep inside me. Emily Dickenson once referred to it in a different way when she said, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.” Perhaps Dickenson’s definition of hope is too sentimental and naive—worn to a cliché by the modern tendency toward cynicism—but when I am cutting off the wings of a bird, I sometimes look for this small, feathery thing inside me. Usually, though, I am too caught up in the dark things of my “chillest land” and “strangest sea,” those aspects of myself that limit my endless blue expanse: anger and sadness, an alienating sense of otherness, self-judgment, and then—most shameful—an inability to truly love. How have I hated others? How have I hated myself? My knife slips on the wet, rubbery skin of the dead bird that I am handling, and—despite the forged strength of the metal, the weight of my full tang blade, and the centuries-old reputation of my German manufacturer—

I cut myself. When this happens, I usually slice open the tip of my thumb. There is always that searing shock—a bright white silence before pain—and then blood lets out from under the pale flap of my skin.

Someone once asked me a strange question.

How do you know that you have a heart?

Because I never have actually seen my heart, I was unsure how to respond. Even though my heart is a bodily organ that supposedly keeps me alive, beating 4,800 times an hour and pumping 2,000 gallons of blood every single day, the only way I can actually verify that I have a heart is because I have been told this by experts in the field of medicine. These same experts claim that my heart is the size of my fist and that it can actually break, caused not only by disease—as one might suspect—but stress. It is true, though, that I do have anecdotal evidence my heart really does exist. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I cut myself and the blood lets out. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I am startled awake in the middle of the night and something with wings beats hard and fast inside of me. Something in the middle of the night pounds in my chest. It will not let me sleep and I am unable to set it free from my body. Without actually seeing my heart, though, I suppose there is always a small possibility that what I believe is not actually true. Maybe I don’t really have a heart after all.

Certainly there are many types of internal struggle that are sometimes expressed in unusual ways such as midnight panic attacks, obsessions and fixations, dissociations or feelings that the world is not real, and even self-mutilation as a coping tool to release unbearable tension. Those of us who have endured any sort of high school literature class can probably identify a long list of internal conflicts that might result in such symptoms. Some are moral in nature, others are sexual, existential, interpersonal, religious, or political in origin. While civil war is not normally considered an internal conflict, at least not in the context of literature, it is still a conflict that takes place in a particular body—the country in which one lives—with all its systems and structures that are similar to a living organism.

There is an ancient metaphor of political thought called body politic where the state is conceived as a biological—usually human—body, though the use of it has declined since the Middle Ages when the authority of both the monarchies and the church were challenged. One of the earliest and best known examples of the body politic metaphor appears in the fable The Belly and the Members, attributed to the ancient Greek writer Aesop. In this fable, the other members of the body revolt against the belly which they think is doing none of the work while getting all the food. The hands, mouth, teeth and legs initiate a strike, but then when they grow weak from hunger, they realize that cooperation with all the body members is vital for a healthy existence. In the fourth century BCE, Plato further articulated this political metaphor in the Republic and Laws, emphasizing fitness and well-being over the illness that occurs when different parts of a political body fail to perform the functions that are expected of them.

It is not without reason, then—if one is to follow the logic of Aesop’s comparison—for the country in which one lives and breathes to be considered a living organism. Civil war might also be understood, through extension, to be the internal struggle of a body set on destroying itself until there is a reconciliation of conflicting desires. There is perhaps no better example of this type of struggle than the bombing of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War, the event that inspired Pablo Picasso to create Guernica. During a three-hour German aerial attack that was sanctioned by the soon-to-be dictator General Francisco Franco, Gernika was leveled to the ground with anywhere between thirty-one and forty-six tons of incendiary bombs. The bombing was later internationally condemned as one of the first aerial attacks against innocent civilians. Approximately 270 or 85% of all the buildings in Gernika were destroyed. Fires from the incendiary bombs were not extinguished until two day later and the scope of the destruction of the city was so massive that it is still unclear how many people died. George Steer, a British journalist who witnessed the bombing, estimated that at least eight hundred people had been killed, though this amount does not consider those who were either buried in debris or incinerated in the bomb blasts. The estimate also does not take into account those victims who were visiting on market day nor those who later died of their injuries. Further complicating an accurate assessment of those who died as a result of the bombing, General Francisco Franco and the Nationalists, publicly downplayed the number of casualties, even suggesting that Basques had set their own city on fire, an outrageous claim of collective suicide.

Suicide—the attack and killing of one’s own body—might also be considered a variation of civil war if the body politic metaphor can be considered reciprocal and then reversed; if a political state can be considered a living body, then perhaps a living body can be understood in terms normally associated with a political state. In 1963, the American poet Sylvia Plath—overcome by her husband abandoning her for another woman, sickened with the flu, and filled with despair during a dark London winter—jammed towels and rags under the door of her kitchen to protect her small children who slept in another room, turned on the gas in her oven, laid her head inside, and killed herself with carbon monoxide poisoning.

Months earlier, Sylvia Plath had written a poem titled Cut that describes a time she injured herself with a knife while slicing an onion. Initially awakened by the cut—“What a thrill”—Plath later parallels the pain of her injury with images related to historical periods of American war and conflict. Her psychological turmoil is reflected in European and Native Americans conflicts, as well as the phrase “A million soldiers run, / Redcoats every one,” referring to the red uniforms of British soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. She also admonishes the Ku Klux Klan for their hate killings that result in a bloody “stain on your gauze,” perhaps the common principle of equality that weaves together a range of diverse people in the United States of America. Plath then goes on to confront her own “Redcoat” blood cells that have seemingly fled her body: “Whose side are they on?” she demands. While these phrases suggest an internal struggle, a kind of civil war within herself reflected in the United States’ continual fight for freedom and equality within its own borders, Plath’s mind has become so emotionally detached, so cut off from her own physical body, that she can only view it as an enemy.

Plath’s internal conflict parallels the conflict between countries during that particular time in history. Her poem Cut was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, when for nearly two weeks during the John F. Kennedy administration, the world seemed on the brink of nuclear war after an American U-2 spy plane discovered that the Soviet Union was building nuclear bombs in Cuba. The self-inflicted cut on Plath’s finger seems to allude to a world grown progressively more violent. It may also reflect the turmoil of her own internal landscape.

Cutting up a bird with a forged knife should be a pleasure. High-quality knives are crafted to glide through flesh with both ease and precision. Before I can even begin cutting up a chicken or turkey with my knife, however, the animal must first be raised, slaughtered, and then delivered to a butcher shop, or—in our era of modern convenience that is so disassociated with death—a grocery store chain with bright refrigerated display cases of shrink-wrapped animal parts. Much has been said about the slaughtering of poultry for mass consumption and none of it is pleasant. While there have been efforts in recent years to more humanely grow and slaughter an estimated nine billion chickens every year in the United States, they are often raised in darkness and small cages. The birds are forced to gain weight so quickly that their growing hearts and skeletal systems cannot keep up with the accelerating size of their bodies, often resulting in congestive heart failure and physical deformities at only six or seven weeks of age. When their excretions are not removed from their cages, they sometimes go blind from the ammonia fumes that burn their eyes. Under these extreme and stressful conditions, the birds are often debeaked so that they cannot peck each other to death.

Once the birds reach their desired slaughter weight, they are taken off food and water in order to empty their digestive tracts and reduce the potential for contamination. In the middle of the night they are captured, loaded onto trucks and sent to processing facilities where it is common for eight thousand to fourteen thousand birds to be killed per hour with a high degree of automation. The live birds are transferred to a track of continuously moving shackles where they are hung upside down by their legs. They are then sent through an electrified water bath that stuns them before they are slaughtered, either by hand or by a mechanical rotary knife that cuts the jugular vein and the carotid arteries in the neck. If one of the birds manages to escape death in this automated process, a facility worker quickly kills it by hand with a knife. The birds are allowed to bleed out for approximately ninety seconds, depending on the size and species. Then they are sent through a scalding bath that removes their feathers.

One of the final steps of poultry processing is evisceration where all internal organs and entrails are removed from inside the bird. In order to do this, the preen gland at the base of the tail must first be cut out of the body. This procedure opens up a slit in the bird that is used to pull out organs such as the heart. The removal of internal organs can be done by hand, but is usually performed by automated devices that can cut out the organs of about seventy birds per minute. Internal organs and entrails are inspected and separated. The edible organs—also known as offal—include the bloody heart, kidney, gizzard, and liver. They are removed from all the other inedible organs. Stomachs are sliced open and their contents, along with the yellow lining, are removed. The lungs of the bird are separated from other visceral organs with a vacuum pipe. When the internal edible organs pass inspection, they are often packaged and reinserted back into the cavities of large birds sold for consumption.

Before placing a bird in the oven for roasting, I wash and dry it in order to avoid bacterial contamination. Then I remove the neck and giblets from inside the cavity of the bird. Giblets are all the edible organs. They include the heart, liver, gizzard, and sometimes the kidneys. Most people do not know that a gizzard is an organ that aids digestion. Poultry swallow a large amount of small stones and grit when they graze. These stones remain in the gizzard, grinding against each other to help birds digest their food.

The neck and giblets of large poultry are usually shrink-wrapped together for easy removal. In the particular bird that I am preparing, though, the neck is separate from the packaged giblets, so this is what I reach for first inside the hollow carcass. The neck seems strangely displaced, as if the entire bird had been turned inside out. When I pull it out of the body and hold it in my hand, I pause for a moment. It is long, muscular, and slightly curved. This peculiar neck, with its thin, bluish-pink skin still firm to my touch, is a faintly familiar appendage—oddly sexual—like something I once enjoyed long ago, but now struggle to even identify. Because I have no use for it now—neither a comforting stock nor sensual jus to flavor—I toss the severed piece in the trash.

While the gizzard of the bird seems so foreign and I am uncomfortable with the neck in my hand—it both titilates and embarasseses me—the heart is what I really want to see. When I pull it out of the vacuum-packed plastic storage bag tucked deep inside the cavity, I realize it is what I would expect of my own heart: small and muscular, deep red in color and slightly narrow on one end. It fits neatly in the palm of my hand and I am light-headed; there is a strong metallic smell that I recognize from my own dried blood. The heart, though, might not even be from this particular bird; in poultry processing facilities, the body parts get mixed up during slaughtering.

There is a story of King Soloman who ruled over a conflict between two women living together in one household. They both claimed that the same baby was their own flesh and blood. In order to determine the real mother, Solomon asked for a sword and ordered that the infant be cut in half so that each woman could have part of him. One of the women, who was not the real mother of the child, agreed to the judgment of the king. If she could not have the child, she did not want anyone else to have him, either. In a great act of selfless love, the second woman begged Solomon not to kill the infant. Instead, she asked that the king give him to the first woman. In this way, Solomon determined that the real mother was the second woman, the one willing to sacrifice her life with her child in order to save him from certain death. The king then ordered that the sword be removed and the baby returned to his real mother who was filled with joy. There is no story in the Bible, though, of a mother not wanting her own child.

Mothers always want their children.

During the violence of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of desperate mothers in Bilbao—their husbands sent off to fight during the conflict—entrusted their children to the care of strangers in a foreign country. Bilbao, a port city on the northeastern coast of Spain in the Basque Country, bustled with steel mills, shipbuilding, and maritime trade. Because it exported large quantities of goods and natural resources to other parts of Spain, one might have even referred to Bilbao as the belly in Aesop’s fable. In the spring of 1937, only a few weeks after the destruction of Gernika, Basques continued to endure aerial bombing and machine gun strafing by German and Italian air forces that were sanctioned by General Francisco Franco, who had led the Nationalist’s revolt against the legitimate democratic government. In addition to aerial attacks, the Nationalists set up a naval blockade of Bilbao, restricting ships from entering the port. With the added pressure of infantry steadily advancing from the south to push back the Iron Ring, a defense network of Republican fortifications surrounding Bilbao, food deliveries were unable to reach the city by either sea or land. Franco’s goal was to starve Bilbao into submission.

On May 23, 1937, this desperate situation convinced Basque mothers that the only way to save their children from death was to send them away—tearing their very hearts from their bodies—to live with strangers in a foreign country, the United Kingdom, despite the fact that the British government had signed a non-intervention agreement and the care of these children was solely the result of the generosity of the British public. In total, four thousand Basque children were sent to live in England and Wales with not much more than hexagonal tags pinned to their clothing that stated an identification number and the words Expedición a Inglaterra. The children, not knowing if they would ever see their parents again, departed Bilbao on the SS Habana for Southampton in crowded conditions on a dilapidated ship that was intended to accommodate only eight hundred passengers. Some of the children—crying, tired, and terrified—were so young that they did not understand why their parents were sending them away. When they arrived in Southampton, they were inspected by doctors for lice, disease, and malnutrition. They were given vaccinations, sorted into groups, and sent to different facilities across England and Wales. While some of the Basque children were never reunited with their parents who were either killed during the war or never found, and some older children simply chose not to return to Spain—the country that had brought them so much pain—it is a testimony to the selfless love of these mothers that every one of their children’s lives was saved.

Sylvia Plath did everything she could to save the lives of her children. On that dark winter day in London, she waited until her children were asleep in their beds to turn on the gas in her oven. With a considerable amount of forethought and love—before she laid her head down to die—Plath stuffed socks and rags under the door to her kitchen so that her children, Nicholas and Frieda, would not risk inhaling the poisonous gas that she so desired for herself. In the end, though, all her effort was not enough. On March 16, 1984, Sylvia Plath’s forty-seven-year-old son, Nicholas Hughes—who had been only one year old when his mother died—hung himself in a house thousands of miles away from that dark London apartment. While it is unclear why Hughes committed suicide, the causes of mental illness are often too difficult to sort through—they get mixed up with all the other abandoned remains—it is likely that his mother’s death still haunted him. More poetically stated, the writer Barbara Kingsolver once said, “Memories do not always soften with time; some grow edges like knives.”

If internal organs can get mixed up during slaughtering and lives can get mixed up during war, I wonder if there is ever a bird—one of those cold and hollow carcasses—that accidentally ends up with two hearts. It must be possible, I would think, despite the precise automation of modern processing facilities. I ask this because I once found myself with two hearts, one slow and one fast. The fast heart was too small for me to even feel in my body. I did not know it was there until someone told me. This other heart—the small and fast one inside me—was not really my heart and I did not want it there. The heart must have known that I did not want it because one day it stopped beating—all on its own—and I had to have it cut out of my body with a knife. I never held it in my hand. I never measured it against the weight of my own heart. When I was offered the remains of everything cut out from inside of me—when I was offered the remains to put in a grave—I turned my head away and said that I did not want them. When I said that I did not want the heart, it was thrown in the trash with all the other remains that no one wanted.

I wonder where this heart is now.

I wonder if there is ever a dead bird that ends up with no heart at all.

During the Spanish Civil War, those who opposed the fascist uprising were often executed and thrown in mass graves. When archeologists unearth these lost souls, it is often hard to separate the bones. Sometimes bones are missing. Sometimes the remains are all mixed up. In 2020, Spanish archeologists in the small village of Uncastillo—located in the northeastern province of Aragon—uncovered one such mass grave. It contained the remains of ten women whose bones were set free. They were mothers, daughters, and wives who were killed on August 31, 1936, during the early days of the war. While the exact total of those who died during the civil war will never be known, most historians estimate that at least 500,000 people were killed between 1936-1939, and that at least 100,000 bodies still remain missing in unmarked mass graves.

Historical research of the Spanish Civil War has largely left untold the story of war atrocities toward women. Until recently, Spain did little to recognize any war crimes—male or female—after the death of Franco in 1975. Instead, the government politically arranged “The Pact of Forgetting,” with the goal of ensuring a peaceful transition back to democracy after years of Franco’s iron-rule dictatorship. Parties on both the left and right of Spain’s political spectrum agreed to not pursue investigations or persecutions related to the civil war. Essentially they wanted the past to stay buried in the past. This is not what happened, though. Families of those who had been brutally killed by Franco’s uprising and subsequent dictatorship—some executed and thrown into mass graves—would not forget. Eventually in 2020, the Spanish leftist coalition government agreed to finance the exhumation of mass graves in an attempt to “restore democratic memory.”

On that fateful day in Uncastillo, the ten women—whose bones have recently been unearthed—were dragged from their homes and shot by a firing squad. Their bodies were dumped in a shallow pit in the neighboring town of Farasdués. The mass excavation revealed one particular skeleton of interest, a woman with one arm outstretched under the neck of another woman buried next to her in the pit. To someone not normally experienced with the haphazard positioning of bodies tossed into a mass grave, the woman’s gesture might appear to express solidarity, even in death.

While it is unclear why this particular woman was shot—some were targeted because of their political leanings, activism, or as substitutes for a male relative—there is no mistaking the horrifying angle of her skull. Tipped back against the dry earth—jaws spread wide in an eternal scream—the head is that of the woman cradling her dead child in Picasso’s Guernica. The likeness is unmistakable. This woman, though—the one shot by a firing squad and later buried in a shallow pit—has a bullet hole through her skull. There are also a few remnants of the dress that she wore when she was killed: seven white buttons that are oddly recognizable when taken out of context. They trace a winding path up the woman’s spine.

The artistic technique of collage, where different materials, such as paper, fabric or wood are taken out of context and applied to a surface with glue or paint, was frequently used by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early twentieth century. Both artists are, of course, well known for developing the style of art called Cubism. One of the characteristics of Cubism is that it is emotionally detached from the subject it portrays, focusing more on physical qualities than internal conflict. Eventually, however, Picasso and Braque realized that the expression of Cubism had become too analytical and lacked emotional depth. In 1912, they began applying collage to their drawings and paintings in order to add additional layers of meaning. They used scissors to snip, trim, and clip pieces of modern life: newspapers, journals, wallpaper, and sheet music. They used utility knives to cut up pieces of cardboard and linoleum. Picasso and Braque then took these cut pieces of life from the places they frequented—cafes, hardware stores, newsstands—and pasted them directly on the canvas. Sometimes they even painted or drew over them with charcoal, pencil, and watercolor. These collage pieces were what Braque called certitudes, recognizable images from modern life.

In 2011, Spanish archaeologists excavating an old cemetery in Palencia, found a surprisingly recognizable object in the dry and dusty grave of a young mother, Catalina Muñoz Arranz, who had been shot by a firing squad on September 22, 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Next to her skeleton—where most likely there had been the pocket of her dress—was a small baby rattle. Brightly colored and shaped like a flower, it contrasted with the dry Spanish soil and Catalina’s dull gray bones. The toy rattle had been for her youngest son, Martín de la Torre Muñoz, who was just eight months old at the time of his mother’s death. A witness to the execution remembers that Catalina held Martín in her arms when she was chased by local members of the Falange who were sympathetic to Francisco Franco. When Catalina, who had been accused of attending leftist demonstrations, fell while fleeing her pursuers, she handed Martín to her neighbors who saved the child’s life. Catalina was arrested and killed by a firing squad, the bullets shattering her skull. Martín, who is in his eighties with no memory of that day, now has the baby rattle that was intended for him as a child. When asked about Catalina, he said with tears in his eyes, “If my mother were here, I would tell her that I love her and that she made me very happy.”

Almudena García-Rubio, an anthropologist with the Aranzadi Science Society who excavated Catalina’s baby rattle, affirms that it was a remarkable discovery; no other similar object has been unearthed from the Spanish Civil War. García-Rubio also acknowledges the emotional significance of the baby rattle when she says, “It is a very symbolic object, the lively colors next to the earth-colored bones is a reminder of a motherhood that was cut short, which to a degree, represents everything that happened in the war.”

When Picasso cut paper collage pieces from typical forms that are universally identifiable—the way a baby rattle is always a rattle, for example—and then applied them to a new context, he achieved multiple layers of meaning. There is always the original meaning of the object—a rattle is still a rattle—but the image of the rattle in a grave alongside the skeleton of the baby’s mother creates a new context that is both dark and disturbing. Picasso synthesized images of many familiar objects—guitars, bottles, and human bodies—with snippets from newspaper columns, true crime novels, and literary essays. This superimposition of meaning and material, when effectively balanced, creates an uncomfortable discord of competing interpretations.

Balance is important in a knife.

Quality knives have approximately the same amount of weight in both the handle and the blade. If a knife is properly weighted, when I place my extended index finger under the knife at the hilt and hold it horizontally with the cutting edge down—essentially resting the knife on the top of my finger—the knife should remain balanced and suspended in mid-air, neither falling forward nor backward when, with the other hand, I remove my grip on the handle. A balanced knife is important for repetitive movements of force when my hand—and perhaps my soul—tires from the work of cutting up something that was once alive.

Picasso experimented with collage when painting Guernica, but only with the women in the painting, each one emotionally overcome by the brutal and relentless attack on their city. The artist applied floral wallpaper to the body of the woman fleeing a burning building, transforming the cut paper into a head scarf that hung from her shoulder and covered an exposed breast. He also applied wallpaper to the torsos of the weeping mother and the woman trapped in the burning building. It is unclear, though, why Picasso only applied collage to the women characters in Guernica. It is possible that these pieces of wallpaper were meant to represent the destruction of everyday things in their lives, such as tables, chairs, and clothes—or even children—-that were torn apart by bombs. Whatever the case, these cut papers that Picasso applied to the women did not survive his creative process. He later tore the pieces from their bodies like clothing in a violent attack. The women of Guernica are forever exposed—running, mourning, and wailing—in all their vulnurability.

In order to determine if a knife is sharp, I hold up a sheet of paper and—from top to bottom—cut cleanly through it. While this test may seem like nothing more than a clever parlor trick, if the knife fails to slice cleanly through the paper—if there is any resistance such as torn or ragged edges that might reveal internal conflict—I know my blade needs to be honed with a sharpening steel. Honing my knife makes difficult jobs much easier, but it also requires a good deal of skill. When I hone my knife before cutting up a bird, I hold the sharpening steel at a vertical angle with the handle at the top. I then place the edge of the knife blade at a fifteen-degree angle to the steel. This precise angle is important for proper honing in order to maintain a sharp edge. Once I have the correct angle, I slide the blade down the steel with a sweeping motion. With years of practice, I have learned to do this quickly and efficiently. A total of four or five passes on either side of the blade is usually enough to realign and straighten the edge until I have a razor-sharp knife that will easily cut through resistant cartilage or flexible tissue that connects and articulates the joints of animals.

For particularly labor-intensive tasks that require additional force—such as severing limbs—I prefer a blade where the metal extends through the entire length of the knife and is seamlessly bolted between the handle on either side. This characteristic of a high-quality knife is called full tang, as opposed to partial tang where the blade either ends at the hilt or only slightly deeper into the center of the handle. Full tang knives have better balance and are stronger than knives that have only partial tang. They are also better able to overcome the resistance of bone and those memories that do not always soften with time.

Sometimes when I am cutting up the wings and legs and breasts of a bird, the joints refuse to separate despite the sharpness of my knife and the weight of my body pushing down on the flesh and bone. Sometimes the bird refuses to yield to me. I feel a lightheadedness when the watery blood pools on the cutting board, a kind of queasiness and sudden awareness that a child once inside me—not some vulnurable animal slashed at the neck and left to bleed out, not some small feathery thing or broken-winged bird rendered with oil on canvas—a child, long dead and receded into the dark background of my past, still has the will to live. It still has a heart.

I am unable to see the heart of the bird in Guernica.

