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Sandra Niemi, author of Glamour Ghoul


I’m a longtime fan of Maila Nurmi’s, the woman who created and played the legendary Vampira on TV and in movies. Although I don’t remember, my mom once told me that she took me to see Vampira in person when I was a little kid. I guess Maila did public appearances—in costume? Maila Nurmi was the host of The Vampira Show on ABC-TV back in 1954 in Los Angeles. Countless imitators followed her, borrowing and stealing from her unique look and style.

After reading the excellent book, Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi, that examines the extraordinary life of Maila Nurmi (1922-2008), the legendary TV host, actress and artist, I was curious to know more about the author. Sandra Niemi is Maila’s niece. When Maila Nurmi passed away in 2008, Sandra took control of Maila Nurmi’s writings and possessions. Ten years later, she penned a loving tribute to her famous fabulous Finnish aunt.

I was able to contact Sandra recently and she agreed to be interviewed for The Writing Disorder.

Tell us about yourself. Where are you living now?

Where the weather is mostly gray and cloudy. November is my least favorite month of the year. It’s dark and rainy and cold and the days are short. I live in Salem, Oregon, which is the capital. It’s a fairly good-sized town. I don’t know the population, but it’s a lot bigger than my hometown of Astoria that I lived in for sixty years. I sure do miss it, but the rain keeps me away.

How far is it from Salem?

Astoria is about two and a half hours north. I was up there recently for a Vampira celebration. It was a big success. They screened Plan 9 from Outer Space and they’re celebrating Maila because she graduated from Astoria high school in 1940. So the town is claiming her as an Astorian.

You grew up in Astoria, as well as your father, who was Maila’s brother?

Yes, my dad was Maila’s brother. He was 17 months older.

Did you know Maila growing up?

Not really. I met her when I was too young to remember. But I remember this, I must have been five or six at the time. My family went down to Los Angeles, and I saw her for the first time—and I was sure she was my own private Cinderella, because she was so beautiful. I had never seen such a beautiful human being in my life. It was in the daytime, I can still see her, she had blonde hair and she had blue eye shadow from her lashes to her brows, and bright red lipstick, a gold lame dress, and transparent shoes—which reminded me of Cinderella’s glass slippers. Then I didn’t see her again until her mother, my grandma, died when I was ten. And we went down to L.A. where they lived. Maila lived with her mother on Carlton Way. We were there for the funeral and Maila scared me. She reenacted how she found her mother dead in the chair that I was sitting in. But I didn’t know that, and she gave out this blood curdling scream that she was known for as Vampira and scared me to death. I ran out of the house. So, I thought that this was kind of a weird place to be, you know, it wasn’t like my little house in Astoria. And the strange thing is how Maila wore a black shift dress and dirty white slacks for two days. And then on the day of the funeral, or the day before the funeral, she asked my mother what she was going to wear to the funeral and my mother told her. And she thought, oh good, Maila’s going to change her clothes. But she didn’t, she just wore the same clothes again, and an old raggedy men’s navy-blue cardigan sweater inside out. Very odd.

She was a very independent and unique person—in her taste, her style, and with everything she did.

She was never afraid to display her different outlook on life, or to talk about it. She was very brave. And she just went about her life as she chose.

I read your book and it’s a really great story. It’s very well written. I kept asking myself, who wrote this book? I wanted to know more about you because I assumed you had written many other books, because it’s so good.

When I was younger in my 20s, I went to and graduated from Oregon State University, in 1969 when I was 22, and I majored in English. I always kind of fantasized about writing because I really enjoyed it. I received a lot of compliments from my professors, and good grades. And then life got in the way, and I worked my entire life as a minimum wage waitress, cannery worker, bartender, or house cleaner. I started out at 99 cents an hour and I think I ended at 8 or 10 dollars an hour. Oh, I worked 18 years at this job, the best job I ever had at the end. I worked 18 years as a medical lab courier. I went to clinics and hospitals and picked up specimens and delivered them to the laboratory. I never did anything with my love of writing until I got Maila’s writings. She didn’t have a typewriter, and this was before computers. She was a prolific writer, and it was all done in long hand. She wrote and wrote, and I gathered all of her papers together. And I thought, well, here is Maila’s story. I’m the only one who can write it. Maila and I had talked about it, when we were writing back and forth for three or four years, before we lost contact again. She said that she and I should do a coffee table book. Since she had been a house cleaner and I had been a house cleaner, she said, we’ll talk about the famous toilets that I cleaned, and you can talk about the rich timber barons and fishermen that you worked for. We never got around to it, but wherever she is, she is not mad at me.

It’s a great book. I would read it again because I enjoyed it so much.

It always shocks me, because we always put our own work down, you know, and have great doubts. Thank you.

Did she ever plan to write an autobiography?

Three times that I know of. I picked up in her apartment, after she passed, an old reel to reel tape and my friend got a player so we could hear what she said. She had spoken the words as a biography, and she had a friend there who was taping it. That was in 1966, so she was planning it then. And then she was planning it with another author, his name is Warren Beath, and he wrote a book about James Dean. He thought he was in contact with Maila, and then as Maila would sometimes do, she would erase the person from her life forever. She would not trust them, and she thought he was trying to steal her story and write her story himself. And then at the end I met this man, Stuart Timmons, he was the man who was with Maila day in and day out during the Elvira trial. He did everything for her, Maila never drove, of course, so Stuart drove her around wherever she needed to be, and he did a lot of the legal work that she needed done, because anything, like the clerical stuff, she had to do and he was also an author. She was telling him stories about what had happened in her life and he was taking notes and typing them up. And then she got to where she didn’t trust him, so she erased him from her life.

Now Stuart and I got together right after Maila passed away. We had lunch together, and we also were together every day. He helped me clean out Maila’s apartment. And, in fact, I found a box that Maila had written: To Stuart Timmons. And I said, Stewart, here is a box just for you. And he said, oh my gosh, and he got teary eyed. Inside was some jewelry that she had made for him. He was so thrilled to get it. And then we went to Maila’s storage unit with Dana Gould, another friend of Maila’s. Dana is the one who paid for her storage unit. And it was a big storage unit — it was packed to the rafters. You couldn’t put a hair pin in there it was perfectly packed to the door, to the ceiling, to the wall. And Dana said, oh my God, this is going to be a chore to go through, and I said, yes. He had a key and I had a key, and because I had to go back to Astoria to work, I gave my key to Stuart, because I totally trusted him. He was a wonderful man. In fact, I called him Uncle Stuart, because he told me he was my aunt Maila’s last gay husband. So, I called him Uncle Stuart.

Dana gave his key to a woman named Gabrielle Geiselman, who at the time had a boyfriend who was a bass player for Rob Zombie’s rock band. And he is still famous, he’s Matt Montgomery or Piggy D, is his professional name. Anyway, they broke up and Gabrielle moved to New Orleans. Stewart called me one day, and I have documentation of this. Stuart called me on the 26th of January 2008. I was in Astoria. And he told me, I think I found THE dress, Maila’s, and I found some hip pads and a waist cincher, and he says I’ll put them aside for you. I thought, oh, that’s wonderful because I’m coming back to L.A. for Maila’s memorial in February. So as luck would have it, five days later, Stewart suffered a massive stroke. He couldn’t speak. They didn’t expect him to live. He was hospitalized for over two years before he was able to come out. He has since passed away, but his brain was fine, but he could no longer walk. He had to be in a wheelchair, and you couldn’t understand what he said. But he was still writing books when he passed away. But when I went back to the storage unit in February, it had been ransacked and everything was gone all the way to one stack of boxes at the very back. So, I called Dana right away and said what happened to the storage unit? He said, Gabriel was there but you know she saved everything for you. There’s a box there for you and I rented another storage unit there that you put all the garbage in that you didn’t want. I said, Stuart, there’s one box here with a hat in it and that’s all. I was furious. And I couldn’t make Dana understand. I blame Dana for ransacking it, and there was a rift with Dana and me. And we didn’t speak for 10-12 years. We’ve made-up now. We’re friendly now, but now he realizes that Gabrielle was a thief. She took all Maila’s stuff, oh gosh—her bat sunglasses, her waist cincher, the dress, black wigs, her makeup, and all kinds of writings. Her marriage proposal from Marlon Brando — all the pictures, and she sold them to Jonny coffin. Jonny Coffin now owns them and the trademark. I get no money; the family gets no money from anything that Maila sells. Not a penny.

You know anything with Maila Nurmi on it that sells, Jonny Coffin gets it all because he owns the trademark. But he went and got it behind my back while I was still grieving my aunt and so yeah, he’s the owner of the trademark. Maila’s family gets nothing. In fact, he tried to stop the publishing of my book. He sent his lawyer to me. His lawyer threatened me and so I turned it into my publisher’s lawyer, and they got rid of him. But then Johnny turns around and says that he helped me write the book. Oh no, which is obviously a big lie. He contributed nothing except a letter from his lawyer saying that they were going to stop the publishing of Glamour Ghoul and that you owe him $30,000. For what, I don’t know.

His real name is John Edwards, and he’s married to a woman named Linda Kay who is an actress and singer. Jonny is a big goth fan, and he hosts parties where he wears a Cape and a weird top hat. He has hair down to his waist and he has some kind of shop where he sells coffin-shaped guitar cases. He has girls dressed in bikinis and things advertising his guitar cases. And he sells a bunch of other stuff — plus all the Vampira stuff, of course, he sells now, and he makes pretty good money.

I think I saw him on YouTube. He was talking at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

That’s where Maila is buried. Maila had her 100th birthday celebration last December in L.A. And I was there, and Jonny coffin, of course, wasn’t. He was terrified of me, so he didn’t even make an appearance.

I’m so sorry that all this happened to you.

We were very close for a while, Jonny, and me. He would call me a couple times a week, always professing to be my friend and asking me advice—what color should I put in this advertisement, and what do you think about this? I guess he was just trying to get information from me. I don’t know. And then when I told him one day, after many years we had talked, in fact. I’ve met Jonny several times. I’ve had lunch with him and his wife in L.A. And we were friendly, but one night he called me in Salem, and I said to him, you know Jonny I have in my possession from when Maila was alive, a cease and desist letter from her attorney to you, because you were proposing to introduce a new Vampira doll and Maila wasn’t going to have anything to do with that. And she told him in the letter, she said she never wanted Jonny coffin to have anything to do with Vampira, and he hung up on me. He never talked to me again because he knew the jig was up. Maila hated him in life.

I think that book The Vampire Diaries was put out by him.

Yes. It’s mostly newspaper clippings, I think. When I went back to his shop in 2009, he showed me a three-ring binder with all these newspaper clippings of Maila’s career that he had bought from a man named Chad, and he had paid $300 for it. A lot of those articles were in that book. I haven’t bought the book, but a friend of mine in California did buy the book, and I leafed through it. I wasn’t going to read it. I don’t know how many of Maila’s writings were in there, but they were all stolen property that Gabrielle stole. If Maila knew this was going she’d be so mad. I know she’d be on my side. So, I don’t know where it’s all going to end but that’s where it is now. And Jonny has no family. He has his wife, but his mother, father and sister have all passed away. And he and his wife have no children, whereas I have a daughter and two grandchildren that I have to live for. And then I have also met Maila’s son, David Putter.

Yes! Are you still you still in touch with him?

Oh, yes! I just called him. He left me a text message last week. He’s learning how to message. He’s going to be 80 in March, and I’m 76. I’m going to be 77 in May, and he’ll be 80 in March. So, we’re all Oldtimers. Yes, I’ve met him, and he’s got his mother’s eyes, exactly the same color and everything—that brilliant blue. We got along really well. He was an esteemed attorney for 50 years. It was celebrated with a lifetime achievement at the ACLU. He was at one time the assistant attorney general of Vermont. He has some things that he changed in the courtroom that are still law today in Vermont. He’s a very esteemed attorney. Maila would be very, very proud to know that.

Has he ever tried to reach out to the other side of the family?

Well, he’s looking to see who his dad is. He asked Orson Welles’ daughter for DNA, but he hasn’t heard back yet. But he’s trying to find out for sure. We don’t know for sure. We just know what Maila said. We weren’t there so we don’t know for sure. But I put it in the book because that’s what Maila said. Everything she said was put in italics in the book. You know she was a brilliant writer herself.

I remember her writings in your book. I liked the way she always used an ampersand.

Yes. I was really impressed by how she expressed herself, and I thought this is too good to paraphrase, I need to put her words down word for word so she can tell her story right. So that’s how it all happened.

You spent a lot of time researching this book.

Oh, I forgot to tell you that in 1989 I spent a week with her in Los Angeles and that’s the last time I saw her. We had a great time, we got along together. We dined out every single day and we got drunk together.

Those were the good old days — 1989 in Los Angeles.

It was August, the last week of August of 1989.

She was living in East Hollywood.

She was living at a place on Hudson Ave. and it’s no longer there. They raised the house and the garage that she lived in. There’s an apartment house there now. She was evicted but she got $5,000 to move, so that helped her.

And she had a store on Melrose Ave.?

Yes, she had a store. She went to garage sales and bought things and brought them back to her store and resold them. And also when she was on Melrose—she was a great seamstress—she made clothes for rock stars, during the hippie age, when they liked pantaloons and feathers and sequins and things like that. She would make costumes and people bought them. And she made jewelry. I still have many pieces of her jewelry, many pins that are signed Vampira on the back.

She also did some painting and artwork?

Yes, she did, and they were stolen—every single one. I know for a fact that when I looked at the storage unit before it had been ransacked, there were many paintings and they were covered with paper and they were propped on either side of the door. And when I came back, they were all gone. A year later I picked up a copy of Spin magazine. I don’t think it’s in print anymore, and there was a two-page color layout of Rob Zombie displaying his favorite things, and two of them were Maila’s, two of her paintings. He said he bought them from Maila’s estate. And I thought, no, you bought them from Gabrielle Geiselman, who’s the girlfriend of your guitarist Matt Montgomery aka Piggy D. So, she sold at least two paintings that I know of to Rob, and he has money, so she probably sold them for $1,000 each. They’re probably worth more now.

I’m assuming they’re worth a lot more.

I own one of her paintings that’s small. I got it is from a friend of Maila’s. They were very good friend towards the end of her life. His named is Greg and he connected with me, and I connected with him, and we talked. He sent me one of his paintings of Maila’s for free. It’s on my wall. It’s very nice. I love it. I had it professionally framed.

Beyond her personal diaries and her own writings, what other research did you do?

I interviewed Hilda, she was the woman who found Maila when she passed away. And I, of course, interviewed Dana, and the man who wrote Vampira and Me, R.H. Greene. And also, her second husband. His name was Farbrizio Mioni, he lived in Calabasas. When I was in Los Angeles, I just dropped in on him on a Sunday morning. He came to the door in a bathrobe, and he graciously invited me in the house. So, I got to visit with him. His last name was Mioni, and he and Maila were married in 1961 and divorced in 1964. He was 79 years old at the time and he has since passed away. I got the impression that it was just a marriage of convenience. He was gay. Maila wanted so much money a month to stay married to him and he could afford it and so it worked out. They stayed married for three years. And there were other people that knew her. I can’t think of anyone now right off the top of my head, but people that knew her. I would contact them about Maila and take notes. That’s after I had decided to write the book. I didn’t think that at the beginning, you know, and then I thought I have to, I have to. I can’t let Maila be a sad footnote in horror history, right? She deserved so much more.

How long did it take you to write the book?

12 years. I was plagued by self-doubt. Who am I? You know I’m 70 years old and trying to write a book, my first one, and then I would write a couple more chapters and put it away for six months and think, well I’ve come this far. And I’d write a little more, and it just went like that. In fact, I didn’t write the entire book, I was on the last chapter, when I came home from the grocery store and my daughter said to me, who lives with me. She said, I know who Maila’s son is. I know his name. I know where he lives. and I know his phone number. And I said, you do not—come on, that’s not even funny. She said, it’s true, here it is here. His name is David Putter, he lives in Vermont. What happened was, a couple years before for a Christmas present, I had sent my daughter, you know that ancestry.com? I sent her that and she had sent it in, and so had David. And they matched them as first cousins once removed. Oh my God, give me his phone number right this minute, I said. And I called right then and there. I didn’t even have my coat off and David answered the phone. I never dared to dream I could find my cousin; Let alone talk to him. Because I have a very, very small family, and every family member is extremely precious to me. David has no children, and he was adopted, so he has a very, very small family too. So, the first question he asked me is, do you do I know who my mother is? And I said, do I know who your mother is? I’m writing her biography right now, and I’m on the last chapter. You couldn’t be talking to anybody else on earth who knows her better than I do. It’s Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira. And he goes, Oh my God! I waited 75 years to find out who my mother is, and she’s a vampire? He didn’t know who she was, so he immediately went on the internet and looked her up. I said, you can see your mother, you can go on YouTube, and you hear her talk. You can find out everything you want to know just by going on Google. And he was excited about that. He said, I never dreamed of this. And you know those Vampira statues that Maila had commissioned back in the 1980s? They are very, very rare now. I had one for me and I had an extra one. And I said to myself, all these years that I have been packing it around original in the box, never opened, I always said to myself, someday I’m going to find the perfect person to give this to. And I’ll be darned if I didn’t. I sent it to David, and he has it proudly displayed in his living room. Whoever comes over to visit him, he always says that’s my mom out there, and they go, no? and he goes oh yes, that’s my mother! I saw her statue when I was at his house. I went there a year ago in August and I saw Aunt Maila there in David’s living room. He says he feels her around him all the time. And I say well if Maila could be anywhere, it would be with David. And then I said, I thought I was almost done with this book, and I had one more chapter because I had just met David. So that was the final chapter of the book.

Yes. He is the last chapter in the book.

I mean, I was there, I had just gotten to the end. Well now it’s over, just a few more paragraphs. And then I met David. And so, it was just my Maila. I keep saying, you know 12 years it took me to write this book, and I’m saying well Maila said you’re not going to finish this book until you meet my friend. And the minute, the minute I met him, the book was finished. It’s just bizarre, isn’t it, how things work out?

How did you find a publisher? Did you have one from the beginning or did you find one at the end?

When I first started writing the book, I learned that Feral House published the book on Ed Wood, A Nightmare of Ecstasy, that the movie was based on. So, I thought, well Maila was in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Ed Wood—she knew him. I wondered if they’d be interested. So, in 2009 I called up Feral House and I talked to a man Adam Parfrey, he was the owner. And I simply asked him, I told him I was Maila’s niece, she had passed away, and I was going to write a book. Would he be interested in a biography of Vampira? And he said, oh absolutely. I said, okay, thank you. And so fast forward 10-11 years. I called him up again and Adam had passed away, but his sister Jessica was running the business, so I talked to her. And she said, yes, send me the manuscript. So that’s where it went, that’s how that worked out. They took it right away.

Were you involved with the cover design and or any other aspect of the book?

No. I’m not thrilled with the cover, it was not my choice. That was all the publishers. The Passion and Pain of Vampira or whatever the cover says, that was the publisher too. I just wanted to say Glamour Ghoul. So, I didn’t have much input on any of that. No input, I should say. And now these Finnish filmmakers, ICS Nordic, that are in Finland, they’re just in love with the whole concept. They’ve had a contract for going on two years now. They’ve been working on a six-part documentary of the book, and they’re looking for money. They’ve been looking for money for a while, and apparently, they don’t have the money yet, but that’s where that is.

Did they get the rights to your book?

They have a contract. The first time it was for 18 months and that expired. Now they have another six-month contract and Jessica Parfrey has been through this situation with her books many times. She said this is normal for the course, when people try to find money. She’s giving them a lot of leeway.

They’re a company from Finland?

Yes. They’re from there, and because Maila’s from Finland—we’re 100% Finnish all of us. Her parents spoke Finnish at home, and my mother’s parents spoke Finnish at home, so we’re Finnish. I think there are a lot of blondes in Finland, but there are brunettes too. You can usually tell by their faces. They have small eyes and round faces and blonde hair. But Maila and I are similar, we don’t have a round face. We have the cheekbones. I can usually tell Finnish people by looking at their faces. Yeah, they’re Finnish.

Do you have any family in Finland?

I have lots of family in Finland, but I’ve never met them on my mother’s side. My mother was in contact with them briefly. And they sent pictures of our cousins and lots and lots of cemetery pictures. Fins are big on cemeteries. They visit the graves 12 months out of the year—they’re decorated. I laughed when I got the photos, I said, oh there’s the cemetery, grandma said, yes, we’re big on cemeteries. My grandmother on my mother’s side was the oldest of nine children. She came to America on one ship after the Titanic. She missed the boat. She had a ticket for the Titanic, but she was late, and missed the boat. So she had to take the next boat over in 1912. My grandfather was already here from Finland. They got married and my grandmother never got to go back home. On the other side, on Maila’s side, her father was born here but she had one sibling who was 20 years older, and he was born in Finland. When he was a child his parents moved to America. And Sofie was born here in Boston. She was born in Boston. She was a Fin with a Boston accent. She talked like the Kennedys. My grandfather came over here when he was 21. Maila’s dad.

Who were some of your favorite writers?

To tell the truth, in college I had to read so many books as an English major. I even took French. I had to read books written in French, which I couldn’t do now to save my soul. But when I got out of college, I said I never wanted to see another book as long as I live. Never. And I did not read a book for many years. I was sick of reading, and now I can’t live without having a book to read. I like biographies. So, I read a lot of biographies, but I also like true crime like John Grisham, John Sandford, and Lee Child. I’m reading Grisham now. I’m reading something about an island in Florida.

When you were a kid or a teenager, who were some of your favorite writers?

When I was a kid, I read all the Nancy Drew books. Carolyn Keene, I think she’s the one who wrote those books. I can remember sitting in the car when my mom and dad were working during the summer, and just avidly reading those books one after another. I had a collection of Nancy Drew books. All of them were a dollar a piece in those days. And I went to the library quite often and just randomly picked out books to read. I was always a good reader, you know, right from the get-go. I could read very well. I didn’t read much in high school because I had schoolwork to do, and I had to read schoolbooks. The only thing that comes to mind now is Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys (Franklin Dixon) books. I might have read some of The Bobbsey Twins. I read a lot when I was a kid.

What about television — what did you watch when you were growing up?

We lived way out in the sticks, so we had to get an antenna. We didn’t get a television until 1958. But I can remember watching a Miss America pageant, and Bourbon Street Beat. I remember watching Bourbon Street Beat and the writer was Dean Riesner. And I said, oh mom look—we called him Dink—Dink wrote this episode of Bourbon Street Beep. (He was Maila’s husband at the time.) And my mom just said, Oh well, good. But I remember Chet Huntley and David Brinkley news, and I remember the original Mickey Mouse Club.

Dan Riesner was her husband?

Yes, we all called him Dink. I met him when I was a little kid. I remember sitting on his lap. I remember men in those days would flick the ashes from their cigarettes into the cuff of their pants. At the time that I met Dink he had on tan pants and a pink shirt. I remember he took us to a movie set where they were filming. We sat in the back, and they were filming a western. I think it was Amanda Blake or someone like that. There was a girl in a saloon. Then a production guy came around, I was standing by my mother, and the guy said, come on you’re on next, to me, and he grabbed my hand and took off. And my mother said, no, no, wrong kid, wrong kid. I told my mother years later that she had ruined my chance to be a star. We all went and played miniature golf after that, and I got to wear my Aunt Maila’s Cinderella shoes.

Dean was a successful TV writer?

A very, very successful writer. He wrote Play Misty for Me for Clint Eastwood. He wrote the movie for him and he was very involved with Clint Eastwood’s, The Enforcer. Remember all those movies he made in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He even wrote the words, “Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you? Why don’t you make my day?” That’s Dean Riesner. He was very well known, and he was a script doctor. If somebody didn’t like a script, they called him to come in and fix it. Rich Man, Poor Man, the mini-series, he wrote that. He was very famous. He had no children, and he married a woman named Marie, and she passed away before he did. He didn’t have a family either.

How long was he married to Maila?

It was a common law marriage. They were together from 1949 until the first part of 1955. Dean was a hopeless alcoholic when Maila met him. And his career was down the drain, but Maila got him to quit—and his career took off again.

How many times was Maila married?

Twice. I never put the third husband in because I was never sure that they were actually married. She was married sort of married to Dean, I mean common law. And then she was married to Mioni. That’s the name that she went by legally. That’s how she got her Social Security checks, Maila Mioni. Supposedly she was married to John somebody. And I’ve heard there was a marriage license somewhere. But I never saw it, so I didn’t include it in the book. I think Maila and this John guy were just very good friends. So I didn’t include him. I think she was only married twice. And I’ve never been married, so I always say Maila was never really married, and neither was I. And we both have one child. I see a lot of parallels with my life and Maila’s.

Does your daughter or grandchildren have any resemblance to Maila?

No. My daughter is half Hispanic. As she found out with her genealogy. She always says, I’m 61% Finnish. I’m more Finnish than Hispanic. And it came back that her father was 10% Finnish. We never would have guessed. So, she’s 55% Finnish today, and her half-brother is 5% Finnish from his dad, from their mutual father. She’s 47 years old now. And I have two grandchildrenboth living in the Hawaii on differentislands. My granddaughter, she kind of resembles Maila. She would make a perfect new Vampira. She’s five feet, six inches, long dark hair, light colored eyes—very pretty girl. She would make a beautiful Vampira. She’s a bartender in Maui. She’s 27, my grandson is 24, and he works on the Big Island, Hawaii. I don’t ever get to see them because I can’t afford a ticket to get to Hawaii. That makes me sad. If I had the trademark for Vampira, I could afford to go see them. But I don’t.

So, you can’t use the name Vampira for anything because he got the trademark?

I guess I’m not supposed to. It’s okay to write a story about her because you know biographies happen all the time without trademarks. But I can’t sell any anything. I can’t go and have coffee mugs made with Vampira’s name or picture on it, something like that. I can’t do any manufacturing. I can sell things that I found in her house, because that’s like a gift you know. I can sell those, but I can’t manufacture anything and sell it like T-shirts. I can’t even do that.

That’s not right.

No, it isn’t. There’s nothing I can do about it, it would cost lots of money for an attorney, which I do not have the money for. Jonny was counting on that, I’m sure.

Maybe the publisher or someone like that could help.

We’ve had talks. Maybe in the future. I told them, well, you better hurry, because I’m 76, and you know I’d like to see it in my lifetime. But there isn’t anything yet. They have an attorney. The one who wrote the letter in the first place, when they threatened to not get the book published. I’ve met him, he’s very nice. I met him in Astoria this last weekend. He’s a very nice man. So, you don’t know. He kept telling me how important it was for me to attend the Maila celebration in Astoria. He said it was important and I don’t know why. I signed books. There was a Q&A. I have participated in that. I also participated in the signing of books and a Q&A in Los Angeles for Maila’s 100th birthday. So, I’ve done this twice.

When was that?

It was December 11th last year in Los Angeles (2022). I can’t remember the name of theater. It was at a perfect theater. It was supposed to rain like crazy that day, but it was beautiful sunshine on her day. It was in Hollywood. The American Cinematheque—that’s where it was, in Hollywood. It’s the old Egyptian Theater. That’s where we were.

I wish I would’ve known. I would have attended.

They declared it Vampira Day. It was officially named Vampira Day in Los Angeles. And now my biggest wish, my biggest wish, is for Maila to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I can’t believe she doesn’t have one.

I know. I want to start a crowdfunding effort to raise the money. It’s around $55,000 to have a star. And then they have to vote on who gets to have a star that year, because not everyone does. But I think, for Maila, because it was officially called Vampira Day, that it really boosts her chances.

That would be great!

I keep saying that Maila walked the streets of Hollywood for 60 years, because she never drove a car. And for 38 years of those she walked with a cane because she had pernicious anemia. She had walked with a cane. And she walked a lot.

Later in her career, Maila was still appearing in movies.

Yes, she was doing movies, but was still being billed as Vampira. She was never billed as Maila Nurmi. Even though she wasn’t in a Vampira costume, she was still Vampira. As she got older, Maila liked being remembered as Vampira. For a while she tried to get rid of that image, you know like, I’m Maila Nurmi. And then she sort of became like a hermit, a recluse, and moved to the very, very east part of Melrose Ave. She moved from the west part, clear over to the east part. And she never told anyone that she was Vampira. In fact, in the book it says that Hilda knew her as Helen Heaven. And even when I was having lunch with Hilda, she always referred to Maila as Helen. And she knows that her name was Maila, but she always referred to her as Helen. That’s who Maila introduced herself as, Helen.

She lived on Melrose when it was like becoming trendy and popular with punks and new wave music in the 1970s?

She was there when the hippies came out. That’s when she lived there. I’ve gone past the house that she lived in. It’s still there. It looks like a two-story duplex. It might be four apartment units. That’s where she had her shop, in her living room. She didn’t rent a separate place. It had a big window in front. And it was her living room, so she just had that part as her shop. I just saw it in December again. I had some friends from Sacramento that drove down, so they were my wheels while I was there. And they’re interested in Maila too. They have a goth rock band called Ashes Fallen, and they have a song called Vampira that has over 10,000 hits. They’re big Vampira fans. They wanted to go to all the places where Maila lived, and we took pictures. It’s still there, and the little crappy apartment she lived in on east Melrose is also there. When we were there, it was a beauty shop. And, of course, the one where my grandma died, where Maila and grandma lived, It’s still there. It looks almost the exactly the same one. There’s a little fence built around it. A short little fence, and the apartment house next door has been torn down and a new apartment house has been built. And the fence that separated the properties is gone. That’s the same. I recognize that street so well. And then she lived on Gateway. I went up there and looked at that place. And then she died on Serrano and of course, they’ve completely torn down that and rebuilt it so it’s nice and new now. I remember Gabrielle had the key to Maila’s last house, and she did not want me to go back in there. And I couldn’t find her. I called her on the phone she wouldn’t answer. So, I called the managers, and they knew who I was by then. And I said I don’t have a key to Maila’s apartment, and I want to go in, and they said go ahead and break in. And I said really? They said how they were going to tear the place down anyway, so it’s okay—just break in the door. And I said, okay. Kind of funny. So, I was at the front door, and I was shouldering the door, and shouldering the door, and the guy next door opened his window and said, hey, do you need a hammer? Yes. I said, what kind of neighborhood is this where I’m breaking in and they’re offering me help? But Gabrielle had been there, and she had set aside a bunch of stuff on the floor that she wanted to take from Maila’s apartment. And I know she was there because she had left a satchel, an umbrella, and a hat of hers there, which I took. And the couch that Mila had died on, she had ripped open the back of it looking for money. That’s how she thought of Maila. It’s just sickening. And I have pictures of that.

Since you’ve written the book, have you learned anything more about Maila that wasn’t in the book? Are there any stories about her that didn’t get in the book?

There’s probably a couple. When I finished the book, the publisher wanted me to remove about 5,000 words. They wanted it to be shorter. So, I had to take some material out. And somebody said, now you have enough to write a second book. I don’t think I have enough for a second book. I have enough for a fiction book, but it wouldn’t be Maila. It would be some other name. I’ve messed around with the thought of me and Maila being in a book, but fictionalized. It would have Jonny and Elvira. I’ve pictured it. They would be the enemies of the book. Jonny would be running around Los Angeles, but instead of that costume that he wears now, he would be wearing one of those bird heads that doctors wore back in the day, when it looked like a crows head, when they had the plague, and they had to take care of people with the plague. They were those things that looked like a bird heads. That’s what Jonny would wear around Los Angeles, you know, and we get them in the end. I don’t know if it would sell. That’s the whole thing it’s just kind of a comedy, and not really, but I could put my personality in it.

It sounds like it would be make a good graphic novel. You’re not into the Goth scene, are you?

No, I’m not Goth. But I have friends who are Goth. They never wear anything but black. And my friend is the best Gothic baker you ever saw. She can bake anything. She can make a cake look like anything. I like the Goth scene. A lot of the people who came out for the Astoria Maila Nurmi show and the Los Angeles Vampira show were Goths. Very, very interesting outfits that they wear. And I like it. Maila is the original Goth creator—the mother of Goth. When she got older, she would say I’m the grandmama of Goth. She was the pioneer. And I had no idea when Maila passed away that she had so many fans. They’re all over the place. And I had no clue because to me whenever I saw Vampira, I would just say, oh there’s Aunt Maila in a black dress with a wig on. It was just my Aunt Maila in costume. I couldn’t separate them. It was all just one person. When I was with her in 1989, I didn’t ask her one question about Vampira. I just wanted to know her as a person. What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite food? What do you like to do? What do you do with your days? How do you take care of your dog? What are you interested? Do you like to read? What’s your favorite TV show—things like that. Who is this person, my aunt? I didn’t ask about James Dean. I was here to find out who Aunt Maila was.

What was her favorite food?

Her favorite food was banana cream pie. Her favorite color was jewel tones. I assume she liked Ruby, sapphire, emerald—that kind of thing.

Who are her favorite performers?

I know that she hated Madonna and loved Cher. And I said, there we agree. I can’t stand Madonna, and I love Cher. And she hated in those days, at the newsstands, The Inquirer and The Star. She said all the photographs were terrible. They all had shiny faces. I remember that. She liked the TV shows, Three’s Company and Remington Steele. And if she could get an old movie on her TV, she’d like to watch that. She had a tiny little TV up on top of an armoire. That was her entertainment. I had sent her a little boom box that was my daughter’s. It was light blue, and I sent her some tapes. My father had been dead for 12 years, and I had a tape recording of his voice taken at a Christmas celebration. I sent her that and she really enjoyed that she got to hear her brother’s voice again. He sang the Finnish national anthem. He whistled and he talked, so I know Maila enjoyed that. And I still had a couple of letters that her dad had sent to my dad. They were written in Finnish and Maila could understand it. She could read it. So, I sent her copies of those letters. And I sent her a case of salmon, tuna and sturgeon, and a can opener. And a bottle of wine and a bottle opener one year for Christmas. So, I hope she liked that. I know she couldn’t cook. I think she had a heating plate to make coffee on. So, I sent her something that didn’t have to be cooked, and I know she liked fish. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience visiting with her. If I could live my life over again, I wouldn’t have come back in a week. I would’ve stayed and asked a lot more questions. Anyway, that was my time with Maila.

The photographs in the book, those were your photographs — or the did the publisher have to secure the rights to them?

I don’t know much about that. Some of them were my pictures, but I didn’t have much input on that aspect of the book either. I have a friend in Tennessee, who is a young man. He’s a huge Vampira fan that I befriended. In 2009, when I was in Los Angeles and met Jonny coffin at his place, Clint, and his mother, from Tennessee, flew out. So, I got to spend some time with them too. And Clint is a huge collector of Vampira memorabilia. He has lots of pictures. So he gave the pictures he had to the publisher. That worked out really well. I’m not that organized, and I have some pictures, but I don’t know where they are. The one that makes me the maddest of all, the one that I can’t find, is an 8×10 photo of Marlon Brando and Maila. It’s just the two of them. Maila is all decked out like she’s going to a party, in black dress, and Marlon is dressed like the movie, Desiree. He was a sea captain, or a military guy, and he’s dressed in costume and they’re together. I had looked for that picture for years, but I can’t find it. I think it still might be in the garage, and I’m hoping so. But I’m afraid to look anymore for fear I won’t find it. And so, there’s a lot of pictures in there—my most important pictures, and the letter from my grandmother is in there, too. The last letter she ever wrote before she died that I wrote about in the book. It’s in a three-ring black binder with a lot of Maila’s writings. I have not been able to find it. In fact, all the letters that she wrote to me, I had them when I wrote the book because I quoted from them, right, but I can’t find them now. Like I said, I’m not organized, I see something, and I just put it aside. And I’m not going to change at this age.

Who were the photographers who photographed Maila Nurmi?

Well, we know some of the photographers who took pictures of Maila in the 1950s. But we have no way of knowing who all the photographers were. I have no clue. There are family pictures of Maila, and her mom and dad, that I don’t have—and Jonny’s hanging on to it. That makes me mad. That’s my grandma and grandpa and my aunt. He has nothing to do with them.

Perhaps you could use some help organizing.

That’s why I have that friend in Sacramento. She is the most organized person I’ve ever met. She is really my archivist. I gave her all the stuff I had. She came up to Salem and I gave her everything I had. And she has cataloged and filed and put everything together and filed everything on the computer. She said this is all important Hollywood history, we have to preserve this. And she has. I’m really happy about that. Now everything is organized. Before everything was just in boxes. Everything works out. Maila found me, the archivist, and Maila made sure that I met her son. Maila is still working her Vampira magic. We don’t know for sure, but it seems that way.

She still has a presence in your life.

Yes. I still feel her around me. Once in a great while, not a lot, but once in a while, it feels like Maila is here with me. I think she spends a lot of time in Vermont now with her son. But she’s still working weird things. I mean, when my friend was here in Salem, and we were going through part of the garage looking for Maila’s stuff. It was September, I think. The garage door was open, and we were talking about Maila, and all sudden there was a huge cacophony of crows across the way. You couldn’t hear yourself talk. There had to be fifty of them in one tree. I’ve lived here for eight years, and it’s never happened before. And we both stopped talking, like what?! And we looked out and there’s all these crows. And my friend said, that’s a murder of crows. And I said yes. And then her husband showed up and we told him about the murder of crows. About a week later, I told you they have a Goth band. So a week later they were called up and asked to perform in New York City at a festival called Murder of Crows. See stuff like that is happening all the time. They went and performed this year in September, and now they have lots of new fans. They were number two on the Goth music list for their new album. They’re called Ashes Fallen. Michelle, my friend, plays keyboards, and her husband, James, is lead singer. The other guy in the band is named Jason. James and Jason have been friends for 30 years. They’ve played in the same band.

Thank you very much for your time. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. I wish you good health and happiness—and the rights to Vampira someday. I hope you get the rights back.

Thank you. It was nice meeting you too.


Sometimes it Takes Fifty Years to Repair a Friendship

by Kelsey Berryman

            I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, Babcia, growing up. We would swim in her pool, she’d make delicious food, and I’d dress up in her old clothing- she even let me wear her high heels. But what I loved most was when she told me stories.

            Sometimes she would tell me about being a little girl in Poland. Usually, she would gloss over her teenaged years. Sometimes she would talk about her time in Chicago as a single woman in the fifties. But then other times she would talk about the time that she was happiest; as a married woman and later young mother in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she lived in a little apartment building with a bunch of other parents with young kids.

            My grandparents had only dated for a few months before they got married and left Chicago for Cincinnati and then Erie. Babcia hated Ohio. It was too dirty for her. But she loved Pennsylvania.

            She told me about the one neighbor with the bum husband and told me about the one with too many kids, but her favorite neighbor was her best friend Cathy and her husband Fred. They had two kids: Cathie Lu and Mary. Cathie Lu had arthritis. Everyday Mary would knock of her door saying that it was Halloween and ask for some candy.

            When Babcia went into labor with my mother, Cathy and Fred took her to the  hospital. It was a different hospital than my grandparents had planned on going to and my grandfather, Grandpere, didn’t know where to find Babcia until he talked to Fred. It turned out that Cathy and Fred had taken Babcia to the Catholic hospital.

            When my mother was born Cathy told my grandparents to name her Deirdre. My grandparents liked that it was a name that you could yell. But they wanted to change it slightly and named her Daedre.

            Cathy wanted to be godmother to my mother and sent over to my grandparents a Catholic priest to facilitate matters. Though both my grandparents were raised Catholic, they had become disillusioned with the church. Grandpere was called the son of the devil and expelled from Catholic school because he kept asking “how do we know” when ever religion was brought up. Babcia lost her faith during childhood her family was poor and the priest kept telling them to give more to the Church. They didn’t even marry in the Catholic church because the priest demanded that they promise to have as many children as they could. Anyway, a new Catholic priest came over to the apartment to discuss a baptism and when he found out that my grandparents were married in the Episcopal church, he screamed that they were living in sin and had to get remarried. My grandmother sent him packing.

            Babcia said Cathy was a large woman with dark, Italian skin. Once when my infant mother wouldn’t stop crying and Cathy put her on her breasts and rocked her. She knew how to help with a baby because she had so many kids. She would buy her kids clothes rather than wash the dirty ones. But as soon as her husband came home she made him watch the kids and she’d go out to see the same movie twice just to be away from them.

            Eventually, my grandparents moved to California because my grandmother wanted to grow oranges. Since Babcia was a girl in Poland she had hated the cold climate and dreamed of living somewhere warm. Florida had too much mildew so they chose California.

            Cathy and her husband moved to Texas. But both couples all still kept in touch. My grandparents even drove to see them in Houston when my mother was in elementary school. My grandparents saw that Cathy and Fred had a big house with a swimming pool and had had three more kids: Deirdre, Ralph, and Florence.

            Cathy decided to come to California and visit my grandparents. They took her all around Los Angeles, especially Beverly Hills. Cathy wanted to be discovered. She was mad about Rock Hudson and thought that if he would just see her he’d fall in love with her. My grandmother bought her some diet cookies. As soon as Cathy heard that they were diet she ate the whole box.

            My mom said that she had been waiting to meet “Auntie” Cathy. She had heard so many good things about her but didn’t end up liking her. Everything that Cathy said was a patronizing, “Honey” this or “Sweetie” that.

            Cathy talked about to my grandparent about moving out to California. Babcia told her that it was so expensive. Cathy could have a much nicer house in Texas.

            Finally, one night Cathy told my grandparents the real reason she came. She was going to divorce Fred and needed their help. She wanted to punish her husband and wanted my grandparents to hide their children from him. My grandfather immediately said no. Fred loved those kids. It was also illegal to take them over state line.s Cathy was insulted and kept saying that if they were divorcing she would hide my mother for one of them.

            Babcia and Grandpere didn’t hear from her again.  I always wondered what it would have been like if my grandparents had taken her five kids.

            To me Cathy was just a character from my childhood. She was as safe and real as Peter Rabbit. Part of me never thought of her as a real person but a figure of stories that I was told.

            During spring break of my junior year of college, I went to visit Babcia. She was sitting in her maroon recliner and sipping coffee. Babcia had already grilled me about school (“Are you getting A’s?”, “I hope that you will go to grad school” and “Kelsey, education is something that no one can ever take away from you.”) I had given my pat answers. Then we got to an interesting part of the conversation. I lying about my friendships (“Oh, I have really great friends, we hang out all the time.”)

            When Babcia said, “It’s so important to have friends. You know like I had Cathy Xxxyz….” She took a sip of her coffee before adding, “I wonder what she is doing now.”

            Back in college and lonely, I decided to find out what happened to Cathy. I knew that she had lived in Texas and googled her daughter’s name and found a workplace that advocated for the disabled. Given that Cathie Lu had had arthritis that seemed to make sense that she would in a capacity for the disabled.

From: Kelsey Berryman
Sent: Thursday, March 15, 2012 9:08 PM
To: Cathie Lu
Subject: old friendship


I know that this might seem kind of random but I might as well ask. My grandmother is named Anna Cottrell and she used to live in Erie, Pennsylvania, and was great friends with Cathy Xxxyz and her husband, Fred. She was wondering what ever happened to them and I told her that I that would look on the internet for them. I assume that you are their daughter Cathie Lu. I hope that this is not too much of an intrusion but if you are so inclined please email me back. My grandmother would be really happy to know what happened to her old friends.

Thanks so much,
Kelsey Berryman

Ten days later I got

From: Cathie Lu
Subject: RE: old friendship
Date: March 26, 2012 12:34:40 PM EDT
To: Kelsey Berryman

Hello Kelsey,

Yes, I am the oldest daughter of Fred and Cathie Lu and we did live for a short time in Erie, PA when I was a child. My mother lives in a Dallas suburb and my dad and his second wife live in Houston. If your grandmother is interested, we can exchange phone numbers so she can call and speak with my mom and dad.

Cathy  A. XXXYZ

            We exchanged a few more emails and on my normal Sunday call I said, “Babcia, I’ve found Cathy XXXYZ for you.”


            “In Texas, I’ve got her phone number for you.”

            “Why on earth would you do that? What if she is still angry at me for not taking her kids.”

            I rolled my eyes because that was so typical Babcia.

            A few weeks later, when I called Babcia she said, “Cathy called me.” She found out that Christine had two kids and Florence worked in design and that Deirdre had a dog that was like her kid and that Cathie Lu had never gotten married. She had forgotten to ask about Ralph. She also talked about Mom. Cathy wasn’t still angry.

From: Cathie Lu
Subject: Sad News
Date: June 20, 2012 8:40:04 PM EDT
To: Kelsey Berryman

Good Evening Kelsey,

I wanted to let you and your grandmother know that my mom died unexpectedly on May 26. My brother will be spreading her ashes in New York City (her hometown) next month.

Cathie Lu XXXXYZ 

Your Mom, my grandmother and my Mom in front of their house in Pacific Palisades before Mom’s ballet recital.


Kelsey Berryman grew up in California and has been writing since she was twelve years old. She attended the University of Iowa to study writing. She currently works as a teacher and is working on her latest book.

Bat Summer

by Rachel Paz Ruggera

When they hit the mist net, they seem to be floating. Tangled, their fleshy wings crumpled and held tight against their bodies—flightless. Bats are the only mammals capable of flight. Not the hopping, drifting, falling from tree to tree of a sugar glider or flying squirrel, but true flight. Batman would carefully untangle one from the net as it thrashed and squeaked in his hands. Holding it up to the light, it would flash its fangs and tear at his leather glove as he bared his teeth in a smile of his own.

I first started working with Batman, as all the interns affectionately called him, in my junior year of college. My philosophy professor was the one who introduced us. We happened to be talking about our summer plans when she mentioned her unusual pastime of walking through the cemetery-turned-wildlife-sanctuary a few blocks from her house at night carrying around a bat detector and doing citizen science work with a professor from a nearby university. 

It was the perfect coincidence. I had been looking for some sort of field work experience at the time. Anyone who had any career plans at all was, and I was swept along in this same wave of ambition. On the first night that I arrived at the cemetery, it was nearly dusk, the perfect time to walk transects around the ponds, mosquito repellent liberally applied and headlamp strapped to my forehead making a funny indentation.

This is where I first met Batman. Among the imposing, stone crypts as big as traditional style housing on a college campus, holding the stately remains of renowned writers, governmental officials, and historical figures from the Revolutionary War. 

Batman was known for being constantly on the move. I remember him walking up and down the paths crisscrossing the cemetery grounds, a cup of convenience store coffee in hand, without a flashlight, without a map. Not because he never got lost, he got lost plenty of times as he would reluctantly admit, but because this was how he worked best, on the fly and constantly adapting the plan.

I have never met anyone as enamored by bats as he was. His excitement was infectious, a quiet hum in the air that traveled through the group of high schoolers, college students, and citizen scientists as one by one our heads were drawn up to tree-level where the first bats of the night were zipping by. I thought they would look like birds when they flew, elegantly soaring, but they’re much more like moths fluttering and staggering in the dark.

That’s what I was. A bat hopelessly tangled in a net I couldn’t even see, strung up from tree to tree with thousands of gossamer threads, that I would spend the next year struggling to untangle myself from.

I realize I’m searching for the perfect metaphor to find meaning in this story.


Take four years of a college science curriculum, and you will learn how to take yourself out of your writing. The author will be impersonal, unbiased, and keep their opinions from marring the scientific integrity of their work. All claims will be backed up by evidence, corroborated with the literature, and thoroughly reviewed. You will learn that the highest authority that exists is a panel of old, white men in academia. 

I was twenty years old, female, and an ambiguous shade of not-white. He was a professor, published in scientific journals, respected by his peers, an expert in his field. I had no evidence.

Let me tell you my story anyway.


It was late summer. We were sitting outside the barn, huddled in our coats and scarves after the relentless heat of the day. The grass was wet with dew forming in the few hours left before dawn, and the cuffs of my jeans were damp from pacing back and forth.

In that long moment of silence, a bat flew into our net with a resounding thud. I got up to put it in a brown paper lunch bag and carry it back to the processing table. He held it up to the light spilling out from the barn door. That’s when I saw its wings. The metal band clipped onto the bat’s forearm was digging into its skin, slicing an angry, red gash into its flesh.

I remember the sharp focus he had when he handled the bat. It may have been past two in the morning, my legs stiff from sitting in a lawn chair bent over a clipboard the whole night, but my mind was suddenly clear. In the circle of light cast by his headlamp, I could see him cradle the bat in his two cupped hands. He didn’t take his eyes off of it as he directed me in a low and even voice to his toolbox, to find the pliers, to wedge the blade between the bone of the wing and the metal band and pry. Then slowly, millimeter by millimeter, the band loosened until I could pull it off with two fingers. It was rusted and caked with blood. We had gotten it off in one piece. Without breaking the wing.

I like to pretend I know what I’m doing. I like to play the part of the scientist. But that night, I was completely out of my depth. No one had said it out loud, but we could all see the truth. The bat would either get an infection from the open wound gouged in its wing and die, or we’d try to remove the band and break the fragile, toothpick bone of its forearm and it would die anyway. I could see it in the hesitance and bated breath of the other field tech. In the quiet tension that had replaced the sleepy-mind-wandering downtime only moments before.

The three of us looked at the bloody band, at the bat in his hands, still beating both wings, and let out a collective sigh of relief. There would be no death tonight.

In my mind, I can see this moment take a different turn. I can see the different pathways branching and the probability of each outcome and all these probabilities at the tip of each branch being multiplied together to get the result of this night. In other words, I can picture him walking to the back of the barn, turning off his headlamp, grasping the head in one hand and the body in the other, and pulling back until the sides of both closed fists meet.

But I must constantly remind myself of which path was taken, of what really was the truth, and that no matter how unlikely it seemed, I saw that bat cling to his open palm as he raised his arm to the black sky, then suddenly the bat was gone too, melted back into the night.

Whenever I find myself thinking that I must hate him, I come back to this night. The focus, the intention, the care, the exhilaration of holding another life in my hands. The waver between uncertainty and assurance in my own capabilities. The beauty of the bat leaping from an open palm. And yet he was there too.


My dad called me yesterday to tell me he saw a mouse run out of my closet. Whatever it was my mom sent him upstairs to find was completely forgotten with the quick scurry of a four-legged thing, a flash of pink tail and whiskers.

It’s comforting to know that while I’ve been gone, something living has moved back in. Reclaimed the dusty corners and moldy cardboard boxes, the cluttered drawers with a lifetime of old schoolwork, the empty spaces I’ve made with my leaving. But the real surprise wasn’t the mouse. I can’t remember the last time my dad picked up the phone to ask how was my day, what classes am I taking this semester, what are my plans for Thanksgiving?

So what does he do when he hears the news—when he’s so desperately worried about his only child? What does he do but call to say there was a mouse in my closet?


I watch for him. Every time I walk past the tables outside the dining hall, some part of me expects him to be there, waiting for me. I watch for his car—dark blue and speckled with dents and scrapes along the sides. When I see a car that looks familiar, I have to peek into the window to make sure it’s not him. Every time my phone buzzes, it’s him, asking about my day, when we’re going to meet next, and can I call him to talk now? He took every minute of my free time to the point where I would drop a class and not tell him at first, just so I could have that hour to myself. He’d tell me to drop classes because they seemed too hard for me. He chipped away at every ounce of my resolve until I’d just say yes to avoid an argument, to avoid the questions, is everything okay? what’s going on with you? you know you can talk to me, right? 

You can talk to me right? 

You can talk to me. Talk to me. Talk.

Are you fascinated by a good story? 

Am I telling you a story? 

Am I a story? 

Bats are the only mammals that can fly. 

Bats are the only mammals that can fly. 

Bats are the only mammals that can fly, can fly, can fly away. 

We were alone together in his car, driving back to the city at two in the morning. I was barely awake but he wouldn’t stop talking, telling me how special I was, how we had this connection, unlike any of his other students, we had so much in common. Teachers were supposed to be good and kind and trustworthy. Teachers were not supposed to put their hand on your thigh and lean over in a dark car while driving you home.

It was tangled in the net, wings held tight against its body. 



After I told someone for the first time, it felt like time had stopped moving. Or maybe during the past year was when it had stopped, and now the clocks were finally ticking again. I walked across campus with my head down, staring at my shoes as they carried me further from the biology department. My eyes were red and bloodshot. I hate how easy it is to tell when I’ve been crying.

The mallards sound like they’re laughing

from behind the trees.

I left campus and kept on walking through the residential areas, past off-campus housing, the ancient looking seminary with its pristine brick walls and spires. I didn’t know exactly where I was going until I got there.

Laughing at me for my somber mood

on this day that was freely given to us.

I looked around at the empty park benches, the murky pond with freshly painted three-story homes surrounding it, the cormorants basking in the low-hanging sun, and I thought to myself, of course, I’ve been here before.

On this day, where catbirds

fight to be heard over car alarms.

Two years ago now, in early fall. I’ll always remember this place. This is where I go when I don’t want to be anywhere anymore.

Where the rumble of someone rolling out

their trash bin tries to imitate the thunder.

My roommate asked if I wanted to go grocery shopping this weekend. I didn’t understand the question, it didn’t feel like I would still be here this weekend, or the next, or even tomorrow. I was suspended in this one moment. I didn’t even have the energy to get up from this park bench.

Can’t they see the time for beautiful things

is over?

I’m telling you this not so you’ll pity me or hate him. I would rather tell you any other story, yet this one seems to keep repeating itself. In fact, I can’t seem to tell you any other story until I get this one down. Until I’ve given it some semblance of order by writing it and given myself some fragment of peace by claiming it as my own.

The trees agree with me, their trunks almost black,

still wet from rain and appropriately gloomy.

How do I understand my memory of him? How can we hold so many memories within us? Some of them contradict each other. Some of them overlap and blend and transform.  

It is time for the bleak mid-winter.

It is time for icy sidewalks that catch you at your worst.

How do I understand that people are not always good? That I am not always good? That I am a victim and everything that entails but not only that.

It is time for bare branches, gnarled and knobby

like the arthritic joints of an old man’s hands.

Surely I can’t be both. Surely the old gray-beard-poets contained multitudes, but who am I to try to be everything I am all at once? Do I even dare?

It is time for the mallards to fly away

to wherever it is they go when the pond freezes over.

My performance is over. I’ve retold my story too many times. I could rattle it off like a script, complete with exposition, rising action, a dramatic climax. I’m tired. I’m done talking. Haven’t I done enough.

Yet here they remain,

laughing at me and my foolishness.

I want this to be the last time. Let me sit alone in the woods and listen to birdsong.

They have always known how to tell me

the truth when my mind will not.


I am afraid that all this summer was, everything that happened, was meaningless. What’s the moral of this story? I’ve been searching this whole time and I can’t seem to find it. What have I lost? What was gained? Maybe I’ve misplaced it. Maybe it’s time to go looking elsewhere.

I go to the woods to be alone. Not even here is it completely silent. I can hear the muffled white noise of cars behind the trees and the distinct groaning of the Green Line shuffling along its track. There’s the crunch of dead leaves as people walk by chatting about their innermost lives or else nothing important at all. There are the dogs, off-leash at last, with noses glued to the ground as their owners call to them. I go to the woods to be alone and find that I am surrounded by so much life. I wander until the skin over my knuckles is red and cracked from staying out too long in the cold.

I am constantly surprised at the impossible kindness in people. I wonder how life can be horrible in one moment and wonderful in the next. I’m learning how to notice the good things when they come around. I have a lot to learn.  

I study the world to find meaning in it. I’m beginning to think this is also why I write. To find meaning in what would otherwise be nothing more than sleepless nights, skipped meals, and resentment. I question myself if some things are better left unsaid. I question myself all the time. But I know there are also things that can’t be contained within the body. Maybe some stories are like pain leaving the body. I have told my story many times. That’s why I feel so much lighter when I put down my pen, stand from my desk, and open the door. The telling makes room for something else. (I’m beginning to find out what that is.)


Rachel Paz Ruggera is a research technician in a developmental biology lab and holds a BS in Biology from Boston College. Her work is forthcoming in Atticus Review and Outrageous Fortune.

Minor League Authors

by Eric D. Lehman

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
 – Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

I had written almost every day for more than a decade before someone paid me for it. A European magazine, desperate for content, spotted two of my travel essays on a website and offered me 300 British pounds for them. I eagerly jumped at this offer, feeling ecstatic and somehow justified in my ambitions. Isn’t this how it happened? After all, I had spent my youth filled with a deep and abiding ambition to create words that reached people, to be a respected author like my bookish heroes, to create literature. And it was not a frivolous ambition. I had bent all my energy towards this goal, spending far more than ten thousand hours of preparation, reading ten thousand books and writing over a million words, including two hundred poems, a hundred stories, and four full-length manuscripts. I had earned this payday, and more besides.

However, getting foreign money in the early years of the 21st century was not so easy. I had to set up a special account, talk to my bank several times, and continually badger the magazine editor to pay up. Meanwhile, two copies of the magazine arrived at my door, with my original articles altered completely. Finally, nearly a year later, the money was deposited, but it felt tainted now, flawed and impure. It was as if some forbidden fruit had finally come within reach, but when I took a bite, tasted bitter. Moreover, it was another four years before anyone paid me for my work again.

That feeling of triumph mixed with a rising sense of disquiet was one I would get to know well during the following decade. In those years, my friends and I operated on what we called the Bull Durham theory of authorhood. In the film, written by former baseball player Ron Shelton and considered to be one of the best sports movies of all time, catcher Crash Davis is close to breaking the home run record in the minor leagues. When superfan and adjunct English professor Annie Savoy congratulates him, he scoffs, telling her that it is a “dubious honor” to have a record in the minor leagues. At an author event in 2009, someone said one of my books was a “home run” and I said, “Yes, a home run in the minor leagues.” So, I often felt like the Crash Davis of Connecticut authors, able to keep getting hits with small publishers, mid-range websites, and local magazines.