The bird must have a heart, though—even if I cannot see it—because it cries up to heaven, knowing that it is about to die. I see that its eyes are painfully twisted and one of its wings is already broken, but because I cannot see its heart, I am not sure that it is there. I can only see that blinding white reflection where there should be a heart, where there should be an endless blue expanse deep inside me. This blinding white reflection is my own knife—full tang and forged for strength—slicing the neck of the bird.

I tell myself it was only ever a memory.

Because my knife is forged for strength, when I extend one of the legs of the bird, I am able to easily cut through the skin. I cut through the skin just enough so that when I pull the leg away from the carcass, the ball joint pops from the socket. This helps me to determine where exactly I need to cut. When I have correctly positioned my knife, I completely slice the leg from the body as close as possible to the backbone, repeating the same steps on the other side of the bird. Then I separate the thighs from the lower legs by slicing through a line of fat that marks the joint between them. Once I have removed the thighs, I place the slaughtered bird breast-side up and remove the wings. I do this by pulling them away from the body and using my fingers to feel for the joints that I cut right through. Finally, I turn the carcass on its side—in its own pool of blood—and look for a line of fat that runs from top to bottom. This is where I place my knife to cut through the rib cage, separating the breast from the backbone. I repeat this process and remove the other breast. There is nothing really left of the bird now and I have grown tired from all the effort. I never did find its heart.

With this living thing that was once a bird, then a child, then a memory—or perhaps it was first a child and then a memory and then a bird—all the pieces get so mixed up that not even a high-quality knife—forged for strength and forgetting—is enough to do the job. There are days when I am startled awake in the middle of the night with the frantic flapping of wings, my own heart that will not slow its beating. There are days when I see a bird. There are days when I see a child. When this happens—when I see a child—I abandon my knife and resort to using my bare hands to loosen and pull the bones free.

Sometimes not even that is enough.



Bibliography

“10 Interesting Facts About the Human Heart.” Flushing Hospital Medical Center. 22 June 2018. https://www.flushinghospital.org/newsletter/10-interesting-facts-about-the-heart. Accessed 15 November 2021.

Armentrout, Jennifer. “How to Cut a Whole Chicken into Pieces.” Fine Cooking. https://www.finecooking.com/article/how-to-cut-a-whole-chicken-into-pieces. Uploaded 14 October 2021

Chiasson, Dan. “Sylvia Plath’s Joy.” The New Yorker. 12 February 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sylvia-plaths-joy. Accessed 23 October 2021.

“Cuban Missile Crisis.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/about-us/about-the-jfk-library. Accessed 23 October 2021.

Davies, Hywel. Fleeing Franco: How Wales Gave Shelter to Refugee Children from the Basque Country During the Spanish Civil War. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, Wales, 2011. Print.

Dickenson, Emily. “Hope is the Thing With Feathers.” Emily Dickenson: The Collected Poems. 1924. Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 1993. Print.

Domínguez, Nuño. “The Rattle that United a Mother Shot in the Spanish Civil War and Her 83-Year-Old Son.” El País. 24 June 2019. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/06/24/inenglish/1561378371_010230.html. Accessed 14 November 2021.

Farago, Jason. “An Art Revolution Made, Made With Scissors and Glue.” The New York Times. 9 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/29/arts/design/juan-gris-cubism-collage.html. Accessed 4 November 2021.

Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Center for Basque Studies. University of Nevada, 2018. Print. 

Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Ekin. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2021. Print.

Katz, Brigit. “Archaeologists Open One of Many Mass Graves From the Spanish Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine. 30 August 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/archaeologists-open-one-mass-graves-spanish-civil-war-180970175/. Accessed 13 November 2021.

Martin, Russell. Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece That Changed the World. Dutton, 2002. Print.

McMechan, Ian. “‘Cut’ by Sylvia Plath: Ian McMechan Discovers not Just an Ironic Personal Summary but a Concise History of America in this Short, Neglected Poem.” The English Review. Vol. 16, no. 1, Sept. 2005, pp. 21+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A136339231/LitRC?u=anon~93010af1&sid=googleScholar&xid=d44370ca. Accessed 23 Oct. 2021.

Mead, G.C., Editor. Poultry Meat Processing and Quality. Woodhead Publishing Limited. Cambridge, England, 2004. Print.

Medina, Juan. “Women’s Mass Grave Sheds Light on Female Victims of the Spanish Civil War.” Reuters. 17 December 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-spain-mass-graves-women/womens-mass-grave-sheds-light-on-female-victims-of-spanish-civil-war-idUSKBN28R14W. Accessed 14 November 2021.

Murray, Lorraine. “Factory-Farmed Chickens: Their Difficult Lives and Deaths.” Encyclopaedia Britannica: Saving Earth. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/the-difficult-lives-and-deaths-of-factory-farmed-chickens. Accessed 14 October 2021.

The New American Bible. Stephen J. Hartdegen, O.F.M., S.S.L. and Christian P. Ceroke, O. Carm., S.T.D., Nihil Obstat. Saint Joseph Personal Size Edition of the New American Bible. Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1970. Print.

O’Connor, Anahad. “Nicholas Hughes, 47, Sylvia Plath’s Son, Dies.” The New York Times. 24 March 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/24/books/24hughes.html. Accessed 15 November 2021.

Palmer, Alex W. “The Battle Over the Memory of the Spanish Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine. July 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/battle-memory-spanish-civil-war-180969338. Accessed 13 November 2021.

Picasso, Pablo. Guernica. 1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

Plath, Sylvia. “Cut.” The Collected Poems: Sylvia Plath. 1965. Harper Perennial, 2018. Print.

Regenstein, Joe M. and Singh, R. Paul. “Poultry Processing.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/poultry-processing. Accessed 25 October 2021.  

Rollo-Koster, Joëlle. “Body Politic.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/body-politic. Accessed 14 November 2021.

Walther, Ingo F. Picasso. Taschen. Köln, Germany, 2000. Print.



BIO

Jean McDonough has a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art Photography from the Cleveland Institute of Art and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry Writing from the University of Michigan. She has taught creative writing at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, as well as middle school art and language arts. Currently she works as an elementary school librarian and lives in Woodstock, Illinois. Jean is working on a collection of essays inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.





Writing as Recovery: Melissa Febos’ Body Work

By Kate Brandt


In the January 10, 2022 issue of the New Yorker, an article by Parul Seghal appeared called “The Key to Me,” and advertised as The case against the trauma plot.  I dropped what I was doing and read it instantly.  As a writer who draws mainly upon the struggles of my own life for material (my ex-husband joked that I should call my unpublished novel “The Things That Hurt Me”), I wanted to know precisely what I was being accused of. 

As I read, my fears were confirmed. Seghal laments the proliferation of what she calls “the trauma plot” in contemporary storytelling, listing many examples and complaining that their creators cannot “bring characters to life without portentous flashbacks to formative torments….the trauma plot,” writes Seghal, “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom.”

What a magnificent counterargument can be found in the essays that make up Melissa Febos’ new craft book, Body Work.  Although Febos’ essays focus on memoir rather than fiction, they very much take up the argument.  Each piece focusses on a different aspect of memoir writing, but Febos’ embrace of trauma as material for writing would make Segal shudder—indeed, Seghal mentions Febos’ words on trauma as an example of how oppressive “trauma narratives” have become.  The elegance and depth of Febos’ writing in this collection are the best comeback.

Melissa Febos, photo by Beowulf Sheehan

In “In Defense of Navel-Gazing,” Febos’ justification for writing the self is three-pointed.  One of these points is political.  She writes:

That these topics of the body, the emotional interior, the domestic, the sexual, the relational are all undervalued in intellectual literary terms, and are all associated with the female spheres of being, is not a coincidence.   This bias against personal writing is often a sexist mechanism.    

Citing works like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Diary of a Young Girl, and Night, she points out that “Social justice has always depended upon the testimonies of the oppressed.”

A second point of her defense: Personal writing is art.  Just because we write about ourselves, this “does not excuse you from the extravagantly hard work of making good art, which is to say art that succeeds by its own terms.” 

Her third point: It heals.  Febos cites a study done by James W. Pennebaker in the 1980s, in which people were instructed to write about a past trauma.  The results:

Monitoring over the subsequent year revealed that those participants made significantly fewer visits to physicians. Pennebaker’s research has since been replicated numerous times, and his results supported.  Expressive writing about trauma strengthens the immune system, decreases obsessive thinking, and contributes to the overall health of the writers.

Later essays in Body Work focus on writing sex scenes, writing about others in memoir, and writing as recovery.  In the last essay, Return, Febos dives deeply into the connections between healing, art, and the divine.  This is where Febos leans most on trauma and is also the point at which I was most drawn in.  Rather than expressing embarrassment about the confessional nature of memoir writing, Febos celebrates it.

In Return, Febos recalls a longing she felt, even as a child, for a certain transcendence.  This longing found an outlet in writing, a need and obsession that never left her. As a child, Febos tell us, she wrote with “religious enthusiasm.” 

As a mature writer, writing sometimes afforded her a chance at that longed for transcendent state.  Febos describes herself at a residency, writing the story of an obsessive relationship in her life.  As she wrote, in

a kind of trance, characterized by total self-forgetting…inside an intelligence…loyal only to the work to which it is applied…I had the lucid and entirely certain realization that there was only one correct ending to my story: my narrator would leave her lover.

In the act of writing, she had unearthed truths about why she was in the relationship that she had hidden even from herself, and which she subsequently acted on—life follows art.   Febos here uses the word “recovery” in both senses—a healing from illness, but also retrieval of some aspect of the self that had been lost to the writer—and shows that these two meanings are intimately connected. 

My own novel, coming out next year, is autobiographical.  If I had to say what it was “about,” I would list these themes: passion, the Buddhist concept of emptiness, illusion, and depression. 

Depression is difficult to capture on the page.  So heavy, so paralyzing, so…wordless.  While writing countless drafts, that was probably where I got stuck the most—how to show what that kind of despair is like.

I spent roughly thirty years of my life in and out of therapy with a diagnosis of major depression.  A fact that, as one friend put it, was ridiculous.   It was.  I was white, middle class, heterosexual, educated, healthy, gainfully employed, and at that age, good-looking.  I had no right to feel the way I did.

But there it was—chronic insomnia; daily crying fits, drinking myself to numbness nearly every night. 

How many times during my depression was I told by friends and family to “get over it?”  When depressed, that is exactly the problem.  Intellectually, I knew: yes, I should get over this.  But I didn’t. 

In Return, Febos mentions an attitude of toughness she took to her own sexual trauma at a certain point in her life.  “Embedded in that choice,” she writes, “was my abiding belief in the fantasy of toughness.”  This attitude covered a deeper sense of shame she felt.  In her first attempt at nonfiction, she tells us, she wrote about the experience of being a sexual submissive for pay.  She was not ashamed of what she had done, but rather “I was more ashamed of my unknowing than of my actions…for me, at twenty-five, a lack of self-knowledge was a cause for shame.” 

I recognized both states of mind.  When I began to write, I, too, hoped writing could be a tool that would help me resolve unanswered questions and the shame I felt about my depression.  My friends were right of course—I had plenty of privilege, a lot “going for me.”  How to explain myself?  What was wrong with me, after all? 

I also had ambivalence about writing my own story.  I had, at that point, been studying Buddhism for a few years, and my teacher made a point of urging his students not to get mired in our own self-pity.  A key tenet of Buddhism is the idea of “no-self,”—that we manufacture an idea of self through the combination of sensations that coalesce in our brains.   If we are to cultivate awareness of this truth, focusing on a narrative we create about ourselves would be counterproductive.  This teacher ridiculed students who wanted to pour their hearts out to him.  I remember once trying to speak to him about things that troubled me.  He smiled gently.  “Soap opera,” he said.

I wrote about myself anyway.  I had to.  Like Febos, I wrote to free myself from the shame of own lack of self-knowledge.  In the long process of trying to know myself more deeply through writing, I found that writing changed me. 

Story has its own demands.  There must be verisimilitude.   There must be a shape.  In the struggle to bring these elements to my personal story, an interesting alchemical process took place.  Slowly, draft after draft after draft, I began to get some distance from my pain.  The hold that my story had on me, especially the despairing, self-pitying part, began to loosen.  I came to see the “things that hurt me,” as my ex so mockingly put it, were actually, in a sense, accidents. It wasn’t personal. 

In Return, Febos writes that “memoirs begin as conversations with the self…Our first confessions must be to this internal witness.”  Through this process, both textual and spiritual, we begin to see ourselves clearly, and, more importantly, forgive ourselves.  When she writes, Febos tells us, she is two selves—the one who has experienced the past, and the one who observes, processes, and sees through what she thought was there.   “By my own higher power, by the self that is capable of holding the most pitiful part of her past and loving her clean” Febos is able to clearly see a former self, and have compassion.     

I had a similar experience writing my own life.  At a certain point, I realized that while much of what my Buddhist teacher had instilled in me was valuable, contempt for myself and my own story, my own version of myself, was not.  It came to me that if Buddhism was a religion based on compassion, there was no reason not to have compassion for myself as well, and that this compassion, paradoxically, made me more emotionally available to others.  What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that in Body Work, I believe Febos unearths valuable truths.   

I write, but my main occupation is teaching adult literacy.  I’ve done this work since 1990, working with adults who dropped out of high school for various reasons such as pregnancy or the need to care for a family member, as well as immigrants who received various levels of education in their own countries. 

Few groups are more in need of writing their stories.  Most of my students have suffered, and continue to suffer, multiple traumatic experiences—the traumas of racism and/or immigration; the shame of being less well-educated; the ongoing hardship and humiliation of poverty.  Teaching adults has shown me that, regardless of literacy level, the wish to be heard is universal.  When I ask my students to write; when I repeat to them the adage that my own writing teacher shared with me—tell the story only you can tell—there is often a moment of hushed surprise.  Me?  A story?  And then, permission granted, they begin. 

“The final phase of trauma recovery,” writes Febos in Return, is often described as grounded in a reconnection and restored engagement with social life.”  This reconnection with the community is another spiritual aspect of confession as Febos conceives of it in the essay, and it is something my students understand instinctively.  The stories can be heartbreaking—multiple foster homes, addiction, losing one’s own children.  When one student reads, the rest of us listen respectfully and for as long as it takes for the storyteller to finish.  At other times in class—when reviewing comma use, or the parts of a cell—I may be divided from my students by our different backgrounds, but when we read our personal narratives, we are always a community as sacred as church. 

Seghal complains that the “trauma plot,” as she calls it, “reduces character…can make us myopic to the suffering of others…disregards what we know.”  Febos is more generous. 

“Listen to me,” she writes.  “It is not gauche to write about trauma…bring me your books about girlhood, about queer families and sex workers, your trans bildungsromans. I will read them all.”

Febos dedicated her book to her students, but this book will touch many of us—all of us who have questioned our right to speak—who have not thought ourselves worthy of being heard. It’s one thing to be censored, spoken over, silenced by others—quite another to do it to yourself.  In Body Work, Febos has freed us from that self-censure, and I am grateful.



BIO

Kate Brandt’s work has appeared in various publications, including Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Talking Writing, Literary Mama and Redivider. Her novel Hope for the Worst will be published by Vine Leaves Press in 2023. She works as an adult literacy instructor in New York City. 

Visit her website at Katebrandt.net

Photo by Christine Petrella




Beautiful Things

By William T. Vandegrift, Jr.



It is said that the average American moves every five to ten years. In my lifetime, some fifty-plus years, I have dwelled in four homes. I’ve lived in my present house for the longest period, nearly three decades.

The longer a person remains in a home, the more things they are likely to have accumulated. When they move, they may face having to relinquish much of their possessions, especially if downsizing into a smaller home. This purging can be challenging, but surrendering things can also be liberating, a cleansing of sorts. I went through this process twice. And not by choice. I was forced to purge after being displaced by catastrophic events. Not only was I faced with rebuilding my home, but I also had to surrender things that I held dear.

In 2009, my house was devastated in a fire. My partner, Drew, and I were on our way home from a weekend down the shore. The pet-sitters had stopped by in the morning, and shortly after they left, lightning struck the house. Neighbors heard the thunderous bolt but at first, they didn’t realize our house was hit.

The fire started on the lower level. It simmered, burning slowly in the laundry room for hours. A dresser in which I kept acrylic paints for art and craft projects caught afire. The paints ignited and accelerated the fire to the point where it quickly spread upward to the ceiling and along the rafters. It became what the Fire Marshall called a rolling fire.

The whole structure did not burn down as one might imagine, but the smoke extensively damaged the house. Since it was late summer, the house was air-conditioned, and the windows were shut. The house became filled with smoke, and the smoke finally seeped outside through the windows. Neighbors at first marveled at the unusual mist forming along the creek before they realized it was smoke and that it was coming from our house. They panicked and many called 911. The fire trucks came swiftly, and when we arrived shortly thereafter, the firemen had already broken down the front door with a hatchet and were inside the house. I could see them through the doorway, dragging furniture around, searching the fire’s angry ascent throughout the insides of the walls. Fallen things were scattered everywhere, but the firemen’s work was not about our items of importance and value. Whatever was in the way was thrown aside. Saving the house was their priority.

In the ensuing months after the fire, we saw the house gutted to the studs. Everything was removed, even the toilets and bathtubs. All that was left was a shell of the house, and we rebuilt it from within. It was a long ongoing, project that lasted nearly two years.

Just over a decade later, in September 2021, during Hurricane Ida, our house was flooded by the tiny creek that runs along the back of the property. The creek became overwhelmed in a deluge of rainfall, and it came up to the back of the houses of our neighborhood. It was quick and sudden. Many neighbors, including us, were flooded out.

Earlier in the evening, before the flood, we had retreated downstairs due to tornado warnings. We watched the news on television, and when the warnings passed, we went back upstairs. The phone rang. It was a neighbor, asking if we had a wet-vac that they could borrow. This should have been the first sign for us, but it didn’t register until my partner went outside on the deck, and he heard the roar of the creek. We shone a flashlight to see how high the creek was. We couldn’t see much, only that the ground seemed to be moving. That’s the creek, I said to my partner, stunned with disbelief. We are being flooded.

We raced downstairs to the garage to move the cars. When we opened the garage door, the creek roared inside, and the entire downstairs became flooded. The cars started to float, and one of them got dinged up as we backed it out. We were able to get both cars up to the top of our driveway.

Shortly afterwards, the police showed up and ordered us to evacuate. We left with our two dogs and found out later that we were lucky, as a neighbor had to be rescued by boat and others had to jump out of their windows to escape the rising creek. Our cats were left behind, unable to be found, but hiding on the second floor, which wasn’t being flooded. Fortunately, they survived by remaining upstairs beneath perhaps the beds or a dresser.


Both events, the fire and the flood, were of biblical proportions. What’s next, but locusts as a friend pointed out. (Instead of locusts, in the subsequent months we were consumed with an invasion of stink bugs and centipedes.) Creatures ranging from raccoons, rats, and opossums roamed through and around our house. Deer stalked the perimeter as if to claim the house as their own. Nature claimed our lives.

However, as the fire was devastatingly slow; the flood was swift. After the fire, we stayed in a local hotel for nearly a week and then rented a condo for the duration of the rebuild that took nearly two years. After the flood, we spent most of the night at a firehouse where an emergency shelter was set up and we returned early the following morning despite the evacuation order still being in place.

In both instances, we were forced to go through and clean out what was left of our house and determine what could be saved and what was deemed to be destroyed. I had to evaluate everything that I possessed. I cherished the many items that I had collected over the years and those that had been passed down to me through generations. Every object represented something to me, whether it was a link to my childhood, a connection to a relative who was no longer with us, or a significant moment of my life. I grieved over the loss of the upright piano that was passed through my family, made by my great-great-grandfather’s piano manufactory company during the early decades of the last century. I mourned for the elaborate pair of three-foot-tall porcelain statues of French courtiers: a man and a woman dressed in eighteenth-century clothing and posing as if watching people dancing around a ballroom floor at Versailles. During my childhood, my grandmother had them poised on a round end table in her living room. We’d always said it was King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and from my grandmother, I learned all about the tragic history of the French Revolution.

I have an accumulation of dishes. My grandmother collected Lenox china. As a child, I was very inquisitive, and I shared my grandmother’s interest in fine china. To her chagrin, when we would go to dinner at someone’s house, I would lift a plate and look at the bottom while asking if the dishes were Lenox or Noritake. My relatives were delighted by my interest, so unusual for a little boy. My grandmother always told me afterwards not to do that. It was rude, she said. I have and hold on dear pieces of her fine china that survived both the fire and the flood.

An aunt gave me a favorite piece before she passed, a deviled eggs platter. I treasured it even though I rarely made deviled eggs. This dish survived the fire, but it did not survive the flood. It disappeared, perhaps washed off a shelf in the garage by the raging water and shattering against the cinder-block wall. This is most likely what happened as later I found a large fragment of the dish’s scalloped edge in the driveway, probably having been carried out there as the water receded. I was heartbroken, not because I liked the dish so much, but because it was a lasting connection to my Aunt Violet.

Fires have always frightened me. I’ve read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where workers, in an attempt to escape, leaped to their deaths. My grandmother told me a story that has haunted me to this day. When she was in her early teens, a house, allegedly of ill repute, exploded down the street from her home. This was during Prohibition. There was a distillery in the basement, and it had blown up.

Neighbors rushed outside and watched people running out of the house that had exploded, many in flames and screaming as they shed their fiery clothing. My grandmother said the smell of burning flesh was ungodly. People died right there on the spot.

Before my house fire, I once worked delivering newspapers. A house on my route had caught fire and was reduced to mere shell of charred remains. The neighboring houses on both sides were impacted as well, and they had melted siding. This was during the holidays, and I speculated that the fire was caused by Christmas tree lights. Ever since, I have always been wary about using them in my own home. And I always wondered what it would be like to lose your home in such a manner. What it would be like to watch your house in flames, knowing everything that meant something to you was inside.

Everyone from the Fire Marshall to the restoration crew said that our house fire was a strange one. It was deemed as suspicious at first because the inferno was centered in one specific place from where it accelerated centrally due to the poorly placed jars of paints by the furnace. Also, many objects survived, while others were destroyed. In some closets, metal melted, yet candles on another shelf remained intact. Everything in the house was covered with soot. It seeped into drawers and even inside the refrigerator and stove. Most things made of fabric, such as clothing, mattresses, pillows, and stuffed animals, absorbed the smell of the smoke and were ruined. The things that could be saved had to be cleaned professionally. We had to decide what was worth saving and faced having to pay to restore these items.

All four of our pets died in the fire. Two dogs and two cats. The carbon monoxide got to them, and they had no idea what hit them. At least that’s what the firemen said. They just went to sleep. I always wondered: Isn’t this what is always said? He never knew what hit him or It was so fast they didn’t realize what was happening. The dogs were found huddled together in the bathroom. A cat was found wedged beneath the sofa as if to secure the last few gasps of oxygen. There was the imprint on a smoke-covered duvet in the guest bedroom where the other cat eventually collapsed and died. I do not believe they didn’t suffer. To me, they did not appear to have simply fallen asleep, but and seemed have experienced some level of terror during the last moments of their lives. A neighbor told me a dog was still alive when the firemen arrived, but I did not press her for further details. I know I am unable to handle knowing if this is true.