Even major league authors struggle to earn enough money to survive, and only a few hundred make enough to be called rich. Still, a major league writer might afford to just be a writer, and not to teach, or live on a spouse’s income, or work as a postal carrier. They might be published by large media conglomerates, but more importantly than that, they are popular, they sell lots of copies, they get lots of grants and awards, they travel in higher circles: New York, Hollywood, London. As far as royalties and advances, we minor leaguers make almost nothing, and never have. My wife Amy and I supported our author habits by teaching at the University of Bridgeport, at first part-time, then full-time, then tenure track, then tenured, a process that took us both two decades. That was trivial compared to the process of becoming a writer, which lasted a lifetime.

Many major leaguers may not in fact write “better” than some of their minor league compatriots, but the percentage of competent and even beautiful writers in the major leagues is certainly much higher. A few singles made a big difference in your batting average – enough to send you up to the show. Art doesn’t work in quite the same way as sports, though. Just being in the major leagues is no guarantee that the writing will last; many minor leaguers have gone on to be rediscovered, and as many major leaguers have been quickly forgotten.

It took me a while to adjust to this way of thinking. Growing up, my favorite baseball movie had been The Natural, and I had thought I might be Roy Hobbs, the best writer to ever play the game. I believed that some innate talent would carry me to the league championship. Sometime in my late 20s or early 30s I realized that it rarely worked like that. The Bull Durham theory not only made more sense, but it also resonated more deeply, since even as a child I had always had a feeling of being on the periphery, never at the center, never in the thick of art or of life.

That is not unusual. It comes at first from being out of our depth, and later from swimming well without finding the shore. Writing is hard work, much harder than non-writers realize, and most of it is on the front end, learning how to do it properly. “I want to be an artist,” a woman told one of our publishers. “But writing a book seems like a lot of work.” This person asked them how to hire a ghost writer, so she could live the literary life without the decades of struggle to learn how to write. That was one way to solve the problem.

Money or influential connections were others. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on the point of view, my wife Amy and I were both solidly middle class. We did not have patrons; we did not study with any elder writers who could lend us an agent or publisher. We had to build a career from home plate to home plate, step by step. But we did have one advantage many writers do not: we had each other. And slowly but surely, we found other minor league authors, editors, and booksellers to befriend, many flowers born to bloom unseen, or at least seen by fewer eyes, than the ones that made the bestseller lists.

And the truth was that almost every author was a minor league author, even those we thought of as major leaguers. At one of our “author parties” at our house, former Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen told us that, finally, in his seventies he had reached the point where journals solicited poems from him. “It’s taken me fifty years,” he said, his flyaway gray eyebrows raised in a sort of half-amused, half-frustrated expression. I got to know that look well during those years, from a hundred writers across the state and beyond.

Most of my friends embraced the ideals and the lives of minor league authors. “I’ll be the third base coach,” singer and author Jim Lampos told me once, happily. For him, maybe, it was about building a team. But the person who taught me the most about being a minor leaguer was environmentalist, historian, and poet David K. Leff. When he was younger, he had actually toured many of America’s small-time baseball stadiums and had even sketched out a book on the subject. So, like me, he often talked about going to “the show,” the majors, and about the joys and sorrows of minor league life.

We had met when I invited him to give a presentation for the Hamden Historical Society and had discovered that he knew Dick Allen and other mutual friends. He had also attended a recent presentation Allen and I had participated in for U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall’s birthday, energetically moving around the room, taking photos. I thought I could remember him, but couldn’t be sure, and he certainly remembered me. “Your speech was the best,” he told me. It was one of those coincidences of intersection that made for a good story, but later I found out that in his case it was not so surprising. We would meet for liver and onions at a rural diner and inevitably someone would walk in, spot David, shake hands, and exchange news. He seemed to know all the other Connecticut writers, and mentioned them, major or minor league, casual acquaintances or close friends, as if they were all worthy of Nobel Prizes.

“After all, the Prize Committee makes some dynamite choices,” he said, cracking one of his many trademark puns.

At the Hamden event, I had bought The Last Undiscovered Place, and for the first time, I found a “local author” whose book I was astounded by. It was Walden, but “inside out,” about community, culture, nature, and public life combined. The reader could see one small place through a multi-lensed panopticon, from every angle, making the book impossible to classify, mixing reportage, memoir, history, and a dozen other disciplines.

“How many drafts?” I asked, thinking that no one could possibly write more versions than I did.

“Eight or nine.” His beard cracked with a smile. “I read it out loud to catch the repetitions, you know, the things you don’t catch with your eyes.”

Well, I thought, this guy is serious about his work. Soon I found out how serious, learning about his regimented, precise method, with time parceled out into the days and weeks. His research always included multiple interviews, visits to every site he talked about, and notecards for every reference. I couldn’t decide whether I was intimidated or inspired.

“I’ve always worked here, in isolation,” he said when I asked him about his process. “I can edit or do other work at the coffee shop. But the first draft, the bloodletting, takes place right in my office.”

When I visited his home, I found out why. David lived in an 1847 Greek Revival house on the Collinsville Green, writing every day in a former drawing room with views of a sugar maple and the white clapboard Congregational Church. It was a luminous space, surrounded by books and artifacts collected from a lifetime of hiking and canoeing. The daily journal he had kept since May 29, 1978, stacked impressively along one wall. He sat rigidly at a three-board pine table in a flannel shirt and jeans, glasses squared on his nose, hair and beard shot through with silver, sipping a hot mug of coffee. Then the nerve in his neck would begin to pinch, and he would stand up and walk around, wincing with the pain, but somehow cracking a joke instead of a curse.

Along with his daily struggle with pain, I found out that he wrote The Last Undiscovered Place while grappling with divorce and single fatherhood, sometimes waking up at 2:30 a.m. to find time to write. It took him six years to write this first complete book, and in my opinion the result had been well worth it, the best “local history” –if that label could even be applied– that I have ever read. It was a home run, even if a small crowd watched it sail over the wall.

By time I met David he had been forced into retirement by the nerve damage, but he had worked as a handyman, janitor, and pot washer to put himself through the University of Massachusetts before becoming a lawyer and finding work in the Connecticut General Assembly. “Some of us were in the vault in the cellar of the State Capitol with one hanging light bulb,” he said. “No kidding. But I loved it.” Then he became the Deputy Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, writing most of our first “green plan” and saving hectares of open space when he negotiated the largest land conservation deal in the history of the state. In retirement, he continued to work for the public as best he could, serving as the historian for the town of Canton, acting as moderator for town meetings, and continuing to serve in an administrative capacity for the local fire department.

“I think volunteerism is at the very axis of what it is to be an American from the Minutemen at Concord and Lexington to the guy who coaches Little League,” he told me, without a hint of shoulder-shrugging irony.

“Well,” I said. “Writing is kind of like volunteer work.”

“You have to write for the love of it,” he agreed. “Because it is certainly not for the money.”

I don’t know if I was more ambitious than David, but I always believed that someday that would change. I was excited by the attention my books were getting and thought that this would inevitably lead to more money and fame. In those years, every radio program I spoke on, every local access cable television show that hosted me, every newspaper article mentioning my appearances or work…I loved it all. When a network television affiliate showcased me, or when a regional magazine ran a feature story, I admit I felt a thrill. Weren’t these the fruits of authorhood? A photographer traveling to our house to take shots for the front page of a newspaper, a reporter meeting me in a bookstore for an interview, a television personality giving us an hour of time, a mayor shaking my hand for a publicity photo. It was all happening.

One of those early books was Becoming Tom Thumb, the first thorough biography of diminutive 19th century performer Charles Stratton. Shortly after it was released, an English producer contacted me and told me that he and his production company had read it and were using it to plan a documentary on Charles and his manager P.T. Barnum. Would I like to participate? You bet I would. So, I met the producer when he came scouting the locations, and a few months later on a cold winter day, they returned to film in Bridgeport and several other American towns. The host of the documentary was the former chair of the BBC, Michael Grade, a man who had done nearly everything in British television. He had recently been made a life peer and sat in the House of Lords, though I didn’t know that until later. He had jumped at the chance to host this because his own family came from “circus people.” The director set up in the wood-paneled parlor of one of the old houses owned by the university, and Michael…Lord Grade…interviewed me for three hours, while Amy watched proudly from a chair nearby.

The following day, I drove to Middleborough, Massachusetts to the house Charles Stratton and his wife, Lavinia Warren, had shared in the 1870s. No film crew had peeked inside for decades, and I was excited to see the house itself, beyond the fact that I would be appearing in a film-length BBC documentary. I waited in my car nearby as snowflakes began to swirl. About an hour later the film crew showed up, just as the snow began to really fall. As a precaution, I booked a room at a nearby hotel, and later the crew joined me there – no one was getting out of town that night. But we had a documentary to film! So, even as the snow began piling up on our cars and the front lawn, we started filming. I did some unscripted exterior shots with Michael and then, as so often happens in the “industry,” I waited for an hour while they did more scripted exterior work. Finally, the director scoped the interior, and Michael and I talked to the family who owned the place at the time. The owner’s sister, who was a theater major, took us on a lively tour of the house. Of course, we did several takes for each bit. The director had made sure that as the “Tom Thumb expert,” I had not seen any of the wonderful details before so that my “surprise” and enthusiasm would show up on tape. Built into the house was the miniature stove, miniature tub, and a staircase built at a sort of compromise height for the Strattons and their servants. The family had also found a pair of Lavinia’s shoes in the back of a cabinet and had re-purchased a Tom Thumb miniature piano and a pair of lawn bowling balls given to him by an Australian club. I reacted appropriately to each revelation, and then off camera, I spent a moment in the room Charles died in. I talked a little to his ghost, then, telling him that I hoped my book had done him justice.

Filming had taken a long time, and a foot of snow had gathered along the country lanes. We drove through the darkening evening to the hotel, taking a half hour to go four miles. But since the hotel had no restaurant, we had to venture out again, slipping and sliding another three miles to a nearly empty bistro. It was not a palace, but we were hungry, and sat down to a hearty dinner as snow drifted and piled outside. Michael regaled us with stories, at one point telling us that in the 1970s, a friend had called him to consult about a bad situation facing his client, who had agreed to act in a film with a largely unknown American director. The production had run out of money and the director offered a percentage of the take rather than a flat fee. “I told him it was a bad idea,” Michael said. “But the actor stuck with it, because he liked the script.”

As Michael slyly revealed, the actor was Alec Guinness, the movie was Star Wars, and he made a mint. The first check alone was five million pounds, an amount equal to the rest of all the money held by his small bank in Sussex.

“I was always glad Alec didn’t take my advice on that occasion…,” Michael finished dryly.

The crew was already gone when I woke up the next morning, on their way to New York to film more scenes. Driving home across the long leagues of Interstate 90, blustery wind sweeping snow around my car, I thought for sure I had made it to the major leagues. At the very least, I told myself, I could parlay this into a deal with a larger publisher. But despite several awards, the book never sold out its first printing, and my subsequent proposals to major presses were rejected. That early excitement would return –briefly– every time I was consulted in the years following by major league venues like the Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal, or the History Channel. The next one was the one that would send me up to the show. I just knew it.

Unlike me, David often seemed to revel in being a minor league author. It’s not that he didn’t want to sell copies – he worked constantly at that, giving dozens of presentations and readings every year. But he had no real interest in fame, probably because he had already seen the dark side of it. Shortly before I met him, a certain state agency found David Leff practicing law, and sued him for his disability retirement money. It was the wrong David Leff, actually a lawyer of the same name in New Haven. Apparently unwilling to admit the mistake, they sued him anyway, charging that his writing constituted work and that his nerve damage was faked. His own book, Deep Travel, was used against him in the hearings, as they tried to demonstrate that his brief canoe trips on the Concord River meant he wasn’t really injured. He came out of his house one morning to find the workmen he had hired to restore it sitting on the front step reading an article about the ongoing lawsuit on the front page of the newspaper. It was humiliating, to say the least. He received hate mail and threats, becoming “a poster child for the excesses of the system,” as he put it. Worse, he didn’t have the money to fight the deep pockets of the state and had to sign a compromise document. Years later, when his primary tormentor retired, representatives of the state agency that plagued him apologized privately. But no newspaper covered that.

He did not let the bad experience with the media and the state make him bitter or turn him into a misanthrope. “Make the most of where you are most of the time,” he said. “There’s so much joy in life.” When you met David, it was obvious he lived that maxim fully. I didn’t trust the world as much as he did, but I did trust him. Someone who has seen both sides of fame was someone I needed to hear from, to balance out the ambitions of my own grasping soul.

Authors, even minor league authors, have a weird sort of celebrity. Most of it is second-hand, through the work of art, through words. The exception, of course, is during author readings and presentations, which had been part of the lifestyle I had witnessed and envied. And at first, despite performance anxiety, it was fun. Amy and I gave an average of thirty presentations or readings a year, some unpaid, some paid, some to five people, some to a hundred. We gave presentations at libraries, bookstores, schools, museums, casinos, town halls, town greens, senior centers, and conference centers. We gave presentations to business groups and women’s groups, to historical societies and secret societies.

Amy often recited her poetry, and I gave occasional readings of fiction or creative nonfiction, but most of the events were presentations for history books, either those I wrote myself or ones we wrote together. We gave over a hundred presentations just on the history of Connecticut food. We would arrive early, shake hands with the organizer, and set up the projector and laptop. Our books were stacked on a small table with printed sheets denoting prices and special sales. We would test the podium and crackling microphone, perhaps framed by an emergency exit, and greet the guests one by one as they arrived, making small talk and trying to charm them into buying our work. Once, we drove an hour through driving snow to lecture five people, one of whom fell asleep and snored.

In general, bookstores were supportive of minor league authors and their struggles to get on the shelf. But a few were not. At a store on the gold coast of Fairfield County, the owner sitting at the front desk openly insulted us when we offered our “sell sheets” from regional publisher Homebound Publications. “We don’t carry self-published authors.” I tried to explain that it was a real press, but she wouldn’t listen, despite the fact that the store carried two of my history books, and I had just signed them. “We have a certain clientele here,” she said. Rich people? Families? I wasn’t sure, but I got the message. This was not a place for minor leaguers like us. Of course, turning away local authors is probably not the best business strategy. Who buys more books than writers?

Bookstores sometimes invited you for signings that were unaccompanied by readings or presentations. These were usually not productive events, and many times I spent two hours chatting with curious patrons to sell one or two books. Often, these events were not advertised on social media or local papers the way presentations were. In most big chain stores, there is little connection to the community, and little concern about the store or the local culture on the part of the workers. Perhaps that is why they kept dying during those years, one bookstore failing after another. That also happened to quite a few “local” shops who didn’t carry local authors or make their inventory unique and specific to the place. Bookstores always worked best as linchpins for a particular neighborhood, town, or region.

At one disheartening session I signed zero books, sitting helplessly behind a table at the entrance to the chain store while guests ignored me, or worse, talked to me. One woman asked me for a chiropractor recommendation, as if I was a search engine. “I had a dream about the Beast,” one man told me, as if I was a confessor. A family stopped by, looked at my pile of books, and realized they had made a mistake. “Have a good day, buddy. Hope you sell a lot,” the father said. An old, old man sat down nearby, talking loudly on his phone, and to me. “I’m 96 years old,” he said, and then, loudly enough for everyone to hear, told me a disgusting joke. Shortly afterwards a woman trapped me at the table to tell me about underground cities built by the trillionaires who were tapping our phones. She was also terribly angry that her husband who fought in World War II was not mentioned in a recent book.

I nodded. “That can be frustrating.”

Afterwards, Amy quoted Bull Durham, as she often did in these situations: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

However, after a few years of being published writers with minor league reputations, we began to get a few actual fans. “I have all your books,” one woman said to us while we were signing after a presentation, pointing to the dozen on the table. “Except this one.” She promptly bought it. “I know who you are,” one librarian told me, blushing, when I introduced myself. “Your work is lovely,” another told Amy. One dark winter day, feeling drained by my classes, I pressed the answering machine button in my Bridgeport office and a phone message from an anonymous woman told me that she had finished Becoming Tom Thumb and that it was the best book she ever read. That was enough to keep me going for a little while.

We were literary encounters for these folks, and that was a strange thought. We also began to meet more and more writers simply through the virtue of being authors ourselves. Once, walking across the vaulted neon hall at Mohegan Sun during the Big Book Club Getaway, Amy and I spotted a black-haired woman with a copy of A History of Connecticut Food.

“Would you like us to sign that?” we asked, having just signed several after a panel discussion.

She let us do it, and as we asked her name, she seemed surprised that we didn’t know it. “Debbie,” she said, smiling broadly.

“Are you an author, too?” we asked.

“Oh, I’ve written a few,” she said, laughing a little and heading to the cashier to pay for her armload of books. We looked at the main author table for a “Debbie.” Turned out that she was the headliner for the event, a number-one New York Times bestselling author with over 200 million copies of her books in print. Embarrassed, we slunk across the thick carpets toward the cling-clang of slot machines to try our luck there instead.

These frequent but brief encounters often ended ambiguously, and sometimes the most we could hope for was not to annoy the major league author. I succeeded with one best-selling novelist and did not with two well-known historians. Amy was somewhat more successful, and usually charmed the poets she read alongside. After a presentation in Stratford, we ate lunch with Robert Frost’s granddaughter, elderly but lucid and sharp; she bought one of Amy’s poetry collections.

“Ernest Hemingway used to think of other writers as competitors,” I mentioned to David once, as we walked along the Farmington River in Collinsville. “He sized up everyone he met, dead or alive, and tried to outbox them.”

“Really?” David seemed surprised. “To motivate himself?”

“Yes. But Amy thinks that this is a crazy attitude.”

“She is a wise woman. You would do well to stick with her.”

“That’s the plan,” I said. “That’s the plan.”

“Do you think that way?” He pointed to a large oak. “I mean, would you want to wrestle Ernest Hemingway?”

“I used to.” I followed the line of his arm to see a red-tailed hawk perched on a branch. “But not anymore.”

Minor league careers can live or die by book reviews, and I was shocked to find that reviewers and critics did always not read your work. If they had a grudge to settle or an ego trip that had nothing to do with you, you could sometimes dismiss it. “You’ve hit the big time now,” Jim Lampos told me when I asked what to do about a supposedly professional reviewer who slammed my book without reading beyond the introduction. “That’s the price of fame.” However, in this internet age even anonymous individuals could give you bad reviews, though often it was quite clear who they were, and even clearer that the book was not their real target. Bad reviews only really hurt if they were accurate, which seemed almost never. Instead, they annoyed you and awoke a sense of injustice, which was nearly as bad. You always had to be careful not to become a righteous victim. What you wished for as an author was a fair review, good or bad. Maybe the book was actually awful.

Another problem arose from the opposite situation – occasionally people liked your work so much that they passed it off as their own. An article by a major critic for the New York Times materialized two months after one of our books, detailing the exact argument Amy and I had made, but without any reference to our work. A popular television show on a major network did the same. Our friend, Chef Bun Lai, told us this was absurdly common in the food industry. “I’ve seen my recipes on a dozen New York restaurant menus,” he said with a good-natured laugh. “You just have to let it go.”

One year Amy and I found out that one of our history books had been pirated by an unknown company that used artificial intelligence to rework certain areas and republish it under various fake names and fake titles. When I asked around, I found out that others had also suffered this fate. Minor league authors were apparently the easiest to steal from. One friend had his magazine articles republished under someone else’s name willy-nilly on the internet. Worse, there was almost no legal recourse against this piracy of our words and ideas. Was this the future of authorhood? As anonymous content providers? Or would robots put us out of our jobs entirely?

Major leaguers have all these struggles to deal with, and more. But at least for them there is actual money at stake. Celebrity may suck, but it pays the bills. Or so I thought in those days, anyway. What good was my picture on the front page of Connecticut newspapers if only a couple dozen people bought my books each time? Why was I adding to my trouble for the little bit of pleasure and cash it gave?

Hate mail occasionally arrived, and I always respected if not liked those who at least signed their names. But other messages were unsigned, anonymous, cowardly. One postcard even arrived with typed paper pasted to it, like a ransom note. We weren’t popular enough to get death threats, I guess, so that was a plus. However, we knew plenty of others who did. Once, we were enjoying a nice Italian dinner with a major league author and scholar who we had invited to speak at the university. She appeared on cable television and talk radio frequently and spoke on divisive political topics.

“You must get a lot of hate mail,” I said.

“Oh yes,” she said after finishing a bite. “A lot of racist stuff, in particular, and other terrible threats. I try not to look at it.”

 “I don’t know how you deal with it,” I said. “I get very anxious with far less hate than you probably get.”

“Oh, I think the anxiety of being in the public eye is unavoidable,” she said. “I try to focus on the final good, the cause.”

I thought about this. What was my cause? Literature? History? What was I doing that was so important? Did I have a purpose? I thought that perhaps it would become clearer as I sold more books, got more media attention, and found my audience. Likewise, as my minor league fame grew, I thought that the author events would gradually get bigger, with more and more fans showing up and more books being sold. That was not the case. One summer Amy and I stood on the stage at the Mohegan Sun Cabaret, presenting to a crowd of a hundred, complete with popstar headset microphones, a mixing board, and giant video screen. A month later we gave a presentation in the cramped cellar of a tiny library to four people, two of whom were my parents.

You could always count on an old man sleeping in a corner, a student taking notes for extra credit, a couple who thanks you profusely but does not buy a book. It could be demoralizing if you weren’t careful. There are days when you just want to give up, stop trying, sit back with a martini and let oblivion come. Seven years into our book tours, we gave what would be our last presentation on Literary Connecticut. We talked about the significance of stories, the connection of writing to place, and finally, the importance of supporting our own local writers. The twenty people attending seemed to love the lecture, asking numerous questions and applauding at the end. But no one supported the writers in front of them by buying a book. In a sandwich shop afterwards, eating a desultory lunch, we listened to Frank Sinatra’s voice filter through the sound system: “Here’s to the losers, bless ‘em all.”

That evening we drove to Collinsville and were greeted by David’s wide smile splitting his salty beard. Standing in his small, comfortable kitchen, I immediately began to complain about the fact that no one bought the books.

“That’s why I charge them up front.” He popped open a bottle of beer. “I may lose some opportunities that way, but our time is valuable. You are giving them knowledge. Did you get paid by the library?”

“Yes, a little.” I thought about it. “And I guess there was an article in the newspaper about it, so word about the book got out to people, even if those people didn’t come.”

“Well, there you go.”

“I know, but it is still depressing. Every time we fail like this…”

“Is it you that is failing?”

“It makes me feel like a hack.”

“Focus on the craft,” he told me. “The rewards will come, or they won’t. It is the work itself that matters.”

David’s wife Mary returned home from her work at the library, and the four of us shared a wonderful dinner, glasses of wine, and a vibrant conversation. That made for a good day, and Amy and I decided that, rather than freighting each presentation with expectation and ambition, we would simply make each an opportunity for exploration and for meeting friends. We might try a just-opened Korean restaurant or order fried oysters at an old favorite. We might buy tickets for a museum or a play, or we might call around to find friends who could meet us for drinks. Once, we arranged a reading to coincide with our publisher’s 34th birthday party.

Another way to cope was to have a few loyal fans. The antidote to fifty enemies is one friend, as Aristotle says. One librarian invited us for presentations at multiple libraries as her career bounced her around the state. A local pharmacy owner kept our books on a shelf for years, adding each new one as it came out, the only books in the store. One fan drove an hour to see us a second time, another followed us from venue to venue for different presentations and readings. These were the fans that made the work worth it, and gratitude fills my heart every time I think of them. For a minor league author, every loyal fan is important, in a way that they can never be for an international bestseller. We tried to spend time with each person who bought a book, to value their time in return for the value they placed on our words.

And of course, many of those fans were our fellow authors. One day near the end of the pandemic, we sat in David’s garden, red poppies and water iris in bloom, drinking together, eating from the same plates. It was a hot day but comfortable there in the shade of the trees with a north wind blowing. I asked about the strange green fire hydrant in his front yard, and he told us an intricate story about its origins and endurance. He talked about the long journey the water made from the reservoir and about winter days shoveling out the hydrant in case of possible fires. He talked about how unique it was, its long years of service, and its unheralded importance in the life of the small town.

Eventually the talk turned to literature, as it always did, and I mentioned that few had bought or reviewed my latest novel.

“The writing goes on. It matters to the writers and the people who read it,” said David. “I’m happy being a minor league author.”

He was right, as usual. Everything I had gained – the small shelf of books, the friends I had made – these were privileges, and I felt lucky to have any of it at all. Success is a privilege, and so is quitting. Who cared about joining the major leagues? After a couple years of isolation and video events, I just wanted to visit a library again, to sell a few hundred or a few thousand books, to sit across from my friends at a local brewery and discuss our latest projects. I no longer wanted to go to the show; I just wanted to keep playing for a few more seasons. Two-hundred-forty-seven home runs in the minor leagues might be a dubious honor. But it would be an honor nevertheless.

A few months later, Bethel’s tiny Byrd’s Books held one of its first post-pandemic live events, a Sunday poetry reading that included David and Amy, among many others. Amy was recovering from a bout of Covid, and David was suffering from terrible pain caused by his ever-present nerve injury, unable to stay in one position or sleep for more than thirty minutes at a time. His fifth spinal surgery was scheduled for that Friday.

From the podium in the little bookstore, owner Alice Hutchinson welcomed everyone and introduced each poet. Amy chose one poem from each of her six collections, her chestnut hair luminous in the afternoon light. David read from his forthcoming Homebound Publications collection, Blue Marble Gazetteer. His second poem included “salty” dialogue, and I worried for him and for all the poets and risk-takers of language in these times. And I worried about his surgery, though I tried to maintain a brave face whenever we locked eyes across the room.

After the reading, Mary, Amy, David, and I sat at outdoor tavern tables across the street from statues of Abraham Lincoln and P.T. Barnum, enjoying the cool spring air together. We sipped drinks and ordered food while David regaled us with tales of their recent adventures, including a funny story about a visit to the emergency room the previous Saturday night. When he disappeared into the restroom, Mary thanked us and told us that this was the most cheerful he had been in weeks. “He is in terrible pain.”

“Well, hopefully the surgery will work.”

When he returned, we talked about our plans for the future. “Thanks for your help with the chapters of the Great Mountain Forest book,” he told me, referring to his work-in-progress about this small area of Connecticut from ancient times to the present. “I made the changes you suggested.”

“It’s going to be good.”

He waved my compliment away. “I’m excited about the project. But now I’m getting into modern times, where the actual people I’m talking about, or their children, are still alive. It’s tough to know how to handle that.”

“You always want to be respectful of people.”

“But be honest.”

“I also have to be mindful of what I put my efforts into. If I choose this, I can’t do something else. It might take me two more years.” He shifted in his seat uncomfortably and stood up to lessen the pain. “But if I become the state poet laureate, then this will go on the back burner, and I will put my efforts into that.” He laughed. “That’s a big if.”

“I think you really have a good chance at that,” Amy told him.

“If not at the Nobel Prize,” I joked.

“Well, I’m not that interested in accolades, but you never know,” he chuckled. “They make some dynamite choices.”

Two weeks later at his memorial service on the Collinsville Green, hundreds of people gathered on the lawns of the 19th century houses and milled about the closed-off street: uniformed volunteer firefighters and black-clad beat poets, environmentalists and politicians, rabbis and librarians. I sat on the corner of his lawn by the fire hydrant with Amy and a few other minor league authors. Everyone faced a podium set up in front of a huge red fire truck and the white peak of the Congregational Church. The murmur of the crowd blended with the distant melody of the Farmington River, rushing through the valley below.

Swallows caught insects above the chimneys and a cat meowed somewhere in the gardens on the hill. Bright green trees and white puffy clouds seemed to refute the somber occasion as David’s family emerged from the house and a rabbi began the ceremony. Two Connecticut poet laureates stood up to read his work, and I realized that he would never reach that position now, his application sitting fallow in some bare office room. Speaker after speaker read eulogies, with descriptions like “Man of Letters” and “Renaissance Man” echoing again and again. Indeed, the echo of the man himself was in every word and in every face. I felt like I could turn around and see him puttering around in his beloved garden, but when I did glance over the fence, I saw only flowers.

The sun began to set through the maple trees, the hot day cooled, and the seemingly inevitable rain held off. Mary stood up to read a poem, somehow managing to repeat her husband’s pun about visiting ancient cemeteries during the pandemic lockdown, “where everyone was safely six feet distanced.” The bells of the Congregational Church pealed, and we walked away from the Green, heading to a tavern for a late dinner, to a night of conversation and laughter that resembled David’s own rough vision of paradise.