When we were evacuated the second time, after the flood, I reexperienced the trauma I went through after the fire. I feared for the cats we left behind. I felt I couldn’t go through the loss again, but I came to realize that I had no control over the situation. I had to let go of my fears and remain strong.

In both events, I lost nearly all my books. My office survived the fire for the most part because I, by chance, left the door closed, and that prevented much of the smoke from entering the room. But the pages absorbed the smell of smoke. Due to the generosity of the faculty and my peers in graduate school, many donated titles to replenish my library. Over the years I collected even more books, but the office was then destroyed in the flood. My books on the lower shelves were soaked. The one on the higher shelves absorbed the dampness, and the pages became bloated, crinkled, and curled. It broke my heart to see my books once again being thrown by the restoration crew’s workmen into oversized garbage bags and then tossed inside an oversized dumpster at the base of our driveway.

It’s time to use a Kindle, Drew tells me. I prefer having the actual book in my hands, and not a gadget. But this way, Drew explained, I can have all my books in one place, no piles of books everywhere, and in the event of a tragedy such as a fire or a flood, I won’t lose them. Does this mean we are expecting another catastrophic event? I asked him. He simply shrugged. Having experienced two such events in a decade surpassed all the odds. You should be playing the lottery, friends have told me.

Now it is the same house that we bought thirty years earlier, yet it is different as we have made changes. We redesigned the layout after the fire. Then, after the flood, we kept the lower level as is, but redesigned how we would utilize the rooms. For example, in the drawings, I created reading space for myself in Drew’s man cave so I can sit there with him and read while he watches a sporting event or a movie. It is a simpler arrangement that involves a pair of recliners. No more oversized sectional sofas with a humongous ottoman in the center. This means that our aging German shepherd we got after the fire will no longer has a spot on a sofa to sleep, and she will have to adjust to sleeping on the floor. I promised Drew we can get her a dog-bed.

Because the fire destroyed the entire house, we lost a lot of things. The flood, however, only impacted the lower level. Fortunately, our main quarters are upstairs and weren’t flooded. Downstairs, anything porous had to be thrown away. I was filled with sorrow to find that nearly all my Christmas decorations were destroyed. I was able to salvage several small porcelain figurines of elves, pixies, cherubs, and Christmas carolers that belonged to various grandparents, along with the many mementos that were stored on shelves above the waterline.

Yes, I have a lot of stuff. Some friends tease that I am a hoarder, yet they marvel at my collections, from the DeGrazia artwork to religious icons, old books, antique family photographs, Native American jewelry, and the many bee-themed dishes and pieces of silverware that I have accumulated over the years.

I do not believe that I am a hoarder; I am a collector. I have heard horror stories about people who hoard and cannot move from room to room with ease, or who drop dead and are not found for days, buried beneath piles of newspapers or bags of old clothing. This is not me. My clutter is organized and provides me with a connection to the world. My past, present, and future are all represented within every significant object. Each beautiful piece means something and has a story behind it.

We treasure these items that we still have after the destruction of the fire and the flood. I treasure them even more than I did before. Beautiful things. I may have lost a lot in both events, and on some level, it was liberating, a purge of sorts, but I have come to realize it is no longer about what I have lost. Not anymore. It is about what I have now, what I still possess. These are the things that matter most to me. I hold on to these precious items as I never know if they will one day become lost possessions too. These pieces are lasting survivors as I am.



BIO

William Vandegrift is a freelance writer. He’s written author interviews and restaurant reviews. He’s also have published short stories. William graduated from Bennington College with an MFA in writing and literature. His work has appeared in various journals including Agni, Quarterly West, The Writer’s Chronicle, and US 1 newspaper.  







Thrice

By Emilio Williams

“The real function of art is to change mental patterns,
making new thought possible.”
Jean Dubuffet                                                                                         

To Carson Grace Becker


After a tortuous renovation, I hang the artwork back on freshly painted walls. Three framed Soviet posters on this side, three male nudes here, and three Ionesco lithographs over there. My friend Kim approves: “Everything looks better in groups of three.”

A fissure opens on the wall I’m facing and inside, a cavernous tunnel. I’m not saying that nature, life, and art do not have any other underlying code, don’t get me wrong. But all I can see, as of right now, is the master, organizing principle, the permanence of three.

“Methodic writing distracts me from humankind’s current condition,”, says Borges in The Library of Babel. In that infinite library that will outlive humans. a curious reader will find an encyclopedia of everything, everything, on the number three.


Khepri, one of the three forms of the Egyptian sun god, surfaces from the horizon and is represented in the shape of an ovoid scarab. Re, or Ra, the sun of the midday, supervises creation and fertility. Atum, dusk, sets on the horizon to complete this world.

I learned in school: “Living beings are born, grow, reproduce, and die.” That version of the maxim is not entirely accurate, loaded with implications, because not all living beings, me for one, end up reproducing. Birth, growth, and death: the three absolute constants in life.

Birth is the beginning, growth is the middle, and death is the end. Life rendered as the daily sun or an Aristotelian climactic narrative in three acts. The moment a storyteller messes with that primordial, organic expectation, the audience moves uncomfortably in their seats.


I’m sitting at a table across from my guy, and he tells me he can fold anything into a trifold brochure. He grabs a piece of paper and folds it into itself, in three. Then, he folds a plate, then the table, and when he is about to three-fold the room with us inside, I wake up.

I kept having these night-long dreams that I’m in a department store as large as a city. The layout, the clerks, and the shoppers change every time. In the final reiteration, the dream becomes a nightmare when I notice all products in the store are in the shape of a triskelion.

When I’m pregnant with new writing, without fail, the anxious dreams start. Tonight, I dreamt of my arrival at a palace, where I met a king, whose name I didn’t remember and whom I needed to impress. A menacing third person I couldn’t see was surveilling us.


My graduate advisor, Amy England, emails every day an original translation of a traditional Haiku. “A cold moon:/amid the withered trees/a stand of three bamboos.” Each haiku, three Japanese vertical lines, dances in my head softly, bamboo shoots in the wind.

“I’ve been down so long/That down don’t worry me/Repeat/ I just sit and wonder/Where can my good man be?” sings Billie Holiday. The blues repeats the first two stanzas and then surprises with a rhyming third. The loopy pain of the blues, a musical swinging razor.

What if I could declutter sentences, chopping the output of my brain with a machete? What if I could streamline all thoughts and ideas into something that could be three mere whistles? What if every new thought could fit in a small index card, three horizontal bamboos?


Anu was not only the god of the sky in Mesopotamia; he also was the father of other gods and, most surprisingly, demons too. Enlil was the Lord of the air, and he separated Heaven and Earth to make room for agriculture. Ea completed another godly triad as the Lord of Water.

The ancient spiritual and medical practice of Ayurveda defines the three doshas as vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (water). Vata relates to the nervous system, pitta to the enzymes, and kapha to the mucus. Health means the doshas are balanced and in equilibrium.

In The Timaeus, Plato discusses the order and beauty of the universe. He declares the existence of four primordial elements: fire, air, water, and earth. All of them are formed, everything is formed, he believed, by the most basic of shapes: the triangle.


Pythagoras thought that there were three types of men. Those who came to the games to buy and sell, those who came to compete, and those who came to watch. Those who love wealth and material possessions, those who search for honors, and those who look for wisdom.

The three states of matter are liquid, solid, and gas, as it happens with water, ice and steam. The states correspond with our three basic animal needs for life: drink, food and air. At the atomic level of matter, another triad: protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Three is the first non-symmetrical plurality that is not perfectly divisible in half. You can have one or two, but it is at three that a pattern kicks off. Three is the first number that gets things slightly off-kilter, and therefore, I would argue, when they finally get interesting.


Creation, preservation, and destruction are the forms of the Trimūrti of Hinduism: Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva. Brahmā, the self-born, is often the mind, Viṣṇu, the protector, the heart and Śiva, the destroyer of evil, is the body. Of course, mind, heart, and body, the braid within us all.

The three Hindu Gods have a trinity of companions, the Tridevi. Saraswati, Brahma’s wife, represents learning and cultural fulfillment, and Lakshmi, Vishnu’s wife, material and spiritual fulfillment. The third, Śiva’s wife, is Parvati, is the goddess of both war and love.

Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakur was a wiseman from the 17th century of our era and wrote poetry and rhetoric. He established three types of merits in excellent poetry: sweetness, energy, and perspicuity. Perspicuity is, in my case, the elusive goddess of clear thinking.


Three sons of three merchants were given refuge in the middle of the night by a beautiful widow who offered to marry the one who could tell the scariest tale. Each young man told a horrific, bloody story. To this day, she has not decided which of the three was the scariest.

While three princes went to war, a maid ordered their fiancés to be gouged. The three blind queens delivered three baby boys while hiding away in a cave. One of the boys cured the queens by blowing three candles, so they all returned home and roasted the maid alive.

Once upon a time, a girl was granted three wishes, or maybe it was three guesses or three opportunities to crack a riddle, I am not sure. Once upon a time, there were three bears, three little pigs, and a three-legged cat. Once upon a time, humans built all tales around trinities.


The Golden Triangle was the preferred compositional form of the European Renaissance. Raphael used it in all of his portraits of Madonna and the child. In art textbooks, they superimpose the triangles over the paintings as if to show its secret code, its x-ray.

The rule of three divides any visual composition into three vertical columns and three horizontal rows. In the intersections lay the focal points. They are like the beginning, middle, and end of a story, or the sun’s daily journey, so ingrained, we don’t even notice them.

Three kinds of light illuminate opaque bodies, observed Da Vinci. The “direct light,” that of the sun, the “diffused light,” of cloudy or misty weather, and the “subdued light,” when the sun is entirely under the horizon. Was he talking about painting or my moods?


In the Book of Revelations, God is that “who was, and is, and is to come.” When he became human, according to that tradition, he had to face three temptations. And the ending of the story, a re-start: he was dead for three days before resurrecting.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The three Archangels are the Catholic tradition’s mega-angels, and the Wise Men who visited Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were also three. In the Last Supper by Da Vinci, the Apostles sit in groups of three.

Providence, both omnipresent and omnisapient. At the Uffizi in Florence, in The Supper at Emmaus by Pontormo (1525), the Eye of Providence supervises us, mortals, from inside a triangle. The same eye that watches us from a pyramid in the US dollar bill.


“I’m writing about triangles,” I mention to my friend Margaret Mary. “You mean the musical instrument?”, she asks. This makes me laugh, and then I remember that when I was a Catholic kid, the triangle was the only instrument they let me play at mass.

My first communion at age nine was the culmination of a year-long process of Catholic indoctrination. Among other things I learned: the Confiteor. Hand in fist, one knocks three times on the chest while confessing: “por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi grandísimas culpa.”

In Persia, third century of the common era, a new doctrine that boils everything down to two principles, Good and Evil, takes shape: Manichaeism. Two create an illusory comfort. The third idea, object, or person crashes in and makes room for something that is not as simple.


The French say: “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité“. Franco, in Spain, cried: “¡Una, Grande, Libre!” Jefferson applied “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness” like lipstick on John Locke’s lips, because, let’s face it, Property, not the Pursuit of  Happiness, is the ultimate American god.

A new generation has shattered the binary perception of gender. Still, so many false binaries are assumed in the American conversation left/right, red/blue, right/wrong. Manichaeism’s righteousness (us vs. them) is alive and well in this irritable capitalism of late.

Populism, fundamentalism, authoritarianism offer those tired of complexity a respite from the messiness of a nuanced third: you’re with us or a heretic. At one point, oversimplifying catches up. Binary dogmas will continue to implode because their falseness is not sustainable.


The North-Atlantic democracies seemed a given, but are now just brittle. In life and online, I’m surrounded by loud Roman emperors, displaying a thumb up, or most often, a giant Pollice Verso. So here I am, doing my best to resist by longing for moments of messy maybes.

Two is company, three is a crowd, they say, but I beg to differ. Somedays, one is a crowd, and I guess that the experience of finding two to be a crowd may not be that uncommon, mainly when the novelty, like dead fish, expires. But who says three could not be good company?

Finally, a portion of the hetero-world has become more accepting of certain forms of queerness. How many friends, straight and gay, have casually denied to me the existence of bisexuality? Bi is not here or there and therefore is a threat to the false safety of the simplified.


When I watched Cabaret on TV, as a young teen, I loved the songs. The bisexual love triangle at the heart of the personal drama either totally escaped me, I found unremarkable, or maybe both. In the song Two Ladies, the MC sings: “Twosie beats onsie. But nothing beats threes.”

Growing up in Spain, in the last years of General Franco we only had two TV channels. American Hollywood classics played in rotation. On my bedroom wall, I collected posters of old movies with a trio of characters at their core: Casablanca, The Apartment, Some like it hot

Lubitsch, Wilder, Hawks, all the great directors seemed to recognize the primordial balance and tension of the triangle. Most of the time one of the two men won over the woman. Only, in Lean’s Blithe Spirit, the love triangle of one man and two women sublimate in the afterlife.


Barthes: “The three trials of the writer are Doubt, Patience, and Separation”. The first one is an abstract trial, what to write; the second a practical one, the step-by-step process; the third one, a moral one, how society will judge. He was so blocked, he died before writing his novel.

I have no doubts: I’m compulsively researching the implications of three. The process is limited and helped by the three-line constriction. The third one: if I were to worry how anybody will judge my musings on three, I wouldn’t be able to put down one word.

Author Emilio Williams passed away last night in his sleep. He was known for his essay “Thrice,” a piece credited with ending all two-person entanglements. It was adapted into an Academy Award Winning film starring Antonio, Brad, and Denzel, as the perfect threesome.


Growing up, my family. My father and two brothers, my mother and two sisters, my two brothers and me, my two sisters and me, my parents and me. Me, the baby who came a bit late, could take two at a time, but the minute three of them got together, there was no entry point.

Our sense of time passing is measured in days, months, and years. If I drill down, it also is measured in hours, minutes, and seconds. The first set of times is easier to remember, more historical, but the second just gets lost, it dissolves in the blur of a non-existent present.

I finally move the debris of my father’s life from a storage locker into our new garage. Not absolute chaos, things are contained in boxes, but not proper order either. Here it is now, the cruel randomness of the private archive in all its brown-boxed glory.


My dad takes me to the Prado, and I hold his hand, afraid to get lost. We come into a room where people are waiting in front of a box on the wall. A man in a grey uniform and white gloves unfolds the covers, and there it is, Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.

The left panel includes Jesus, Adam, and Eve in a bucolic paradise. The right panel is a scary, grotesque black scene of Hell. But the mystery of the triptych is in its central panel, a paradise where hundreds of human figures give themselves with complete abandon to hedonistic joy.

Purgatory is that space where souls are triaged before ending up in heaven or hell. My father passed just before the COVID-19 lockdown, and his boxes arrived shortly after. I started opening them in the early summer, but by box number three, I had to stop,  it had become too much.


According to the Cleveland Clinic website, there are three types of tears. The basal covers and protects the eye; the reflex appears when a foreign object enters the eye; and the emotional, well, that one you know. “Humans are the only creatures known to produce emotional tears.”

In the Catholic tradition, tears can be a gift, not a curse. Holy tears can be penitential (regret), tears of love (grace), or tears of compassion for those suffering. In my all-boys Catholic school, like the song, we were only taught one thing about tears: “Boys don’t cry”.

Cranach, the Elder, painted several versions of the Allegory of Melancholia. The most famous is at the National Gallery of Denmark, and it is as abstruse as melancholia proper. This 1532 oil has three naked toddlers trying to pass, with two sticks, a ball through a hoop.


Few thinkers have had a more decisive influence on our messed-up sexuality than St. Augustine. The ordeal started when, as a teenager, he had an involuntary erection in front of his father who reacted with pride and joy. The mother, Monica, who was very devout, shamed them both.

After a long life of “sin” and belief in Manichaeism, Augustine developed the doctrine of peccatum originale. Based on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Augustine codified that every human being is a born-sinner stained by voluntary and involuntary desires.

For Augustine there were three types of lust: that of the senses, that of power and that of curiosity. The first two are better known and more straightforward. The third one is a lust of the eyes, a craving that includes an interest in theater, the sciences, and knowing more.


Quintilian was a Latin master of oratory who was born only an hour away from my mother’s birthplace. He established a binary between “clear” and “obscure” speech. But the French enlightenment came later to save my day with a new concept, that of “Je ne sais quois”.

Woolf said, “life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Attempt to discuss the semitransparent nature of life, and they will make you pay a high price. Although the pathology is in dichotomous thinking.

Who is afraid of the “Je ne sais quois”? Why is every piece of writing, every play, every artwork only as valuable as some desire to have it explained? Let’s celebrate that certain experiences transcend our ability to pin them on a cork board as if we were collecting butterflies.


Early movies were called the theater of silence, just a camera sitting there while the actors moved around the stage. Then, montage helped movies find their mojo. If you place this image here, next to this other image you get a third thing pregnant with symbolic meaning.

At the Studio Museum, in Harlem, artist Fred Wilson reorganized objects in the collection, as part of his project “Mining the Museum”. By placing a 19th-century chair, next to a slave whipping post, Wilson created a third thing. Parataxis is the dot, dot, dot between two ideas.

In 1982, three major events took place in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s life. She married, published her avant-garde “novel” Dictee, just a week before being murdered. In her cult book, she combines two elements (text and image) to create a third thing teeming with new connotations.


Bierce famously defined good writing as “clear thinking made visible”. Who gets to decide what is good writing and how do they get that job?  Oh, how I hope that by now I have made translucent to you my current lack of clear-thinking!

Refranes are popular sayings, proverbs, that usually have a rhyme or work as a couplet. In Spanish, they are considered the wisdom of the people. “No hay dos sin tres” literally asserts that there are no two, without a third.

In English, the “where” adverbs are binary: here and there, this or that. In Spanish, there are three forms aquí, ahí, allá, and esta, esa, aquella, with gendered options to the latter. So ahí, and esa, eso, ese allow a vagueness to be in a middle-range, a place in the in-between.


Duermevela in Spanish is a type of light sleep between being awake and falling asleep that I thought had no exact translation into English. But apparently there is a word, a term that sounds more pathologic than poetic, no wonder it is not commonly used. The word: hypnagogia.

The Japanese concept of Ma is usually translated to English in a binary sense: negative space. A better translation could be the in-between, for example the Ma between two karate fighters. The kanji symbol for Ma is a door with a sun peaking, the life between the edges.

A door has three frames, two vertical, one horizontal on top, but it is the empty space that creates a threshold. To cross a door, for an instant, I walk in the liminal space that is not here or there. Like breathing, travels in the in-between are so constant most times they pass unnoticed.


Laudonia, one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, is divided into three: the city of the dead, the city of the living, and the city of the unborn. The city of the unborn feeds the city of the dead like sand passing through an hourglass. The amount of sand is, of course, finite.

As the first anniversary of my father’s passing approached, I couldn’t procrastinate any longer the opening of old boxes filled with the debris of a lifetime. In one folder among my old letters to him, somebody else’s letter had been misfiled. Its secrets were not for me to read.

Deleuze in The Logic of Sensation discusses Bacon’s triptychs by quoting the theory of rhythm by the composer Messiaen. There is an active rhythm and a passive rhythm. But there is also a third one, a rhythm he names attendant, a witness to a conflict, who remains inactive.


The Borromean knot receives its name from the Italian House of Borromeo which used its shape in their coat of arms. The knot is made out of three, inseparably linked shapes, usually circles that connote the eternal. When one of the links is removed, the structure falls apart.

Lacan borrowed the metaphor of the Borromean knot to explain the human mind. The symbolic ring is linguistic and the imaginary ring involves images and mirrors.  The third one is the real: everything that is impossible to represent with images or words, the unknowable.

Lacan defined three functions of the father related to the three rings. The symbolic father represents the law and the imaginary father is a construct of our ideas of the father. Even people who understand Lacan (I don’t) consider his third definition, the real father, difficult to grasp.


The Classic era of Athens and Rome eclipses two and a half thousand years of history in Northern Europe. The three matrons (the mothers) were the triple goddesses of Ancient Europe. Their function was the protection of the family and fertility and, at certain times, war.

Myth, life, and that space in between called the stage. Lear had three daughters and Macbeth, three witches. Later, Chekhov created The Three Sisters, Genet three women role-playing The Maids, Beckett three old friends in Come and Go, and Albee, Three Tall Women.

Pessoa wrote three women mourning a dead body in the play The Mariner. In a night-long wake, they sit still, uttering non-sequiturs, each line more beautiful than the last.  The third watcher says: “It horrifies me that soon I will already have told you what I am about to say.”


I’m thinking of the three graces in Botticelli’s Primavera interlocking their fingers playfully. I’m thinking of the three fates, the Parcas: Nona, Decima, and Morta, spinning, measuring, and cutting the fine thread of life. I’m thinking, mostly, of my mother and two sisters. 

I’m Theseus in a labyrinth of cathexis and amnesia. In 2011, when I moved back to Chicago, my father’s hometown, I saw an arresting exhibition of amateur snapshots, women posing three at a time. I reorder the old catalog online: I don’t remember a single one of them.

The photo reads on the back “Lindau, c. 1920’s,” probably snapped from a boat. The black silhouettes of three women on a pier walk away from the camera, back towards land. Maybe they came to see the boat off, to wave goodbye to the photographer, this time probably for good.

PHOTO CREDIT:
Untitled (Lindau [?]) c. 1920/29. Photographer unknown.
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago



BIO

Emilio Williams is a bilingual (Spanish/English) award-winning writer and educator. His fragmented essays have appeared in Hinterland Magazine, and Imagined Theatres, among other publications. His critically acclaimed plays have been produced in Argentina, Estonia, France, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.  Emilio has lectured around the world, and taught in several U.S. universities, including DePaul University, Columbia College Chicago, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Georgia State University. He holds a BA in Film and Video and an MFA in Writing. He is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists where he is also a faculty member. www.emiliowilliams.com



A Prequel to My Sister’s

By Donna Talarico




I called my mom from the yearbook office phone—being on the staff had its advantages, including dialing home without the need to find a quarter or wait in line at the payphone—and told her I’d be driving around with Laura to sell ads as part of my official duties of cataloging the 1995-1996 academic year. Laura was a junior, one of my best friends, not even on yearbook staff, and not old enough to have a license; but her dad allowed us to use his old powder blue Chevy Celebrity station wagon as long as I drove and neither of us got in trouble.

“Not today,” Mom said, letting out a drag. I could tell she was smoking, and probably holding the phone between her cheek and shoulder while doing dishes, all with a lit cigarette. It was like she had three hands, always.

“Why?” I asked. I was never told no. Like ever. Especially now that she was busy with the kids.

Christopher and Brittney were still in diapers, and they shared the middle room in a small cabin-like house we moved into right after the owner died (we’d kept all his things, even the spaghetti in the cabinet), shortly after we moved back to Pennsylvania from four years in Oklahoma—where they’d been born and I’d lost my virginity.

“Just not today,” she repeated. “Take the bus home.”

My school district was big. It’s vast and rural and woodsy here in the Poconos, and it takes me almost an hour on windy backgrounds to get to school on Bus 31—only about 35 minutes, though, if I catch a ride with Wayne, who has a black pick-up truck and good radio. Laura lives in another direction, and I have an unofficial-permanent pass to ride her bus. (I lived with her for a few months when we first moved back to PA because there wasn’t room for me at my step-dad’s parents’ house. And the bus driver liked me.) The plan was to take the bus to Laura’s, get the Celebrity, and then drive up and down Route 940 to visit restaurants and video stores and ski rental shops to talk the owners into buying a full page ad—or, please just at least half, sir—to support the Cardinals.