Well, Eric, I could hear him saying, it is the work itself that matters. Literature goes on, and our little streams flow into it. What is literature after all, but the work of thousands of ordinary writers reaching for extraordinary words? We are all minor league authors – I was going to say, “even the best of us.” But perhaps I should say, especially the best of us. Not because there is quality hidden in the bullrushes, but because literature –true literature, good literature– springs from hope.


Eric D. Lehman is the author of 22 books of fiction, travel, and history, including 9 Lupine Road, New England Nature, Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London, and Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P.T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity, which won the Henry Russell Hitchcock Award from the Victorian Society of America and was chosen as one of the American Library Association’s outstanding university press books of the year. His novel 9 Lupine Road was a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award, and my novella, Shadows of Paris, was a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award, a silver medalist in the Foreword Review’s Independent Book Awards, and won the novella of the year from the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

The poems in Lola Haskins’ newest collection, Homelight (Charlotte Lit Press 2023), are equally elegant and eloquent in their graceful blend of theme, imagery, and language. Elegant in their refined, fluent use of words and eloquent in their visions and messages, these are luminous poems. While some poems are nearly haiku-short, others contain many stanzas, yet all resonate with beguiling, stirring words from a poet with a close connection to the natural world and an intense perceptiveness. There’s a spiritual quality to many of the poems, even a metaphysical element to some as in “The Discovery” where “time is as / random as the patterns the sun makes on / any given day…” As Haskins travels between accessible and elusive, the personal and the observational, Homelight offers a stunning collection of well-crafted, evocative poems which flow with a natural rhythm.

Organized into seven named sections, these 63 poems are diverse in their topics. In part one, titled “On the Shoulders of Giants,” Haskins writes in the style of such renowned poets as William Blake, W. S. Merwin and Mary Oliver. In part two, “Wings,” she celebrates wild birds, often a topic of hers in prior collections. Other named sections include: “And They Are Gone,” “(In)humanity,” “Corona,” “The Slapped Girl,” and “Rehearsing.”

Haskins’ talent for the poetry of nature is well established with her prior books and her poems of the natural world stands out superbly in Homelights too. As a long-time environmentalist and outdoors enthusiast, she occasionally tilts these poems toward a world-weary awareness of what we are damaging and seeing slipping away. In “Dominion,” she questions when we will understand how “the tips of our fingers / are like yellow butterflies? Reach for them and they are gone.” In “Those Who Look Alike but Are Not,” she ends the poem with “They are not the ones destroying the world.” Yet, the poems usually lend themselves to hopefulness and celebration of what we still have as she finds a yin and yang equilibrium. For example, in “The Hundred and One Names of the Wind,” Haskins rejoices in the wind for “its voices / have taught us song, / and its swaying   dance.” Yet, she also recognizes “for any day / of the world it may crush us under / our houses.” In the end, she wonders “be we wise or foolish    do we / understand what we have done.”

Haskins’ vivid use of metaphors, simile, and precise, unique descriptions is so powerful that images lifted from the natural world become so much more—which of course is the alchemy in truly good poems. In “The Salt Marsh,” for example, “At dusk the water turns melted pearl” and in, “Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love,” readers find “The earth is a kind chair. When I have stopped breathing she will not tell me / I must get up.” In “At the Park,” robins “drab as dead leaves” nonetheless rise “like children swinging / lanterns, stars among the darkened trees.” And the bird in “The Woodpecker” will “hammer at the tree / like a resolute / toddler / pounding pegs.”

Among the nature and personal poems, a few are also topical. The pandemic appears in the section titled “Corona, 2019-2021” where in a poem entitled “Woods,” Haskins observes sharply that “Home and here are / the only places / I’m allowed / now the world is sick.” Yet, even in that narrowed space, she finds beauty—“A tiny violet moth / has fallen in love / with my socks.”

Other topical poems include “Aleppo,” where a Syria father “speaks of his six month old boy, born here / who has never seen the sky.” In “Bear,” referencing Ukraine, she writes:

         If a group of bears attacks your village, lie still.
         If they are not fooled, fight back with everything they are trying to rip out.
         If this means you have to set fire to your country, do it.

The most deeply personal poems are those in “The Slapped Girl” and in “Rehearsing.” One of the poems in those sections is a bittersweet, haunting love poem entitled “Though We Can Never Be Together.” In only twelve sublime lines, the poem captures both a story and a feeling, beginning with this line: “I live with you  / in the interstice between breath and breath / in the cool damp hollows tides leave in the sand” and ending with these words:

         And I wear you
         the way a Sikh wears his cord
         under his clothes
         in token of the ineffable beauty of the world.

All in all, these are rich, layered poems of beauty and transcendence which once more establishes Lola Haskins as a poet worthy of her many accolades and worthy of reading, re-reading, and cherishing.

Lola Haskins’ poems have been broadcast over the BBC and her work has appeared in such prestigious publications as The Atlantic, London Review of Books, The New York Quarterly, Georgia Review, Rattle, Prairie Schooner, and others. Her body of work also includes thirteen previous collections of poetry, a beginner’s guide to the poetry life, and a non-fiction book about Florida cemeteries. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, she has been honored with three book prizes, two NEA fellowships, four Florida Cultural Affairs fellowships, the Emily Dickinson/Writer Magazine award from Poetry Society of America, and many others.


         By Lola Haskins, from Homelights and used with permission

         We name the birds and think those are their names
         but our throats are helpless when calling flights pass over
         and we can’t taste the earth that comes up with the worm in a robin’s beak
         nor in the worst moments of our lives can we approach the way an owl sobs.

         We analyze the sky using charts      one phenomenon at a time
         yet when light pierces the clouds like our visions of God we turn into
         open mouths   and when that light enters us     no matter how much
         we want to keep it     because we do not have the tools     we can never.

         We wade through undergrowth whose leaves and sticks are our words for them
         but the nodules and stitchings on our ankles will always know more about plants
         than we do  and we have no idea what to call the way trees dwarf us  nor when
         we hold them     how to interpret the patterns their barks leave on our cheeks.

         We have stories but we cannot parse them  so when we step on a seedling struggling
         through a crack we never think of Cain and Abel     nor does the way water
         cascades towards us from high and  ancient rock bring Rapunzel to mind
         nor when we look at the stars do we remember As it was in the beginning.

         When will we understand that all our classifications are only attempted dust?
         That nothing pinned to a card is true?  That sight and hearing
         and taste and our hearts and our brains and the tips of our fingers
         are like yellow butterflies?  Reach for them and they are gone.


Claire Hamner Matturro has been a journalist, lawyer, organic blueberry farmer, and college instructor. She is the author of eight novels, including a series published by HarperCollins. Her poetry appears in Slant, Kissing Dynamite, New Verse News, One Art, Muddy River Poetry Review, Tiger Moth ReviewLascaux Review, and Glassworks. Her reviews of poetry appear in Southern Literary Review, where she’s an associate editor, and in Slant, Compulsive Reader, and Verse-Virtual.

How to Read 100 Books in a Year

by CL Glanzing

Reading one hundred books in a year is probably not that unusual. And yet, when I mention it to friends or colleagues, they look surprised.


I could never do that.

Now you’re just showing off.

Well, contemporary wisdom (i.e. Instagram) states that your 30s are the time for unlearning all the conformity you learnt in your 20s and returning to the feral weirdo you were as a child.

If you asked me where I could be found between the ages of 4 and 10, the answer would probably be reading a book. Under my bed. Under a chair. Upside-down on the monkeybars – now there was a trick that required discipline.

As an only (lonely) child with a Montessori school background, I was used to entertaining myself. And what better adventures could I possibly experience than the ones flickering in my mind? Ghosts, dragons, elves, mysteries, children living off the land or surviving in the woods. Books were easier to operate than a VCR.

Then, I transitioned into an ordinary, American-style Elementary school with schedules and designated snack-time, and books in a completely separate wing of the building.

I discovered quickly that reading carried no social capital. No one cared that I could read. In fact, two teachers told me to slow down – and not make the other kids feel bad. My fifth grade teacher took Hatchet by Gary Paulsen out of my hands on the playground and demanded that I go engage with the other kids.

One year, I decided to read all the books nominated for a YA award. I was terrible at sports, but having a little reading goal set a thrill inside me. I was competing against myself. It was the ultimate game of solitaire. I wasn’t looking for praise or validation, but when I finished all thirty nominated books, I genuinely felt alone in accomplishment. I’m sure that people who collect belly button lint must feel the same way.

So my hobby, along with so many other childhood hobbies, dwindled. I only read books assigned by school or university courses. I would still buy books, ones I thought would look intellectual and interesting on my shelves, and never crack the spines. During one particularly stressful exam period, I just opened fiction books at random – the middle of the fucking book – and read until I fell asleep. I couldn’t commit.

In January 2020, I decided to cauterise my festering reading habits and engage in some serious exposure therapy: 20 books in 2020. Incredibly, I achieved this goal and it was due to two factors: a pandemic and moving to a country with free libraries. Like for most people, lockdown was confrontational about how I spend my time. What do you do with the hours you should be commuting, socialising – doing literally anything outside your apartment?

But the greatest gift I received was access to a public library. ‘You know these books are free, right?’ I want to shout as I grab library patrons by the lapels.

I have actually only bought one book this entire year.

It would be impossible for me to afford to purchase 100 books per year. Let alone house them, or reconcile the environmental impact. (Would I recycle them? Pass them on? Self-entomb using them as bricks?)

I have never been more aware that access to books is a privilege. Literacy itself is a privilege.

If you don’t have a library card, I strongly urge you to get one (even if you don’t think you’ll use it) just to bump up the recorded number of users. Local authorities are so quick to close libraries thinking it’s an easy way to save money. But we have a duty to keep them funded. Libraries provide free information for those who may not be able to afford access to books, audiobooks, or the internet.

Does borrowing from libraries still support authors? Absolutely. Publishers like to allege that library sales impede their profitability (which is convenient when publishers set prices and royalties). But libraries often pay two or three times the retail cost of a book, and have a demand to buy multiple copies if it’s popular. Some libraries even have a pay-per-use system where authors get royalties for every check-out. And who says you might not go and buy the book later if you really like it? Bookshops and libraries are not mutually exclusive ideas.

But enough about that.

After I managed to read 20 books in a year, of course I needed to up the ante. 40 books. Then 60 books. And then, here we are, 100 books.

The truth is that I could not have read so many books without the work of some truly extraordinary authors. Their words inspired me, delighted me, comforted me, and made me feel grateful to be alive.

My tastes may not be for everyone, but looking back over my 15 favourite reads (or re-reads) of 2023, I realise how haunted this list is.

Firstly, haunted locations – chilling places full of mysterious atmosphere, poignant memories, or inexplicable tragedies.

The Field by Robert Seethaler showed me the entire history of a small Austrian town, told by the residents of their local cemetery, with tender poetry akin to Spoon River Anthology. Then there are the desolate, apocalyptic landscapes. I starved and despaired with a man and his son in The Road by Cormac McCarthy and then I starved and despaired again with a group of forgotten women in I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman. Books like these make us wonder: How could this happen? And then, worse, Could this happen to me? What would I do?

When I’m in a reading slump, I reread Shirely Jackson, inarguably one of the greatest writers in history (excuse me while I blow a kiss to her framed portrait on my desk). Dark Tales is a masterclass in horror short story writing. I re-read The Haunting of Hill House, which happens to be one of my favourite books ever. And then I had the privilege of reading this book’s modern reincarnation in Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt. A love letter to Jackson with all the horrifying fears that queer and trans people face on a daily basis.

Then there were the haunted spaces of transformation. Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield brought me to tears with her superb writing, beautiful metaphors, and a love threatened by a supernatural transformation. Perfect for fans of The Southern Reach Trilogy or Love and Other Thought Experiments. Not all haunted spaces are inherently malevolent though, as can be seen in Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, which is a truly joyful exploration of a surreal environment. Sister Maiden Monster by Lucy A Snyder made me mutter out loud, “fucking genius” several times. Zombies, octopodes, pandemics, cosmic beings, and queerness. What more could I want?

Secondly, there are haunted characters – people stalked by their past and difficult choices, unable to cope with their present surroundings. I adore these psychology-driven works, perhaps because they make the mess inside of my own head seem just as comprehensible. 

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian was un-put-downable. Wonderfully grotesque character examinations in a stellar collection of short stories. You would think she couldn’t outdo Cat Person, but she can. On a train journey, I listened to the audiobook version of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and heard the author himself narrate vignettes of intergenerational trauma, immigrant identities, and queer first love, as tears ran down my face under my N95 mask.

Mrs March by Virginia Feito has already received so much praise this year, there’s little I can add to it, except saying that it is worth the hype – like The Driver’s Seat meets Mrs. Dalloway. There’s nothing I love more than a messy, female protagonist. And I got her in spades with Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder. A feral scream of female rage that I encourage all women to read – whether you have children or are childfree. I enjoyed seeing women blossoming in callous wildernesses. Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy gave me a haunted protagonist trying to save a dying species. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook is another favourite re-read, telling the complicated, resentful story of a mother and daughter surviving in a national park as part of a climate change experiment.

You may think that 15 treasured books out of 100 (15%) are low odds, and make the process hardly worth the outcome. But you would be wrong.

I wish everyone in the world were as privileged as me to be able to read 100 books. And experience 100 different lives in a year.

So if you want to twist my arm and ask me for some digestible pearls of wisdom – CL, how can I also read 100 books in a year? Here we go:

  1. Get a library card.
  2. If you want to buy a book, try to prioritise buying from independent shops or sellers that keep high streets alive and ensure that authors are paid fairly. Fun tip: treat it as a date location. Trust me on this. It’s better than a movie or a drink in a loud bar. Take your paramour or your spouse. Walk around the stacks and discuss the book-jackets. Then buy them a book.
  3. Stop reading the books you think you should be reading. I will never read Jane Austen. I have never read Dickens. The phrase “but it’s won so many awards” will never entice me. Read what actually grabs you. What punches you in the gut. There are no guilty pleasures. If you only want to read vampire smut or nonfiction botanical encyclopaedias – that is fine. Anyone that judges your reading tastes clearly has to work on themselves, and learn how to say, ‘hmm, that’s not for me, but I’m glad you enjoy it.’
  4. If you don’t know what you like: read widely. Try a new genre. You might find a new author that speaks to you. Experiment until you find “your thing”. I know so many people that thought they didn’t like reading until they found the right genre.
  5. Join a bookgroup. Even a small one. Even a virtual one. It will give you the monthly consistency of reading at least one book.
  6. There is nothing wrong with listening to audiobooksinstead of reading with your eyes.
  7. Normalise talking about books. Ask your family and friends and colleagues what they’re reading. Ask them what they like about it.
  8. Stuck in a reading rut? Re-read a book that you liked in the past. It will remind you what you’re looking for, and you might even read it with new eyes. To quote T.S. Eliot, we might “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I am grateful that I have reignited my bibliophila and rediscovered an activity that I adored as a child. I know that I will continue devouring books for the rest of my life.

And what about 2024? Will I read 100 books again?

Maybe. We’ll see how it goes. 


CL Glanzing is an international nomad, currently living in the UK. Her work has been published in Luna Station Quarterly, The Writing Disorder, The Quarterl(ly) Journal, Jet Fuel Review, Uncharted Magazine, Meniscus Literary Journal, Minds Shine Bright Anthology, and received nominations for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is currently pursuing her dream of living in a haunted lighthouse.

Proper Posture

by Angela Townsend

Most of my life, I’ve been unable to speak the language of Boys Like You.

Even now, I am limited to “I am lost,” “Where is the bathroom?” and “Please take me to the hospital.” Generally speaking, that’s enough to get around town.

I once crashed into walls so reliably, I was a hazard to my health. My mother was forced to institute an emergency alert system. Meandering the mall or chit-chatting with tenors after a choir concert, she had sonar for shining eyes. If I was actively being appreciated, she would exhale what I can only describe as a Scandinavian drawl: “yahh.”

I never believed her, not even when her hypotheses grew sinews and spoke. A week after a science-fair “yahh,” Jake the sophomore told me I was prettier than all three girls on Friends.

“See?” My mother was exultant.

But he never asked me out. He never asked me to dance. In fact, he said I looked like a “lunatic linguini bean” when I leapt and whirled to Mariah Carey in the strobe light. He ended up going out with Jenna, who was blonde.

I was too much for them, my mother said. “Wait until college.”

My English teacher took this further. “Do you see all the hangdogs around you?”


“The kennel is open. But you have a forcefield.”

She was a fool. All my gates were open.

“You are wiser than you realize,” she insisted. “They are not ready for you. I don’t even foresee a boy rising above the buffoonery in college. Wait until grad school.”

I cursed her prophecy through college, where my only irrefutable admirer was a grizzly with a beard to his belly button. Isaac was my square-dance partner at orientation, and he circled me for four unsatisfying years.

“Why don’t you give him a chance?” my stepfather demanded.

“Because there are woodland creatures living in his facial hair.” I was, at least, honest. “Because he is semi-feral.”

“Because he’s too interested?”

My mother interjected. “She calls him ‘the hairy, scary guy.’”

“Because he’s too interested,” my stepfather confirmed. “I’m gonna start calling you Fox on the Run.”

“I’m no fox.”

Isaac drew me cartoons of men with hot dogs and hamburgers for hats, his mysterious specialty. He threw them under my dorm room door: “Salutations, my pixie! Library, 11am?” I piled them under my Post-its. Isaac found a film major named Hannah but still bowed at the waist every time he saw me.

Senior year, I waited for the train with a boy who always let me cut in line at the salad bar. He looked like the host of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and had the courage to wear Dick Tracy hats.

“I don’t think I’ve ever caught your name.” With NJ Transit only three minutes away, I could be brave.

He was pleased to answer. “I’m Michael.”


He shook my hand. He told me he was born on Michaelmas. He described the asters in his mother’s garden, planted to celebrate his birth. He asked about my birthday.

“St. Patrick’s Day.”

“How fitting!” He clapped his long hands.

“How so?” Did he not know that I was the girl of no beers? I hid in the chapel on the campus the Princeton Review voted “most likely to ignore God on a regular basis.” I was the unofficial psychologist to the anthropology department. Did he have any idea how depressed those professors were after field work in Yemen and the Trobriand Islands? Did he not know that I could tell the difference between the scents of marijuana and Cinnabons? Did he not know that I had Type 1 diabetes? Also, I was a virgin.

Should he not be wearing a hazmat suit, or at least the lead vest from the dentist’s office?

He threw an asteroid. “It’s one of those holidays that exists to add color to our lives. You radiate joy.”

“What makes you say that?” I was not about to accept such a thesis without teeth.

“I don’t know. I mean, I do know.” He adjusted his fedora. “You are just this little orb of light everywhere I see you.”


“If so, nuke it up, my lady.”

I felt lightheaded. “I think I want that on a bumper sticker.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

NJ Transit arrived. Michael sent me emails on Candlemas and Michaelmas. I never saw him on campus again.

“You should have been more responsive,” my stepfather chided.

“But I did respond.” I did. “I want them to pursue me.”

“I don’t think you know what you want, foxie.”

I wanted to go to seminary, where pastors-to-be would pursue me in the Presbyterian way, “decently and in order.” The first month into a Master of Divinity, liturgical hooligans proved we had not come far since high school.

The gentlest boy in Koine Greek cornered me in the mailroom to sing that numinous Top 40 hymn, “Hot in Hrrr.” He had sacralized the lyrics: “I am getting so hot/that I wanna take my robes off!”

I laughed, and I ran.

I chose to concentrate in Pastoral Counseling. The first day of The Minister and Mental Illness, Dr. Dykstra informed us, “conservatively, one third of you have some form of pathology at the diagnostic level. Statistically, at least one of you in this classroom is a predator.”

We would learn our Myers-Briggs types and the wrong reasons people skulk pulpits. We evaluated television preachers as charitably as possible, although we were unanimous that a man named Prophet Angelo Prosper was placed upon this earth exclusively for educational purposes. A boy named Mark rolled his eyes at me every Tuesday and Thursday at 10:40am.

One day he manifested behind me in the dining hall. “So, you think it’s me?”

“What?” I laughed for no reason.

“The predator. You think it’s gotta be me, don’t you?”

He had hair like overcooked ramen and something very John the Baptist behind his eyes. He wore T-shirts that said things like Save Darfur and Love is Love.

“Definitely,” I answered.

“What kind of music do you like?” This seemed an appropriate follow-up.

I answered without thinking. “Johnny Cash.”

“Aw yeah!”

“Willie Nelson. Emmylou. You know, country when it was still folk.”

“AW! YEAH!” Mark slammed down his tray. “That’s right!” He nodded for several seconds. “Wanna know which one you are?”


“You’re not the predator. But I know what you are.”

“Please tell me.” This could be helpful information.

“You’re the one with the best posture in the whole wide world.” He nodded in rhythm with some inner music.

“I am?”

“You are.” He took a stance that I could only assume would merit my mother’s “yahh.” “Were you a ballerina?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You sit perfectly, so properly.” He extended his neck and crossed his eyes. “You learned that somewhere.”

I had wanted to be a ballerina so badly, I had put magazine pictures of pointe shoes in my parents’ lunch bags until they relented to lessons. I had lasted three months before the instructor, my body, and my ego agreed this was not meant to be.

“I took piano lessons.”

“That ain’t it.” Mark shook his head. John the Baptist kindled his eyes. “It must be the Hoooooooly Ghost.”

He went to his lunch table and never talked to me again. Maybe he was the predator.

“He wanted you to follow him,” my mother insisted.

“He put his entire heart on the tray,” my stepfather groaned.

“He didn’t ask me out!” I shouted so loud, a man in a fedora heard it all the way across the asteroid belt. A boy at a science fair dropped his “linguini beans.” All the woodland creatures crawled out of a distant beard and said “yahh!”

And I walked into the wall and knocked my glasses off. And I staggered into the bathroom. And I saw a tall girl in the mirror, blurry but alive. And I took my robe off.

And I decided to sign up for salsa lessons on the far side of town. I would not stop at the mall. I did not need anything there.

I packed my translation guide.


Angela Townsend is the Development Director at Tabby’s Place: a Cat Sanctuary. She graduated from Princeton Seminary and Vassar College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Chautauqua, The Penn Review, The Razor, and Still Point Arts Quarterly, among others. She is a Best Spiritual Literature nominee. Angie has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 33 years, laughs with her poet mother every morning, and loves life affectionately.

Some Peace

by Rita Plush

Two old ladies now, I met my brother’s future wife in the ’50s—let’s rock and roll!

And we did; within a year we both were married. Other life events jibed as well: becoming pregnant with our firsts, buying our homes, hers far more lavish in size and zip code than mine (my brother was a rousing success early on). 

Though I did want nice things, I couldn’t see myself in her house, or the country club they’d joinedthe lifestyle too la-de-da for my more earthbound tastes. Was I jealous? I didn’t want what she had, but I didn’t want her to have them either? Trying now to get a pulse on what I felt back then is taking some doing. But I’m working on it.  

She had a standing Friday at a salon for a wash, set and blowout, mid-week for a recomb. Except for a cut every six weeks, I washed and rolled up my hair, slipped on my Lady Sunbeam bonnet (hose attached), hitched the portable motor around my waist, and vacuumed while my hair dried. With three children under five years, my main interest was getting out of my nightgown before my husband got home from work.

Her hobby was shopping; she had a stylish eye. I learned from her to be more selective in my choices and upped my wardrobe. I asked her once where she bought a certain dress, scurried over, and snapped it up in a different color. The sour look she gave my new frock said she was not flattered.

Years later, my children grown, I started an interior design business. After that, I decided I wanted a college education and got undergraduate and graduate degrees in English. She had a brief stint selling real estate, also enrolled in college but dropped out because my brother wanted to travel. Our goals and aspirations were very different. Instead of creating a yin/yang, a complementary balance between our personalities—me, outspoken and opinionated, she, thin-skinned, easily took offense—our different makeups widened our gap. To be blunt: we rubbed each other the wrong way.

If matters were tenuous between us, the shit hit the proverbial fan when my mother died.

Writing in earnest then, eager to capture the family dynamic, I put to paper my impressions of her shiva, the Jewish seven-day mourning period. I fictionalized my brother as a landscaper and his wife as an Israeli who couldn’t cook, when she was actually a pretty good cook. The piece was published. The description offended her. My family sensed the slap; our strained relations, a secret no longer.

Defending myself to myself, and to others: That’s what writers do; we make up things! But did I have to make up that thing? Was it the writer in me cracking wise, or was I taking a swipe at her? She swiped me but good. Dropped me like an before ing. I was relation non grata for years.   

During that time, I would meet my brother occasionally for lunch. I need to say here that we were not ever close.

Growing up I had never felt his big-brotherness, that under-his-wing mentoring often felt by younger siblings. The most we had in common was to eye-witness my father’s hot, unpredictable temper, most often aimed at him. Belittled and criticized at every turn—You’ll never amount to anything! shrieked my father—it’s amazing he turned out so well. I hurt for my brother then, but don’t think I ever told him. Would that have made us closer if I had?

At those infrequent lunches we did find things to talk about: our children, upcoming vacations—surface talk, information talk. The few times I brought up our father—real talk—I noticed he was overcome by an urge to visit the men’s room. I sensed his distress and went back to safer ground. At least we had contact; I was grateful for that.  

Eventually, his wife thawed and, as with warring nations, we arrived at a detente. Still, keeping conversations between us light and agreeable was an effort; so much of her talk annoyed me that if I managed to keep my mouth shut—shooting from the lip was my default—I gave myself an A+ in self-control.

By then, I had more pressing things on my mind—a son stricken with ALS;a daughter with advanced breast cancer—than chasing someone who, at best, wanted nothing to do with me. Week by week, their conditions worsened. The realization that I would likely survive them was unbearable. I needed support, the listening ears and open hearts of those I loved. I needed my brother.

He would be there for me, he said. I could count on him, he said. “Anything, sis.”

Anything turned out to be a once-in-a-blue-moon call asking how my children were. For the most part, I took the initiative. I told myself, let it go. It’s not in him. He can’t do more. Accept it!

A stroke took my brother a few years ago.

At his grave, the rabbi told of his many contributions to yeshivas and other Jewish causes. My brother was a generous man, devoted to his faith. But what struck me were the beautiful tributes from his children and grandchildren. You could hear it in what they said—they had pet names for him—feel the emotion with which they spoke, how they clung to each other in their grief. Adored is the word I came away with. And he must have adored them, and cared and given fully to them. Apparently, he did “have it in him.” Perhaps when he packed up and left home—and our father’s constant put-downs—he made a clean break, and somehow broke with me as well.

Last year my daughter died of breast cancer. His wife came to the funeral, the shiva, but after that… months passed. How much time does it take to shoot a text or send an email—Thinking of you. How’re you doing? — if you can’t drag yourself to the phone for a proper call? And because I so much wanted her to reach out to me, I, like a schmo, texted her.

 Ever hear the joke about the lady and the gorilla? 

She’s on a trip to Africa and she gets lost in the jungle. No food, no shelter. A gorilla finds her and takes her into his lair. Ravages her for weeks on end. Finally, she’s rescued. Home, she tells her friends all about her ordeal.

“What about the gorilla?” they say.

“He doesn’t call … he doesn’t write…”

That’s her! Not a word, not a peep since my text a year ago and counting. Her husband’s gone; she wants me gone. So … why did I pursue her? Why am I still expecting/hoping for her call? Why, when I’m looking to keep stress and aggravation out of my life, do I want this woman back in? Maybe, I’m thinking now, it’s not her I want or ever wanted. Maybe it’s my brother I’m still looking for. My distant elusive brother. To be close to his presence, through her. The way I feel close to my son and my daughter now—their energy, the essence of who they were—when I’m with their spouses. As of a precious metal over a duller alloy, they give my life a little shine; a luster, otherwise lacking.

I will get no gold from her, but I’ll do without. I’ll believe that my brother did care for me; he just wasn’t able to show it. When I think of it that way, it gives me some peace.



Author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations, Rita Plush is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Kveller, Jewish Week, Newtown Literary Review, Down in the Dirt, and Down in the Dirt Collected Stories, 2021, Potato Soup and The Best of Potato Soup, 2021. Flash Fiction Magazine, Broadkill Review, Backchannels, Persimmon Tree, LochRaven, Avalon Literary Review, Chicken Soup For The Soul, Sanctuary Magazine, Write City Magazine, Hadassah Magazine and Delmarva Review.



Poetry Book Review

Tangled by Blood: a memoir in verse
by Rebecca Evans

Moon Tide Press, 2023, 89pp, moontidepress

Reviewed by Lisa C. Peterson

Power. Silencing. Child abuse. Tragically, these themes co-exist. When perpetrators steal their victims’ voices, they rob them of a precious gift—the ability to express and protect themselves. Yet not all victims remain silent. And when the one who speaks is a poet, adept at massaging words to circle difficult experiences, the effect can be profound.