I twirled the tan cord around and around while taking stock of the closet I was in; we call it the yearbook office, but this is actually a storage room that happened to have a phone jack, so Mr. Jeffries (or maybe the yearbook advisor before him) equipped it with an extra school desk, chair, and telephone. We worked on the yearbook in an actual classroom, in the basement, next to the graphics arts room, woodshop, and ceramics studio. I would sometimes get a pass out of class to come to this office-closet to do official yearbook business; I’d bop into Jeffries’ English class and I didn’t even need to say anything; he’d just take the yearbook key off the main ring and hand it to me and continue talking about Chaucer or whatever he was teaching that day. Laura joked that I was in love with Jeffries and that we’d do it, right here against this desk. [Maybe I had a mild, mild crush, and maybe I fantasized about it once or twice, but only after she put the idea in my head.]

What could be SO important that I couldn’t go to Laura’s after school? I thought. And then I finished that thought by thinking aloud, “What? Did you get me a computer or something?”

“Just. Come. HOME.”

***

My uncle Matt—my mom’s little brother and one of the twins [Melissa is the other]—was at the house when I got home. Came all the way from outside Philly. He was in business school and was getting rid of an old computer, so my mom bought it (promised to pay him one day?) as a surprise for me.

I was happy, but also I felt terrible. I’d ruined the surprise. I didn’t know if I was smart or psychic, but somehow I knew.

I knew that my mom knew my deepest desire was to write and that I longed for a computer more than anything in this world. I knew that deep down my mom wanted to make me happy if she could. So I knew that if she was telling me to come home after school that it must be something big. And the only thing big enough, special enough, to me, would have been the miracle of a home computer.

Things had settled down and I was in my room playing Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and I was in heaven.

“Donna got a ’puter,” Chrissy kept saying, and it was adorable as the time he shoved a pea up his nose and started to cry.

***

I still called them “the kids” long after they were out of diapers and big enough to microwave themselves hot dogs for dinner.

“How are the kids?” I’d ask my mom every time I called, which I know wasn’t often enough. I was out of the house at 18, never to look back. It wasn’t her, exactly. It was her choice in men. I was old enough to know better before I should have been old enough to know better. That’s why I had multiple after-school jobs, and seasonal ones, too, because the Poconos was a tourist area and there was always work at the ski resorts in the winter. [That’s how I met Wayne, with the truck.] If I was awake, I did not want to be in that house. Not ever.

So I remember them in diapers, maybe training pants. And they remember me as the older kid with the ’puter.

***

If I’m being honest, when I asked my mom, “How are the kids?” I already always knew the answer, especially as they became tweens. And if I’m being really, really honest, I was asking my mom because I wanted her to say it out loud. And hear herself saying it. I wanted to be right.

That procreating with a monster meant these poor kids’ lives were doomed.

When I was working on my MFA thesis in 2009, even though it’s almost two decades since that first IBM interrupted my afternoon of official sales calls, I still thought of it as the ’puter. Still do. And when I think of the ’puter, and the tiny voice that said it, I want to cry.

***

My thesis has been in today’s digital equivalent of a drawer for more than 10 years. It’s not that I’m NOT writing, but I write so much in my day job and read and edit so much in my passion project literary journal that sometimes my creativity is drained. My emotional energy, spent. When people ask about my memoir-in-progress, I remind myself that I can’t even call it a work-in-progress because, progress it doesn’t. But I was once told it still counts as writing when you’re constantly thinking about your story, working it out in your head.

I could also be fooling myself. It might not be lack of time or lack of energy — or not JUST lack of time or lack of energy. It could also be that when you’re writing about your own life, it’s a never-ending story. But it — that “it” being a specific piece of that story, a story within a still-evolving story — has to stop and start somewhere. And, sometimes, I feel that I don’t yet know my destination.

***

I haven’t seen my sister since my cousin Adam’s funeral. He’s OUR cousin, I know. But “my” always comes out. Just like my mom never referred to “Grandma” as “grandma” when talking about her; instead, she’d say things like, “My mom grew up in Jersey….” or “My mom is coming over today.”

Adam, only 39, died not long after his dad; our Uncle Paul. Which was not long after our mom, my (adoptive) father, my cat, my same-age aunt Theresa—and just before “our mom’s mom.”

It was a rough couple of years.

Then my (our) brother Christopher Then their (not our) dad.

***

“I have nightmares that Britt kills me,” I tell my other childhood best friend, Jasmine. “Like, they’re crazy vivid.”

“That’s some shit,” Jasmine says. We’re talking about my gradual approach to getting back in touch with my sister. Jasmine lost her dad many years before I’d experienced the loss of the parent, before that few years of terrible family losses; at the time, I know, in my heart of hearts, I was not there for her like I should have been. It’s true what they say: you’d don’t know the gravity of losing a parent until you do. I want to be a better friend to her, forever and ever.

***

This is why you need distance when you’re writing a memoir. I’d added an epilogue because it seemed important at the time, but it didn’t belong in my story, at least not in this way.

But, at the time, when I called my mom and asked, “How are the kids?” I found out that one of the kids would be having one of their own.

I told you so, was what I wanted to say. But instead, I asked the due date.

Later that night, I lamented how it was so unfair that these two kids shared their DNA with a monster, while also realizing that they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, and, now, neither would this baby, and this tortured my conscience. Then, a thought came to me. I’d lost my virginity to a much older man at about the same age my sister and brother are now; it’s just that no one had to ever know about it because I did not become pregnant.

A few months later, as I left work early to rush 45 minutes in one direction to pick up my brother from Red Rock Job Corps., where he was living/working/learning at the time, to race to Lehigh Valley Medical Center an hour in the other direction to meet my mom and sister (and new niece or nephew), the adrenaline told me, this THIS is the end of your book.

***

We come from a family of halves. My mom has a half-sister and a much older half-brother, but they are still my real aunts and uncles. So I promised my mom that I’d consider Chrissy and Britt my “real” siblings, even though we had different dads. Even though HE was their dad.

In my late 30s, as I became distant—and grew ashamed of their actions—I started referring to them as half-siblings in conversations with newer acquaintances, people I’d just met. I wanted to ensure 1) that people knew that half of them came from something I have zero part of and 2) that nothing was their fault, really.

***

All I knew about my sister was via her public Facebook posts. I was usually scared to look; but sometimes I would, especially on days on which I had dreamt or night-mared about her the evening before. In 2021, the content of her posts began to change significantly. I accepted her lingering Friend request.

***

I run a literary magazine and one of the essays we published in the March/April 2021 issue hit me in a way I didn’t expect. Empathy poured out for my sister, instead of my anger toward her father and resentment for my mother’s choices. These thoughts were overwhelming and definitely something I’d need to talk with someone professionally about, to sort through all of these memories and grudges and emotions—and grief for the years with her I’d lost, and for those with our mother and brother neither of us would get again.

But, in that moment, I knew those feelings were the start of something big, something healing. I suddenly saw my sister as a whole person, her own person. I reflected back to the time I thought I had an epilogue to my story (I’d still need 10 years to figure out what I was actually writing and why). I also thought about superheroes and supervillains and origin stories and the rising popularity of prequels in Hollywood/Streamingwood—when the beginnings help us better understand the end.

It’s not that I no longer have a story to tell. It’s just that—that little diapered girl I left behind when I packed up my ’puter and headed off to college and then to forever—I want to know what happened to her.   

This is more than a realization that Britt has a book in her, one that might pick up where mine left off. Rather, this metaphor of the prequel is helping me understand that she’s not a bit character in my story, but a main character in her own. A survivor.

She is my sister. She has a story. And I can’t wait to learn it—and learn from it.



BIO

Donna Talarico is an independent writer and content marketing consultant in higher education, and she also is the founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its annual conference, HippoCamp. She writes an adult learner recruiting column for Wiley, and has contributed to Guardian Higher Education Network, The Writer, mental_floss, Games World of Puzzles, and others. Her creative nonfiction appears in The Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Donna teaches or has taught about branding and digital identity in graduate creative writing programs, including Wilkes University and Rosemont College, as well as at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.



Make It Go Away:
Love, Loss, and What I was Reading

By Joan Frank



            Quick: what’s the first goal for a writer—for artists, for anyone—living in a time of worldwide plague?

            Easy, on the face of it: Survive. Keep strong. Stay well, and alert.

            Shut up and do everything it takes. Care for beloveds. Minimize risk. Obey the Surgeon General. Stay put. Get the vaccine when it shows up.

            Soon—maybe by the time you read this—we’ll be looking back on the scourge in relief. Trading memories of how it was.

            At this writing, we’re barely able to keep up with the now.

            That’s become—putting it gently—the trickier task.

            For this moment, breaking revelations still blizzard down nonstop, burying us past our eyebrows. By revelations I don’t just mean the progress of vaccines, political wars, riots and insurrections, gossip, ecological cataclysm, mortality numbers, or dwindling hospital beds.

            I mean revelations about meaning. Hide-and-seek with meaning.

            With the advents of all the above, meaning itself seems to mutate almost hourly, twisting, collapsing, shredding. Life’s under siege. Nothing can feel the same from the moment one steps outside the door—though if you squint, things on their surfaces appear familiar. It’s what’s directly beneath those surfaces that decimates. The news screams death, destruction, chaos. Our minds struggle to look straight at it.

            Unsurprisingly, our responses have popped forth in waves, a surging of flung-open jacks-in-the-box. We’ve had awful trouble sleeping. We’ve experienced bad dreams, anxiety, stress; muzziness; depression, manic panic. We’ve felt spaced out or angry or glum, tired or twitchy, scared or numb or listless; wanting to eat or drink ourselves insensible or just to stop eating and never get out of bed. We’ve burst into tears at odd moments. Former goals (productivity; social gestures; acquiring things) have flattened and bled out, unrecognizable as road kill.

            The known world shrank to the size of domestic floor space. Fastidiousness seguéd into neurosis, childlike irritability, and straight-up freakouts. You’re standing right where I want to be. I like that cup best. Get dressed? Why?

            Analogies for lockdown realities have varied. One is Ann Frank’s attic. Another is living under house arrest. Another—repeated ad nauseam like the particulars of our days themselves—is the movie Groundhog Day, which I’d only reprise here to highlight one refinement. Our predicament’s best captured, I think, by one crucial cut in that film—to the scene in which Bill Murray calmly reads a book at the lunch counter of the local diner. With that inspired shot (which no one, to my knowledge, has yet singled out for major praise) we’re slammed by the totality of Murray’s character’s surrender. Forced to accept his entrapment, sentenced to live out the same day into eternity, he’s done a poignantly existential thing.

            He’s made himself at home inside it.

            To a large degree, many of us have done the same. We’ve resigned ourselves to reading quietly at the eternal lunch counter.

            It’s consoling—sort of—to find oneself inducted into a huge club by default. But that does not change the unspeakable conditions of membership. A dear friend commented wisely: “I know we’re lucky and that so many people we know are lucky [to have] good health, homes, enough food, etc. It sometimes strikes me that complaining is a luxury. Even so, I complain—and malls are closing and small businesses can’t pay rent, so the outside world is a twisted art installation of shuttered doors.”

            It may be that when this thing is past—if it will ever be past—we’ll promise each other never to forget it, to be and act and do better. Then we’ll quickly forget every last speck of it and go back to being heedless, grabbing idiots. It is possible.

            Meantime? The prime internal bulletin for me, during the deep-vault exile of lockdown, has been one I don’t see a slew of writers admitting.

            A saggy joke throughout this pandemic, from well-meaning friends and family referring to us writers—well known to be introverts, cranks, hermits—went like this:

            “Jeez, you must be in heaven. You don’t have to go anywhere or see anyone. You can live in your pajamas and eat popcorn and write your heart out.”

            Cue everyone’s sour laughter. Utterers of the quip sounded proud of its fresh wit, waiting for the writer to find it hilarious, too.

            Technically, it’s true. We’ve gone straight to the work every day. We’ve maybe felt some guilty thankfulness for being able to do it, without preamble or apology.

            But that’s where the joke breaks down. Have writers viewed this new, enforced working time as perfect heaven? Did we feel clear and purposeful about whatever we’d been tapping out in our plague-buffered hidey-hole?

            Yeah—no, I don’t think so. No. Would you easily celebrate hunkering down at the notebook or keyboard while an asteroid sped toward earth, or a tidal wave raced toward your home? Feel compelled to restyle interior decor in the Titanic’s cabins?

            I couldn’t. Can’t.

            No question, in the old days certain jolly distractions—travel and recreations imposed by my dear spouse and innocent others—seemed a zombie-conspiracy to drink my blood, to block my blazing love affair with reading and writing.

            Yet if you asked any number of writers during a plague year, I’m suspecting they might well confess the unspeakable, as I do here:

            We’ve missed everything and everyone. Teeth-chatteringly.

            That could, I know, be another way of saying we’ve missed the enemy.

            We’ve missed Zorba’s “full catastrophe:” the pulse and chaos of life, the fussing and yammering, juggling and chafing. The endless, draining noise and dance.

            I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve missed ground-level hubbub—even if it was always something I routinely fought. Like Kingsley Amis’s battleships laboring to turn around at sea, I’ve begun to grasp the stunning lesson of plaguetime: the utter primacy to us as animals, of gathering.

            Take away gathering; little remains. Commerce, services, systems implode or go wonky—and with them, culture, and close behind that, mental health. Without familiar shapes, motions, and networks, we lose our bearings. Who’d guess that even within the saddest, most people-hating hearts lurked an actual, physical longing to hug and be hugged (even those lucky enough to live with a beloved partner)?  Some of us have also painfully missed the very small beings (not, alas, in our pods) whom we once could unthinkingly hold in our arms. By the time we can safely hold them again, we fear they may be grown.

            We’ve missed thoughtless, intermingled, physical, busy, abrasive, stupid, forceful, exalted life.

            I never could have accepted this, had I not felt it.

            But the revelation goes deeper. It’s been about more than animal hunger to hang out and be held.

            What’s also gone mushy and mealy is identity. One defines oneself, as a rule, against a witnessing backdrop. If you say to a wino crumpled on the curb hey, I’m a writer, he or she might or might not deign to grunt back at you. But you’ll have named a calling in recognizable language before a fellow-member of your species. Something happens. You’ve defined yourself—if only for yourself—before another’s gaze, another’s sensibility, however weird.

            If witnesses vanish, do we exist? Crisp boundaries loosened during lockdown, disassembled, floated off in motes. This weightlessness seems related to the riddle of a tree falling in a forest with no one near to hear. It also feels connected to the futility of dressing in street clothes—street suddenly such a telling designation—or wearing makeup or jewelry. By extension: why fuss with meals? Why arrange the green beans in their own little pile beside the veggie burger? Why anything? Why not just stare out the window watching the light change for, oh, twelve or fourteen months?

            (Bathing, I do hope, won’t fall by the wayside.)

            Parents raising kids? You’re hereby given a complete pass on everything. Not for you such lazy whithering. More: You deserve medals and prizes. The same for healthcare workers; also service workers, first responders, and everyone on the front lines: everyone who’ll have acted, in Mr. Roger’s words, as a Helper.

            At the beginning of all this, an astronaut wrote an article advising us that if she could live in space alone for a year, we could manage living in isolation under lockdown. She itemized her principles: make a routine, exercise, care for your brain and emotional health; stay connected. Turns out these sane basics did not prove so easily adaptable by earthbound types. Are we inferior creatures? Certainly, later historians will feast on the naughty-nice list of our small triumphs and cavernous failures. And without doubt a ton of zingy post-facto studies will appear, like thousand-piece human nature puzzles (shadows of Lord of the Flies flickering through the window).

            Except, guys? To hell with it.

            Like everyone, I never wanted to be part of this experiment. I want back the simple luxury of fighting people for private time. I crave the clarity of knowing, without an avalanche of second (third, hundredth) thoughts, what I’m doing and why. I want to embrace friends while eating and drinking with them—if later grumbling about them.

            More than anything I want people to stop getting sick and dying, to get jobs, food, health care, schools, and decent life restored to them.

            In the words of my then-very-young stepson when my husband, telling him stories, channeled a scary invented ogre named Mr. Meany:

            “Make it go away!”

            It’s worth noting here that in many an artist’s heart a tremendous deadlock has raged, around which all the above-named commotion twirls—like that symbol for medical doctors with its famed righteous sword entwined (menaced) by snakes.

            How can writing—any art—matter during mortal terror?

            “Leave me alone to make—”

            To make what, exactly? More to the point, why?

            Who wants to make up stories or discuss vagaries of style when people are dying in swaths? What can any of us produce that will be of real use—or even make sense in this context?

            Cue the slow, deep breath. Cue the lowered head.

            Multiple times the above question has reared its big angry head. And my reflex each time is to surrender, conceding the worst: that mere art, during a plague, can make no more difference than morning dew—that it can scarcely matter. If bombs are falling, how puny art must seem.

            Yet in the next instant I’m forced to remember the heroism of European museum curators who, during war years, evacuated precious inventories and hid or buried them in secret locales until it was safe to exhume them. How this fact repeatedly fills us with wonder as we gaze on incalculable treasures, generations later.

            Then I begin to think about our own personal choices, daily, hourly, for the use of time during isolation—with no observer taking notes or holding a gun to our heads.

            I notice what I’ve seen myself reach for constantly as comfort, nourishment, reinforcement. And from their reports, a lot of friends have appeared to be doing pretty much the same.

            I’ve reached for music, films, and books. Simple as that.

            I’ve never stopped playing the music I love, Bach to Barbosa-Lima. Evenings we’ve watched movies that distracted, beautified, stirred, soothed, or made us laugh like maniacs. Documentaries. Dance. If anything made me happy-cry, so much the better.

            But above all I’ve been constantly immersed in the reading I sensed would fortify me, the language that would feel irreducible—even if bombs fell.

            This reading has included some horrific material, stories others might consider nihilistic or weird. Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye  (my paperback edition introduced with fierce relish by Tennessee Williams), proved as powerful a nightmare as they come. Yet something about its calm recital of human peculiarity and darkness felt like release, pure and invigorating as lungfuls of alpine air. The terrible truths embedded in every word of its eerie murder story—of jealousy, erotic confusion, inchoate mortal longing—reassured. I couldn’t question this odd chemistry. Most of what I’ve been reading could not have been written to address someone stranded in frightened isolation during a plague year. Yet there was no escaping the awareness that the material had been written because it had to be written. Thus, the writing that most mattered felt as if it had been murmured in the dark to a secret friend—me—with that gorgeous one-on-one urgency that reverberates in a reader’s skull like a struck gong.

            Meredith Hall’s novel Beneficence, an epic, glittering novel chronicling an American farm family’s ordeals during the early 20th century, was one such discovery. So was Nicole Krauss’s dreamlike yet ruthlessly cerebral story collection To Be a Man, and Robert Hass’ latest book of glittering, gritty poetry, Summer Snow. Wright Morris’s Plains Song (I’m late to it) struck me as wondrous. I was swept away by Peter Cameron’s dark, austere, nearly perfect What Happens at Night, and wished it would never end.

            Other reading that “gave good weight” during plague-time included Henri Troyat’s brilliant, bristling biography, Tolstoy. (Troyat’s oeuvre proves eye-poppingly vast.) Another was Rachel Cohen’s deep dive into her own experience interleaved with that of Jane Austen, in Austen Years. Another still was Margot Livesey’s luminously compassionate The Boy in the Field.

            I’ve got a queue of waiting titles at the library (via curbside pickup) as tall as me. In that queue are some surprises, if what I’ve cited sounds too draconian. I’ve ordered plenty of what’s making the rounds (Ayad Akhtar, Charles Yu, Yang Huang, Robert Jones Jr.) but also essays: Homo Irrealis, Andre Aciman; My Lives, Edmund White; The Way of Bach, Dan Moller. Black Futures, Kimberly Drew. Late Migrations, Margaret Renkl. Wintering, Katherine May.

            Underpinning the above also runs a series of impulses to reabsorb some timeless icons. The Russians. Shirley Hazzard. Marguerite Yourcenar. Tove Jansson. Virginia Woolf (A Writer’s Diary was written while real bombs fell, and describes them).

            Not every title works. I’ve had to abandon some. It’s a waste of time to pretend otherwise. And time’s still precious, even as it collapses and bubbles like lava. The oldest criterion applies: given horrific straits, what insists we stick around? What reaches into us; what puts something back? Engagement’s slipperier than ever, given our pulverized attention spans. I’m after whatever works—aware too, very sadly, that for plenty of others this might mean video games.

            As my canny young granddaughter notes, shrugging: “What’re you gonna do?”

            Maybe good art (in any form) fixes a hard ground-floor of honesty that can be stood upon calmly while the planet shudders; a sturdy roof when the heavens open: Here is the church, here is the steeple. The works that feel talismanic, as if they emit lifesaving signals, demand we hold them tightly: Here’s who we are. Here’s who we’ve been. Here’s what we have meant and can still, may still, mean. Certain books act like emergency-relief parcels dropped straight into the yearning heart. Their voices—all some variant, per Louise Glück, of “the solitary human voice, raised in lament or longing”—still talk to me, telling me things it helps to remember while the shitstorm rages outside. In truth, the exact same chemistry applies post-shitstorm. It’s the only answer to inarticulable anguish I can locate for now—one I’ll keep taking as I find it.


BIO

Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of eleven books of literary fiction and nonfiction. Her newest novel is THE OUTLOOK FOR EARTHLINGS (Regal House Publishing). Concurrent works include WHERE YOU’RE ALL GOING: FOUR NOVELLAS (Sarabande Books), and TRY TO GET LOST: ESSAYS ON TRAVEL AND PLACE (Univ. of New Mexico Press). She lives in Northern California.



The Arraghey Wander by Seven

by Ruth Heilgeist


Ar·rag·hey (Manx (v.) move, change, change course, digress, shift, remove, trim, dislodge, adjourn, (n.) motion, digression, maneuver, removal, mutation, adjournment, dislodgement,  displacement).

My terrified run across a freshly plowed field, the earth exploding around me, is a frequent memory. Then I wonder why my father would shoot at my nine-year-old self.           

Being plowed is one term for drunkenness. Besides describing tilled soil, the word is also used to describe a ponderous, plodding way of walking.

Drunkenness is a condition that can foster a tendency to walk carefully and slowly. I have been drunk a few times in my life. Brandy and I are no longer speaking.

My first foster family was my favorite. When I faked an illness, giving social services grounds to take me from my mother, I demanded a new family. And got the Brady Bunch, replete with three girls and three boys.

A favorite animal of mine is Doona. Under five pounds with no tail, Doona is a black cat who tends to remain elusive when I want to pick her up. But when she relents to be hugged, it feels like a reward.

Doona means dark maiden in the language of Manx, the native language on the Isle of Man, and is where the tailless Manx cat originated. A friend found Doona in her Virginia driveway, a tiny kitten a long way from her ancestral island.

The language of animals, and especially cats, has the same tonal value of human language. They speak of anxiety, want, anger and contentedness. My cats understand that books make me deaf, so one of them always jumps onto whatever I am reading.

Cats have always been a family member. I once had twenty-seven rescue cats residing on my farm. One day, I heard screeching above my head and saw a kitten clutched in the talons of a bald eagle. Poor baby. Mama couldn’t save you from that.

The member of my blue eyed, white stallion is often on display as he dances around his mares in the pasture. Even when the mares are not in estrus, Mykael feels obligated to remind them of his manhood. But, when he comes too close, they reward him with a kick to the chest. Like a player waiting for his turn off the bench, he waits.

White is supposed to be the color of sheep, but my Katahdin ewes are brown, black and tan. All four were to be lawn mowers to save me from the tyranny of grass. But, instead of munching grass, the girls decided the asparagus, Japanese plum and forsythia bushes were better eating. So they were fired from their day job and are doing the real work of mothering.

Color is a motivating factor in my life. Right down to my farm gates (hunter green), driveway gates (a subtle light gray) and my animals. Charcoal gray, Burmese white and black with green eyes are the cats. Blue merle and black tricolor are the dogs. And dun, dark bay, golden bay, chestnut, paint, palomino, and perlino white are the horses. But the ducks: all buff.

My central theme for farming is subsistence. But planting, watering, hoeing and weeding is arduously repetitive. No wonder farmers always kept a crop of children on hand to do the chores. I farm because I am a closet prepper and have memories of food insecurity. I should be thinner.

Subsistence living is akin to a prisoner lifestyle as the need to grow food imprisons me on my farm. A diverse crop is key to ensure enough vegetables for the year survive if weather or insects destroy some varieties. It’s a lot of work to live without grocery stores. No wonder fast food is popular. Less work.

A prisoner by choice, my vegetables and animals are my inmates. All look to me for care. Every morning I am a minor celebrity when I appear on the front porch, all animal eyes on me, waiting. Will I pick up the buckets first or load the hay cart or fill water tanks? I change it up just to keep them guessing.

The animals are my family, more honest than most humans and accepting of multiple hugs. Some let me sit next to them to meditate. Bugs, bees and wasps buzz around us as we zone out, listening to our breathing.

Honest reflection at times makes me desire less responsibility, to answer the urge to thru hike to see. Just see. This need for movement motivated my long-distance bike rides, marathon running and competing in endurance races of 50 miles or so on horseback.

Desire for a life of meaning awakens me every morning, along with my latest “why” question that needs an answer. My father, now eighty-nine, says he is waiting to die, when he can remember. Long after the incident, I asked him why he shot at me, my sisters and Mom when we ran from his rage all those years ago.

“I was trying to get you to stop.”

“Dad, people run away from gunfire.” He remained silent until I asked, “What does a deer do when you shoot at it?”

“Run.”

“And people?”

“I think it is going to rain today.”



BIO

Ruth Heilgeist is an MFA student at Lindenwood University and a volunteer tutor for an adult literacy program. Ruth writes about her life past and present. An avid opportunity-maker, Ruth’s experience ranges from paper girl, modeling, belly dancing, waitressing, actor, portrait artist, horse breeder/trainer, fraud investigator, endurance rider, marathon runner, voice over artist, mortgage underwriter, farmer, illustrator, bartender, equine sports massage therapist, cartoonist, writer and a receptionist for The School for Private Detectives. Ruth lives on her farm with seven horses who think she’s the bomb (but only when she feeds them), three cats who complain when she’s late and two Aussies training her to get up early. In the near future, Ruth hopes to survive tandem skydiving.

How to Break and Mend Your Mother’s Heart

by JoAnne E. Lehman



What you will start with: You’ll be supplied with one mother, 36 years old when you are born. She will have many fine qualities and, of course, some baggage.

Your mother grew up on a farm, during the Great Depression, in a religious family, one of seven children with a stern father and a mother who was chronically ill. Your mother was kept out of school the year she was 13, but not told why. She resented her mother that year. Partway through the year, though, her baby sister Fran was born. Fran’s arrival was a surprise to all the children, because Brethren in Christ parents in 1933 did not speak of such things as pregnancy. Your mother adored baby Fran and took care of her. When their mother died less than a decade later, your mother, now married, took Fran into her home. Your mother felt guilty for the rest of her life for having resented her mother and the lost year of school. “There will never be tension between me and my daughter,” she vowed.

At your birth: Be your mother’s long-expected daughter, her girl-gift from God after four boys. Be her great joy. Be an easy baby, in tune to her rhythms as she is to yours. Be a peaceful toddler, such a contrast to her rambunctious sons. Be the child she can take anywhere, to any meeting, and put in a corner with crayons and paper. Don’t let her leave you in the church nursery, though; sit right next to her on the hard pew, perfectly quiet, through the whole Sunday service, including your father’s sermon. Draw neat little pictures and letters on scrap paper, using the tiny pencils provided in the pew racks for filling out offering envelopes and “Pray for me” cards. You will never deface a hymnbook or a Bible. After church, while your mother meets and greets church people as the pastor’s wife, hold tight to the hem of her gray wool skirt so you can’t possibly lose her. Keep your eyes down to avoid fawning parishioners who think you are cute. Be quiet as a mouse. To get your mother’s attention, just give the hem a little tug and she’ll bend down to see what you need.

As you grow: Be your mother’s creative outlet. Be the child she can finally sew for, a girl who wears dresses. Even let her dress you in pink, though it will not be your favorite color later. Learn to cook with her; browse Woman’s Day magazine at her side; learn early how to make the family’s special oatmeal cookies. Be her little helper, a child who likes to dust furniture. Be the daughter she can count on; feel bad when she has migraines and give her get-well cards you make yourself.  Be the one who reads your mother’s moods better than anyone, better than your brothers or your father, and hugs her when she’s sad. Be her companion. Be that girl for many years.

When you are nine: When you go away to Bible camp for the first time, hide your feelings, because the camp handbook says, “No homesickness allowed! Playpens available for crybabies.” Be afraid of the consequences of breaking any rules — there are so many — at this strict place where children get fined real money for talking during rest hour, being late to chapel, or wearing play clothes when dress-up is required, which is almost all the time. Be grateful for the seven dresses your mother sewed and packed for you, a different one for each day at camp, and try not to resent it when your counselor, a young missionary wife without much sense, tells another girl (without asking) to borrow one of your dresses because you have so many, and the girl takes one you haven’t worn yet. Try not to be upset when someone steals your spending money, and be forgiving when the money is suddenly replaced, appearing on your freshly made bunk while you are down the hall cleaning the bathroom with PineSol as your cabin chore. Turn your homesickness into a stomachache by the last day of camp, and cry just a tiny bit when you visit the camp nurse, who gives you aspirin you can’t swallow unless it’s crushed up into tiny bits, because all you’ve ever had is chewable baby aspirin. Be so glad to see your mother when she and your father come to pick you up. She is an angel, beautiful and comforting and smelling of Lily of the Valley cologne. Give her the present you bought her at the camp store: a ring, fake silver, with a Bible verse engraved, because you know she never, ever had a ring before, not even for her wedding, and you want to grant her deepest wishes.

When you are twelve: Start going to a new camp run by strong, confident, athletic women in their twenties and thirties. No one brings dresses to this place. Your mother, now 49, is unsure of herself, fears deep water, and wears frumpy clothes. Fall in love with the bold young female energy of the camp counselors. Paddle a canoe on Lake Bunganut; get stung by yellowjackets; sing your heart out at campfires; cry when you leave. Tell your mother flatly, “I didn’t want to come home.” Fail to realize how that stings. Disappear into your room for hours, writing your new friends; watch for their letters and dream of being back in the Maine woods with them next year. Be furious when your mother snoops, when she reads your letter to a counselor you have a crush on; know from your mother’s face that you cannot say so. Let it smolder while you hide your letters more carefully. Pretend it doesn’t bother you. Pretend you aren’t embarrassed and afraid about having these crushes. You’ll have no context for envisioning a future life with a girl. You won’t even know the word lesbian yet.

When you are fourteen: When the Jesus Revolution comes to your youth group, have a spiritual crisis. Get fired up for God; also vow to be kinder to your mother. You can still rebel, but in a complicated way your parents won’t forbid: wandering the streets with hippies and staying out late—but witnessing, not drinking; praying, not doing drugs. Let out the hems of your jeans so they fray; innocently sew pink buttons down the fly, horrifying your mother. Buy men’s work boots at the Army Surplus store; avoid wearing dresses. Praise God with your hands in the air, in big hugging circles of singing, swaying Jesus Freaks, accompanied by candlelight and guitar.

Some of your freakiness will fade in time, but not your vow to be a better daughter. Hit upon a way to survive: be pleasant and agreeable, but never tell your mother about your deepest feelings, your doubts and worries, and least of all your yearning for attention and affection from women who are not her. Keep this vow for the next two decades. Also move away, farther and farther, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Seattle. Live your life; go to therapy. Write sweet letters and remember Mother’s Day. Send delightful homemade Christmas presents but live too far away to visit on holidays.

When you are thirty-five: Mail your parents an audiotape you record on two rainy Sunday afternoons in your tiny Seattle apartment, drinking tea. You know they’ll be able to listen to it because you recently gave them a cassette player as a gift, hoping they would record memories for their grandchildren (something they’ll never get around to). On the tape, tell them first that you are no longer an evangelical Christian, and then that you are a lesbian. Ask them not to argue the Bible with you. Be more honest than since you were twelve. Also tell them you are moving to Wisconsin to be with the woman you love. Be terrified when the tape is in the mail. Wait a month for their response, which, when it comes, is in two separate letters on identical stationery that say almost the same thing and, ironically, arrive via overnight mail.

“We love you so much and we always will. You know our beliefs; we cannot approve. Our hearts are so heavy. But we love you so much.” They will not quote the Bible or argue; you asked them not to. But you will know what they now fear: that you are lost and bound for hell; that they will lose you forever. Still, you will be relieved to have been honest. You will be glad not to keep this secret from them anymore.

You will have careful, tentative phone conversations with your mother now; she will not speak directly about your revelation, but she will tell you she loves you, every time, her voice breaking. You will talk about less frightening things, like your new pet guinea pig, for whom your mother sends presents, and small details about your upcoming move. After you move, she’ll call less often, sounding afraid if your partner answers the phone. “Hello, may I please speak with JoAnne?”

Find out from your oldest brother that your mother confided in him, and he defended you: “Don’t say you’ll keep praying for JoAnne; say you’ll keep loving her.”  He’ll tell you what your mother said: “Oh, of course we will! I think I love her more than ever — if that’s possible.” Don’t find out for many years that she also confided in your cousin Doug: “This woman JoAnne is with; I think she has influenced her.”  Don’t find out for many more years — until your parents have dementia and have forgotten so much — that in those early months they acquired some conservative literature about the misguided path you chose. (When you do find this literature years later, in the bottom of an unused drawer in your mother’s dresser, spirit it out to the dumpster and never mention it.)

After you buy a house with your beloved, invite your parents to visit. See them relax, especially your mother. Your partner is a midwife, she delivers babies on Amish farms, she is making a quilt — cozy, familiar things your mother can relate to. Your partner can also drive a nail, wield a power drill, and cook hearty food — things that impress your father. “Well, Martha, you pass!” he’ll blurt out at dinner, and you’ll know he doesn’t realize all he is saying. They can’t help but love her, no matter what they believe. “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” your mother will say when they leave. They’ll send Martha presents every Christmas, although at first those gifts will be separate from the ones they send you.

Then give them a harder test when you invite them to your Quaker wedding, which is planned for Valentine’s Day. Again they will take weeks to reply. Finally your mother will call in tears. “We can’t come,” she’ll choke out. “You know our beliefs. But you know we love you, and we love Martha too.” You’ll be angry: “That’s hard to believe right now,” you’ll say. But you will write again: “If you come,” you’ll assure your mother, “no one will assume you approve. They’ll just assume you love us.” Also say, “I wish you could be there with me when I get married. I wish you could see my wedding dress.”

Then, just one week before the ceremony, your mother will call again. “We’re coming,” she’ll say. “We got flights. We won’t come early, and we’ll stay at a different hotel. And we don’t want to be in group photos the grandchildren might see someday, that might make them think we were okay with this.”

You won’t be able to eat on the morning of your wedding. You’ll be terrified to see your parents, and you’ll wonder what they’ll do. But to your surprise, they will ask to wear the same lapel flowers as other close family and friends. Your mother will sit in the Quaker silence before you speak your vows, trembling and quiet. You will catch her eye and say silently, “I love you,” and she will mouth it back. She and your father will behave perfectly at your reception, shy but friendly, eating cake, watching and listening. For years afterward, notice that your mother doesn’t refer to your wedding as such, but as “that time we were there, that February.” And when you write to your Aunt Fran — her baby sister — you’ll find out your mother hasn’t told the relatives you are married. You’ll also learn that Aunt Fran doesn’t approve of your lifestyle either.

When you are fifty: Watch your mother losing memories but never her yearning to be close to you. See her trust and confide in you. Travel many miles, many times, over many years, to care for her with tenderness. See her confusion about the passage of time. “Did you go to my one-room school too?” she’ll ask, and also, “Are you old enough to remember when the Twin Towers fell?” Take her to doctor’s appointments and be her advocate; do not discount her complaints of pain. Measure out Tylenol, and Vicodin, and keep careful track. Help her in the bathroom. Hear her mention “your wedding.”

Be amazed when your mother, in her mental fog, wonders whether another of her sisters — a spinster missionary — had a female partner. “Who was Anita with?” she’ll ask you. “Was she with Martha?” Hide your surprise. Say nonchalantly, “No, Martha is with me.” “Oh, that’s right,” your mother will say. She’ll ask again and again why you can’t move in with her. “Martha, too!” she’ll insist. “We can make room.”

See your mother mistake you for her baby sister. Feel her turn to you as if you are her mother. Assure her you won’t leave while she’s at daycare. Put stuffed animals and dolls in her arms. Recognize she is human and vulnerable; understand how many decades it has been since she had any power over you. Wish you could give her more power over herself; wish you could grant her deepest wishes. Have no resentment, no regret. Know that your own heart is on the mend.



BIO

JoAnne E. Lehman edits a gender studies review journal at the University of Wisconsin. She has an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Her creative nonfiction has also been published in The Cresset, and she is a book reviewer for Good River Review.



Hashbrowns and Termites

by Jamie Good



It’s snowing and there is no power, which means there is no water. We have an electric pump in our well. But, thank God, it is snowing, so we will never, ever run out of water as long as the snow comes. The worst is when there is no power in the summer and I think for a moment we will have to collect water from the small stream on either side of the ditch on our road, and boil it to drink out of like dogs.

Three of my useless neighbors are over. I could write a book. I could title it “Tania and the Three Useless Neighbors” and read it to my children. The only neighbor that I like, a retired artist that my daughter calls “Uncle Jack”, is upstairs playing polly pockets with her. This is more for him than it is for my daughter. Him and I are having a competition to see who can hate Scott and Beth, the other two neighbors, more.

Scott has offered to make us hashbrowns. I can make my own hashbrowns, but I am pregnant and Scott wants to feel like he helped. They invited themselves over. His wife, Beth, came over first, with canned gravy. Canned. I asked her if the gravy was vegetarian and she faltered for a moment. “I suppose it’s not,” she said, doing the embarrassed laugh that drives me up the fucking wall. I didn’t hide my annoyance. She knows I’m a vegetarian. She doesn’t register my expression, either oblivious or choosing to ignore it.

“Scott’s going to make a hash!” she says, clapping. Scott leaves our ranch sliding door open when he is out on the deck fussing with the grill. Fussing is the correct term; I don’t think this man has ever successfully used a grill in his life. I keep shutting the sliding door shut; I keep telling him he’s letting out all the warm air and there’s no way to reheat my house when the power is out, and his wife said “Oh, you need a generator like we have!” and I tell her that’s fine but right now I have no generator so her husband needs to keep the door shut and she laughs. I get up and shut the door myself.

Scott comes back inside. “Just a few minutes longer!” he says, beaming. His wife looks up at him, beams harder. I think to myself that hash should only take a few minutes to begin with. He didn’t even use fresh potatoes–they came pre-shredded and frozen in a bag. I can’t stop thinking about how these adults are like children, overgrown. I wish I could drink wine. I think maybe one glass won’t hurt the fetus–how much of it will really even go to the fetus anyway–but then what if it is a really selfish fetus? What if the fetus drinks all of the wine and I get none of it and I’ve compromised the baby’s health for nothing? I have no idea if the fetus is selfish or gracious, so I don’t drink the wine.

Last Thanksgiving, Beth made raisin salmon patties. Raisin. It was disgusting. She stared at me with her giant, too-wide face while I dragged out cutting the salmon patty for as long as possible. It was my turn to be the child. The raisins were the size of grapes, no, bigger, the size of baseballs. They were so large I felt like I had to unhinge my jaw the way a snake does with a rodent, just to get some of the disgusting, half-deflated raisin into my mouth, soaked with salmon juice. I wanted to kill myself. The dog wouldn’t even eat it. I can only imagine what these hash browns will taste like. I wish my husband was at home instead of his business trip. The burden of entertaining these idiots would fall on him, the more courteous one between us. Why did she even bring gravy? Scott should have cooked veggie sausages or something to go with it. Or a grilled sandwich. We will look entirely ridiculous sitting around our table in the dark, candles lit, eating hash browns. I could have made myself veggie sausage and vegetable kebabs.

I do not bother to make conversation with these people. I am too pregnant. Not really, but when you are pregnant you can use it for any excuse you want. Beth tries to make small talk. I look at my belly, patting the fetus, asking it telepathically if it is a selfish or gracious fetus. It doesn’t answer. Is this because the fetus is aloof? Shy? There’s really no way of telling with fetuses. They like to be mysterious.

Scott returns from outside, holding a serving plate given to me as a wedding present. It will be a fucking nightmare to wash. They smell the same way a hot car does. He leaves the ranch sliding door open, and I bark at him. Not really. I wish I had. Instead I get up and shut the door loud enough for their attention to be drawn to it. Scott looks embarrassed, but otherwise the two of them say nothing. Why does his face look like that? Then I see it. He’s melted the black plastic spatula over the hashbrowns, like tar poured over gravel. Why aren’t they acknowledging it? He cuts into the hashbrowns, serving himself first. The serving knife struggles with the melted plastic, wobbling a bit. Scott is determined. Beth is served next. I haven’t seated myself at the table. I cannot. I’m waiting for them to acknowledge that Scott melted a plastic spatula all over the hashbrowns. They say nothing.

“Scott,” I say, slowly, speaking to him like he is a child. “I can’t eat this.”

Scott and Beth exchange wide-eyed glances.

“Just eat around the crunchy parts!” Beth says, smiling too much. She is confused as to why I still haven’t sat down. She’s set the table for us like we’re entertaining royalty. I could actually kill her. I think, for a moment, I might, but I’d have to kill Scott too, and I am too pregnant to kill two people. Who is going to clean all of these dishes? We have no power. I go upstairs to get Jack, who my daughter has made wear a tiara and monarch butterfly wings. In return, I see Jack has painted both of their fingernails a bright fuschia.

“Don’t I look stunning, darling?” he asks me when I walk in. He always calls me darling.

“Jack, I’m going to kill these people.”

“Hmm.” Jack sips his gin and tonic, eyebrows raised. His miniature dachshund, Fritzel, sniffs my pant legs.

“Help me.”

“I’m busy,” Jack answers, intently studying two pairs of plastic high-heeled slippers Jamie is holding up.

“Jack!”

“The green ones suit your eyes better, sweetheart.” He doesn’t look back up at me. I leave, Jack and my daughter laughing hysterically at something Jack’s whispered.

Downstairs, I find the ranch sliding door open. Scott’s muddy snow-slush shoe prints cover the surrounding carpets. They’ve finished eating, managing to get as many dishes dirty as possible. I know Jack will offer to help with the dishes, but really he’ll sit across the kitchen counter and drink wine and smoke and gossip and whatever else he can do to avoid dishes.  If he wasn’t elderly and ill, I might be more annoyed, but Jack is charismatic enough to get away with anything.

The house is fucking freezing. I send Scott out into the backyard to get the firewood covered by tarp. He returns in less than a minute, without the firewood. More mud is tracked into my carpet. The ranch door is left open.

“There’s termites,” he says before I can say anything.

I explain to him that the fireplace has doors that shut, much like my sliding ranch door. None of the termites can get out and damage the wood.

“I don’t want them to burn,” he says.

“The termites?” I ask in disbelief.

He nods.

“The house is freezing. I’m pregnant and I have a small child,” I speak to him slowly again.

He doesn’t move.

“I don’t care about the termites.”

Scott looks at me, horrified. I look at him, wondering if I could scream loud enough for my husband to come home, loud enough to induce labor so I can drink sooner, loud enough for these people to get out of my home, loud enough to kill him without it being my fault.



BIO

Jamie Good is a queer English undergrad at Western Washington University, where she works as the nonfiction editor for Jeopardy Magazine. Her work has been previously featured in small literary magazines such as “Sincerely Magazine.” 
https://www.sincerelymagazine.com/volumenineserendipity



Sportin’ Life

by Graeme Hunter



When I say that I’m a Rangers fan, I don’t mean the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League.  Nor do I mean the Texas Rangers of Major League Baseball or Queen’s Park Rangers of the English Football League.  No, I am a fan of Rangers Football Club of the Scottish Premier League.

My father was a Rangers man, and his father before him.  Like me, they had no choice in the matter.  Rangers were the Protestant team in Glasgow, just as Celtic were the Catholic team, and my grandfather, father and I were all brought up in that most Protestant of Protestant denominations, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  We got to choose whether we would practice that religion: I became an atheist in my teens; Dad lost his faith much later in life.  We also got to choose whether or not we participated in such ancillary activities as joining the Orange Lodge, becoming Freemasons and commemorating King Billy’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne.  But whatever our choices, at the end of the day we were still Proddies.  And in Glasgow, “Proddy” meant “Rangers supporter”.

Celtic Football Club was somewhat more ecumenical than Rangers.  In my days as an active Rangers supporter – I’m talking about the 1970s – Celtic had several Protestant players.  But in 1972 Rangers F.C. celebrated its centenary having never fielded a Catholic.  How did the club manage to maintain its religious purity?  For native-born players, a simple enquiry about the candidate’s schooling would suffice.  Scotland has both non-denominational and Catholic schools, with the latter easily identifiable by having names such as ‘Lourdes’, ‘Holyrood’, ‘Notre Dame’ and ‘St. Joseph’s’.  In the case of foreign-born players, weeding out the Catholics was a bit trickier.  So Rangers erred on the safe side by restricting its scouting efforts to reliably Protestant Scandinavia.            

I started going to Ibrox Park, where Rangers played, when I was about twelve years old.  At that time my family lived in Greenfield, in the East End of Glasgow; Ibrox is across the city, on the South Side.  So my friend Kenny Cairns and I took the Blue Train into the City Centre and travelled by subway to Copland Road station, in the shadow of the stadium.  A bit later, we also started attending away games.  From The Drum, a Rangers pub in nearby Shettleston (every pub in Glasgow was either a Rangers pub or a Celtic pub), a chartered bus took us to Falkirk or Dundee or Edinburgh, with a couple of stops along the way so that supporters of drinking age could relieve themselves of the beer they’d drunk before we left.  