In Tangled by Blood, Rebecca Evans exposes the reverberating nightmare of childhood sexual abuse that was etched into her body as a child—by parents who were supposed to protect her but violated her, instead. Silent no more, Evans uses her lyrical voice to reclaim her power by shouting, whispering, and singing her story. The arc of this memoir-in-verse progresses from childhood recollections to adolescent struggles to adult reckonings. Throughout, echoes of the narrator’s dysfunctional upbringing remain—in the form of disordered eating, suicidal ideations, domestic violence, and the shame, secrets, and lies that abuse often engenders. Yet through verse, Evans guides the reader through this difficult subject matter, building understanding and empathy by presenting poems and prose from different points of view and by using a variety of styles and forms to create a multi-faceted story of her experience living with this trauma.

A chorus of female voices (sister Tina, a young “Beckala”, the mother, and a wiser adult Rebecca) offers a glimpse into the narrator’s youth. The preface poem, “I wanted to be your womb,” written in the voice of Tina, introduces the theme of innocence poisoned by “Daddy’s” uninvited intrusions. The rest of the book is broken into three parts, which works well to separate childhood experiences from adult reflections and lingering pain.

Part I creates a mosaic of abuse—a stepfather sexually assaulting his young daughters as well as a biological mother who knows yet doesn’t intervene. In powerful lines that build between descriptive stanzas, the narrator condemns the complicit mother: “Mother…Mother was…Mother was worse…Mother was worse than…Mother was worse than Father.” In “Cremation” she reiterates this blame, yet also hints at the complexity of their relationship in a stanza containing the apt title for the memoir-in-verse:

            …. If she asks my forgiveness,
            I’ll fail her,
            though we remain
            tangled by blood….

Poems written in the mother’s overbearing and dismissive voice further cement this image of a child alone and undefended against the force of an abusive stepfather.

The entirety of Part II is a six-part poem in Tina’s voice. In “I wanted to be your wall” Tina weaves the story of two sisters facing a cruel reality at the hands of a monster. Yet Tina also imparts a sweet song of sisterhood —a picture of what mothering should have looked like.

            …. In our after time,
            I’d wrap you, Sweet Baby
            Sister, curve you
            in my arms, wait ‘til
            your heart slowed
            and your eyes slid low….

This loving voice provides a stark contrast to the mother’s condescension as well as a more appropriate role model for young Beckala that offers a glimmer of hope.

In part III we find the adult narrator grappling with life in the shadow of abuse. Having survived her traumatic childhood, Evans explores the persistent memories that she carries in her mind, soul, and body, even as she moves forward—tales of her own sons, spousal abuse, and finally an un-silencing.

In “Tombstone Roses,” the narrator uses the model of Norma Jean transforming into Marilyn to morph from child, Beckala, to adult Rebecca—renaming herself, owning herself.

            …After I entered the military, I unnamed my-
            self, introduced Rebecca, no longer Becky—no

            longer victim. Not as drastic as Norma Jean spinning
            into Marilyn, though I thought I could alchemy

            into gold, story selected memories…

Yet the desired transition proves elusive, and Evans goes on to write of her own adult struggles in poems that are increasingly complex and metaphoric. In “Not the Land of Milk and Honey” Evans uses images from nature to reflect on her pain:

                         …And I wonder

            if there’s ever a right time—for war or tears
                        or feeding a hunger that’s selfish
                        and red. Wonder if the tubular

            felt raped and left for dead after her
                         nectar-draining, like blood-drawn
                         from empty veins…

In this and other poems, we see that the trauma is never truly left behind. Instead, it contorts in form from daily threat to haunting memory.

Despite the lingering anguish, Evans allows us to witness her extraordinary love—in the exquisite joy she feels in becoming a mother herself. We see her humility, strength, and humor in the checklist-formatted “The Non-Standard Parenting Plan for Turning Boys into Men,” including advice that is humble, “Say I’m sorry. Say it often,” profoundly true, “Tell them to value their own body and the bodies of others” and humorous, “Sing aloud in public when they misbehave. Get the lyrics wrong.” We journey alongside our narrator as she transitions into a conscientious caregiver (with a self-deprecating sense of humor) even as she continues to face adult struggles. And we cheer as she reclaims her power in “Yellow Declaration”:

            …. Some say detasseling corn is like rape, savaging female stalk centers. But I,
            Rebecca, declare, don’t compare rape to anything but rape or yellow

            to anything but yellow.

This truth-telling feels well-earned after so many years of silencing.

Throughout the memoir-in-verse, Rebecca Evans bravely condemns the abuse for what it was and attempts to break the cycle through her own fierce style of mothering. Although ripple effects linger, there is an increasing sense of, if not “healed,” at least healing. Overall, this lyrical memoir presents a personal journey through breathtaking imagery, word choice, and rhythm. It confronts pain, struggle, resentment, and ultimately, resilience with vulnerability and honesty. Its poetic styles immerse us into the mind and body of a survivor, a woman who has taken her trauma and turned it into art, so that her story is no longer shrouded in silence.


Lisa C. Peterson holds an MFA from UNR at Lake Tahoe as well as a BA and an MA from Stanford University. Her work has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, HeartWood Literary Magazine, Writer’s Foundry Review, Sport Literate, The Closed Eye Open, Sierra Nevada Review Blog, and elsewhere.

Empowering Despair

By Liza Martin

My fake ID said I was eighteen years old, and my name was Micaela. It was technically not a fake ID but a document I had found, and instead of returning it, I decided to use it as if it was my own. Micaela and I were similar, but it was pretty clear we were not the same person. For starters, I was fourteen at the time.

Not like the guards in the clubs cared. If the club was for 18+, you could expect to see only minors inside. Those who were eighteen or older went to clubs that were for 25+. The same happened with quinceañeras—you only went if you were under fifteen. Getting into places with a fake ID was especially easy for girls because girls attract boys, and boys usually pay, making it a win-win situation: we get in, and the clubs earn more money.

We liked to pretend we were older than we actually were. We wore high-waisted mini skirts way too tight with ugly crop tops that were barely enough to cover our developing bodies. We didn’t know that blending our foundation was a thing, so we walked proudly with our necks two skin tones lighter than our faces. We were lucky if we managed to do eyeliner properly without getting it in our eyes. After hours of preparation that concluded in liters of perfume and the smell of burnt hair, we were ready to go. Nothing could stop us; we were invincible. I felt invincible.

Until someone in the club touched me under my skirt.

More and more strange hands. Their skin against mine. Male bodies “dancing,” pressed against my own, offered me a couple of drinks to “let loose” and, just like that, to forget that even more hands were touching me under my clothes in that dirty, dark club.

The first time it happened, I was confused—maybe it was an accident? Yet another hand touched me, and another, and another. I tried to stop it, to call my friends, to find some help … yet when I saw my friends were also being touched and liked it, I felt ashamed. Not scared or angry—just ashamed.

Was this normal? Seeing everyone around me going through the same thing and not reacting at all made me hesitate as to whether to tell someone or do something. But it felt so wrong, and I was so uncomfortable. More and more drinks. More and more hands. Was I overreacting? I used to answer myself that yes, indeed, I was. I had to understand; that’s how it works––that’s the Latino culture. In fact, if you were lucky enough to be the target of teenage hands grabbing and caressing you, it meant you were attractive. So come on, be happy, smile, stop complaining! Enjoy the compliment and embrace your culture. Let them touch you; let them press their bodies against yours!

I saw my friends not only enjoying the harassment (as I call it now, but most definitely not how I called it then) but intentionally trying to get more of it. Noticing that only I felt uncomfortable with the situation, I thought, You are definitely the one in the wrong, Liz. I just trusted it was normal—because everyone acted as if it was.

When I look back, I always try to find a culprit, yet I always fail. It would have been easier if my parents had blamed my outfit or if my friends had explicitly said that getting touched was a compliment. I could then look back and say, “See? Look what they tell us when we are young. That’s why we acted as we did.” But the truth is, no one told us anything. That’s just not how it works—in Argentina, you learn on your own. You walk outside, and you follow the clear expectations that society places on you. You copy what others do, overhear conversations and take them personally, get punished or rewarded for your actions, and learn to survive in that savage jungle we call home.

When I was a child, during lunchtime, boys would be taught how to hammer while we were taught how to make pompoms out of wool. No one said it, but we learned that girls were weaker than boys. Boys wore pants and were allowed to wear shorts during Physical Education. We were absolutely banned from wearing shorts during P.E. but were expected to wear mandatory skirts every other day. No one said this explicitly, but we learned that girls should look attractive to look formal but never to be comfortable. In the clubs, girls don’t pay an entrance fee but are expected to express their sexuality and let strangers touch them. No one said so, but we learned that if no one touched us or pressed their bodies against us, it meant we were ugly and undesired. And all we wanted at fourteen was for someone to desire us. 


“Liza, prendé el bajón,” my mom asked. Bajón, in English “anticlimax,” is how my mom referred to the evening news—a channel where journalists exploit the suffering of others and turn horrific news into morbid entertainment. That night was no different.

A woman is murdered every 30 hours in Argentina due to sexist violence. There have been 286 femicides so far this year, and today we…

My mom turned the TV off. She knew what had happened that afternoon and couldn’t bear to hear it again. Chiara Paez, who was only fourteen, had been brutally murdered by her boyfriend after finding out she was pregnant. Fourteen. Just like me at the time, which is why my mom didn’t want to keep on listening.

But Chiara’s death was impossible to ignore. Everywhere, public demonstrations and marches arose like flowers in the spring. Women were tired—fed up with the killings and the raping, and the terrible violence that came with the curse of being a woman in Latin America.

The TV stayed off for the remainder of the week in my house.

For the first time ever, Argentina experienced a social outbreak focused specifically on sexist violence. The use of the word “femicide,” a mix of female and homicide, grew stronger as a way of explaining the murders of women at the hands of a man solely due to misogyny. A whole concept that stressed the gravity of sexism in our cultural context where gender violence and discrimination were common currency. Chiara was the final straw—Argentina couldn’t remain silent. That little girl’s assassination gave life to the Ni Una Menos movement, a feminist group that shook the country, spread to the Latin continent, and later reached North America as Me Too.

Meanwhile, all I cared about was which club I would go to on the weekend. About to turn fifteen, I was oblivious to the reality outside my bubble. I still craved the attention of those men in the clubs. I wanted to oversexualize my body and pretend to be older. I wanted to walk alone at night and dreamed about running away. And it wasn’t just me. My friends, most people my age, condoned all of those actions. While marches and demonstrations fought for a feminist future in the streets, the internal speech had not changed as quickly.

Feminists said that women were getting raped, and that mustn’t happen. At the same time, teenagers learned that being touched without consent was a compliment. Feminists said that men were killing women, but meanwhile, we were expected to seek male validation at all costs. Feminists protested and fought against Chiara’s and every other girl’s assassination. Meanwhile, the media, run by men, portrayed feminists as exaggerated and aggressive individuals. No wonder I soon started saying that feminists were crazy and that I didn’t like their modus operandi.

“Mamá, look what they’ve done!” I would say, looking at whatever thing those crazy stupid women had done that time. Like a parrot, I repeated the media’s message that feminists wanted to combat violence with more violence, which was useless and inconvenient. “I would never be part of that.”

My poor mother—she never argued about it with me. Instead, she kept silently attending those marches, patiently waiting for me to grow and join her in the fight. She knew how hard it was to wake up to the fact that feminism was not the enemy but the ally while being fed misogynistic speech and growing up in a sexist environment.

Why would I even support a movement that failed to help me? I would have loved to have had such support that first night out when I was fourteen, on my first encounter with the Latino nightlife. And yet, I had learned to accept my culture and its ways. Or worse—I had learned to like it. Why wouldn’t they do the same? Why wouldn’t they just remain silent and accept the world as it was? Why did they have to go out and destroy the streets during pointless demonstrations to change something that would never change?

My father, just like me, believed what the media portrayed. Violent women destroy public squares, wreck national monuments, vandalize governmental buildings … If we dared to talk about it during dinner, my mom would stand strong with her arguments, and a peaceful meal would turn into a heated fight. The voice of the media was louder than my mom’s during those nights. Until one day, when we opened our eyes.

The femicides had risen from one woman every thirty hours to one woman every twenty-three. During a Ni Una Menos demonstration, a group of women covered their faces with bandanas and scarves and vandalized the Cabildo of Buenos Aires, a historic building once used as the seat of the town council during the colonial period. The graffiti filled the entire wall with the names of hundreds of women who had been murdered that year, among other common feminist phrases.

“Graffitis ruin the cabildo’s facade,” “Insurgent protesters vandalize historic buildings,” “Violent demonstrators cost the city 270k pesos…” The media went wild. The Cabildo, located in the main square of the country’s capital city, had been destroyed. A building with historical value was completely ruined by inconsiderate women who were not satisfied with being allowed to protest peacefully but had the need to use violence––thus harming the innocent Argentine people.

“270,000 pesos! And this is a public building, so we will be paying that with our taxes. Outrageous!” My dad, worried about our income, had completely missed the fact that an entire wall was covered with names of girls my age who had been brutally murdered. Still young and oblivious, I had also missed the point.

“Don’t you guys see?” my mom asked. “Neither money nor the cabildo is the problem here. You can repaint the wall. You cannot bring those girls back to life.”

Suddenly, it all made sense. I felt as if someone had cleaned my pair of glasses, and the world I once saw blurry was now well-defined and clear. It felt like when one increases the brightness on a computer screen.

Feminists were not the enemy—the media was.


All around me, women dressed in green and purple chanted feminist songs that made my skin instantly flare with goosebumps. Thousands of banners and signs plagued the street. My mom, next to me, joined the women in their scream, “Never again, ni una menos!” My heart was pumping, and I felt quite overwhelmed. It was 2016, and as I attended my first march, I felt a paradigm shift in my mind.

Another girl had been killed. It had been over a year, and the femicides were still rising. I used to think feminists were unnecessarily violent. But why wouldn’t they? (Why wouldn’t we?) More than a year of peaceful protests, and what was the result? Even more femicides. How were murders, rape, and discrimination accepted but protests frowned upon?

I looked at my mom, and she smiled. Her smile delivered a clear message: among all the chaos, right there and then, we were safe. Surrounded by signs with the faces of the deceased girls, marching next to the victims’ families, and protesting against the never-ending violence, we still felt safe. There was a feeling of empowerment and belonging that was hard to put into words. We were not just individuals fighting for a cause; we were a collective—a family.

That mix of empowerment and despair remains with me to this day. I have not stopped going to demonstrations, simply because the gender-based murders and discrimination haven’t stopped either. And while it will take time to eradicate the sexist dynamics that plague my country, I can proudly say that Argentinean women were the pioneers in a movement that spread quickly through The Americas, and that, hopefully, changed the paradigm of many others who, like me, didn’t even have the word feminism in their language.


Born and raised in Mendoza, Argentina, Liza Martin left home when she turned eighteen to study for an International Baccalaureate in Thailand through the United World College program. Completely alone on a foreign continent, writing became her refuge—her therapy. Once she graduated, Liza was accepted into The University of Oklahoma on a full scholarship, where she is currently studying English Literature with a minor in Professional Writing. Being the first in her family to complete her studies abroad and the first to speak a second language, Liza aspires to represent her roots in her field of work. She writes in Spanish and English to make her art and culture accessible to both languages.

Chicken Babies

By Maza Guzmán

While in denial about my bipolar disorder, I decided, maniacally, to drive from Los Angeles to San Antonio with three baby chickens in the back of my blue Chevy Cruze. I had agreed to adopt them before my then-girlfriend put me in the hospital, and my conviction was, when I emerged a week later no less manic and much more fearful, that I could not abandon my babies, no matter what happened.

At every gas station, every motel, everywhere I could, I would crack the back windows open so that I could show off my babies to passersby, ideally children whose mothers’ eyes would widen as they pointed out one, two, three of my darlings. Once, in the parking lot of a gas station, I fully opened the door to replace their water jug, and they escaped, running under a neighboring car. I enlisted a small family, apparently familiar with chickens, in wrangling them back to my passenger side, but the adolescent chicks refused to return to the blanketed backseat, their nest, where I had poured hemp bedding in the footwells. Eventually, I developed a technique with my walking stick, using a sweeping motion to scare them back into the familiar.

The most beautiful effect of mania, I found, is the certainty, how everything makes sense. Destiny is the day’s return each and every day, until you find yourself penniless on the side of the road. It took six weeks, my mind and the wheels of a rented Tesla running fatally fast–so fast I couldn’t remember all of it. I had abandoned the Chevy in Alhambra before taking the road north to Seattle, but I did not abandon the chickens. They lasted until the end of those weeks, in the middle of the desert in Apple Valley, probably eaten and enjoyed by coyotes.

I wailed, pleading with the gods I had espoused concurrently with the chickens. These gods were neutral clowns armed with cruel jokes, ever ready to bestow lessons harshly. I had allowed my babies their freedom from the car for just one day as I attempted to purvey my clairvoyance at a cannabis convention. They had never before roamed far from their assigned bush where I set their food and water jug. But the bush proved insufficient defense against the desert’s will.

Throughout my mania, I invested my faith into a single coin–heads yes, tails no–and braced myself for the truth: were they dead? Heads–yes. Still I pleaded. I could not have guessed that just a month into the future I would be pleading for my own life, at the mercy of my own hands, as I fought suicidal instincts. But I spent that day hiking over sandy hills blooming with tiny desert flowers, searching for signs of my chicken babies and not finding even one feather.

I called the woman from La Quinta who had babysat my chickens one afternoon as I stewed in the hot tub. She had gushed about my chickens as much as I did, once a chicken mother herself. They were adorable. She assured me that coyotes would have left a mess. “Someone must have taken them,” she reassured me. “There’s no need to cry. Someone must have picked them up.”

Now when I hear the word “desert,” my heart shrinks. I think of the road, the strangers I grew attached to in my loneliness, the wild bravery desiccated and replaced by shame. A world without destiny, without a holy mandate to keep my babies alive and well, leaves me shaken with confusion over those cruel gods, now fully abandoned. How can chemicals in the brain so thoroughly change the material of your soul? I marvel at the life I led before the mania, before the chickens, when our shared reality held enough weight, enough purpose, to keep me moving through my days without hitting 106 miles per hour.


Maza Guzmán is a non-binary, multi-genre artist and writer currently living in the Chicago area while aspiring to return to Los Angeles. In 2020, they were featured in the documentary film The Art of Protest. In 2021, one of their needle-felted originals played a role in an award-winning stop-motion short. They’re currently working on a surrealist memoir, finding inspiration in space, science, queerness, and the bittersweet. They studied creative nonfiction writing at Northwestern University. This is their first publication.


By Chetan Sankar

I was coming out of my near-death experience in the Cardia Intensive Care Unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Atlanta, and was feeling thirsty.  Slowly, I opened my eyes completely and saw a nurse. I signaled to her to get me some water.

I looked around and saw my wife, Lakshmi.

“Hi, I am back,” I said.

She smiled and held my hand.

The nurse came back with a cup full of ice and gave me one ice cube. “This ice needs to last for an hour. You cannot drink water yet. Savor this.” I held it in my tongue and relished the feel of the ice. I twisted the ice with my tongue and savored it.

In another fifteen minutes, I wanted another cube of ice, but the nurse refused to give me one. She said, “wait an hour.”

I had taken the availability of water for granted and this incident made me reminisce about the role of water in my life from childhood to my senior years. When I performed research, I was surprised to find that currently one third of the world’s population doesn’t have access to potable water. What can we do to alleviate the suffering of these people?


Where I grew up in rural South India, I lived in an arid climate: water was scarce, the rivers near homes were barren, and the riverbeds were filled with sand rather than water. There were no town-wide water supply or sewage removal operations. We lived in towns that were at least a hundred miles away from a nearby beach. I rarely saw any large bodies of water.

I remember a house where my mom had to keep all the food items in a cabinet that rested on four stone furniture cups.  The cups were circular where the edges and the middle portions were at a height and a depression was formed between them.  Water could be poured into the cup so that ants cannot get into the cabinet. At that time, milk was procured from local herdsman who will deliver fresh milk to home. My mom used to keep it in a dish and cover it with a lid. If we forgot to put the water into the cups, we will see ants floating on top of the milk in the dish. Frequently, my mom would curse since ants would have creeped in when the water dried up; she had to take out the floating ants and use the milk.

In the house, we drew water from a well using pulleys, rope, and a bucket. We used that water for both drinking and bathing. We used to drink water drawn from the wells assuming that it was drinkable. Little did we know that it might have been the reason for many of the diseases in our household.

During summer months, the water in the well would recede and we had to toil to get a bucket of water. In the monsoon months, the water would be near the top and we could easily draw the water. There were some years when monsoon failed leading to scarcity of water. Then, the well-diggers were in full demand, whose job was to deepen the wells further and find new sources of water.

The toilets were outhouses, which had cement platforms on all three sides about a foot from the floor. Typically, they were about 10 feet away at the back of the house. They didn’t have roofs but had a wooden door. Family members squatted on the platform and used a mug full of water to clean themselves. The waste stayed exposed to nature for a day or two until the restroom cleaner, typically someone from a lower caste, came with a basket to collect the waste and wash the outhouse, though they were never truly clean. The sun would dry the waste and it was difficult to clean it given that the cleaner only used a bucket or two of water. Given the stink, we would hurriedly perform our ablutions and come out from there.

When we traveled, roadside toilets were hard to find, and my mom had to hide behind bushes to urinate. Men urinated openly in India anywhere they wished. Feces from children and adults were left in the open, drawing mosquitoes and flies who pecked at them and spreading diseases among the people. It was a disgusting sight; we had to be careful in walking so that we did not accidently step on one.

We typically took a bath next to the well. We stripped to our undergarments and then drew water from the well and poured it on ourselves. Depending on the season and the depth at which the water was at the well, our baths might be very short. We used very thin towels to dry ourselves since the sun would do an excellent job of drying us quickly. Given the lack of water, very few people in the town knew swimming.

During the summer months, it would be so hot (possibly in the 100 degrees F) range, that we had to take a bath twice a day. The water level in the wells would be at a low point and we had to exert to pull the water out. As a young boy, I did not mind getting drenched in the rain as it was easier than drawing water from the well. My parents used to fuss about it, but it was a lot of fun for us youngsters.

When ladies or girls took baths near the well, they tied their pavadai (an undergarment like a skirt) to cover their breasts and took baths from the wells.  Boys and men generally did not go to the back of the house when the ladies were taking a bath.

The clothes were washed next to the well. There was a washing stone that was kept nearby. This was just a large block of stone with a small slope so that we could squeeze and clean the clothes. We would draw a bucket of water, drop our clothes in the bucket, put some soap, squeeze, and clean the clothes using the stone, and then rinse them in the bucket of water. After that, we would hang the clothes on a clothesline that was a constant presence in our backyard. The clothes would dry in a couple of hours given the intensity of the sun. We had trouble cleaning our clothes only during the monsoon months when we had to dry them inside the house on clotheslines.

When I was about twelve, I visited our relatives in Chennai, I was fascinated to see the indoor plumbing. The the toilets were enclosed rooms where water came out of a pipe. These were Indian-style toilets where there was cement structure, and the toilet was integrated into the ground. We had to squat down on the toilet and then use water to flush the waste away inside the hole. The waste was collected in a tank that was at the front of the house. Sewage trucks would come once a month and pumps to remove the waste away from these tanks.

There were bathrooms where water would come out of taps and buckets would be placed under them. The buckets would have mugs that would hang on the side. People would have to strip to my undergarments and then use the mug to pour water on oneself. Typically, one stops a bath after using a bucket or two of water. There were no showerheads in these bathrooms.

Chennai is situated on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, a large body of water. In the evenings, I used to walk from my relative’s house to the Marina beach (about three miles away) and sit there for a period gazing at the unlimited expanse of water before my eyes. I wasn’t’ able to believe such a large expanse of water could be adjoining a large city. It was fun watching the waves and I used to wade into the water in my shorts. People wore modest clothes and you may see ladies standing in knee deep water with their saris pulled up.

The Bay of Bengal was ferocious, and it was not possible to wade much further than a few feet. But the beach was long and well kept. There would be many vendors that would sell their products and the crowd was intense. The noise from the vendors hawking the products would compete with the sound from the waves; the smell of deep fried pakodas and bondas would  mix with the smell of fish; ships would be anchored a few miles away from the beach leading me to imagine the life of the sailors. I would walk barefoot on the sand enjoying the feeling of sand getting into my toes.


I joined my undergraduate college, Regional Engineering College, Trichy, when I was fifteen years old. Trichy was a large town that was served by the rivers Cauvery and Kollidam. The Kollidam river splits from the main branch of Cauvery River at the island of Srirangam and flows eastward into the Bay of Bengal. Even though the bridge to cross the river to get to Srirangam from Trichy would be long, the riverbed was mostly dry, and we could see sand everywhere. Only during monsoon season, the river will be flowing fully.  People would dig the sand to get to the water. The municipality pumped water out of the river and supplied water to households in the city.

My college was located about ten miles away from the city in a rural area. It was a large campus. When I joined, it was three years old, and had an administrative building, a few departmental buildings, and a few hostels (dorms) to accommodate the students. The mess (cafeteria) for food was a separate structure. The staff and faculty members lived in residential units that were constructed inside the campus.

There was a large water tank where water from the underground (borewells) was pumped into and supplied the water to everybody on the campus. We had indoor plumbing and water was available in plenty. There was no filtration plant, and we drank water from the taps. There was no facility for obtaining hot water in the bathrooms. Since the temperature was mild even during winters, this did not pose any serious problems for us.

Some of my friends from North India who were used to getting hot water used to buy and hang a portable water coil to the side of the bucket and heat the water by plugging it in into a wall outlet. Even though this was a quick means to obtain hot water, frequently, we would get electric shocks if we touched the water or the coil without unplugging it.

I saw large bodies of water when I traveled to Kolkata to pursue my MBA from the Indian Institute of Management during 1971. This was the first time I had traveled out of my state to another state that was about 1,000 miles away. When I got on the train that would take me to Kolkata in two days, I bought a mud pot and filled it with water from the train station at Chennai. This kept the water cool during the hard and dusty two-day journey by train. The compartments were not air conditioned and the windows were kept open to facilitate air flow. We would feel the hot air coursing through the compartment during the daytime; it would cool down during the nighttime when we slept on the berths that were allotted to us. The water from the mud pot would condense and create a puddle on the floor of the compartment. Most people did not mind it since it cooled their feet in the hot weather.

Water was available in plenty at the dorms at my Institute. Unfortunately, the pipes had rusted, and we used to get red colored water spewing out of the showerheads. The concept of filtering water to drink was not common knowledge at that time. Therefore, frequently, we used to get stomach upsets from drinking the polluted water.

I saw the Hooghly River frequently since I crossed it either using a bridge or a boat from 1973 to 1977. I lived in South Kolkata and worked in a factory at Howrah on the other side of the Hooghly River. I had to take a bus from South Kolkata to the Howrah train station and then a local bus to the factory. Given the large population, all these buses were crowded, and one had to stand all the way. In the evenings, I took a bus from the factory to the riverfront, took a ferry, crossed the river, and took another bus from the Kolkata side to my home. Due to the humid and hot weather, most of the passengers would be smelling of sweat in the overcrowded buses.

I enrolled in a swim club in the Dhakuria lake, near where I lived in South Kolkata. It was a crowded pool and the instructor discouraged me from swimming since he felt I could not swim. That ended my swimming lessons in India.

Many parts of South Kolkata were below sea level and would get flooded during rainy seasons. The water would accumulate up to one’s knee level; I had to take my shoes in hand, roll up the pants, and cross this to get to my home. At other times, I used to hire hand rickshaws (small carts pulled by humans) who took me to the doorsteps. The rickshwallah (the person who pulled the cart) wore a dhoti folded up, ran bare feet, and were willing to cross the flooded streets for a few Rupees (local currency).

The Executive Director of the municipality visited our institute and talked to us about the difficulties in pumping water out of low-lying zones to the river. He also mentioned about the issues that arise when drinking water and sewage combine creating difficulties for the residents.

Hooghly river was a large body of water and the Howrah bridge to cross it was famous for its length and architecture. Ships used to sail under the bridge, and I used to wonder at this technological marvel. The water was used for all sort of purposes; drinking, cleaning, factories, etc., and was very polluted. When I walked near a ghat (and Kolkata had many of them where people could access the river using a series of steps), I saw people bathing in the river, cleaning their clothes, priests performing rituals, ladies putting flower garlands to worship the river, people fishing, and children loitering around the steps. The steps were not clean, and I had to be careful not to slip and fall into the river. The river itself was quite deep as Kolkata was a natural harbor. The rotting fish and floating flowers would combine to create a unique smell.

Lakshmi, my fiancé, was born and brought up in Kolkata. She used to have severe stomach pains due to drinking untreated water during her youth. But she did not realize the problem until much later in life. We married in March 1977, and I prepared for my travel to the USA in August  to attend the University of Pennsylvania to obtain a Ph.D.