As I said, my father was a Rangers man, and after retiring he worked as a steward at Ibrox.  But the only game I remember going to with him was the most infamous match in the history of the club.  On January 2, 1971, Rangers played Celtic at Ibrox Park.  When the visiting team scored the first goal of the game in the ninetieth minute, my dad, brother John and I left the stadium.  We thereby missing Rangers’ tying goal in injury time.  We also missed getting trampled to death, the fate that befell 66 supporters – men, boys and one young woman – on the very same stairway we had descended a few minutes earlier.  Until 1989, when 96 people died at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, the Ibrox Disaster represented the largest loss of life at a British football ground.

This near-death experience didn’t stop me from going to Rangers games.  When I was working on a Ph.D. at the University of Glasgow and living in the West End of the city, I went to Ibrox with my friend Ken Brown and his dad.  We’d take the Govan Ferry across the River Clyde and walk to the stadium from there.  After the game, we’d have a couple of pints at The Overflow.  A Rangers pub, of course.

Those Saturday afternoon trips to Ibrox Park ended when I completed my Ph.D. and moved to California for a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University.  My supervisor was Merton Bernfield, but I worked most closely with his research associate, Shib Banerjee.  Before I found my own apartment, I occupied the spare bedroom of Shib’s house in Menlo Park.  He’d recently split up with his wife, and was too gregarious to live on his own.  On January 20th, 1980, Shib and I went to a student pub on El Camino Real, just outside the university gates.  There I watched my first National Football League game: Super Bowl XIV, in which Pittsburgh Steelers defeated Los Angeles Rams. 

San Francisco’s N.F.L. team, the 49ers, played at Candlestick Park, about a half hour drive from Palo Alto.  But I didn’t go to any of their games, or those of the Oakland Raiders, whose stadium was just across the Bay.  The only live football I saw during my fellowship involved Stanford Cardinals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  Football wasn’t a big deal at Stanford; the Board of Trustees valued Nobel Prizes more highly than Heisman Trophies.  But the Big Game against the University of California at Berkeley (another brainy school) was always fiercely contested. 

The first Cardinals’ game I saw was against San Jose State University.  On the first play from scrimmage, the San Jose quarterback dropped back to pass and was promptly flattened by about four Stanford defensive linesmen, who then high-fived and back-slapped each other with hands the size of dinner plates.  “Hey, we just beat up a guy half our size!  Good on us!”

The only other home game I remember from the Cardinals’ 1980 season was against the University of Southern California.  And all I recall about that game was the half-time show.  First, the U.S.C. Trojans Marching Band came onto the field in their plumed helmets, scarlet cloaks and plastic Bronze Age armor, playing their fight song while executing precision manoeuvers.  When the Trojans left the field, out swarmed the groovy Stanford Band, its members casually dressed and wandering at random across the playing surface.  It was Bach versus jazz.    

The Cardinals ended the season with a mediocre 6-5 record.  And, more importantly, they lost the Big Game.  But that 1980 team did have three players who went on to have distinguished careers in the National Football League: wide receiver Ken Margerum, running back Darrin Nelson and, most notably, quarterback John Elway.

I planned on spending three years at Stanford, and then, having completed a B.T.A. (Been To America), find a real job at a university in the U.K.  But my research project was a bust, Mert went on sabbatical to the East Coast and my fellowship renewal was turned down.  By December of 1980, I’d Been To America for a mere eleven months and my time at Stanford was already over.  I found another postdoctoral fellowship, at the University of Toronto, but that wouldn’t start until February.  In the meantime, I went back to Glasgow.

I had to fly via New York, so I stopped off there for a couple of days and visited an old university classmate, John Logan, who was doing a postdoc at Stony Brook.  He took me to my first in-person N.F.L. game, the New York Jets against the New Orleans Saints.  Unfortunately those were two of the worst teams in the league, and my California winter coat wasn’t a match for a snowy day at Shea Stadium.        

Back in Scotland, my dad picked me up at the airport (Prestwick, in those days).

“Good to see you, son!” he said.  “How long can you stay this time?”

“Two months,” I replied.

“Two months!”

In the meantime I signed on the dole and paid rent to my parents.  My mum, at least, was glad to have me around.  (I think.)

The U. of T. fellowship was for two years, so I was back on track to spend three years in North America.  But, as my national bard observed, the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.  I’d hardly set foot in Canada when I fell in love with a young woman who, for reasons that will hopefully become clear, I’ll refer to by a nom de plume.  “Ruth” had been/still was/never had been (take your pick) married to “John”, who played linebacker with the N.F.L.’s Houston Oilers/played linebacker but not with the Oilers/didn’t play linebacker/didn’t exist (again, your choice).  If I’d been more interested in the N.F.L. in those days, I’d probably have suspected a lot earlier that there was no “John”, at least in the form that “Ruth” presented “him”.  But in fact I was only interested enough to have a favorite player: number 72 of the Dallas Cowboys, Ed “Too Tall” Jones.  (The quotation marks in this case referring to the fact that “Too Tall” was Ed Jones’ nickname, not to cast doubt about him being called that, or to dispute the fact that the 6’ 9” Mr. Jones was, in fact, tall).

By the time my on-again, off-again relationship with “Ruth” finally ended, I’d missed my target date for repatriation.  Still planning on returning to the U.K., I applied (unsuccessfully) for positions at University College London and the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen.  But then I fell in love again, with Francine (real name), and decided to make my career in Canada instead.    

An English couple I knew in Toronto made the opposite decision, returning to Britain on the grounds that the beer in Canada was too cold and you couldn’t get a decent pork pie.  But before leaving, they took me to the University of Toronto’s Varsity Field for a soccer game between Toronto Blizzard and Chicago Sting.  This was the second leg of a home-and-away final to decide the 1984 champion of the North American Soccer League.  The Sting had won 2-1 in Chicago; now they won 3-2 in Toronto.  The N.A.S.L. went bust before another season could start, and thus the Varsity Field game was the last one ever played in that league.    

Francine and I attended a couple of Toronto Argonauts’ games, but the Canadian Football League was not for me: too big a field, too many players, too much pre-snap activity.  It wasn’t Francine’s cup of tea, either, but then she wasn’t a sports fan.  Nonetheless, we did go to quite a lot of baseball games.  In those days the Blue Jays still played at open-air Exhibition Stadium, so Francine could at least work on her tan.  I got quite heavily into baseball, to the point of reading box scores in The Globe and Mail every morning.  I think I liked the fact that baseball, like chess, has almost endless permutations.  If there’s one man out and a runner on first base in the fifth inning of a 2-2 game, with a 3-1 count on a right-handed power hitter and a left-handed line-drive hitter on deck, should a left-handed pitcher: (a) intentionally walk the batter, putting the go-ahead run on base; (b) try to pop the batter up with an inside fastball; or (c) throw a change-up in the hope of getting a ground-ball double-play?  How does the calculation change if the runner is a good base-stealer, or if the wind is blowing out, or if the centre-fielder is nursing a leg injury?  When, after many years of watching baseball, I finally knew the answers to questions like those, I lost all interest in the game.

In 1988 I was offered, and accepted, a faculty position at the University of Alberta.  Francine and I got married and moved to Edmonton.  We’d been dating for four years, and now wanted to start a family as soon as possible.  But first we had a decision to make: what, if any, religious indoctrination would our (hypothetical) children receive?  Francine was a practicing Catholic; I am, as noted above, a born-again atheist.  So I offered her a deal.  She could have our (hypothetical) children baptized and confirmed, first-communioned and first-confessioned; she could take them to Catholic churches on Saturday or Sunday, and send them to Catholic schools on all the other days of the week.  In return, all I asked was that I be allowed to bring them up as Rangers supporters.  It was a good deal, and she accepted it.  

But she had a question: “What are we going to say if the children ask why you don’t come to church with us?” 

“I’ll tell them I have a different religion,” I replied.  “N.F.L. football.” 

Despite shivering through a game between the woeful New York Jets and the even more woeful New Orleans Saints, I had become a fan of the National Football League.  I could claim it was because of my unrequited man-crush on Too-Tall Jones.  I could claim it was because the former Stanford Cardinal John Elway, subsequently of the Denver Broncos, won two Super Bowls (XXXII and XXXIII, if anyone’s counting in Roman numerals).  But really it was because football is the only sport in which men with beer guts get to be “athletes”. 

What I don’t like about N.F.L. football – hate, actually – is all the commercials.  The game has umpteen unavoidable stoppages: half-time, the end of the first and third quarters, six timeouts and four challenges, injury timeouts and video reviews.  So there’s no excuse for inserting additional commercial breaks between (say) a kick returner fielding the ball and the offence running out onto the field.  But the television companies do “step away” on such occasions.  As a result, an N.F.L. telecast consists of 60 minutes (or less) of actual football and two hours of commercials for “best-in-class” pickup trucks, fast-food restaurants, investment advisors and upcoming TV shows.  (In Canada, at least we’re spared the political attack ads.)    

Fortunately I came up with a cunning way of watching football while preserving my sanity.  I program the game to record, then start watching the recording about an hour after kickoff.  This means I can fast-forward through all the commercial breaks and the inane, testosterone-fueled half-time panel, and still arrive at the end of the game at the same time as the chumps who watched it live.

But every February there’s an N.F.L. game that I do watch live.  It’s the one that decides which team will be world champion of a sport played only in the United States.  The Super Bowl has truck commercials that I haven’t seen before; a pregame show with heart-warming stories of good deeds performed by N.F.L. players when they’re not beating up their domestic partners in a fit of roid-rage; a flypast by U.S. Air Force killing machines; grown men learning how to toss a coin; the solemn moment when the stadium announcer says: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, please rise, remove your MAGA hats and honor America by singing the national anthem”; a country “artist” warbling: “O’er the land of the free-EEEEE!  And the home of the bra-a-a-a-a-ave”; and a half-time show featuring superannuated pop stars and frenzied choreography.  (Why not invite the U.S.C. Trojans Marching Band instead?  The N.F.L. wouldn’t have to worry about “wardrobe malfunctions” with those clean-cut young people.)

Long story short, the University of Alberta didn’t work out for me.  Edmonton didn’t work out for Francine, who described herself as a “hot-blooded Italian” and wasn’t a fan of cold weather.  So after three Prairie winters, we and our Catholic-baptized daughter moved to London, where I had found a new job at the University of Western Ontario. 

By then, soccer hadn’t been part of my life for a long time, but I started to watch the occasional game from Italy’s Serie A on the Telelatino channel.  As a result, I soon learned Italian terms like “fuorigioco” (offside), “tiro in porta” (shot on goal) and “cartellino rosso” (red card).  Sometime in the mid-1990s, English Premier League games became available on The Sports Network, which, like TLN, was part of our cable package.  I got into the habit of doing my ironing on Saturday mornings, with one eye on the shirt, one eye on the game.  

In Scotland, soccer had gone into a long decline from the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s, when Rangers won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, another Glasgow club won the European Cup, and the national team held its own against England.  In 2012, Rangers Football Club suffered the ignominy of going bankrupt, and the even greater ignominy of being cast into the outer darkness of Scottish football.  Now the former Cup-Winners’ Cup winners weren’t playing Celtic – they were lining up against the part-timers of Elgin City and Annan Athletic in the Scottish Third (actually fourth) Division. 

But three successive promotions got Rangers back up to the Premier League.  And today, midway through the 2020-21 season, my team is cantering to its first top-division championship in a decade.  Rangers even qualified for the knock-out stage of the Europa League.  (Which, back in my Ibrox-going days, was called the Fair Cities’ Cup.  Rangers played in this competition not because Glasgow was a fair city, but because it was a city with a fair.)

When my children were young, I didn’t get back to Scotland much.  But on one visit I showed my Uncle Gibby photographs of Francine and the kids.  Gibby was the husband of my (paternal) Aunt Agnes, and very much an Orangeman (possibly also a Mason).  One of the photographs I showed him was of my middle child standing in a schoolyard.  Behind her was a sign saying ‘St. Marguerite d’Youville Catholic School’. 

“What’s this, then?” Gibby said.  “You’re sending your kids to Catholic school?”

Fortunately I was able to extricate myself from an awkward situation.  “Yes, Uncle Gibby.  But they’re all Rangers supporters.”



BIO

Graeme Hunter is a gentleman writer living in London, Canada.  His essays have been published in Queen’s Quarterly, Riddle Fence and Talking Soup.  See www.graemehunter.ca.



Guide to the Ruins

by Eve Müller


I.

It is dark outside the plane. You see your face in the window, harsh, more committed than ever to its path of decay. The plane hurtles across the night sky, carrying you from suburban Maryland all the way to Rome. You remember reading about Romulus and Remus, twin founders of the city, suckling at the teat of the she-wolf thousands of years ago. You are hoping to save your marriage, heavy with its own history. Rome will transform us, you think. You lean back in your seat, inviting a miracle. Loaves and fishes. Something holy, sanctified, but also useful.

II.

You arrive to find Rome closed. It is August and the Romans are at the beaches, flirting with waves, swimming in crystalline lakes, hiking through olive groves on Monte Subasio. They are laughing and drinking elsewhere—the city an empty vessel. Corks, bottle caps, bits of confetti, and flyers promising the perfect mattress lie crushed among the cobblestones, the only signs of life. You forage for your supper, try out your new skeleton key, ride up and down in the little red elevator. It will lead you up to and away from your husband all year, rattling along with the weight of daughters, grocery carts, time.

III.

A bag is misplaced. Argument ensues. You storm out into the blazing heat, find a loaf of bread, a ball of cheese, some anchovies. You remember the words for bread and fish. Pane. Pesce. You go home, feed your family. Does this count as a miracle?

IV.

Your apartment is eight flights up. A narrow balcony allows you to look down over Via Celimontana. You think this means “heaven’s mountain,” but foreign languages have never been your strong suit. Still, it can only bode well.

V.

You visit your husband in his office, the United Nations’ modern-day palace. He is preoccupied. He fills his tray with rabbit and duck and sauvignon blanc, everything cheap and good, but you suspect he feels no joy. The view from the cafeteria balcony should give anyone pause.  And yet they all chew, swallow, talk about crops droughts euros banks as if the rocky skeleton of Circo Massimo were not spread out beneath them like a second banquet.

VI.

San Clemente lies a few blocks away, an architectural palimpsest. Three levels down, the ruins of a Mithraic temple. Above that, the remains of a primitive church with bits of fresco visible in dim light. At ground level, a basilica with a golden tree of life that takes away your breath, rewriting—but not erasing—everything that came before. Here it is: The possibility of making something new without wholly replacing the old.

VII.

You’ve always wanted to visit Rome. As a long-time fan of ruin porn, dilapidated grandeur, the remains of what was once magnificent, you’ve sought out ghost towns, abandoned churches, the crumbling cores of industrial capitals. You love entropy in action, feel vindicated when weeds spring up between the paving stones, when vines take over walls. Given a choice between old and new, you always choose decay.

VIII.

Lying side by side in the darkness, you ask your husband:

Do you ever think of laying waste to what you love?
Reducing it all to rubble?
I have no idea what you’re talking about.

IX.

The children are speaking Italian. You marvel at how quickly this happens. Yet now you are locked out of their world as they prattle of bambole, orsi, palle.

X.

And so, Italian lessons twice a week. Not enough to speak of the sky, the lush feel of vowels rolling around on your tongue, your slow promenade towards death, but enough to buy garlic, bunches of parsley, greet the man in the wine shop downstairs. Your teacher commands you to open your textbook and read.

Do you speak Italian?
Parli italiano?
I do not speak Italian.
Non parlo italiano.
And yet you speak of ruins.
Ma tu parli di rovine.
You speak of nothing else.
Non parli d’ltro.

XI.

You make friends at the children’s school. Giulia and Maurizio and Lilli and Alberto and Ludovica and Giovanni. You drink coffee and giggle like a girl. You’re not a girl, and you get a bit loud. The café owner asks you to be quiet. She has other customers, and they don’t like American noise.

XII.

What are you reading?
Cosa stai leggendo?
I am reading about noise.
Sto leggendo del rumore.
What does European noise sound like?
Come suona il rumore europeo?
I do not hear anything.
Non sento niente.

XIII

Your younger daughter is turning five. The mothers at the school, a chorus of Roman fishwives, tell you where to buy a cake, special order. It is spectacular—Spiderman hazelnuts zabaglione, fit for a tomboy king. It costs a fortune. All her little friends in the scuola materna eat the cake with their hands. Constantine’s barbarians, they leave you none.

XIV.

The Italians know how to throw parties. This makes you a bit jealous. You only know how to throw potlucks. The host presents a magnificent loaf of porchetta. People roll up their sleeves, sigh with pleasure. A knock at the door interrupts all of you mid-sentence, mouths full of meat. A guest sweeps into the room. Helmet in hand, he grabs you by the waist, plants a kiss on your lips. You’ve never seen him in your life. His girlfriend laughs, Welcome to Rome!

XV.

Some days you can’t bear the splendor. Basiliche and glittering chapels and a million pizzerias and big looping graffiti on stone walls that insists on now at the expense of then. There are no trees, but the flowers in the market at Campo de’ Fiori are flushed pink and red like women dying of rheumatic fever.

XVI.

Some days bore you to tears. You drink a cup of hot tea, use the bidet, check your email. You might even mop the floors, but you’ve never been a very good housekeeper. You watch a YouTube video about objectum sexuals, people who fall in love with—and want to rub up against—the Eiffel tower, Statue of Liberty, bells of Notre Dame.  You understand this urge. How many times have you stood on the rooftop, hung laundry out to dry, fantasized about lying down among the ruins, becoming one with Roman stones?

XVII.

You watch your husband fix the bathroom sink. He remains an enigma after all these years. Solid and fine as Roman rock. You have spent your marriage trying to crack him open, lay him bare. Seeing him on his knees, head bent in concentration, you think: He is master of band saws, nuts, bolts, all things mechanical.  Yet of you, he has no inkling.

XVIII.

What do you want from Rome?
Cosa vuoi da Roma?
I want abundant life.
Voglio una vita abbondante.
And what of you?
E tu?
Will you never choose abundance?
Sceglierai mai l’abbondanza.

XIX.

Lying awake at 3am, you can’t remember why you came here. Your husband sleeps beside you. You haven’t touched in months. You are suddenly hungry beyond belief. Standing in front of the open refrigerator—cold air, white light pouring out into darkness—you think of all you want to eat. Chicken legs, black cabbage, stuffed pigeons, marzipan. But more than that, you want to fill your mouth with marble columns, Bernini’s ecstatic saints, Caravaggio’s red lipped boys.

XX.

Your husband comes home from work, stretches himself out on the couch like a dying god. You pour him a drink.  You know you should leave him alone—he is tired. But you can’t help yourself.

Do you ever think about desire?
No, not really.
Do you ever get the urge to grab everyone you speak with,
kiss them hard on the mouth?
God, no.
Do you remember the scene in Microcosmos, where the snails mate to the sounds of Wagnerian opera? Rise up on their glistening feet and merge from head to toe?
That’s what I want.
Good luck with that.  

XXI.

Steeped in Roman history, you’re tempted to forget your own.  You came to Italy with a pocketful of pills that keep you from flying too close to the sun, getting lost in serpentine darkness. Work has always protected you. But here in Rome there is little to hang your day upon. You and your husband tried all this before, many years ago before there were children—pulling yourselves up by the roots, planting yourselves in Mexican soil. You remember how you sank into depression like a stone into well water. Even though you wanted to bring your family to Rome, you are not without misgivings. History is so often a story of return.

XXII.

You discover Facebook and the middle-aged men come out in droves. This feeds your vanity. It’s too much, yet never quite enough. You refresh your screen. You find the waters irresistible. You type faster, fingers on fire. Your children have to pry you away from your desk.

XXIII.

Half a dozen confessions of ardor appear in your inbox. You think about the wooden gates of Santi Quattro Coronati, opened silently by slippered Augustinian nuns. They usher you into a frescoed room, life’s possibilities unfurled across the walls: Constantine is cured of leprosy, crowned Emperor, holds the wide green world in his fist. Now Byzantium is yours. You think, at last I will be loved as I deserve.

XXIV.

The language teacher, eyes thick with mascara, mouth a red smear, little black hooves where feet should be, tells you that what you are going through is pronounced crisi di mezza età—mid-life crisis. You like this. You like it so much that you go out and buy a pair of knee-high boots—gli stivali. You take a photograph of yourself in the boots, post it to Facebook, wait for the silver-tongued flatterers to sing. 

XXV.

It’s Thanksgiving and Rome doesn’t care, but your American friends are joining you for dinner. You special order a turkey from the butcher shop across the street. Tacchino. It’s got a nice ring. You go to pick it up, and the butcher gives you two chickens instead. You try to explain that this is not the same thing, but your Italian fails you. You mutter something about a festa americana. The butcher shrugs. You give up, head home, eat pollo and apple whiskey cake, go to bed with your back to your husband.

XXVI.

The stranger climbs steep hills.
La straniera sale colline ripide.
She sighs as she climbs.
Sospira mentre sale.
She finds herself among the clouds
Si ritrova tra le nuvole
looking down on granite tombs.
guardando dall’alto tombe di granito.

XXVII.

Your Italian friends think you are sleeping with another woman’s husband. You are surprised to hear this, a little bit sad and a little bit proud. You really are a Henry James heroine now, wandering the Colosseo at night with your gentleman friend, hopelessly lost in translation. 

XXVIII.

The crack in the bathroom mirror splits your face down the middle. You lean into the glass, peer closely at what is left of you after forty-five years. You see a web of lines and think of lace, broken china, the inlaid gold tilework of the Cappella di San Zenone, backroads connecting Umbria with Tuscany, the Fiume Tevere snaking through Rome. Yes. Even in ruins you are beautiful.

XXIX.

Who am I?
Chi sono?
Green eyed.
Occhi verdi.
House divided.
Casa divisa.
I paint my face each morning.
Dipingo la mia faccia ogni mattina
Comic, tragic, forgettable.
Comica, tragica, dimenticabile.

XXX.

The man in the cigarette shop sees you walking past the Colosseo in your rabbit fur hat, a child’s hand clutched in each of yours. He approaches the three of you, says you look just like Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. For a few golden minutes you forget your children, your failing marriage, are lost in talk of long-ago movies and far-away places.

XXXI.

You walk down Via Merulana in your black dress and boots, your skin alive, electric, your legs longer than ever. You stride past liquor stores, butcher shops, displays of shiny knives—the street is yours for the taking. A man on a motorbike stops dead in his tracks, blows you a kiss.

XXXII.

Strung out on espresso granita, you find the technicolor glow bright and gaudy in the winter sun.There are halos around everyone’s heads, and not just the saints on the walls of San Giovanni in Laterano.You turn to your personal intercessors—Cymbalta, Olanzapine, Ativan.

XXXIII.

On a whim, you enter Santa Maria Maggiore, settle into a pew, pray for healing of this bone-deep restlessness you feel, this hunger. After you light a candle, you descend into the crypt beneath the church, where you find a hair of the Virgin, the arms of St. Luke and St. Matthew. Proof, you think, of the Italians’ abiding affection for bodies—even the bodies of the dead. 

XXXIV.