Studies and Career in the USA

Life at Philadelphia during the first five years was difficult since we lived on a student stipend and had no ability to bring any of the funds in India to the USA due to Indian government regulations. Our difficulties did not seem arduous due to the friendliness exhibited by my host family, relationships formed with other Indian friends, amazing mentorship by my advisor McDonough, and love from our family.

The Delaware and Schuylkill rivers encircled the city, and the fact that they never went dry fascinated me. This contrasted with many rivers in South India that were dry and became full only during monsoon season. We used to go on walks on the shores of the Delaware river and used to cross Schuylkill River to get into the downtown area.

Our old studio apartment had hot and cold water and the heating system was run using radiators that circulated hot water. The sewage system was connected to the city’s network. When we had an opportunity to travel to Manhattan, New York, I wondered at the ingenuity that led to constructing tunnels (such as Holland and Lincoln tunnels) under the rivers to access the island city.

The University of Pennsylvania had excellent gyms and they had two pools. I learned swimming in those pools by myself. Later, I took swimming classes in local pools when we lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

We moved to Matawan and Ocean Township in New Jersey from 1985 to 1989 when I worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories and Lakshmi worked for a private school. Lakshmi’s school was right on the boardwalk of the Atlantic Ocean. There were many rivers and lakes in the state, and it led to dense forests and green landscapes. There were many beaches near us, and we used to go for walks on the boardwalks occasionally. The Island Beach state park was about 30 minutes from our home, and we visited it during the summer months.

My friends from Philadelphia would visit us and we would end up going to this state park. I had to drive through many towns in New Jersey to access this beach and then cross a bridge across the bay to reach the island. As I drove through the towns, I saw houses that were built on the backwaters. Boats were docked on these narrow waterways, and I saw people navigate their boats through the rivers into the Atlantic Ocean.

The water would remain cold most of the year and we would waddle in and get out quickly to avoid the cold. Most of the people would be sunbathing and few would get into the water. It would be very hot for a few weeks and we all would rush to the beach. I have some amazing photos of our children waddling on the beach holding onto our and our friend’s hands. My love for water grew out of these activities.

We also visited the Sandy Hook beach that was north of us. Unfortunately, the water was not that clean in that beach. Once, we stopped in a beach in that area and saw rotten fish and animals washed ashore due to the pollution and environmental damage from the heavily populated North New Jersey and New York city. As we drove near Staten Island, the stink from the accumulated garbage dumps in that area would assail us and we had to close the windows of the cars. It was alleviated by the beautiful scenery that greeted me as we went through the tall Verrazano- Narrows bridge and saw the vast expanse of water on both sides.

We moved to Auburn, Alabama, during 1989 to start my academic job at Auburn University.  During meetings with some of the senior faculty members, they mentioned that they had properties at Lake Martin, a lake about 30 miles away. They talked about the 750 miles of shoreline and the beauty of the land.

That piqued my curiosity and I eagerly accepted when one of them invited me to their lake home. I appreciated the serenity of that lake and the blue waters. 

My two children and we explored that area further and camped at the Wind Creek State Park situated on this lake one summer and enjoyed the views. The campsites provided water and electricity. I had bought a tent, a dining tent, and sleeping bags for my family. It took some effort, but we were able to pitch the tent for all of us. The bathrooms and toilets were in a common area near the campsite. We enjoyed our stay there and Lakshmi cooked meals on a propane stove top. We played in the water, went for strolls in the trails, and befriended people who were nearby. After a few days’ stay, we packed our tents and returned home.

We felt comfortable with the people who lived near Lake Martin and started to look for properties to buy on the lakefront. Eventually, we bought a 3 bedroom, 2 bath cabin that needed repairs. The neighbors were retired people who were living full-time on the water. My son, Shiv, and I rented pontoon boats and jet skis from a nearby marina and explored the lake. We had a physical map of the lake and had no cell phones with GPS functionality. We had to navigate the different inlets, remember where we were, figure out how to come back if we were lost, and identify where our cabin was in the lake. There were many occasions when we would think we were approaching our house to find out that we were on the wrong inlet and had to retrace our way back to the main channel.

It provided a great bonding time for our family. My brothers and their families from the Northeast visited us occasionally and we took them around the lake. Many rich people who lived in Birmingham, AL, had estates at the lake and we used to gawk at them from the water. There were a few houses which were built on islands and that aroused our curiosity as to how those people lived there.

This was an artificial lake, in fact a reservoir, when Southern Company built a dam to produce electricity during the early 1900s. The level of the lake dropped by about 10 feet during winters and the lagoon where our cabin was had no water access during those months. Some of my colleagues had their homes in the deeper parts of the lake and we used to enjoy our visits with them.

Auburn University had an excellent swim team and had an Olympic size pool. I further refined my swimming in these pools and received training from outstanding coaches. Our children also learned swimming in these pools during the summer breaks.

Exploring Lakes in Georgia

During 2003, Lakshmi changed her to job to work in LaGrange, Georgia, adjoining the State of Alabama. We bought a house there so that she would be able to commute to her work and I can continue to work at Auburn, a 45-minute drive.

I wanted to learn more about operating boats and noticed that there was an organization called Coast Guard Auxiliary that offered training and camaraderie. I joined a local unit that operated out of West Point Lake, Georgia, and worked with experienced boaters. When I attended the first meeting, the other members were receptive and encouraged me to stay in the organization, even though I was the only brown person amidst the whites. Being a small group, it was easier for me to fit in and be accepted by others.

Being an auxiliarist meant that the Coast Guard might ask us to serve in case of emergencies in Coast Guard cutters; they also had the authority to deploy the boats belonging to the members for Coast Guard activities if need be. The Coast Guard was generally deployed in the coastal regions and there were no units other than local law enforcement officers responsible for keeping the lakes safe and navigable. The auxiliarists played an important role in helping the law enforcement and the Coast Guard in protecting the lakes and waterways in the country.

The flotilla commander invited me to join in a patrol in West Point Lake. I found that four of them had already launched the 26-foot Sea Ray Sun Dancer boat in the water. Gingerly, I walked on the deck and got into the boat. We spent about four hours in the water going from the dam to the Highland Marina. I understood the basics of the red and green buoys (“red, right, returning”) that mark the waterway. That lake with 525 miles of shoreline was managed by the US Corps of Engineers, and I did not see any houses next to the waterway. On enquiry, I found that it was to protect the houses from getting flooded and to preserve the natural beauty of the lake. We helped the park rangers by assisting any stranded boaters and teaching boating safety classes. I enjoyed the companionship of the members and joined them in many other patrols of the lake and taught boating safety classes.

In due course of time, after mastering the basics of boating, I qualified as a crew. That meant that I could assist the boat’s coxswain (a sailor who has charge of a boat and its crew and who usually steers) during patrols.

Steering a boat was relatively easy since it was like driving a car and there was a lot more leeway available in water compared to road when navigating the boat. The difficulty was in docking the boat; there was no brake on the boat, and one must gently ease the boat to the dock and angle it so that the crew could tie the boat to the cleats on the dock. We went on patrol for several nights to check whether the lights on the buoys were working or not and report it to the Corps. The Coast Guard reimbursed the coxswain for using his/her boat for official patrols and we had to learn to use the complex computer systems to request patrol orders and report completion of the patrols. 

The flotilla conducted regular training on teamwork, navigation concepts, and reading maps (charts). We were also trained in how to perform search patterns and conduct rescue missions.

I became enthusiastic about buying a boat and requested Lakshmi to accompany me to the 2005 Birmingham Boat Show. We saw a beautiful yellow pontoon boat and bought it on the spot. I did not have a truck or a trailer and requested the dealer to deliver the boat to my lake cabin. He obliged me and sent a person to deliver the boat and train me in the basics of driving that boat. Wow, now we had a large 22-foot boat docked in our cabin with a trailer sitting in our yard.

It took several months for me to operate and use the pontoon boat effectively. In the meanwhile, winter approached and the water level in the lake receded. I was able to get a local marina to put my boat on the trailer, service it, and leave it at my cabin. I needed to learn how to tow the boat and therefore, I bought a Toyota Tacoma, a mid-size pickup truck.

I had to latch the trailer to the truck and drive in empty parking lots and learn the backing maneuver. I did not have a rearview camera in the truck and had to figure out how to back up the trailer in a straight line down a boat ramp. This is more of an art than science and my colleagues at the flotilla taught me some of the finer points in backing the trailer. The major issue is that one must rotate the steering wheel in the opposite direction of the backing maneuver; the angle of rotation determines how the trailer moves.

I went to the marinas to launch the boat at times where there were not many other boats so that I could take my time to do so. Even then, it was difficult to figure out exactly how much distance one must go in the water before you release the boat. Even now I admire those truck drivers who back up their vehicles up to loading ramps without breaking a sweat.  

As I gathered confidence and experience in handling the boat, I trained to become a coxswain in my flotilla. A major task for this qualification was to perform stern tow and side tow. A stern tow meant that you tie the other boat to your stern using a line and tow it. The crew must listen to the appropriate instructions and ensure that the line does not get entangled in the propeller. A side tow required both the boats to be tied together on the side using four different lines. There was a sequence as to how to tie these lines and any error made it difficult to tow the other boat. We had to train together many times to master these techniques. When two boats are of uneven heights, this becomes a tricky maneuver. It is also possible to damage the side of the boats during the tow; one had to be careful to deploy the bumpers so that the damage is minimized.  

Having mastered these techniques, I applied to be a coxswain. An experienced member of the auxiliary tested me, and I passed the requirements and was qualified as a coxswain. That provided me an opportunity to use my boat for patrols.

We were now living in LaGrange, GA, and having a boat at Lake Martin, about 70 miles away in a cabin, did not make much sense. Therefore, we sold our Lake Martin home and brought the boat back to LaGrange. Our homeowner’s association objected to us parking the boat in our driveway as it went against the covenants. I parked it at a local campsite and started looking for alternatives. 

Lakshmi had a colleague living in Lake Harding, Alabama, about 30 miles away from LaGrange. We visited this area and found that this lake was managed by Georgia Power Company and most of the homes were leased from the power company for 15 years extendable to 30 years. After a six-month search, we bought a 4,200 sq ft house on the lakefront and obtained the lease from Georgia Power in 2007. It had a boat house, and I was able to dock the boat there. The Lake Martin cabin was no longer needed, and we sold it in 2008.

We decided to remodel our master bathroom on the second floor since the current one was small. We chose a closet and requested a contractor to create a bathroom there. He inspected the house and told us that the house was on a downward sloping hill and the current bathroom was at the highest point. Therefore, sewage easily flowed into the septic tank. If we wanted to move the bathroom to the larger closet further away from the front, sewage must move upstream and would need a pump. We agreed to the idea, and he put in a sewage pump next to the closet. Unfortunately, the pump leaked and failed often leading to water leaks and damage to the ceiling downstairs.  The stink was unbearable whenever it broke. The water would leak through the floor and the drywall in the room below would collapse. We had to repair the pumping unit and ceiling multiple times.

After repeated repairs, we got frustrated and complained to the plumber. He said the only option is to move the pump outside the house, bury it, and run pipes to it so that the sewage would flow into the septic tank. We agreed and after an expensive repair and three days of work, the bathroom was usable. I learned a valuable lesson; it is difficult to fight nature and pump water upstream. Any failure of the pump leads to flooding.

This is a common problem in many cities around the world who are located at or below sea level. Any tornado, hurricane, or heavy rain floods the streets and causes considerable damage to property. Although pumps are deployed, they frequently don’t cope with torrential rains leading to severe flooding of homes and businesses.

As a coxswain, I used my boat to patrol both West Point Lake and Lake Harding along with my fellow auxiliarists. There were only a few boaters on these lakes most of the time; it got crowded during the holiday weekends, particularly during summer. I had an opportunity to witness and help with the July 4th fireworks on both lakes on multiple occasions. The major issue during these joyous weekends was boaters leaving their deck lights on during the nighttime thereby blinding the other boaters. We had to warn them to turn off these lights and use the navigation lights. In addition, the use of PFDs (personal flotation device, life preservers) was lax, and we had to ensure that those who rode the Jet Skis used them all the time.

I discovered that PFDs save lives; once you have it and are in the water, you stay afloat whatever happens. It is not possible to sink; therefore, there is no need to panic until help comes. Once, some of my relatives were visiting and we went on a ride around the lake in our pontoon boat. We had a jet ski and one of my brothers donned the PFD and tried to climb into the jet ski from the boat but fell in the water. He was scared and started shouting. Some of my relatives were ready to jump into the water to save him; I had to restrain them and tell them to desist.

We attached a rope to a float and threw it to him and asked him to hold it so that we could pull him into the boat. He was scared and started to put the rope around his neck. I had to tell him that nothing would happen to him as far as he had worn the PFD; he could not sink and therefore, there was no need for panic. In a few minutes, he calmed down, and we pulled him into the boat. Subsequently, he went on the jet ski and enjoyed that experience.

The best way to save a person stranded in water is to throw a float at them, ask them to hold it, and pull them in using the line. Jumping into the lake to save them might not be an appropriate strategy. People who assume they are drowning might use their adrenalin rush to pull any rescuer who jumps in down under the water; that is why it was recommended that we throw a float to them, they grab it, realize that they are not drowning, become normal, and then pull them into the boat.

Since these were artificial lakes that were created by releasing water and drowning the then existing buildings and roads, it was difficult to know where the water would be shallow or deep. It was important to have a good depth gauge and ensure that we stayed afloat and did not run aground.

Occasionally, we ran aground. Then, I had to lift the propeller up, push the boat away from the shallow portion using a paddle, and then get the boat away from that area. The boating community was friendly and respectful towards us even though we were one of the few minorities on the lake. I gained a lot of confidence in handling boats by belonging to the auxiliary.

During our patrols, my fellow auxiliarists and I noticed sewage from plants occasionally fed into lakes, leading to major pollution problems. This is a major problem in many states if it is not regulated by the local government. In 1990, I visited a steel plant to learn how to purify polluted water in Birmingham, Alabama. A lot of water was used to cool the hot metal during the forging process, and the polluted water had to be treated before being released into a river. I saw how the company worked valiantly to remove the pollutants and created a free-flowing, drinkable water stream using modern technologies. This showed me that although some of the water in the world is polluted, it is possible to clean and make it drinkable with the right resources.

My family spent several summers on beaches in Florida and in the Caribbean. I really enjoyed snorkeling. This required us to get in a boat, drive to a place where there are lots of coral reefs, then wear the snorkeling gear, jump into the water, float above the coral reefs, gawk at the variety of fish, sharks, turtles, tortoise, and other sea animals below us. It was an amazing moment where you see that there are so many creations in the world about which we pay scant attention.

I was in Hawaii one time and decided to try surfing. I went to a beach where they were offering surfing lessons. The young person gave me a board and taught me how to ride the waves. After thirty-minutes of trying and falling into the water, I asked him, “was there any simpler way?” He suggested lying on the board flat and surfing; I tried it and at least was able to surf a few times before I gave up.

In a beach, it is a lot of fun to get into the water and let the waves sweep past us. The undulating motion of the waves reminds me of how our lives have ebbs and valleys constantly. As we are relishing success, a defeat in another matter comes sweeping in and takes us to the bottom. Before we completely despair, a new positive wave lifts us up and we enjoy that moment.

Senior Years

The Near-Death Experience (NDE) during January 2019 shook my confidence and intention to continue with the rigorous boating activities. I retired from the auxiliary and sold our Lake Harding house. A person known to the realtor offered to purchase our boat and I sold it to them. My boating activities came to an end, but not my interest in the importance of water for everybody.  Even though there is no large body of water next to Atlanta, I continue to enjoy water by participating in water aerobics at the local gym. We get into the pool and perform exercises, such as rigorous walking and moving various parts of the body. A trained instructor helps us perform these activities.

Having realized the importance of water, I have stopped drinking coffee, tea, or alcoholic drinks, since they are either stimulants or depressants. I keep a water bottle on my desk, on my bedroom nightstand, and in my car. When I travel, I ensure that I carry a water bottle with me. These steps ensure that I am hydrated constantly.

Water from the tap is drinkable in most towns and cities in the US. When I was at the hospital, once I was past the critical stage, the nurses insisted that I keep drinking water and urinate. In the hospital, they measured how much I urinated to ensure that there were no problems with my kidneys. Thankfully, drinkable water was available in plenty.

Water is an essential element of human living, and the nurses got me fresh water each time I needed it. Similarly, when I used the toilet, the wastewater and solids were sent to a central facility in the city where it was processed, and the water was purified and then mixed with regular water. Countless plumbers and engineers maintain the water’s purification and wastewater plants and ensure that the citizens in the city got potable water to drink and the waste in homes was taken away. They perform a heroic task without any complaints or fuss.

Did humans struggle to get water from their home generations back? I was astonished to see that using gravity, Romans built aqueducts in Spain, Italy, and other countries where they ruled (about 500 years, from 312 B.C.E. to C.E. 226), to bring water to homes using gravity[i]. I had seen aqua duct systems in palaces in Rajasthan, India, so that the royalty had access to water. I assumed that with all the modern technologies that are available to us, clean water is accessible to all.

Availability of Potable Water for Everybody

When I performed research, I found that potable water is not that widely available. About 71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered in water, but its availability for drinking is limited to where we live and the technologies that are adopted by the community to purify and bring it to people’s homes.

According to an 2022 UN report[ii], one in three people does not have access to safe drinking water, two out of five people do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water, and more than 673 million people still practice open defecation. Women and girls are responsible for water collection in 80 percent of households without access to water on the premises. More than 80 percent of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or the sea without any pollution removal. Floods and other water-related disasters account for 70 percent of all deaths related to natural disasters.

What can we do to change some of these conditions? I identified several organizations that are leading efforts to change conditions and I have joined and/or donated to them to help alleviate some of the misery that one third of the world population suffers from.

Water for People[iii] has provided 4.7 million people with reliable water supply around the world. They focus on things like protecting water supplies, training mechanics, and establishing supply chains for parts in addition to drilling wells and installing pumps. It means they think about long-term projects like advocating for national water policies and creating local water and sanitation utilities. It accepts donations and has the ability for us to volunteer on fund raising and providing technical assistance.

Charity: Water[iv] works with local organizations to build sustainable, community-owned water projects around the world. It accepts donations to fund the projects.

World Water Relief[v] installs water filtration systems, local training on maintaining the system, ongoing maintenance, and hygiene education. This education is critical to help prevent the spread of waterborne disease.  An estimated 1/3 of school-aged children in the developing world are infested with intestinal worms. Not only do these illnesses rob children of school attendance and achievement, but they are also underlying causes of malnutrition and stunting.

UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 calls to ensure universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene for all by 2030. “Access to clean water changes everything; it is a stepping-stone to development. When people gain access to clean water, they are better able to practice good hygiene and sanitation. Children enjoy good health and are more likely to attend school. Lives of women and children improve. Parents put aside their worries about water-related diseases and lack of access to clean water. Instead, they can water crops and livestock and diversify their incomes. Communities develop and thrive.”

Water.org is a global nonprofit organization working to bring water and sanitation to the world[vi].  They help people get access to safe water and sanitation through affordable financing, such as small loans. They give our everything every day to empower people in need with these life-changing resources – giving women hope, children health and families a bright future. They work with local agencies/ municipalities to implement solutions.

Water gets into our system, water gets out of our system, and the water we drink must be processed so that it is safe for consumption. In any part of the world, there is a need to obtain clean drinkable water and efficient processing of waste. The water we drink comes from water our ancestors drank, their waste was processed by earth, and water was regenerated to keep us alive. Similarly, the water we drink and the water in our waste will subsequently be used by our succeeding generation. It is critical to recirculate the wastewater so that it is free of toxins for those who need it next.

I am saddened to note that the lack of potable water which I experienced as a young adult is common to 33% of the world population today. I hope and pray that in the next few decades people around the world will have their need for potable water and sewage treatment met adequately.

[i] https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/roman-aqueducts/

[ii] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Ensure Availability and Sustainable Management of Water and Sanitation for All,” https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal6

[iii] https://www.waterforpeople.org/the-progress/

[iv] https://www.charitywater.org/our-work

[v] https://www.worldwaterrelief.org/why-wash-2/

[vi] https://water.org/about-us/?_gl=1*pnttp*_up*MQ..&gclid=CjwKCAjw4ZWkBhA4EiwAVJXwqQxOpEAm9VLhmSlk7Rw1SGP4Hdw9VWuBvYavulEBBjc_mNt_dMmiRxoCPmIQAvD_BwE


Chetan S Sankar holds a doctorate in the information systems area and was a professor and researcher in this field for thirty-five years. He is a member of the Atlanta Writer’s Conference and coordinates the memoir critique group. Attending the Creative Writing Program at Emory University and receiving critiques from the memoir group have helped him write this article. He lives in Avondale Estates, Georgia with his wife. He spends his time playing with and learning from his four grandchildren. His website is at www.chetansankar.com.

Plums For Months by Zaji Cox

A Book Review by Deb DeBates

I watch as Micah walks through the gray doors of his high school and crosses the parking lot. He is smiling, and in his usual slow gait, crosses the street in front of a long row of school buses. It’s a frigid winter day. I quickly unlock the passenger door so he can enter without hesitation.

“Hey kiddo.” I take his backpack, help him remove his puffy black parka.

“Hi mom.” He looks at me, then stares at my phone. I know he wants to watch movie clips on YouTube. It’s his way of unwinding on the thirty-minute drive home.

But he knows the drill.

“Tell me about your day.”

 He mutters something about gym or performing arts, his two favorite classes, then falls silent.

“What was the kindest thing you did for someone today?” I’ve had luck with this one before.

“Mom, no more questions!” I sigh and hand him my phone. Perhaps he’ll tell me more on another day.

This familiar scene in my life reminds me of the book, Plums for Months, by Zaji Cox, a beautifully written collection of short essays in which Cox shares snapshots of her life growing up on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. The author is keenly aware of her surroundings, her feelings, and emotions, describing it all in wonderful sensory and visual detail. I found her memoir to be intelligent, heartwarming, and often bittersweet.

My son is as Cox describes herself to be—neurodivergent. Micah is on the autism spectrum, and although Cox does not use that diagnosis in her writing, she does divulge about her struggles with non-verbal cues and social interaction, skills most individuals with autism have difficulty with as well. It is the foremost reason I loved this book so much—she articulates so well what it’s like to process the world around her differently and to face such challenges.

In one essay entitled, “The Intricacies of Social Interaction,” Cox explains this struggle and how she uses the tool of observation hoping to learn social skills that come so naturally to others. She draws the reader into a restaurant scene where she is with her sister and a few of her sister’s friends:

…between bites I’m observing and taking mental notes like usual: the lilt of their voices in casual speak; the rise of an eyebrow when making a joke; the blank look during a moment of sarcasm; how they sit, how they stand, how they gesture.

Reading this story brought me back to my son being mainstreamed into classes and extracurricular activities with those who are neurotypical so that he has the chance to learn, as Cox does, through watchfulness and interaction. Micah’s interest in performing arts has led to his participation in school plays and summer theater programs during which he’s absorbed a variety of social cues from his neurotypical peers. I can’t be certain that he is intentional in his observation as Cox is, but it is possible to learn social skills through osmosis—absorbing behaviors while participating in a group. The improv and sketch comedy classes Micah is taking this summer have given him the opportunity to learn how to think on his feet and jump into a scene like the other kids do. Being included with neurotypical peers gives him the chance to watch, to learn, and then try. He is improving in interjecting lines that are original and appropriate instead of phrases said by favorite Marvel characters like Spiderman or Black Panther or perhaps Scar from The Lion King, a movie he has watched dozens of times.

In this essay and others, Cox illuminates how being around neurotypical peers can help one learn to live in this world more effectively. It’s how most of us learn social skills, and why it’s vitally important for a child or teenager with autism to have ample time in community with others both on and off the spectrum. When my son was much younger, I enrolled him in a mostly neurotypical gymnastics camp. Jumping on the blue spongy floor trampolines, climbing rock walls, and being able to play games and run around amidst these peers also gave him the opportunity to learn turn taking, sharing, and how to encourage others.

Cox writes about living with her mother and sister in her grandfather’s time-worn 100-year-old house. Her close relationship with both her sister and her mother is reflected in much of her writing as is her fascination and connection with nature — especially the feral cats that often visit them on this property. Her essays about the cats were thoroughly delightful and, for me, so relatable because of Micah’s similar connection with animals, his being dogs (although he would love for me to give him a cat or two). Like Cox’s fascination with the wild felines that loiter on their property, Micah has always been enthralled with a larger variety of feral cat–the mountain lions at our local zoo. He could spend hours watching them prowl around in their not-nearly-large-enough cage.

Cox also shares about her domestic cat, Jerry, who is a warm companion. “I soon find in Jerry a listener,” she writes, “He is there when I can’t communicate right with the human world to which I supposedly belong.” I love that she has touched on the importance of animals in her life; I see this same relationship with Micah and our black lab mix who is always there for him to sit and snuggle with after long days at school, who helps him decompress and be comforted after being in a largely neurotypical world.

This book is so well written, and not surprisingly, as Cox is an avid reader, writer, and lover of books as she demonstrates in her essay, “The Scholastic Book Fair.” In this brief, yet beautiful and bittersweet piece, she takes the reader with her to her school’s book fair where she peruses the shelves knowing she has money for just one or two. She watches as her peers, able to have all they desire, load their arms with merchandise. She imagines her bedroom filled with towers of books separated into genres and categorized by ones read, not yet read, and those worthy of being read again. She soothes herself by inventing a way she can have as many as she wants: “I will simply pay for them with need.” 

There are so many other topics Cox covers–gymnastics and dance, dealings with boys, friends, frustrations (and triumphs) with her hair, and shopping at Goodwill. Her essays are a sensory feast bursting with vividness, so much so that I felt I had been in her mind seeing her view of the world. Plums for Months is a book for all ages and for all walks of life. Through Cox’s essays, we learn so much about being human, about wanting to fit in, to achieve, and to feel the warmth, friendship, and love of others.

Oh, how I wish I could plumb the depths of my son’s inner world as Cox has done with hers. For now, I remain inspired by Plums for Months to see beyond the outer layer not only of those who fall outside the neurotypical category, but of everyone I meet—to look more deeply, with more patience, with more love.


Deb DeBates is a writer and parent of a son with autism and type 1 diabetes. Her experience inspired her to start a blog, micahandme.com, to help raise awareness about all aspects of raising a child with these diagnoses and to encourage others who are on a similar journey. She lives in Southeastern North Dakota with her husband and two children.

The Weight of Black Hair

by Sydney Hollins-Holloway

The hair of an African American woman is a symbol of individuality. Long ago before my ancestors were transported to America, hair meant history, and tradition. On the caramel-colored sand of the motherland, royal blood was undeniable, because of the blatant display of beaded braids that embellished the scalp. This wasn’t just a phenomenon or a resurgence of a lost trend. This was everywhere across the continent.

Hair was literally the backbone of an unfiltered society. In western regions, like Yoruba, hair was used as a direct form of communication to the Gods. Tight knitted cornrows with intricate patterns banded by thread and braided up to stand tall on the raised heads of men and women alike were admired. Even in times of peril and hardship, my people reclaimed their history.

Despite having their heads forcibly shaved, they used their newly grown hair as guides for freedom and sustenance. When the risk of starvation was high outside of captivity, they hid rice in their tamed coils for when they escaped. This strong motivation to remain one with a culture that was constantly threatened throughout history was something that I envied.

My present day maintains a completely different reality. Every time I have changed my hair, insecurity looms over me like an oppressive shadow. Without fail, there was always this nagging thought in the back of my mind about if I should make a separation from my culture. I tried this when I indulged in the tempting fad of getting a perm. I was young enough to know that I wanted one for all the wrong reasons. It primarily had to do with the media that I watched. When I was the tender, impressionable age of 8, all I consumed were reruns of Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. iCarly, That’s So Raven, Casey Undercover, Zoey 101, and Degrassi were the main television shows I watched.

At the time that these shows were broadcasted to these channels, there were very few Black women who had leading roles. Those who did never owned their natural coils or rocked braids with that confident air that I thought was universal for everyone who looked like me. Instead, they appeared to me as clones standing next to their white counterparts with straightened manes or loosened curls pulled back in a ponytail.

I primarily saw this when watching episodes of That’s So Raven. No one seemed to question Raven’s ethnic differences when she had her hair slicked back and pressed to perfection. In fact, the woman of color who was the lead character was often surrounded by people. It was as if friendships came easier when a crucial part of her appearance changed. This is what I saw, and this is what pushed me to take the plunge into the deep end.

I can remember the feeling of the perm distinctively. Cold, wet, and heavy are the only words that I can use to describe the initial application. Nikki, my unorthodox hairstylist who had an affinity for smoking cigarettes and selling God-knows-what while she was doing my hair, used to coat the pure white substance on my tresses liberally. I never questioned her actions. Partly because she was the only person who knew how to braid my hair, and mainly because the only asset I had at the time was in her hands.

Metaphorically and literally.

“Tell me when it starts to burn, okay?” This is what she said before walking away to go take a long drag of her newly lit cigarette.

“Okay.” I said as my small eyes followed her retreating form.

While I sat in the low seat that was given to me, occasionally, I glanced around at the cramped, dark apartment or stared down at my feet hoping that time would go by fast so that I could see the finished product. Little did my younger self know, the process would be agonizingly slow. The tingling and gradual heat from my head was the only thing that made it interesting.

Yet, it soon became unbearable after the tingling subsided. It was replaced with consistent heat and a burning sensation that wreaked havoc on every covered portion of my hair. I stayed mute and tried to act like I was a big girl who could take the pain; even though I was trembling from the rhythmic throbbing of my scalp.

It wasn’t until Nikki came back from her long break in the back of her apartment that I told her my scalp was burning. She ushered me to the sink, and quickly doused my hair in cold water. The shaking went away as soon as the horrid solution that seared my scalp went down the drain in a cloudy stream. After putting my hair through the ringer, Nikki finished off the process with a quick neutralizing shampoo and conditioner followed by what I like to call a “child friendly” hairstyle.

A set of flat twists at the front section of my hair followed by a crown in the middle with the rest of my hair curled in soft ringlets. When my mom came to pick me up and I finally got a chance to see what it looked like for myself, I was very underwhelmed. It didn’t look like the sleek and flat hairstyles on the TV shows. It looked bulky and felt hard as a rock because of how much product was used on my compromised locks.

“Why can’t I wear it all out?” I asked my mom.

“Because then you’ll look too grown.” She answered, though there was a touch of bitterness in her voice.

Later, I asked my mother about it again.  She reiterated what she had already said. She preferred this look on me because she claimed it kept me young and not like those other little girls who were trying to be grown. I didn’t know what she meant until I got much older. On our way home, I told her that the perm stung.

“You’re the one who wanted to be beautiful,” She reminded me. “Beauty is pain.”

Well, if beauty was pain, I didn’t want any part of it. Pain was the furthest thought from my mind after that initial lapse in judgment. My parents made it abundantly clear that my obsession with perms wouldn’t become a problem. Luckily, it never became one.

What became a problem was the residual insecurities that I couldn’t put to rest. Like my ability to let the intruding questions live rent free in my head. Even though there are days that go by where nothing happens, I will always remember the words of overt racism. They started off with compliments and then slowly picked me apart.

“Sydney, your hair looks really nice!”

“How long did that take?”

“Is that your real hair?”

“Can I touch it?”

The longer I allowed for these intruding questions to linger, the more people felt entitled to know about my hair. To know the secrets that I held so dear. The sudden intrusion of a sacred part of my life made my heart sink. It wasn’t just because of the insensitive questions. It was because of the baggage that would come with my reaction. These questions were a part of a much bigger test. A test known to push boundaries.

To see how far I would go until I completely snapped. I didn’t like these types of tests because they taught me the first lesson of my lifetime. The world is truly black and white. Even if we are no longer physically segregated, we are still set apart by our differences. Discrimination like the ones I faced every single day were still inescapable. I never saw myself in the same light as I did before.


Sydney Hollins-Holloway is an emerging writer born and raised in New Jersey. She received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University and plans on pursuing a full-time career in the publishing industry. Her writing interests include fiction, creative nonfiction, and spoken word poetry. When she isn’t dabbling in writing, she models a diverse range of fashion for local brands and photographers.

I Am Autism

by Jonathan Kruyer

Weird. Strange. Quiet. Disruptive. Sensitive. Emotionless. Gifted. Special. Under-developed. Special needs. An old soul. Childish. Star seeds. Aspergers. So many ways to avoid calling someone autistic. Parents would rather say that their child is “sensitive” or “quiet” than admit that their child is autistic. Teachers would rather say that their student is “gifted” or “special needs” than admit that their student is autistic. Children and adults alike would rather say that their peer is “weird” or “strange” than admit that their peer is autistic. 

Growing up, my parents always said they didn’t “believe in labels.” If I struggled I just had to “suck it up” (their other favorite thing to say) and work harder. The possibility that I might be autistic was never even discussed. My parents refused to imagine there could be anything “wrong” with me, and to them, admitting I was autistic would be exactly that. What they failed to realize is that avoiding a diagnosis did nothing to keep me from getting labeled. It just meant I had many different labels. In school, if a class aligned with my special interests I was labeled “gifted,” and if a class did not align with my special interests I was labeled “distracted” and “not living up to my potential.” These labels were used by educators to put the responsibility for my development on me, rather than taking the effort to try to figure out my needs and accommodate them. Among other kids, I was labeled “weird,” “nerdy,” and even in some cases “freak.” These labels were used to exclude and divide, limiting my socialization to others who had been similarly rejected. Following my parents’ advice to simply work harder and “suck it up” led to me first experiencing a condition known as autistic burnout in senior year of high school, and I was then labeled “lazy” because I simply did not have the energy to work anymore. My parents refusing to admit I was autistic didn’t help me at all. It just meant the labels I received tore me down and offered no answers on how I could climb back up.

A recent study has shown that people who aren’t autistic (the scientific term for that is allistic) unconsciously identify an autistic individual within the first minute of meeting them and “are less willing to interact with those with autism based on thin slice judgments.” The study found that allistics consistently determined that they disliked autistics after only seconds of interaction and that they were routinely uneasy and even repulsed while interacting with autistics. Allistics usually cannot properly define what it is they are recognizing and disliking, but it happens nonetheless. They see someone sitting in a strange way or twiddling their fingers in the air, they notice as the person they are speaking with cannot meet their eyes or stares into their eyes a little too directly, they hear someone speak in a monotone voice or get too loud and animated as they speak about something they are interested in, and they unconsciously mark that individual as “different.” As wrong. In other words, autistic people give allistic people the “uncanny valley” effect.

The “uncanny valley” is a translation of Japanese bukimi no tani, coined by the roboticist Masahiro Mori, who created a graph that plotted the emotional response of a human being to a robot against the increase in the perceived realism of a robot; the graph showed a significant dip at the point where the robot’s resemblance to a human is perceived to be almost exact. Oxford defines the uncanny valley as “the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.” It is the feeling that something is off, that what you are looking at isn’t quite right. This is the same reaction allistics have to autistics. To the allistic mind, autistics are in the same category as robots and computer-generated figures, able to mimic humanity, but unable to fully replicate what it means to be human. On a subconscious level, allistics instinctively view autistics as not human.

If you are allistic, you may be reading this right now thinking “I don’t think that way. I don’t view autistic people as not human,” and I would bet you genuinely believe that. And on a conscious level, you are probably right. But if you were to really pay attention to your first gut reaction when you encounter “weird” or “unsettling” people, you would see it. You likely don’t even realize they are autistic when you have this reaction. You just know they are strange, they are different. And, in your first gut reaction, you instinctively know they are wrong

I see this reaction often. I can’t meet someone’s eyes for more than a moment, I sit strangely with my legs in a tangle at level with my head, I talk too animatedly about one of my special interests, I twiddle my fingers in the air to give them something to do while I try to listen to someone else speak, I flap my hands in excitement or anxiety, and I see it. The “what a freak” look. The look that shows this individual has categorized me as weird or wrong or crazy. I have stopped caring about this, mostly. But that doesn’t mean I don’t notice. And I know I don’t get the worst of it by far. There are many whose autistic traits are more visible than mine who can’t have a single interaction without that “freak” label slapped onto them.But of course you would never think that way about autistic people. You wouldn’t be that mean.

And that’s what it inevitably wraps back to. Autism is an official diagnosis of a mental disability, and no one likes to think the reason they dislike someone is because they are bigoted and biased against someone with a disability. So they think that person cannot possibly be autistic. They are weird, or strange, or creepy, but not autistic. The weird person is the problem, not you. The problem could not possibly be you. Because you are the normal one. They are the one being weird.

Nearly everyone who has heard the word “autistic” has a predetermined idea in their head of what “autistic” looks like. Maybe it’s your aunt’s autistic nonverbal son, who needs help to eat. Maybe it’s a kid who goes to your church who will recite the entire script of their favorite movies to whoever will listen. Maybe it’s an “autistic savant” who cannot deal with social situations without breaking down but perfected their skill at mathematics or piano playing or something else when they were eight. Maybe it’s a character from a tv show you’ve watched, like Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory. Whatever your mental image, it is inevitable that what you imagine to be autism is, at best, only a small sliver of the autistic experience, seen from outside.

Autism is not just one thing. All autistics have certain similar traits as a result of our unique brain structure that connect us, but how that looks on the outside varies widely, with results across a wide spectrum. When you hear “spectrum,” you might imagine a line, with one end being “less autistic” and another end being “more autistic.” This is incorrect. It is true that some people “seem” more autistic than others, but this seeming is a result of outside perspective. The autism spectrum is not a line. It is more like a color wheel. How autism looks and is expressed will vary as much from one autistic to another as red does from blue or yellow, but they are all equally autistic. There is no such thing as “more” or “less” autistic. The nonverbal autistic is not more autistic than a hyper verbal autistic, and an autistic who is able to mask well enough to pass themselves off as allistic when they need to is not less autistic than an autistic who is incapable of masking. While they might not necessarily fit what you have been taught to picture as autistic, all of these are equally autistic. 

So far too often, the person you think is weird and unsettling is still somehow too “normal” to be autistic, because they don’t act or look like how you have decided autism acts or looks like. When an autistic person has a meltdown, they are just being dramatic or childish and need to get over it. When an autistic person is experiencing shutdown, they are creepy and emotionless. When an autistic person begins infodumping, they are full of themselves and just like to hear the sound of their own voice, or they are getting too agitated about something that doesn’t matter and they need to calm down. When they deal with executive dysfunction, they are lazy or not applying themselves. When they can’t meet your eyes, they are shifty or lying. When they fail to understand social cues and social norms, they are being difficult and not respecting authority. Everyone else understands how these things work. Everyone else gets it. Everyone else has “common sense.” So why don’t they? They must be the problem. And despite the fact that everything I listed is literally diagnostic criteria for autism, the problem could not possibly be that they are autistic. Because that would mean you are the asshole. And that can’t possibly be the case.

It’s not your fault, not really. If you’re allistic, then the world we live in was designed for your neurotype. Everyone is expected to play by the unspoken rules of a game you understand intrinsically. The fact that the rules never get explained aren’t your fault. It is no surprise that when looking at someone who thinks so differently from you, at someone who obviously does not fit in this world in the way you do, that you would instinctively see them as something that doesn’t belong. Because we don’t. But that’s because people whose brains work like yours designed this world in a way that ensures we can never truly belong. 

Now this is not to say you have no issues or that the world was perfectly made so that you would never struggle with it. That would be ridiculous. Everyone has struggles. But if you are allistic, then this society is structured for you, because it was structured and continues to be run by allistic people. You are in the majority, so it makes sense for everything to be built around the way your brain works. The fact that millions of autistic people are being continuously torn apart by the constant requirement to live up to allistic standards doesn’t factor into it, because it’s a problem you never see.

Can you imagine living in a world where you are constantly punished just for thinking? Where the way your brain works is a crime, and you have to pretend to think in a completely different way if you want to continue existing in society? Where accidentally revealing the way you think, from a misplaced word or making the wrong facial expression, results in ostracization and incrimination? That is only a fraction of the struggle of being autistic in an allistic world. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I can promise it is not.

Imagine with me for a moment that you have moved to a foreign country. You speak the language well enough, but you learned the language almost entirely from reading textbooks. You know the literal meaning of the words the people around you say, but you understand none of the slang, none of the euphemisms, none of the colloquialisms, none of the little nuances of culture and tradition. You don’t know any of the social rules of this society, and every time you try to ask and learn these rules you are met with scorn and disbelief. “You should already know this,” they say, and refuse to answer your questions. This happens enough times that you begin to wonder if they even understand the rules themselves, or if they are just making it all up as they go along and using your ignorance of this fact to mess with you. Sometimes, when you think you have figured out one of the rules of this strange culture, it seems to suddenly change, and once again everyone looks down on you. “That only applies in specific situations,” they tell you. You ask what situations it applies to and which it doesn’t, and they laugh and reply “you just have to be able to tell.” But you can’t. You can’t figure out which situations the rule applies to and which they don’t. People start to assume that you are doing this on purpose, that you are deliberately breaking the rules of their society just to be rude. After all, you should have figured it out by now. 

What I have just described is a mere fraction of my daily experience. I live with this reality every day of my life. And it is only the beginning.

Have you ever heard of ABA therapy? Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA therapy, is a “therapy” method used on autistic children, and is defined by Autism Speaks (a hate group that likes to pretend it is trying to “help” autistics) as “a therapy based on the science of learning and behavior,” that “applies our understanding of how behavior works to real situations. The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.” The intent of ABA therapy is to “Increase language and communication skills,” “Improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics,” and “Decrease problem behaviors.” Sounds great, right? Sure, to an allistic person, especially the allistic parent of an autistic child. But can you guess what the “problem behaviors” and “behaviors that are harmful” are? They are autistic behaviors. They are behaviors like infodumping, in which an autistic shares large amounts of information about one of their special interests. They are behaviors like stimming, which is necessary for proper emotional regulation in autistics. They are behaviors that, while they might occasionally make allistics uncomfortable, do no real harm, and are in fact integral for autistics to live happy, healthy lives. 

While groups like Autism Speaks use flowery language to hide it, ABA therapy’s purpose is to coerce and force autistic children to stop acting autistic and to act more allistic. To hide who they are or be punished. This is one of the most commonly used “therapy” methods for autistic children, and is the cause of immense trauma for countless autistic people as they grow up, as they are unable to properly express themselves, trapped by the abusive training stamped into them from childhood. 

Autism Speaks is the biggest and most public “advocacy group” for autistics in the world. But if you ask nearly any actual autistic person what they think of Autism Speaks, they will not have a single kind word to say about it. Why? Because Autism Speaks is not an advocacy group. It is a hate group. Autism Speaks supports ABA therapy, but that is only the beginning. Autism Speaks once put out an ad titled “I am Autism,” in which autism is characterized as an insidious, amoral force that infiltrates families and seeks to destroy them, autistic children are presented as burdens on their parents that cause only problems, and parents are encouraged to “fight” and “beat” autism. Autism Speaks’s original mission statement stated: “We are dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a possible cure for autism.” A cure. Autism is not a disease. There can be no cure, and I would not want a cure even if there was one.

I love being autistic. I don’t love how I am treated because of it or how much I suffer trying to work in a world that does not accommodate my needs, but I love being autistic nonetheless. It is because of my autism that I am who I am. It is because I am autistic that I get completely lost in fantastical worlds and learn everything there is to know about them, from history to geography to technology to all the important characters and their own personal histories and character quirks. It is because I am autistic that when I get truly excited I physically cannot contain it and all that emotion needs to escape in the form of stimming. It is because I am autistic that I can remember countless little details about the things I love. It is because I am autistic that my brain is constantly flooded with new ideas for stories and worlds and characters for me to build and explore and get to know. Everything I love about myself is because I am autistic. But people like Autism Speaks see all this and only see a problem that needs to be solved. A puzzle piece that needs to be forced to fit into their perfect puzzle. A broken thing to be fixed.

These are the sort of things autistic people are forced to deal with their entire lives. We are expected to hide who we are, to pretend we think like everyone else, to play the allistic guessing game and ignore our needs in order to make everyone else feel comfortable. And all that work doesn’t even succeed at convincing people that we are normal. No matter how much an autistic person works to hide that they are autistic, no matter how well they “mask,” allistics still have that same gut reaction when they meet us. We still trigger the uncanny valley effect, the internal warning in your mind that tells you that something is off about us, that we aren’t quite “human.” Because for some reason, “human” only includes those who think and act like you. 

To be honest with you, even now I have barely scratched the surface of the autistic struggle. I have barely even mentioned autistic burnout, how the constant pressure to mask and live up to allistic standards of personhood inevitably results in anxiety, depression, and an inability to perform even basic tasks that were once simple or easy. I have not talked about how the average life expectancy for autistic people is 36, due in large part (among other factors) to high rates of suicide. I have not talked about how autistic people are regularly used as tools by hate groups like transphobes who claim autistic children are being “tricked” into transitioning, because these hate groups think we can’t speak for ourselves and are thus easy tools for garnering sympathy. I have not talked about how the now-defunct diagnosis of aspergers has its origins in Nazi race science as part of how to determine which autistic people should be allowed to live. I have not talked about how autism is regularly used as an excuse for eugenics, as people consistently speak about how they want a genocide of autistic people through use of a “cure” or finding a way to identify and then abort all autistic fetuses. I have not talked about how certain countries don’t allow autistic immigrants because they believe they will be too much of a burden  on the nation. I have not talked about how anti-vaxxers treat having an autistic child as worse than a dead one, because they refuse to give their children life saving vaccines due to their fear that the vaccine will give their child autism. I have not talked about how autistic behaviors and traits are regularly used in media to characterize “inhuman” characters like aliens and robots. I have barely touched upon the myriad of issues that face autistic people on a daily basis and the countless ways we are dehumanized in all aspects of life.

There is so much I could talk about, so many injustices I could address, so many casual hate crimes committed against us without a second thought, so many ways the society we live in was built in a way that actively works to tear down autistic people. And maybe one day I will talk about it all, though I think I would need a lot more than just an essay to explain it all. It would require a full book, at the very least. So for now, I will leave you with something smaller. 

I am autistic. Maybe I match your mental image of what autism is. Maybe I don’t. But I am far from the only autistic person you have interacted with in some way. Early in 2023, the CDC reported that 1 in every 36 children is diagnosed with autism. And that is without even considering how often autism goes undiagnosed, due to sexism, racism, and myriad other factors. This means that at the very minimum, there are considerably more autistic people in the world than there are redheads (as about 1-2% of the world’s population has red hair). Think about how many redheads you have encountered. You have encountered many more autistic people than you have redheads. Or, to use an example with less geographical variation, simply think about how many people in general you have met. Over the course of your life, you have likely interacted with thousands of people, which means you have likely interacted with at least dozens of autistic people, if not hundreds.

So the next time you get that gut reaction, the next time you look at someone acting in a way that doesn’t make sense to you, the next time you look at someone and think “they’re weird” or something similar, the next time someone freaks out about something you think is trivial, the next time someone has difficulty doing a task you think is simple or easy, the next time someone fails to understand something you think should be obvious, the next time someone can’t meet your eyes or acts disrespectfully or does any number of things that seem wrong to you, remember what I have said. And think about it. And maybe, just maybe, try to be a little kinder.


Jonathan Kruyer is a Canadian-American writer and author with a Bachelor of English from Brigham Young University. While his true joy is writing fantasy, this essay was born from his experiences living as an autistic person in an allistic world and the struggles that come from having a brain that works differently from those of everyone around you. You may reach him at jonathankruyer@gmail.com or check out his narrative ttrpg podcast, The Genesys Archives. 

No Funeral: The True Story of Richard Petrowski

by Steve Schecter

Aside from influence, Richard left almost nothing behind. He never married, he had no family; his few belongings were abandoned, stolen, or confiscated. I have no photos of Richard, or phone numbers of surviving friends–I don’t even know their last names. Consequently, his story must be told solely from memory. And every word of it is true.

I met Richard Petrowski when I was nineteen, shortly after moving to Austin, Texas, and knew him until I was twenty-six, when he passed. Though I learned a great deal from Richard, what little I know about his life outside of our friendship can be summarized quickly: Richard was born in Abilene, Texas, in 1962. He played drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band during high school and graduated with the class of ’81. He then worked in the West Texas oil fields for nearly a decade before serving a year in prison for a drug charge. During his oil field days and before prison, he owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a Corvette Stingray. After prison, he moved to Austin where he successfully kicked a heroin habit, then methadone, spent nine years on parole living in a one room apartment and eventually kicked that too. Then Richard again owned a Corvette Stingray, and a travel trailer that he lived in while saving for a plot of land in the Texas Hill Country, where he planned to build a house. But in 2003, after living with Hepatitis C for many years, Richard died from cirrhosis of the liver. He was forty-one years old.

That’s Richard Petrowski’s life on paper. He was exactly the type of person who was underestimated, overlooked, and taken advantage of, especially by people of low character. Because most people missed it–who he really was, an image of moral integrity. Richard once said to me, “Steve, you’re young and you may make a million dollars in your life,” he always waxed positive. “But I’m not gonna make a million dollars in my life. The only thing I have is my word. Without my word I ain’t worth shit.”  It reminded me of the Bob Dylan lyric “if you live outside the law you must be honest,” but sounded even more poetic somehow; one of many things Richard said to me that still rings true.

The Deville

In 1996 Austin, Texas, offered the perfect backdrop for unambitious dreams. After arriving with little more than a guitar and a backpack I took to open mics and temp jobs, like a then typical Austinite, and moved into The Deville apartments at 2020 S. Congress Ave, apartment 1313. (No kidding, it’s an address I’ll never forget.) Congress Avenue runs from the State Capital downtown for ten blocks, before crossing the bridge famous for its bat population and becoming South Congress, a main artery that continues dead south all the way out of town. My one room efficiency twenty blocks south of the bridge was four hundred dollars a month including utilities, plus an extra thirty dollars a month from May through September when they turned on the central A/C. The Deville was originally a motel, you could tell by looking at it; a two-story building connected by cast-iron walkways to a three-story building behind it, with a parking lot and swimming pool in the middle. Half the apartments faced inwards, towards the pool, the other half faced out, with narrow hallways running down the middle of each building. My apartment was on the third floor facing in, providing a clear view of the Seven-Eleven across the street and the swimming pool below. I never swam in the pool, I didn’t even own any swim trunks, but that was where I first saw Richard Petrowski. He was often down there lounging.

Richard was over six feet tall with a deep tan, a big belly, and a faded tattoo of a Harley-Davidson eagle across his chest. He had brown hair kept short in the front and long in the back–halfway down his back, the ultimate mullet–with a thin mustache and thick rimmed glasses over silver-gray eyes. Richard always wore shorts and flip-flops, and hardly ever wore a shirt. During the almost eight years I knew him, I only saw him in a shirt a handful of times and long pants even less. There were a lot of interesting characters at The Deville, but Richard stood out. He was a fixture.   

The Deville had a stairwell running up the side of the building that briefly dropped you into the hallway of each floor before entering the next flight of stairs, and every time I passed the second floor it reeked of weed–the thick stench of Texas dirt weed emanating from finger-sized doobies­­. It was obviously coming from the first apartment, the only door you passed before reentering the stairwell, and was so constant that I even contemplated knocking and inviting myself in–a thought only my nineteen-year-old self would entertain. Then one day I walked by just as the longhaired shirtless man from the pool was standing in the doorway seeing someone out. I gave him a quick wave and he returned the gesture, and this went on for a few weeks, a nod in the hallway, the simple acknowledgement between neighbors.

Eventually I mustered up the courage to introduce myself followed by the pertinent inquiry, about weed, imposing on him right in the hallway of The Deville. My appearance back then was as noticeable as Richard’s, though probably more naïve. (I was skinny as a rail with a greasy pompadour and always wore torn jeans, black boots, and white t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up, or white undershirts often referred to as a ‘wife-beaters,’ which I’m campaigning to rebrand as ‘wife-lovers’ since their common name is gross and inaccurate, but I’ll use it here for descriptive clarity.) So I assume Richard didn’t take me for a cop but he was cautious nonetheless, and I later learned his response that day was somewhat uncharacteristic. Only slightly taken aback, he half-smiled and said he might be able to find a joint. He didn’t invite me to his apartment, where I would later spend hours on end, but instead asked which apartment I was in and said he’d drop by shortly. Within a few minutes Richard was knocking at my door with a small baggy and some rolling papers.

My apartment had little furnishings. No television, two folding chairs facing a stereo in the middle of the room, a guitar against the wall, and miscellaneous music equipment strewn about. Next to the stereo was a small stack of records with a recently purchased Buddy Holly at the front, a double LP with a pink gatefold cover called Legend – from the Original Master Tapes. And it was that record that first endeared me to Richard Petrowski.

“You like Buddy Holly?” he asked, surprised and intrigued.

“Yeah man, Buddy Holly’s a genius! If he’d lived there’s no telling, he could have been more influential than the Beatles!” It may sound like bullshit, but it’s a reply I’d still give today, and I could tell by Richard’s expression it was the right answer. That was the first time I saw Richard’s broad, completely unselfconscious smile that engulfed the lower half of his face and showed him to be missing most of his front teeth.

“He’s from Lubbock, you know?” I did. “I’m from Abilene! Up there in the panhandle,” he added with pride. Richard spoke with that lilting West Texas accent. It isn’t a drawl, it’s more eloquent, like a perpetual politeness with a heightened awareness of vowels. “Do you mind if we listen to that?”

Of course not, so we passed a joint while listening to Buddy Holly. When we weren’t talking Richard sang along quietly, not in a disruptive way, more out of pure pleasure as if it was impossible not to. He knew every song, which didn’t seem to fit his appearance, but I was just beginning to understand Texas. And Richard was a Texan through and through.

“Man, I seen you around, but I thought all this was just a look,” he mused, gesturing to my hair. “I didn’t think you were into the music, or that anybody your age listened to Buddy Holly!”

“Yeah, I love rockabilly, ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll,” another reply that I’d still give today, “old country, blues … I grew up more with punk-rock stuff, you know, but then followed it back,” it prattles on and concludes with something like, “I mean, I dig all kinds of music.”

“Rockabilly. That’s what you are, isn’t it?” He said it kind of rhetorically, as if reintroducing himself to a forgotten term. “Yeah, you look like a rockabilly, don’t ya?”

Richard thumbed through my records approvingly, then asked me a little bit about my guitar playing, and if I’d ever heard of Pat Travers. I had not. This was only the first time Richard told me about the inimitable Pat Travers, hands down his favorite musician, stating with no uncertainty I should check him out immediately, especially since I was a guitar player. In later conversations I learned that Pat Travers hailed from Canada, oddly enough, but played in Austin once a year at The Steamboat downtown on 6th Street, and that every year Richard went to see him–the only time Richard ever went down to 6th Street.

After listening to the entire Buddy Holly double album, Richard left me what was left in his small baggie along with some rolling papers and his phone number.

“Give me a call sometime. I can usually find a bag for a friend.” In truth Richard sold pot, it was his sole source of income, but like everything else he played it close to the vest.

It wasn’t long before I made the call, and from then on we met in his apartment. The Deville apartments were all exactly alike, though Richard’s was the mirror image of mine being on the opposite side of the hall; a narrow kitchen on one side of the door, living room on the other, leading out to a motel style balcony with a small bedroom nook and bathroom around the corner. Richard’s apartment was cozy and well-furnished compared to mine; he had clearly lived there for some time. The living room was filled with a small couch and coffee table surrounded by bookshelves, houseplants, and neatly stacked rows of books and magazines; the balcony was overrun with potted and hanging plants. Richard usually dwelled in the bedroom nook, reclining on the bed watching a small TV at the foot of it. I would cop a squat on the floor across from him, leaning against the wall next to the bathroom door. Our relationship grew organically from conversations that began on the floor of his apartment and continued for years after we both left The Deville.

Spacecrafts & Chicken-fried Steaks

We talked at length about everything from the serious to the abstract, with no inhibitions or awkward silences–as unselfconscious as Richard’s smile. Our visits lasted indefinitely, sometimes going on so long that we reconvened for breakfast up the street at the Richard Jones Barbeque, where a chicken-fried steak and eggs with coffee was under six bucks.

One of Richard’s favorites topics was UFOs and extraterrestrials. Richard believed aliens had a long history on Earth and was versed in alleged encounters from the famous Roswell incident to passages in the bible, and everything in between. His favorite show was The X-Files. I hadn’t seen The X-Files–no television–but Richard swore that some of the episodes were based on real occurrences and suspected that part of the show’s intent was to familiarize people with events that would one day be made public, in essence softening the blow. I have always been game for speculation, the wilder the better, which may be why Richard enjoyed my company–I never dismissed his opinions or told him he was crazy. Some of his most compelling ideas involved the moon landing, what really did or didn’t happen, and why we hadn’t yet returned–at least not to the public’s knowledge. In Richard’s defense, none of his theories have been disproven in the twenty years since he passed, and some have been supported.

“Rockets?!” Richard would rant. “Shit, you think rockets are any way to travel through space. You think launching an object straight up, fightin’ the Earth’s gravity, with a fossil fuel engine, is any way to reach other planets? Hell no!” He would answer his own questions. “For one, you burn up too much energy just leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. Hell, rockets for space travel, that’s just a farce!”

A quarter century later, in July of 2021, Virgin Galactic launched a craft resembling more of an airplane than a rocket. The spaceplane was launched off the back of a carrier plane, or mothership, after being piggybacked up to 50,000 ft–not straight up fighting the Earth’s gravity–then conducted a sub-orbital space flight before gliding safely back to Earth on its own momentum. Witnessing the event, I couldn’t help being reminded of Richard’s rocket rant. I wish he had been here to see it and wish I could have shared his reaction.