In the Capuchin crypt beneath Santa Maria della Concezione, you find yourself drawn to the artful arrangements of skeletons, macabre valentines to death. There’s poetry to the names of each room—Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises, Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones. Later, you spot your reflection in the plate glass windows of Via Veneto, hunched, formless in your black coat, and think of what lies just beneath your own pale skin—scapula, clavicle, iliac crest. You turn and head east. Towards home. Relieved to find your children adamantly alive, demanding suppers and baths.    

XXXV.

The family is eating another dinner from one of your Italian cookbooks. Not on the roof tonight—it’s still too cold. No one is talking, and your husband is more remote than ever. You think, maybe you overcooked the pasta. Maybe you over-salted the meat. Maybe the silt that filters in through the windows and settles on the book shelves, counters, beds and tiled floor—maybe this dust of ages is burying you all alive.

XXXVI.

Your husband once told you that after his first time unzipping your dress, watching you step out of it, trembling—after the first year of playing house, growing lettuces, hanging bed sheets out to dry in baking sun, painting all the walls bright shades of blue and green—after the first baby bursting from your womb, wet with blood, loud as thunder—there wasn’t anything left. He’s been around the world half a dozen times. Perhaps for him, Rome is just more of the same.

XXXVII.

The children ride ponies in Villa Celimontana, your husband lies on the trampled grass, basking in silver light. He is noble, you think. His wants and needs so few. Not unlike the turtles sunning themselves on the lip of the fountain.

XXXVIII.

How can you stand it?
Living in a world where nothing’s ever new?
Boredom’s the price you pay for peace.

XXXIX.

You lean back on your elbow and take stock of this man beside you. You are struck by his beauty. How like a turret, you think: silent, steadfast, insular. But you want to lose yourself in talk, to speak of the Milky Way, the vast universe outside and within you, to love with abandon. And he wants none of this.

XL.

It’s a lovely spring morning. The ruins are calling. You and your American friend make your way down Via Appia Antica. You are surprised by how quickly the city turns to countryside. It’s 10am. You step into a small shop and your friend buys a bottle of wine. She’s a poet. She promises you that drinking this early will be a revelation. There is laughter and the twisting of an ankle on cobblestones. You can’t believe how much you are enjoying yourself. It is your turn to offer her something. You give her the Catacombe di San Callisto which extend beneath the fields for miles, are home to half a million bodies. In the dimness, you come upon Maderno’s statue of Santa Cecelia—hands bound, head neatly severed, face covered with a marble rag. You are both abruptly sober.

XLI.

All the families are out walking. You arrive at the gates of Villa Doria Pamphilij, littered with grottos, hedges, putti, artificial ruins. Why build crumbling towers? you ask. Why begin with endings? No one hears you. Your husband is far ahead. Your daughters busy chasing after swans.

XLII.

You think, if only you could make him see Rome as you do. Layered like a vast cake. You propose dinner with Italian friends, music by Monteverdi in the chapel at Santa Prassede. He declines your offer. You go without him. You find you don’t really miss him. You come home and he’s in front of the TV, doesn’t even look up when you enter.

XLIII.

After your night of stained glass and madrigals, the long walk home cloaked in darkness, you are surprised by how readily ecstasy morphs into anger:

I want to scream.
You make me want to scream.
Don’t start up.
I’m not in the mood for your hysteria.
Hysteria is the only thing that keeps us honest.

XLIV.

Today you choose self-denial, crawl all the way up the Scala Santa on your knees. You and a friend do it for kicks, but the feel of stone scraping skin, each step worn down by centuries of penitents creeping toward salvation, brings you close to tears. You bend over, let your forehead rest on the stairs for just a moment, try and strike a bargain with god.

XLV.

Today you choose Bacchus. Your husband stays home, watches Netflix reruns. It’s already midnight and you are just beginning. Your Italian friends take you to the Forte Prenestino, abandoned military complex, labyrinthine squatters’ lair. The whole place is illegally occupied, you sneak in under cover of darkness. You feel like a rat. See a few scuttling down shadowed halls. You are already thinking about how you can spin this to your American friends. You are drinking too much grappa, smoking hashish with people you’ve never seen. You are ridiculously free you are dizzy giddy rushing spinning burning liquid on your tongue you trip over your teeth speak in broken sentences hold up a few Italian phrases like bright jewels in the darkness.

XLVI.

You’ve reached an unspoken agreement. Your husband stays in Rome, while you and your daughters travel deep into the countryside to visit a Swedish friend. The children watch Jaws dubbed into Italian. You are all horrified by the blood, fascinated by the shark’s gleaming teeth. Clothes come off and everyone is naked in the river. Your friend’s father gathers mushrooms for dinner, lays them out on a big wooden table. They are larger than a man’s hand, bold shades of red and green. You think of fairy tale endings. They are surely meant to kill you—bad mother, failed wife. Who will live to tell the story? You close your eyes and eat.

XLVII.

How many mushrooms would you like?
Quanti funghi vuoi?
No thank you.
No grazie.
I do not eat the red ones.
Non mangio quelli rossi.
I do not court death.
Non cerco la morte.

XLVIII.

You pass the whores on the way to the beach. They stand by the side of the road, hard-eyed, unsmiling, spread out at equal intervals among the scrawny pines. It goes on like this for miles. You wonder, what would sex feel like on a bed of dry needles, a stranger in your arms?

XLIX.

The beach is mobbed with Romans reaching for the sun. A big fleshy woman, all ass, hip, belly, rosy areolas, dances frantic in the surf. Bare breasted maenad, transistor radio in one hand, sandwich in the other. She is everything you wish to be. Untethered, glorious, entirely without shame. 

L.

The children run wild. You drink cold coffee from a can, sit listless on a park bench, watch your daughters climb gates pick up trash hide in dormant fountains walk on walls spray-painted all the colors of the sunset. Slim-hipped boys swagger amidst the rubble of Trajan’s baths, conquistadores with cigarettes, tight blue jeans, attitude to spare. Your elder daughter appears victorious before you, holding up a broken plastic figurine. For her—a princess, mermaid, treasure. For you—a tiny naked martyr, neither hands nor feet to call her own.

LI.

You seek signs and portents everywhere, wander the streets, stumble upon Largo di Torre Argentina. Mussolini excavated these derelict temples. Julius Caesar was betrayed and killed here. Now the place belongs to packs of feral cats who strut, sleep, breed among the ruins. Perhaps you should join them.

LII.

You return home after your wanderings. Your husband speaks to you through clenched teeth.

You make a terrible housewife.
I never asked to be a housewife.
I ask so little of you.
Exactly.
If only you’d ask for more.

LIII.

You’ve been here before. Always an ocean roiling inside you. Always a forest of thick black trees shooting up between you.

LIV.

You’re like a dead man.
And you’re just looking for drama.
I bring you Italy
hand it to you on a platter
and you won’t fucking eat.

LV.

Your family climbs down from the bus, tramps through the fields and farms on the outskirts of town. You take pictures of the girls. You take pictures of your husband, moving through the grass in silence. You put the camera away. Why commemorate pain?

LVI

You pass the nymphaeum you love so much, take in the vivid green, the bubbling spring, imagine your daughter water nymphs bathing naked, pure.

LVII.

Do you like the water?
Ti piace l’acqua?
Yes. May I join you in the nymphaeum?
Sí, posso unirmi a te nel ninfeo?
I am sorry, age and pain have no place here.
Mi dispiace, la vecchiaia e il dolore non hanno posto qui.
What did you say?
Cosa hai detto?
Your age and pain have no place.
La tua età e il tuo dolore non hanno  posto.

LVIII.

Time is running out, the year is almost over, your life in Rome a reckless scattering of stones. You sit on a park bench in Piazza Celimontana, watch your children playing for the hundredth time. They plunge their hands into the ancient fountain, pull out turtles, hands dripping with water. They shriek with joy, turn to show you, faces radiant, turtle shells glistening in the sun.

LIX.

You lure your husband into yet another argument:

What do you think? Was it worth it?
What are you talking about?
Coming to Italy in search of miracles?
In case you haven’t noticed, your Rome and mine are two different cities.
I work all day in an office.
I’ve no idea what you do.

LX.

Your husband comes home early. You are playing memory games with your daughters. They are winning. He tells you the house is a mess. Filthy, he calls it, fed up with your Facebook housewifery. You exchange insults. Tears begin. You tell him to stop. He does not. A line is crossed. Neither of you sure how you got here. He standing above. You below. The children in the wings. Forks stones plates pins rain down from his mouth. You a heap on the floor. You don’t ever want to stand up share a mattress again. You lie face down for hours, kiss the cold stones.

LXI.

You awaken bone chilled and stiff, peel yourself off the hallway floor, survey your kingdom from the balcony. So much for heaven’s mountain.

LXII.

You command yourself to go on.
Continua.
Breathe.
Respira.
Hold your daughters tight.
Tieni strette le tue figlie.

LXIII.

You give your husband an ultimatum:

If you really want me, talk to me.
Tell me our happiness matters.
Promise me we’ll rise up together like snails.

He turns away without a word.

LXIV.

His silence spills into days and then weeks.

LXV.

You can’t stand it. You tell him it’s over. You will move out when you return to America in a few weeks’ time. You will take your daughters with you and live in a friend’s attic. He is mystified. But you are unyielding.

LXVI.

It’s almost midnight. Your husband has gone to sleep, left you with nothing. You walk out alone into the darkness. Men stand in doorways. Call out to you. Make lewd gestures with their tongues and fingers. You don’t understand a word they are saying, but are pretty sure it goes something like this:

Le gambe tue sono colonne di alabastro.
Your thighs are alabaster columns.
I tuoi seni come cervi che saltano.
Your breasts like leaping deer.
Allungo le braccia attraverso la tua finestra, e le mie mani sono piene di miele gocciolante
I reach through your window and my hands are filled with dripping honey.
Vieni a casa con me.
Come home with me.
Sdraiati con me.
Lie down with me.
Non te ne andare mai.                                                 
Don’t ever leave.

This is the Song of Songs they’re whispering to you. It feels like your swansong. Your finale. You are sure of it. You walk for miles, past throbbing discotheques, bells tolling in the distance. Rome’s songs of desire and mourning poured out for your ears alone. 

LXVII.

Wandering the narrow streets of Trastevere, noonday sun beating down, your elder daughter finds a speckled bird dying on hot stones and gathers it against her breast. She turns to you, eyes soft, and asks why the bird has to die. Some things cannot be saved, you say, and you both burst into tears.

LXVIII.

Your younger daughter joins in. The three of you form a forlorn chorus at the edge of the piazza. Behind you, water tumbles out of a stone mouth and into a fountain. You wonder to yourself, is this the sound of Rome falling?

LXIX.

The bar is filled with jazz piano and the weary voice of an older woman, tired of singing for tourists who care for no one but Beyoncé. You have asked your Roman friend to drink with you tonight. There is no one else to talk to. You are wretched, but you cannot stop. You cannot believe how lonely you are. She listens, passes silent judgment on your American grief.

LXX.

Have I been unfaithful?
Sono stata infedele?
Yes, you have loved a city.
Sì, hai amato una città.

LXXI.

It is dark outside the plane. Your younger daughter squirms in her seat. The elder leans into the warmth of your body. Both girls are bathed in the glow of their personal TV screens, rapt, angelic. You have no idea what you are doing with your dolce vita—sweet, sweet life. The plane shudders, turbulence right on schedule. You are overcome with nausea, retch until there’s nothing left, your body an empty vessel. You lean back, close your eyes. The plane’s engines lull you into fitful sleep. You dream of stumbling over mounds of broken stones, chasing after your daughters as they climb and gambol in their summer dresses, voices shrill as birds. 


NOTE: With thanks to Alberto Zezza, who generously corrected my Italian.


BIO

Eve Müller makes zines and paper cutouts. She is a relative newcomer to the world of literary non-fiction/memoir, but has published extensively on autism and language. She is a single mom who lives in College Park, MD, with two breathtakingly reckless teen daughters, two cats and a rabbit.

Marked

By Deborah A. Lott


The Torah forbade the Israelites from incising their flesh to express their grief. They were instructed to rend their garments instead.

My father’s hand shot up to his eyebrow, his finger poised there, as if he were about to stroke his brow. A gesture I’d always considered deeply imbued with his personality. The gesture he performed when pondering a problem. While reading a book or talking on the phone. Whenever he was thinking.

Was he, or whatever was left behind of him, still capable of thinking?

My father was dying. He’d had a massive bleed in his brain, the final in a series of strokes. I sat at his hospital bedside; my mother, two brothers, and I were all there. Intent on his every faltering breath, I could not take my eyes off the spectacle of his body’s failing. His face was inordinately pale and blank, while his body, under a white blanket, twitched and seized. Small jerks and larger rumbling quakes. They had taken out all the tubes; he was attached to only a heart monitor. I tried to distract myself by looking at those numbers rise and fall, but his body pulled me. They told us his organs were shutting down.

Dying suffused the atmosphere in the room; it was inside him, it was outside him, it felt like it was everywhere. The more I stared, the more I feared I would be consumed by it.

We were seeing autonomic reflexes, the doctors told us. He was unresponsive, they said, on the way to brain death. Yet all day long, his hand kept shooting up to his eyebrow in that familiar gesture. As if he were on the brink of telling me something. The motion repeated and repeated.      

The next day, I could not bear to go back to the hospital. That was the day the doctors predicted he would die. The rest of the family gathered there; I was expected to come. That morning I had gotten my period. Death was a shark circling his room; I knew the shark would smell my blood and get confused.  I was confused. My father and I had always been too close, too connected. I had been too susceptible to feeling everything he felt. What would it take to sever this connection? My uterus seized. If I were in the room, would I have to give birth to his death from my body?

That night after my father died, I went to my uncle and aunt’s house where the family had congregated. On my way up to the front door, their new cat wandered across my path.  It had been a stray, still half-feral. I impulsively picked her up, craving some comfort from the cat’s warm body, its soft fur against my face. She reached out her claw and scratched me. A deep, mean, diagonal scratch across my nose. It bled and bled. I cried, this sudden pain amplifying the deeper wound of grief. When I went into the house, I hid this bleeding from my family. It was too naked a show, rhymed too closely with the other blood rushing from me.  

Years later, my nose still bears a scar. My hand shoots up now, automatically, over and over again, several times a day, to run my fingers over it. It reminds me of my father. And then, of his dying. His death found its way to inscribe my body despite my efforts to hold myself inviolate. I could not keep it out.  


BIO

Deborah A. Lott is the author the recently published memoir, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me. Her creative nonfiction has been published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, StoryQuarterly, the nervous breakdown, the Rumpus, Salon, Los Angeles Review, Cimarron Review, Crazyhorse, and many other places. Her works have been thrice named as notables by Best American Essays. She teaches creative writing and literature at Antioch University, Los Angeles. You can learn more about her at deborahalott.com



In the Houses of Others

by Anita Kestin


            We are in England, in a house with a garden. My mother and I are visiting her friend, Penny. Penny: born into wealth, solitary, childless, tall, educated at Cambridge, elegant. I am holding onto my mother’s hand. Penny shows me to a staircase and tells me that a fairy lives under the stairs—a fairy who has hidden treasures for me all over the garden. Penny hands me a large wicker basket. “Go on,” says my mother, removing her hand from my grasp, and she and Penny return to the table where they are having a meal, laughing, and talking.

            The garden is unmanicured, even wild in places, and filled with rosebushes. I have no experience of treasure hunts and Easter eggs, but, once I get the hang of it, I scamper about, finding chocolate eggs and little toy rabbits everywhere. Into the basket they go, and now the basket is filled and things are spilling out as I run, so I stop, pick up the things I have dropped, and return to the table, where my mother has prepared me a plate of small sandwiches and cakes. My piece of cake is laden with pink roses with elaborate green leaves, all made of frosting. I take a few bites and then set about looking for the fairy who created this wonderful surprise for me, but she proves impossible to find. And then it is time to leave, and Penny tells me that I can keep the basket and she hopes to see us again soon.

            I begin to wake up the next morning in our house in London—the house my parents and I have been living in for several months at this point, but it is also the house that my parents are shortly planning to sell because the three of us are going to live in America from now on. Our house is a modest one with a tiny garden. Yesterday begins to take shape in my mind, and I lie in bed thinking of Penny’s garden and the white wooden staircase where the fairy sleeps.

            Did my father ever visit Penny’s house with my mother and me? I cannot recall, but I think not. Penny belonged to my mother’s world and not his. How old was I? I must have been three or four years old. I had never before seen such a place, and Penny was a stranger to me. 

            My mother’s childhood in Warsaw had included some degree of luxury and art of all kinds; my father’s childhood in Warsaw had not. They had both wound up in wartime London with nothing. Where had my mother first met Penny? I have no idea, but running through my mother’s adult life was a longing and a gravitational pull toward places that felt like her childhood home—graceful places, rooms where music and art and literature flourished. The house, the garden, the spring air, the china, my mother’s laughter, Penny’s elegance, and the rosebushes not yet in bloom: I remember all these things from our visit to Penny’s, but most of all, I remember the fairy who had hidden the treasures for me to find.

            Some of my grade school and college friends have had houses like Penny’s where I have wandered beside the botanical prints and the chintz armchairs, never quite feeling that I belonged, but returning time and time again to spend the night or be caught up in the magic of parties that took place there.

*****

            Right after college, I am scheduled to be in London for ten days. My mother writes to Penny to ask if I can stay with her, at Penny’s apartment in the city. The answer comes back on one of the thin blue paper aerogrammes people used in those days: Yes.

             In college, I had been startled by the effect on me of a live performance of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. When the dancers waved long blue cloths to represent waves and stepped into those waves, I felt the cool water, the heat of the sun, and the force of the waves. As I watched, I could feel my hands quiver at the intensity and magic of the performance.

            In London, I want to see more live events as I had heard that this was the place to experience live theater. I also want to taste the things I had eaten as a child: Ribena, biscuits, mashed potatoes, and milk chocolate with hazelnuts. I want to have a Guinness draft in a real pub. 

            I land at Heathrow and take a taxi into the city. We pass gardens and row houses and small stucco houses with tiny gardens. I think of the rosebushes, the basket full of sweets, and the fairy under the stairs.

            The woman who opens the door is bent over, with unwashed hair pulled into a bun held with a plain elastic band.

            She walks me around the apartment. Her eyes are aimed perpetually at the ground because of the curve in her spine. The place is filled with stuff:  newspapers, old letters, three capsules and an apple core on a plant saucer. The fridge is empty and she is apologetic and visibly ashamed. I am tired, and my clothes are damp and stale, but she immediately proposes a trip to the grocery store, fumbling around for her list while talking about a range of unconnected subjects.

            We set off at a slow pace, her face turned downward. She asks after my mother but struggles to reach the store, stopping at every bench to rest. At the grocery shop, she cannot find her list.

            When I wake up the next morning, I am still tired. The room is dingy and loaded with piles of clothes and magazines. I lie in bed, thinking of the garden and the stairs from long ago, of yesterday’s empty refrigerator and lost grocery list (which, as it turned out, had been in the woman’s pocket all along.) I think of the Penny I remembered– especially of her elegance, and how the things she said had delighted and amused my mother. Had my memory been so inaccurate? Was I confusing her with someone else? For a while, I wonder whether I have gone to sleep in the wrong house. When had my mother last spoken to Penny or seen her? Was this what my mother had expected when she had proposed that I stay with Penny?

            The woman has managed to make coffee but is visibly frustrated as she tries to find the food we bought last night. She is shuffling around the kitchen, face trained on the floor. When she needs to look at something higher, she has to tilt her torso backwards and I am afraid that she will fall. I pick up an envelope that has fallen on the floor and there is Penny’s name, so I am in the right place after all. This is reassuring and not reassuring at the same time. The only phone I have access to is in this apartment. I think of calling my mother, but what would I say?

            I ask Penny about the house and the garden. “That was sold a long time ago,” she says.  I tell her about my memories of the fairy under the stairs and the Easter egg hunt.  At this, Penny stares off into space for a while, but she never answers.

*****

            My trip does not go as I had fantasized. Mostly, I try to help Penny as she struggles to get things done. I do manage to have a Guinness at a pub, and it is as rich and acrid and reminiscent of molasses as I had imagined it would be. At the market on a trip I make by myself, I discover containers of yoghurt stuffed with hazelnuts and buy 12 pots of them, adding them to the basket already filled with biscuits and Ribena. 

            There are no outings to the theater, but Penny insists on that we go by train to Cambridge for the day. When I see her contend with the mechanics of buying a ticket and locating the correct platform, I realize how much she has wanted to see Cambridge again, how much pleasure the sight of its buildings might give her—and how incapable she is of traveling to Cambridge on her own. I feel a surge of warmth towards her that I had not felt before. When I comment that Cambridge looks like Princeton, I see a flash of the old Penny I thought I had been coming to visit when she replies acidly: “No, dear, Princeton looks like Cambridge.”

            I do take the Tube to see some old friends of my parents at their flat. This couple had also emigrated from Poland, and they knew my parents when they all were young and living in London. They live in an elegant stone building, but the staircase leading to their apartment is shabby and full of litter. The apartment is glorious, with wood floors, interesting artwork, and bookshelves lining many of the walls. The wife is vivacious and an excellent cook. The husband is a raconteur, and they tell me many stories about my parents that I had not heard previously. They treat me like a real grown-up, and the husband pours me a glass of cognac in exactly the proper glass for such a thing. I have never tasted cognac before. It is fiery and metallic, and I like these people immensely.

            But when I settle back into my chair and start free-associating because of the cognac, I recall the story of  my grandmother telling my parents that my father should have married the woman in whose house I am sitting. That is a story I do know, and the thought of the pain felt by my mother when my grandmother said this shoots through me. The warmth generated by the cognac and the armchair and the books fades to a chill. Was my immediate reaction to this woman disloyal to my mother? Or is it unfair to blame the woman for the cruelty of my grandmother’s remark?

            When it is time to leave, the husband offers to drive me back to Penny’s. His wife will not accompany us and, as they explain why, the disconnect between the condition of the stairwell and the apartment becomes clear. The building has been partly taken over by squatters, and this has occurred when apartments have been unoccupied for even a time as brief as an hour. The couple owns their apartment, but there is an ordinance that has prevented rightful owners from reclaiming their apartments when squatters take over, and long legal battles ensue. So, for the past two years, this couple has never gone out at the same time together. I think of this often, years later, during the pandemic.

*****

            When I return to Providence, my mother is shocked and despondent  at the news I give her of Penny and she also feels guilty about sending me to stay there. I have not yet started medical school, and I am unable to put the pieces together, but my mother and I surmise that Penny has developed some sort of dementia. My mother and I write Penny a letter to thank her but no reply arrives. Three years later, in another aerogramme, Penny tells us that she has been suffering for a long time from undiagnosed hypothyroidism and memory loss, and now that the diagnosis has been made and she has been prescribed medication, she is hoping she will get better. That is the last communication my mother receives from Penny, and neither of us learns anything more about her. When I Google her name, nothing informative appears.

*****

            When my children were small, and I was overwhelmed with the joy of hearing their happy sounds and the sounds of their friends reverberating through the house, I sometimes dreamed at night of finding a whole corridor in my house that I had not previously known existed. I would run through the new parts of my home, throwing open doors and thinking of what I would do with these rooms. How would I furnish and decorate them? What could I make of this new wing in my house? A suite for visitors? A study? A place for the kids to hang out with friends? 

            When I woke up from these dreams, I would try to place the rooms, for they would often turn out to be from houses I had seen before or from places I had imagined when I lost myself in the books of my childhood. Here was Sara’s bedroom from A Little Princess, the one she occupied before she was banished to the attic. Another morning, I awoke from a dream in which I had been wandering in an immense house with views of the water on three sides. The house was open and airy, filled with shells and maps of the Bahamas, and pillows with images of flowers and birds. On the ground floor, hibiscus blooms were visible from the many windows and a breeze lifted the slight curtains away from the window frames. I remembered passing by this house long ago when we were on vacation in Eleuthera. I had peered inside and wondered what it might be like to live there.

***** 

            Now, years later, I wake up from a different dream. My children have grown and the house no longer bursts with the sounds of children playing. My first thought upon awakening: it is still the pandemic. In recent dreams, I am being moved against my will into a tiny space, consisting of three tiny rooms. I see my belongings being flung into a large garbage bin and when I cry out and ask them to stop, no one seems to hear me.

            Some of our neighbors throw parties when the weather is good. Through our open windows or during our solitary walks, we hear the laughter and see the gardens lit up with lanterns and the outlines of the guests inside the houses. A pandemic walking route takes me by a property that reminds me of Penny’s garden. The house is rambling and white and sits on a hill, the gardens filled with hydrangea blossoms that spill over fences and masses of rose bushes. I remember the parties there—especially the walk I would make up the giant driveway and the times I waited on the doorstep to be let in.

            The evenings spent in those houses were, for me, filled with the same sort of evanescent magic as Penny’s garden, but my memories are always coupled with my memories of myself, standing outside on those doorsteps, hoping to be let in to these other worlds.     

            My husband and I have always enjoyed visiting homes for sale when there are open houses near us. During the pandemic, we embark on virtual tours of the places someone might choose to buy. If the house is elegant enough, it will have been photographed from many angles. We move through these houses, from room to room, in three dimensions, and once again find ourselves lost in the houses of others.



BIO

Anita Kestin, MD, MPH, has worked in academics, nursing homes, hospices, and locked wards of a psychiatric facility.  She’s a daughter (of immigrants fleeing the Holocaust), wife, mother, grandmother, and a progressive activist.  She is now attempting to calm nerves and stave off longing for family by writing (memoir, short fiction, nonfiction, poetry). She submitted her first non-scientific piece in her sixties (during the Pandemic) and is thrilled that over a dozen short pieces have been accepted for publication.



Dust Bowl Venus by Stella Beratlis

Reviewed by Linda Scheller

California’s Central Valley is a 450-mile-long stretch of rich soil irrigated by an extensive system of canals. This extraordinarily productive region abounds in fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, and poets. The hot sun and wide sky have nurtured many noteworthy poets, including Philip Levine, Mai Der Vang, and Juan Felipe Herrera. Another is Modesto Poet Laureate Emeritus Stella Beratlis. Dust Bowl Venus, her new book from Sixteen Rivers Press, is poetry of place grounded in the Central Valley city of Modesto.

During the Great Depression, thousands of people displaced by drought and poverty made their way to California. One of them was Hazel Houser, a migrant from Oklahoma who settled in Modesto and became a prolific songwriter of gospel and country hits. She is the muse of Dust Bowl Venus, memorialized by Beratlis in poems exploring their shared passions and common struggles.

Beratlis writes about desire, folly, and reverence in stanzas that juxtapose incantatory fervor with plainspoken determination, as these lines from “We Write Songs in His Rent Controlled Apartment” illustrate:

                        I beseech thee, stainless quivering leg of bone and ligament,
            allow me to finish the entire song. I’m no lead guitarist.
                        Is the song better served by a sharp tidy solo
            or the Janus tremolo of pure feeling? I wonder.
                        Do not counter with what is known. Fingerpick the hell out of
            these strings, in this small apartment with its brief luxuries
                        and cigarette smoke.

Many of the poems make reference to ligaments, bone, and the heart, most poignantly when the speaker reflects on her daughter’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” lays bare the terror felt by a mother shown the image of a tumor lodged in her daughter’s chest. “Castle of the Mountain” brings the reader chairside to behold the bag of bright red chemotherapy drug and hear the tick and beep of the infusion machine. Bertatlis depicts a mother’s anguish, endurance, and tentative faith with sensitivity and precision.

Dust Bowl Venus is replete with love and its flip side, loss. “All About Birds: An Elegy” is dedicated to the assassinated Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As in many of her poems, Beratlis here employs questions and anaphora to powerful effect, emphasizing the grief of the beloved survivor:

                        Which galaxy

            contains you now? Which bird’s throat?
                        In the pines,
            the wind swept through the thicket, and I saw.

                        I saw.

But not all is gloom in this collection. Beratlis plays with language in asides contained within dashes like a hand slyly screening the speaker’s mouth, “et cetera” waving away a rueful reflection, and parentheses cupping a muttered justification. Numerous poems apostrophize with “O,” and sometimes “Oh” precedes a thought like a sigh. Archaisms such as “whence,” “woe be unto us,” and “thou” echo the King James Bible that Houser, a minister’s daughter, transposed into gospel hits. Simultaneously, the occasional “goddamn” or “busting” keeps the reader in the rough and tumble West. This excerpt from “Conversation with a Lover About the Louvins” exemplifies the poet’s whimsical word play:

                        First,
            step down into street; in darkness delight. Next,
            rye paired with pear, the pair pared

            to leather, bluejean and thigh. Hazel’s rules
            for songwriting: Dip from the deeper well. Well, we are.

Intimacy and distance are balanced by scientific allusions interfused with the human condition in references to physics, botany, astronomy, and geology. The long poem “water wealth contentment health” alone contains “neurotransmitters,” “epigenetics,” “atmospheric river,” “genomes,” “fractal,” and “gut-brain.” These notes of erudition embellish poems that prove both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Affectionate address—“my love,” “my dear,” “my citadel fortress”—connects the speaker with people and things that inspire joy and spark recognition. A tribute to Modesto, “Republic of Tenderness and Bread” marvels at the community’s kindness. Even poems of disappointment and heartbreak hold commendable grace as in “Fracture Mechanics” and “Instant Messaging with Broken Glass” which invoke hard-earned wisdom with dry humor and a shrug of resignation.

Throughout Dust Bowl Venus, music conveys wonder, vulnerability, and revelation. As well as Houser’s gospel harmonies and rhythm guitar, the poems evoke Paganini, reggae, assouf and corridos, blues, punk rock, and christos anesti sung by the speaker’s Greek family in a Livermore cemetery. Beratlis composes verbal music by means of repeated sounds and careful rhythms, with phrases that cycle back like the chorus of a song, and in the counterpoint of silence. Her judicious use of spacing and punctuation control the tempo to compelling effect. These lines from the poem “How to Possibly Find Something or Someone By Praying” demonstrate the poet’s understanding of the power inherent in end stop and enjambment:

            I’m a typewriter wreck on the highway;
            don’t look at me.
            You are throwing your voice
            into every corner as I hunt and peck
            the light fantastic.

            A neon Lucky Strike sign, vintage automobiles, and other carefully chosen objects conjure the zeitgeist of Houser’s Modesto. “Historic Structure Report” tenderly addresses a specific building downtown—“Hush, my monolith”—and describes its architecture in detail:

            The asparagus fern of commerce
            overspills your planters,
            thrives along your bones,
            while inside, borrowed-money ball gowns
            and loggia daydreams consider a dance. Your glass,
            columns, composite floors, and floral-stamped metal—
            those vertical striations raked in cement—
            all expressions of a certain mid-century mindset.

Dust Bowl Venus is the cartography of two lives. Led to the canneries and dance halls of the “beloved city” familiar to both Houser and Beratlis, the reader is urged to observe, consider, and cherish people and places. In “All About Birds: An Elegy,” the speaker counsels:

                                    Remember to etch images
                        and locations into your mind—
            this poem is a memory palace:

In a region of relentless heat and meager precipitation, nonetheless, plants, people, and poetry can and do flourish. In Dust Bowl Venus, Stella Beratlis maps one Central Valley city and the intricate traces of the heart.

Sixteen Rivers Press        ISBN 978-1-939639-25-7      
$16.00       Paperback       80 pgs.      https://sixteenrivers.org/order/



BIO

Linda Scheller is the author of Fierce Light from FutureCycle Press. Her writing prizes include the 2020 Catherine Cushman Leach Poetry Award and 2021 California Federation of Chaparral Poets Contest. Her book reviews and poetry recently appeared in Entropy, The Inflectionist Review, Oddville Press, West Trade Review, and The American Journal of Poetry. 



Hit That Ridge Again But This Time Hit It Full Speed

By Riley Winchester


In the summer of 2003 I flipped a go-kart on its head in an attempt to impress my dad. I didn’t intend on flipping the go-kart, because my dad didn’t have some weird fascination with upside-down quadracycles, but in my attempt to impress him that’s ultimately what happened. What I was doing was following a simple order he had given.

Before the flip, I had been putzing around in the go-kart all afternoon with my younger sister Kylan in the passenger seat. We drove back and forth and around in laps in a brown barren field across the street from our house. I imagine we looked so tiny and slow in our cherry red 110cc go-kart, traversing the dry vast field like a Ford Focus driving through a Mad Max movie.

Across the street from us, my dad stood in our driveway and watched while he ate from a bag of cheddar cheese curds. At the time, I thought he was the biggest and toughest person in the world. He stood six-feet-tall; he wasn’t heavy but he was by no means thin—he had a small swell for a stomach, a flat chest, muscular biceps, and broomsticks for legs. 

I grew bored of driving the same routes and Kylan was too scared to drive, so I turned the go-kart back toward my house and started home. I was ready to take a break from driving and do my usual summertime activities, like reading lowbrow juvenile literature or paralyzing my mind with Nickelodeon.  

On the way back I hit a small bump in the ground that I hadn’t ever hit before. I was going slow enough that the go-kart only did an underwhelming little jump, bouncing maybe half an inch off the ground. I didn’t think much of it and kept driving toward my dad.

The closer I drove toward him, the more I noticed how excited my dad looked. His eyes had ballooned bright and his cheese curd chewing had been enlivened into cheese curd chomping. I stopped the go-kart about ten feet away from him and he ran up to the driver’s side and squatted down to talk to me.

“Did you feel that?” he said with a wide smile and raised eyebrows.

“Feel what?”

“That jump!”

“Uh,” I thought for a second, “yeah, I did.”

The smell of cheddar cheese emanated from his mouth and pervaded the air between us. My eyes squinted as I looked at him, attempting to block out the sun. Kylan sat silently in the passenger seat, not yet old enough or familiar enough with my dad to know what was about to come out of his mouth. But I knew, and I could already feel the nerves building up and the knot in my stomach cinch tighter and hotter.

Then he said it.

“Hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed.”

———

Nobody asked for the go-kart but one day my dad came home with it and surprised us all—my mom, two sisters, and me. He had somehow jammed it into the bed of his pickup truck, and when he returned home he fashioned a homemade ramp to drive the go-kart down out of the bed. But since it was a kid’s go-kart, he couldn’t fit behind the wheel to drive it. So my first time behind the wheel of a go-kart I had to drive in reverse down a steep decline on thin planks of wood that had been rotting in the back of our barn for at least two full presidential terms.

I think it took me forty-five minutes to drive down the five-foot-long ramp because my foot was anchored on the brake and only let off it for millisecond-long intervals.

It was around the time of both mine and Kylan’s birthdays, so my dad justified the go-kart purchase by saying it was a shared birthday present for us. That summer I was hoping for either some new Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards or the latest releases in the Captain Underpants series—Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets, and its sequel Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers. And I doubt Kylan had a go-kart on her birthday wish list. Nevertheless it’s what we were stuck with that year.

This wasn’t the first instance of my dad coming home with a new toy—as he called them—nor was it the last. At least a couple times a year he would come home with a quad or a UTV or a golf cart or some other small engine vehicle either packed into the bed of his truck or hauled in a trailer.

The funny thing was my dad always claimed the toys weren’t for him, even though we all knew they were. If he came home with a youth go-kart that he couldn’t fit in and drive, we knew his reason for buying it was so he would have something new to tinker on in the barn, a new engine to tear apart and figure out, a new project to consume his evenings and weekends.

My dad was a worker, blue-collar as they come, and he believed in the virtues of work, work, work, and then, when all the work is done, find some more work or make some more work. This was something I never understood. I didn’t like work, not one bit. It made me tired and sweaty, so why would I ever seek out more of it?

I thought my dad had some rare, still undiscovered mental illness—or at least some shades of masochism—because of his psychotic predilection for work. To me it was an unhealthy obsession with labor and an equally unhealthy aversion to leisure. We couldn’t have been more different in our philosophies.

My dad never sat still or slowed down. When I would help him finish a project in the barn, I thought I now had the freedom to sit and relax inside, read a book, study for tomorrow’s spelling test, level up my team in Pokémon Ruby on my Game Boy Advance. I would turn and start walking toward the house, then my fantasy would be interrupted by something like, “Grab me a 9/16 socket and a flashlight. And get under here and hold the light for me. It’s darker than rabbit shit—I can’t see a damn thing under here.”

His go-go lifestyle never allowed him to sleep in either, not so long as there was work to be done. And there was always work to be done. If I ever slept past 7:30 a.m. on weekends, my dad would Kramer-burst into my room, turn the light on, peel my eyelids open, and say, “Get up, don’t sleep your day away.” It was 7:30—the moon still hung hazily in the sky, the grass was blanketed with morning dew—and my day was already in danger of being slept away. When I would grumble and plead to sleep in for another hour, he would say, “Tough shit. When I was your age I was waking up at four in the morning to go milk cow tits.”

He wasn’t a man to ever slow down and stop and smell the roses, simply because he was too busy digging up an area for a new rose garden somewhere else. I didn’t understand. I liked slowing down and smelling all the pretty roses.

———

I swallowed down the gigantic nervous lump in my throat and said, “OK.” The word smacked of cowardice as soon as it left my mouth. I didn’t want to hit that ridge again, and I sure as hell didn’t want to hit it full speed. But I knew this was a rare opportunity for me, an opportunity to show my dad that I wasn’t weak or scared, and prove to myself that maybe we weren’t as different as I thought we were.

I turned the go-kart around and drove back toward the field, toward the ridge I was supposed to hit full speed, and away from the safety of my house. I sat at the end of the driveway, neurotically scanning back and forth across the street, checking for cars that I knew weren’t there. We were way out in the boondocks, no cars or any signs of civilization were within a country mile. And I knew that, but I needed to bide my time as long as I could before my imminent ridge-hitting death.

The go-kart trundled through the field. I stared at the ridge as I drove past it. I stared at it like an abandoned baby zebra stares at a clan of hyenas during a hungry summer in The Serengeti. Once I had driven what I thought was far enough past the ridge, I turned the go-kart around so I could hit the ridge while driving toward my dad. I figured if I was going to die trying to impress him, he ought to see it.

I looked at Kylan in the passenger seat—quiet, innocent, blissfully unaware—and wondered if I would be posthumously charged with murder after I inevitably killed us both.

The go-kart and I were still. My arms were rigid, hands glued to the wheel, right foot scared of the gas pedal. Sweat percolated through the papery hairs on the back of my neck. I licked my lips. They were dry, like the field I was about to barrel through at full speed against my will. The go-kart engine hummed, soft and unassuming. I took a couple deep breaths. I looked across the street toward my dad but all I saw was a fuzzy outline. The field ahead of me was speckled with heat mirages, looking like I was about to drive through a dozen little puddles.

Something possessed me—I don’t know if it was a murderous demon or a surge of dumb courage—and I hit the gas.

The engine screamed and I felt the stuffy air wash over my face as I charged toward the ridge. My foot pinned the gas pedal to the metal frame below it. It felt like I had broken the sound barrier in that brown barren field. I was going too fast and my mind was too scrambled to see where the ridge was. I started to panic, but my panicking was interrupted.

I hit the ridge.

And this time I hit it full speed.

The go-kart did a weak one hundred eighty degree flip, slammed back into the arid, compacted dirt, and kept moving forward on its head, sliding through the dirt and leaving a trail of red paint chips and indents in the earth.

When I finally came to, and when I finally found the courage to open my eyes, I looked straight ahead, out at the tree line off in the distance. It looked different now, like the trees were coming out of the sky instead of the earth. Kylan cried and screamed, castigating me for being stupid enough to flip the go-kart. Physically we were both unharmed—the roll cage, seatbelts, and helmets ensured that. But we were handling the mental trauma differently. Me, in shock and silence. Kylan, in tears and screaming.

I heard a familiar voice over Kylan’s screams.

“God damn! You really hit that, huh boy!”

My dad squatted down and looked at Kylan and me, still dangling upside down.

“I didn’t expect you to flip the damn thing,” he said.

He manhandled the go-kart back upright onto its four wheels and pulled Kylan out of the passenger seat.

“I’m gonna walk Ky back, OK?” he said. “You drive it back and pull it into the barn, bud.”

I tried to tell him I was too scared to drive it back but I couldn’t get the words out. It felt like concrete had been poured down my throat. It was then I realized I was nothing like my dad. He could flip a go-kart and get right back on it. I didn’t want to flip go-karts, let alone even drive go-karts. I wanted comfort and stillness and safety. I wanted to be anywhere but behind the wheel of that stupid go-kart in that stupid field.

———

Years went by and things remained the same. My dad continued his busy lifestyle, and I continued to do, and be, the opposite of him. He spent his time playing around with motors and listening to classic rock on the old radio in the barn. I spent my time playing online video games and listening to prepubescent boys call me slurs and say how they all had defiled my mom.  

Then in November of 2013 my dad was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer.

Life hadn’t just thrown a couple speed bumps his way, it had laid out miles of spike strips ahead of him.

Still, he continued, to the best of his ability, to live the same life as he had before. He underwent a total colectomy in March of 2014, and his colon and the cancer were removed. He was fitted with a colostomy bag, which was now, without a colon, his only method of releasing excrement. He joked that he now saved so much time without having to stop what he was doing to use the bathroom, and he could be even more productive than before. Life, he thought, had regained a sense of normalcy.

But the normalcy was short-lived.

Seven months after the total colectomy, the cancer came back, and this time it refused to be defeated. The cancer perniciously took hold of his body and destroyed it from the inside out. It spread to his lymph nodes, his peritoneum, his lungs, tumors invaded his back and lumped along the crease of his spine.

By December of 2015, the cancer had completely seized his body and there was no hope of recovery, not even a miracle could save him. There is nothing else in this world that weakens and destroys someone like cancer, not even the most destructive war or brutal fight. Nothing else can strip someone of their essence, of their self—these always remain, even after the worst defeat. But cancer will. It will take these elements of someone’s being and shatter and trample them into the dust for everyone to see.

My dad was admitted into hospice care where he was put into a medically induced coma. His body was plastered with Fentanyl patches, his veins ran heavy with Dilaudid and Oxycodone and Alprazolam and Methylphenidate and other pharmaceuticals to alleviate his physical pain and shut off his mind.

I spent five days in a sofa chair by his bedside. I had never seen him sit so still, never in the eighteen years I had spent with him. He had never looked so small. His body had shriveled; bones now outlined the parts of his arms that were before inhabited by muscle. His face was sallow and pruned to the jagged corners of his jawline. The biggest and toughest person in the world had been beaten, abused, and destroyed into a frail little fragment of what he once was. For the first time in my life I was bigger than him, and I hated it.

The man I saw in the bed, I thought, wasn’t the same man I had known, the man who raised me. The man who was always on the move, never living a passive life, the man who told me to hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed—because he wanted me to live fast and take chances like he did—was no longer there.

He died Sunday, December 6, 2015, at 2:25 p.m.

Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t the metastatic cancer that killed my dad but the stillness. For five days he lay in that hospice bed, motionless, unable to get up and move and live how he always had. I imagine the back of his mind was filled with little anxieties the entire time he was in hospice—the oil change my car needed, the water softener that needed to be refilled with salt, the shaky stair banister that he planned on replacing. It must have driven him crazy.

After he died, my mom, sisters, and I individually spent some time in the hospice room with my dad. Although his body had been essentially dead since he arrived at hospice, and I had spent five days with him like that, it was strange to see him now eternally still. I sat in the sofa chair by his bedside and stared at him. I wanted to say something but I couldn’t. There wasn’t anything blocking my ability to speak—my throat was clear and my voice box was smooth and ready. I didn’t say anything because I thought nothing needed to be said between us. Everything that needed to be said had already been said, and it was now the time for silence.

As I stared at my dad longer, I created this image in my head of him opening his eyes, turning toward me, smiling, and saying, “Get up, we gotta go home and snow blow the driveway!” Or, “Come on, we gotta run to the hardware store right quick!”

Part of me thought it would actually happen. I convinced myself enough of it that I inched my right index finger toward my dad and poked him on the shoulder to check if he was actually dead or just faking it.

He wasn’t faking it.

I laughed when I thought of how ridiculous I must have looked, how ridiculous I was for even having a thought like that. I like to think my dad, wherever he was, laughed too.

———

Had my dad been born in the Neolithic Period, he would have taken the newly developed scrapers, blades, and axes and cultivated a thousand acres of land overnight by himself.

Had my dad been born in Antiquity, he would have given Plato a wet willie and said, “Shut up with all that science talk and gimme that hammer over there.”

Had my dad been born in the Age of Discovery, he would have circumnavigated the world three times over before Magellan had even left port.

Instead, he was born on a summery day in April in 1966, and he was my dad.

At times I thought the only thing we had in common, and the only modicum of proof that I was his son, was how much we looked alike—we’re basically twins born thirty-one years apart. We thought differently, we acted differently, we lived differently. He liked to work; I liked to think. He was fearless and outgoing; I was demure and reserved. He lived fast and didn’t think about consequences; I preferred to take things slow.

My dad once said that people have a lot more in common than they realize, but it’s just that differences stick out a lot more and that’s what we notice. I had never given that much thought until after he died—I had always discredited it as another one of his hackneyed little aphorisms he liked to throw around sometimes to seem intellectual. The differences between my dad and me stood out much more when he was alive. But now with time apart—physically and emotionally—I’ve become privy to all that we shared in common. 

We had the same sense of humor and laughed at the same jokes—whenever he heard a new joke somewhere, he couldn’t wait to share it with me. We never took ourselves too seriously, no matter how serious of a situation we were in. We both liked mindless action movies with no plots. We both liked Detroit sports, and we even went to some Tigers, Lions, and Pistons games together. We both liked to eat our French toast smothered in ketchup.

They’re little things, but they’re little things that mean a lot to me.

And I know they meant a lot to him.

The day I flipped a go-kart on its head I thought I would never in a million lifetimes understand my dad. I thought I could never understand someone so different than me, someone maniacal enough to convince a six-year-old kid to attempt suicide by go-kart. It was a confluence of confusion and terror. I wasn’t even sure if my dad was human. But, as it turned out, I just didn’t yet understand the simplicity of his life philosophy.

My dad wasn’t content with putzing around in a go-kart in the brown barren field across the street. That wasn’t enough for him. He believed that, sometimes, you just gotta hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed.

 

 

BIO

Riley Winchester’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ligeia Magazine, Miracle Monocle, Sheepshead Review, Ellipsis Zine, Beyond Words, Pure Slush’s “Growing Up” Anthology, and other publications. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

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