But it wasn’t all spacecrafts and conspiracy theories. After I got to know him, Richard told me about his former addiction to heroin, and how through treatment he had since become hooked on methadone, which was even harder to quit but at least a habit he could afford. “Hell, the only reason I go to the methadone clinic is heroin cost me two or three-hundred bucks a week just to maintain. Believe it, that shit’ll take everything you got.” This all caught me by surprise. Richard was nothing like the junkies I’d known, or the recovering addicts who feel the need to immediately and constantly share their story. His was purely a cautionary tale told by a humble narrator.

Richard never talked about his time in prison, only that it happened and what put him there. He was pulled over somewhere in West Texas holding enough pot to be charged with a felony and sentenced to ten years in prison; his Corvette was impounded. After serving a year in the notorious Huntsville State Penitentiary his sentence was commuted to parole, which he was still serving. Richard was lucky (his words) to have only been in Huntsville a year and said any longer may as well be a life sentence; the effects are too devasting and permanent. But life on parole made everything touch and go. Any violation could mean serving the remainder of his sentence in prison, and anything he owned could be confiscated. Consequently, Richard kept his savings and valuables in a safety deposit box downtown. No bank account, nothing on paper. Doing just enough business to get by with those who he completely trusted. Richard’s line of work hadn’t changed but his operation had adapted.

When I had my own legal troubles and faced a mere thirty days in the Travis County Jail, Richard provided support and perspective. “Hell, thirty days is nothing. Keep your head down and you’ll be fine.” He knew the game, “you play you pay.” Later, when facing two years of probation, he again offered vital counsel. “They want you to fuck up, so they can have you on paper the rest of your life. So don’t make it easy for ‘em.” ‘On paper’ was Richard’s term for being in the system, on parole or probation.

Having experienced it all, Richard also brought a necessary dismissiveness and humor to legal predicaments. Like when I was subjected to regular drug testing as a clause of probation–the humiliating act of peeing in a cup under the watchful eye of a government employee. “Man, that guy ain’t nothin’ but a peter-gazer!” Richard laughed. “Can you imagine havin’ that job? I tell ya, he’s gotta be one miserable son of a bitch!” But in the end, his advice was always sound, straightforward, and simple, “Play it smart, get it behind you, and keep ‘em out of your life forever. Then get back to playing your music.”

Richard had become a fan of my band, an outfit that gigged regularly in Austin through the late nineties. He first saw us playing just up the street from The Deville, at an early show he could walk to. Labeled Texas Rockabilly, mainly due to our location and appearance, the band was greasy and sleezy, and right up Richard’s alley. He nodded approvingly flashing his wide grin throughout our set. After that, Richard came to see us any time we played in South Austin at a reasonable hour. He wouldn’t go downtown, where most of our gigs were, but would always brag about us when introducing me to his friends.

“This is Steve, he plays in a rockabilly band!” Richard seemed to love saying that forgotten term as much as he loved plugging us. “You gotta go check ‘em out! When are you guys playing next, Steve?”

Richard’s apartment could be a scene, due to a combination of his generosity and the friends he kept. There was often someone coming or going or staying too long. One of the mainstays was a pleasant character named Mikey who Richard had known since his oil field days. (Pronounced ole-field, with Richard’s accent.) Mikey was a small guy with a grey beard and ponytail who always wore a headband and spoke with a thick east-Texas accent–a nasally drawl emphasized by hard stops, almost a barking sound. He had that former meth-head-hippie look about him, but Mikey was alright, and one of Richard’s only friends who stayed around throughout. Besides me. Plus a fellow named Jim who had been Richard and Mikey’s “Oil field daddy,” a term I haven’t heard before or since but gathered it was an endearment for the boss of the rig, their de facto caretaker. Jim was there for Richard when he was released from prison, a standup guy by Richard’s account– which makes it so­–and Mikey was too. That’s what it took to maintain Richard’s friendship.

He was never one for a handout, but always one for a helping hand. When Richard’s friend Britt who he’d known in Huntsville was released from prison, he found his way to Austin where he was living on the street and occasionally staying at the nearby Salvation Army. (The Salvy, as Richard and his friends called it, another term I haven’t heard before or since.) After seeing Britt on the street one day, Richard did everything he could to help him get back on his feet and for two months Britt’s bedroll took up a corner of Richard’s efficiency apartment. Britt was a likeable guy who had paid too dearly for a victimless crime, his deep-set brown eyes revealed both a kind soul and a tremendous amount of pain. But Britt’s time in Huntsville was well over a year, and by Richard’s own admission possibly too long to endure. When he wasn’t floundering, he was spiraling. Sadly, Britt eventually wore out his welcome at Richard’s, couldn’t stay sober enough to stay at the Salvy, and ended up back on the street.

“He knows the damn rules! The Salvy won’t let you in if you’re fucked up. He shows up in the evening and they can tell just lookin’ at him,” Richard’s disappointment was palpable during our last conversation about Britt. “He stopped by the other night and had the balls to ask me for money. Gave me those sad eyes and his whole bit about just needin’ twenty-five bucks to rent a room and get cleaned up. So, hell, I gave it to him.” He could tell that part surprised me, and Richard’s venting then shifted to the tone he used when imparting wisdom. “Whenever somebody like that asks me to borrow money, long as it’s a small amount, I just give it to ‘em. I know they won’t pay me back, and that gives me a perfectly good reason to never see ‘em again. Hell, it’s a bargain. Twenty-five bucks to get him out of my life for good.” Even though Richard cared deeply for him, Britt had proven to not be a standup guy.

Life After Paper

It never occurred to me that Richard had been biding his time, deliberately stagnant, until I pulled up to The Deville one day and saw a pristine, white Corvette parked in the space just below his balcony.

“Did you see my new ride?” he asked with a grin that simultaneously showed off his new teeth–dentures, as white as the Corvette. “It’s an ’82 Stingray, just like the one I lost. Come on, let’s go for a ride.” As the V-8 rumbled through the neighborhood Richard pointed out all the minor differences between this Vette and his old one, while still managing to wave and flash a smile at everyone we passed. Richard’s spirits were soaring, it was more than just the new car: He was finally off parole. Gone were his fears of losing everything to the whims of bureaucracy, a new chapter was beginning beyond the confines of paper. A cause for celebration commemorated by the Corvette and new teeth, both paid for with cash from his safety deposit box.

Shortly after, Richard bought a travel trailer and left The Deville, his home for the last nine years, renting a nearby spot off Radam Lane where a handful of trailer spaces lined a gravel alley behind a row of duplexes. The trailer was ten-by-twenty-feet, even smaller than his apartment, divided into two parts; through the front door a tiny kitchenette opened into a room with a dining nook against one wall and small couch against the other, the living room, then up two steps a narrow doorway led to the equally sized bedroom and bathroom. Though it seemed barely enough room for a guy Richard’s size to turn around in, it was his castle which he proudly owned. Richard immediately started eyeing land in the hill country outside of Austin where he planned to move his trailer and eventually build a house. A dream that never came to fruition.

With the new neighborhood came new neighbors, which were more of a step over than a step up from The Deville. The only one I remember was a character named Vinnie from the trailer next door, a short-haired, clean cut looking guy who always wore a baseball hat. Richard often referred to him as “that fuckin’ crackhead,” but was neighborly towards him nonetheless, and later, Vinnie would be there for Richard as a good neighbor should be. Like Britt, Vinnie had the eyes of a decent person, buried underneath the trials of addiction.

Furnishing his new digs, Richard bought a desktop computer with a printer that permanently filled the dining nook. Internet access brought Richard’s UFO research to new heights; on numerous visits I was met with unparalleled excitement accompanied by printouts of recent discoveries. The internet also put Richard in touch with his former high school rock ‘n’ roll band and got him invited to his twenty-year class reunion taking place in Abilene the following spring.

One of my favorite memories of Richard comes from stopping by to find him seated behind a newly purchased vintage Pearl drum set taking up the entire front room of his trailer and completely blocking the path to the bedroom. Not only was he planning to attend his class reunion, but his old band had been booked as the entertainment. Determined not to be the rustiest of the group, he was practicing drums for the first time in twenty years. Richard was beaming. The neighbors were complaining. He was especially proud of the twenty-six-inch ride cymbal, explaining to me that a cymbal that large was both hard to come by and integral to his style. Richard had often talked about his days in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he couldn’t have been happier that they were getting back together, to play for his old peers no less.

Just when I thought Richard couldn’t surprise me any further, he introduced me to his live-in girlfriend, and even dabbled with a straight job.

The girlfriend was a petite blonde named Crystal who dressed neatly and always wore her hair in a tight ponytail, appearing to be nothing like the hardcore-white-trash girls that used to gravitate to Richard’s apartment. With Crystal in tow, Richard started frequenting the gambling boats in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Blackjack was one of his favorite pastimes, Richard was as close to a card counter as anyone I’ve ever known, and Crystal liked to ride along and play the slots. They were together for close to a year and during that time Crystal accompanied Richard to his class reunion where his old band was a hit and showing up in his Corvette with Crystal on his arm felt like nothing short of a coup–directly contradicting any small-town gossip about his time in prison with his larger-than-life presence. Then just as quick as she showed up, Crystal was gone.

“Trust me, I’m better off” Richard concluded, and we never spoke of her again.

Richard’s straight job was in a small office, coincidently right next door to a place that rented music equipment where I worked at the time. Even more coincidently, it was just a few blocks north of The Deville right on South Congress Avenue–that street representing the center of South Austin still playing a central role in both of our lives. I never figured out exactly what Richard did in the office next door, and admittedly the term ‘straight’ may be an overstatement, but for a few months he would poke his head through the backdoor of the rental shop brightening my day with small talk and the novelty of seeing him in a button up shirt and long pants.

Though neither the job nor relationship lasted, both were notable examples of Richard’s dynamic character and broad potential during the brief time when the world was his oyster.

Perhaps the most profound side of Richard Petrowski was that which I witnessed the least; the Richard Petrowski I read about in the newspaper, in an article about a long-running support group for recovering drug addicts. Pictured just below the headline encircled by the other members, Richard was the focus of the article with his characteristic wisdoms and candor quoted throughout. He talked about originally joining the group as a requisite of parole, and why he still attended even though he was no longer required to or involved in treatment. He talked about the importance of being there as a tactile example, and the support he felt fortunate to now be able provide others. He even touched on the role spirituality–what sounded like a loose form of Buddhism–had played in overcoming his addiction to heroin, and the ensuing battle with methadone. The article painted Richard as the natural leader and kind soul that he truly was.

No Funeral

Unfortunately, Richard’s uplift period didn’t last long. He had only been off parole for three years when he fell seriously ill. How long he was living with Hepatitis C, and for how long he knew about it, are among the things I’ll never know about Richard Petrowski. He contracted the virus through needle use, which means he carried it for at least a decade before it noticeably affected him. By the time he said anything it had developed into cirrhosis of the liver, his organs were shutting down. I didn’t know anything about Hepatitis C then, I associated cirrhosis with alcoholism and Richard didn’t even drink. Hep C has since become largely treatable, even affordably so, especially when it’s caught early. But at that time interferon was the only successful treatment, and whether it was too expensive or simply too late is another thing I will never know–my guess is the latter. Richard was given temporary relief through pain medications and the periodic draining of fluids. He needed a liver transplant, but his history of intravenous drug use made him ineligible for the donor list.

Richard went downhill quickly. The consistent sparkle in his grey eyes never returned, replaced by the fog of illness. He started retaining fluids to the point that trips to the doctor’s office or emergency room became weekly occurrences. That’s where Vinnie stepped up. No longer able to get in and out of it, much less sit for long drives, Richard had sold his Corvette putting the money towards his ongoing medical bills.

During his final months it became more and more difficult to visit him, but in his typical style Richard still tried to wax positive even when he was visibly suffering. My most recent band had split up and I had just begun performing and touring as a solo act–a project I’ve stuck with to this day–with jaunts taking me as far as the upper Midwest and eastern seaboard. Richard loved the open road but had never traveled beyond Texas and Louisiana. He always prodded me about my recent tours and mused about joining me. “Man, I’d love to go on the road like that. You gotta take me with you next time… Maybe next time you head over to New Orleans you can drop me off at the gamblin’ boats in Lake Charles and pick me up on your way back.” And I always told him I would. That we would do all of that, next time. Even though we both knew it wasn’t feasible.

Knowing what was ahead, Richard composed a will and confided in me, Mikey, and a few others about a “chunk of change” he was leaving behind to be divvied up between his closest friends. More importantly, Richard insisted on leaving me with his vintage Pearl drum set. I didn’t play drums, and Richard knew this, but he wanted to see they were put to good use and said I was the one he trusted to do so. I was his musician friend. Nothing good ever came of the will, but he did leave me with his drum set, though earlier than originally planned. He called one afternoon sounding defeated, “Steve, you gotta come pick up these drums. I can’t play ‘em anymore. I just keep trippin’ over ‘em.” I should have known he was giving up, usually just looking at his drums was a source of pleasure. “Nah, they’re just in my way now. Besides, I’m leavin’ ‘em to you anyway.” I reluctantly went by that evening, and that was the last time I saw Richard.

He didn’t greet me at the door, just hollered to come in and propped himself up on the edge of his bed. He was no longer able to move around easily, and no longer went to the trouble of putting in his teeth. Richard’s smile from my earliest memories was the last one I saw. After I loaded up the drums we talked for a while, but he kept the conversation light, familiar. “Jon Bonham, Keith Moon. They were like the Gene Krupas of my generation.” Our final conversation, like our first, was about music. I promised I would take care of his drums, and even said that I’d bring them back once he was feeling better. I couldn’t accept what was happening. I still needed my friend to live.

Two days later I got the call from Vinnie at my work, Richard must have told him I worked at the music rental place on S. Congress. “Richard died last night,” his voice was breaking up over the phone. “I drove him up to the hospital, but they didn’t do anything for him. They just left him sittin’ there for hours, finally I brought him back. But when I checked on him this morning he was layin’ beside the bed, and I knew…”

I struggled to give Vinnie a reply and barely made it out the backdoor–the same door Richard used to poke his head through–before losing it completely. As I’ve learned since, even when you know what’s coming, death is impossible to be prepared for. That evening I spoke to Vinnie again, one last time. He told me how Richard had been draining his fluids at home by puncturing a hole in his naval with a safety pin, leaving his sheets and bed an awful mess. It still pains me to know that Richard’s final days were spent suffering and alone.

Richard Petrowski’s body was cremated. That responsibility fell to Jim, his oil field daddy. I have no knowledge of what happened to Richard’s remains. There was no funeral. No service of any kind. It was as if according to some unknown standard Richard’s life wasn’t worth formally commemorating. Mikey, Vinnie, and a few others gathered in a nearby park and said a few words the day after Richard died, but no one called me. I only heard about it when Mikey called out of the blue a couple weeks later.

I couldn’t have cared less about Richard’s “chunk of change” at that point, but Mikey, among those Richard promised would be included, wanted to fill me in on the bitter proceedings. Unfortunately, Richard’s will had turned out to be no more than a file on his computer. Nothing printed, nothing signed. Even worse, the file appeared to have been recently edited to include Vinnie’s name at the bottom, which Mikey and others suspected was done by Vinnie himself the morning he discovered Richard’s body. So maybe Richard was right about “that fuckin’ crackhead” after all. Or maybe after so many rides to the hospital Richard changed his tune about Vinnie and added his name hastily at the end. Either scenario is conceivable. By default, Jim was acting as executor of the estate, but by Mikey’s account wasn’t honoring Richard’s wishes. When I told Mikey I didn’t want to be involved, he informed me that I already was.

“Well, I told Jim, Steve already took the drums. So, why can’t I get my share? Ya know, what’s comin’ to me?” Mikey’s accent was more grating than usual with an animosity that blindsided me.

I told Mikey I only took the drums because Richard asked me to, but he was missing the point. To Mikey it was something of monetary value, but to me Richard’s drums were now something much greater–his prize possession left under my care with specific instructions.

I lugged Richard’s drums around with me for the next ten years, through several moves, always stored safely. Eventually they were given to worthy musicians I knew would put them to good use, including the ideal heir for his twenty-six-inch ride cymbal. I did exactly what Richard asked of me, what was promised. I still have his canvas stick bag with two pairs of drumsticks and his sweat-stained wristbands inside. It lives permanently in the corner of my music room. And I incorporated part of his kick pedal into a foot-percussion device that I still use for shows and touring. So in a way, Richard finally got to come with me on the road, to Louisiana, and everywhere else I’ve been.


Richard was fifteen years my senior, which means I am now unfathomably a few years older than he ever lived to be. I’ve since lost more friends than I care to count, perhaps due to running with musicians–a fragile group with a high mortality rate. When I started writing Richard’s story, I was in the process of losing another close friend to illness, who also happened to be a drummer. Again, I knew what was coming and again I found myself completely unprepared, clinging to hope, praying for a miracle. So maybe writing about Richard was a transference of sorts. But I don’t think that’s it. Richard has always stayed with me, he regularly visits my dreams, always smiling, sometimes giving advice. At times I become aware it’s a dream and can enjoy getting to spend a little more time with him. Other times the dreams are mistaken for reality, and I awaken with a renewed sorrow following the realization that he’s gone. Dreams are strange that way–dead friends are strange too.

I sometimes wonder if the reason Richard’s death affected me so profoundly, and his presence stayed with me for so long, is because it was the first time I lost a close friend. But I don’t think that’s it either, at least not all of it. Richard was truly an exceptional person, an unassuming role model who I’m still learning from. Richard led by example, proving honesty is a virtue regardless of circumstance, and that with enough will, any hardship can be overcome. And his death revealed how little we actually control, and how unjust our final outcome might be. Richard endured so much, undeterred, only to face greater suffering and ultimately be struck down by mistakes he seemingly already paid for. And through it all, he somehow stayed positive. Richard could have been bitter; he could have been cynical or remained stagnant. But he never succumbed to those burdens, instead he accepted his mistakes and kept his sights fixed on the future. Richard demonstrated strength and perseverance right up until he no longer could.

I believe it’s for all these reasons that Richard Petrowski has stayed with me, and for all these reasons that I continue to honor his person and his memory. I honor him by remaining unselfconscious and independent-minded through this ever-changing world. I honor him by not wearing a shirt outside, at least from May through September. I honor him by finally watching the X-Files–and wanting to believe. I honor him by ignoring authority wherever possible. I honor him by steering clear of trouble. I honor him by trying like hell to wax positive, something I struggle with. And I honor him by focusing on my music.

Most of all, I honor him by never forgetting the man he was, or the lessons he taught me. I regularly pass by all the old haunts. The Deville has been remodeled as condos and rebranded as ‘The 2020.’ The Richard Jones BBQ is now the site of a Wells Fargo. The trailer spaces in the alley off Radam are gone but the duplexes next door are still there, more dilapidated than ever, triumphantly defying their surroundings as if saying, ‘not everywhere can be gentrified,’ at least not yet. When I cruise through the old neighborhood and see the people living there now, walking dogs, and pushing strollers, I wonder if they have any idea just how different it was not so long ago. How seedy it was, and how easy our lives seemed then. Can they even imagine a typical day at The Deville apartments? Or that a character like Richard Petrowski once ruled the roost?

Though much has changed, anytime I want to revisit those days I can count on Buddy Holly, specifically Legend – From the Original Master Tapes, a double LP I picked up while living at The Deville. The pink gatefold cover takes me right back to that small apartment with the view of the seven-eleven across the street. And the music brings me right back to that first conversation with Richard Petrowski. Within a moment I can hear the lilt of Richard’s voice singing along quietly, then hear the cadence of his laughter, and feel the warmth of his smile. As missing friends has become a part of everyday life, so has enjoying their memory, and savoring their presence whenever I stumble upon it. Along with always wondering why their time was cut short… Yeah man, Buddy Holly’s a genius. He’s from Lubbock you know.


Steve Schecter is a musician, songwriter, and writer, living in Austin, TX. Born in the rural community of Friend, Oregon, Schecter began his musical career as a teenager in the Portland area, before moving to Austin in 1996. Performing under the name Ghostwriter since 2002, he has published over a hundred songs and released ten albums on his own independent label, End of the West Records. Steve Schecter’s first book, “No One at the Circus: The Story of Ghostwriter through Place and Song,” was published in 2022 by Gob Pile Press. For information on writing, releases, and upcoming shows, go to endofthewest.com.



The Box in The Closet

by Eric Lee

Everyone must learn this truth at some point.  I only wish, at seven, I hadn’t been so inquisitive, then maybe I could have enjoyed the magic a few years longer.

I was sitting on the living room floor watching TV.  It was a week before Christmas, and I could see our tree with the lights on it.  Everything sparkled and reflected all these different glittery colors; it was beautiful.  That’s when I heard Freddy and Bob in the kitchen talking with Mom and Dad about Santa.  Their voices were a little muffled, so I crawled closer toward the dining room table to hear better.

I could hear Mom say, “Keep your voices down.”  Then Freddy said, “But we know all about Santa.”  I leaned in closer underneath the dining room table not wanting to miss a word.  Somehow, I knew this must be important information, but I couldn’t let them know I was listening.  “We know that it’s you who buys the presents, keeps them hidden somewhere, and puts them out on Christmas Eve.  That’s what some kids told us at school.”

My father looked annoyed, “If you two don’t believe in Santa, well then I guess you both will be on his naughty list and won’t get anything for Christmas.”

That’s when Bob started in, “I didn’t hear anything, I only heard what Freddy said.” 

“Bob, you said you heard it too.” 

That’s when my mom spoke up. “Now just a minute, why don’t you both start from the beginning and tell us what you heard, and we can sort this out.”

I knew what I had to do.  I crawled out from under the dining room table and sat thinking for a moment in front of the TV.  My brothers were older than me, and sure they could punch me harder than I could punch them, but I’d proven in card games that I was smarter than them both.  As I sat all alone in the living room, I was looking right into my parents’ bedroom and could from where I sat, next to the TV, just a little ways away, see their closet door.  I needed to check it out. That’s what I would do.  I quickly crawled into their bedroom and opened the closet door.  There on the floor sat this giant box.  A box I’d not seen before.  I didn’t look inside; I was too afraid of being caught or maybe afraid of what I might find, I didn’t know at the time.  I stepped back, quickly closed the door, and went back out into the living room and stared blankly at the TV.  I thought about what Freddy said a few minutes earlier, and then wondered about that big box.  I kept what I’d seen a secret.  I didn’t tell Freddy or Bob.  I didn’t tell anyone.

A week after Christmas, one day when the house was quiet, I snuck back into my parents’ bedroom and opened their closet door.  What I saw was a big empty space; the box was gone.  In a way I was surprised, but then I wasn’t.  I was suddenly sad because I’d learned the truth, the secret which Freddy had talked about two weeks ago, that the magic about Santa wasn’t real.  I didn’t know what to do with what I’d learned.  There was this large emptiness inside me, and I felt like crying.  Why had I looked?  What made me do it?  I thought I wanted the truth, but then, sometimes the truth hurts.  That’s when I started to question what I’d seen.  I mean, I didn’t look IN the box, but I knew.  I just knew.

After I closed my parent’s closet door, I went back into the living room and sat on the couch, alone.  Knowing what I’d just learned hit me like a wave and I realized the impact was more than Santa alone.  It was Frosty, and Rudolph, all of it.  I sat there and looked at the Christmas tree and wondered why did we put all those ornaments on the tree?  Why are there so many other decorations all over the house when none of it was real?  Yet, I liked how shiny and bright they looked.  Even now that I knew the truth, I still liked all the decorations. 

Then I saw how my mom and dad acted together when they sat and looked at the tree all lit up.  I saw how they smiled at each other and held hands and it made me wonder if it was something else that was magical that I didn’t yet understand.  That maybe it wasn’t Santa alone but something bigger.

 Everything about the holidays made everyone in our family happy.  We would go up to Grandma’s farmhouse and all our aunts and uncles and cousins would be there, and it was just like at our summer picnics.  We all had fun together, laughing and playing games.  All my aunts made delicious pies to eat, and my dad and uncles would tell jokes, and stories and we’d all laugh.

I kept the secret I’d learned about Santa to myself.  I didn’t even tell Loretta, my favorite cousin.  I realized, why would I want to ruin the Christmas magic for her?  Or anyone?  Yet I knew that there was more to Christmas than just Santa.  I just hadn’t figured it out yet. 


Eric Lee, a scientist for 40 years, retired from the corporate world and turned to writing in 2021.  In addition to crafting poems and short stories, he’s also writing his memoir, An Intentional Journey, and is completing the last book in his trilogy, The Secrets Beneath Nantucket Sound.  Eric’s story, The Box in the Closet is his first publication in a literary magazine. He lives and writes between the woods of Andover, Massachusetts, and the mountains of Newry, Maine.

Too Late to Save the F-word

by Rita Stevens

            It was an overheard conversation.  Older Man A said to Older Man B: “He used the F-word. I just had to tell him I considered the word unacceptable.”

            Jack and I were seated in the hotel’s breakfast room, the two men at a table near us. The unacceptable word, we learned, had been uttered on the golf course the previous afternoon. The pro had put together a foursome of single players, one of whom was Older Man A. Unfortunately, another of the four turned out to be the eventual F-word offender. We lingered over warmish coffee as A and B continued to remark about the young man who had been “out of line,” as B diagnosed it. And it got worse: Older Man A had heard others use similar language later in the day.

            Wives A and B arrived from their rooms for breakfast. Older Man B spoke with his wife at once. “Young people drinking beer were outside around here last night using the F-word,” he told her. I saw her nod and look serious as she sat down.

            The four went on to other topics, but my mind lingered on the F-word.

            In an abstract way, I’ve long been a fan of the F-word, although probably never was it considered a polite term. (For what it’s worth, I’m also a fan of the despised word “ain’t,” but that’s another issue.) My appreciation of the F-word lies in its being an old Germanic verb with timeless features. The universally popular action it names gives it emotional weight and some erotic usefulness. As an interjection, in the way it was once used — rarely, and under extreme circumstances — it delivered as intended. It’s short, compared with the Latin derivatives “fornicate” and “copulate,” both wishy-washy intransitives, unlike the punchy F-word.

            “Just think of a synonym verb that takes a direct object,” I said to Jack on the drive home after breakfast. “There is none.”

            “Screw?” Jack suggested.

            “Well, yes, but that’s a late-comer euphemism with the wrong consonant sounds. When you take it out of the toolbox, it’s a third-rate word.”

Jack had to agree.

            We both remembered an F-word incident from many years ago involving a cousin on Jack’s side of the family. It came up under circumstances that all of us have experienced at one time or another – the “no good deed shall go unpunished” scenario.

            We had tried to intervene for the benefit of a worthy cause and were opposed by the cousin, whom I’ll call, “Clyde.” Because of Clyde, we had no success in our intervention, which eventually led to the kind of many-tentacled horror we had predicted. Before Jack and I finally gave up, Clyde sent one more letter. “Dear Jack,” it started. It proceeded mildly but soon elevated into cold sarcasm, then became slightly heated, and in its last sentence fired the F-word, followed by “you and your wife.”

            Jack and I remembered how shocked we were. But even at the time I considered it an especially good use of the F-word in its attack mode.

            As far back as 1951, J.D. Salinger’s fictional Holden Caulfield was driven to distraction by proliferation of the F-word in its knee-jerk presentation, written on walls. Holden was a sensitive soul, but very young. I’ve never been able to figure out if, at heart, he most objected to the triteness of the signs, or to their random belligerence, or if he had internalized a generational revulsion for the word. Salinger certainly didn’t intend him to come across as protective of it, which I am.

            I’m sorry, for example, that dramatists in recent decades have sprinkled the F-word around so liberally. Like the rubber belt on an old vacuum cleaner, it has been weakened by too many uses. Back in the day, any of the impolite four-letter Anglo-Saxon words uttered in a play would be met with either nervous giggles orstraight mouths and sour facial expressions. Casual reviews would often emphasize the play’s “bad language.” The F-word was the next-to-last of the bunch to be taken in stride by the cultivated crowd.

            Sometimes movie scripts deliberately throw in so many F-words that, after a while, the audience hardly notices — becomes, in fact, bored by them. The movie “Pulp Fiction” employs that brand of audience manipulation 265 times. The most, I thought. But no, only the most in moviesI personally have seen. “Goodfellas” reaches 300 and “The Wolf of Wallstreet” makes it to 569. Unacceptable, as Older Man A declared.

            Losing a golf ball or hooking into the rough may call for a tension-relieving snarl of some kind, but using the F-word seems to me like overkill. It has become a common substitute for the S-word. Or even for “Rats!” Or “Darn it all!”

            I’m doing what I can, but I fear it’s too late. I hate to see the F-word overused because that undermines its value. Unlike vacuum cleaner belts, it can’t be replaced.


Rita Stevens has worked as a teacher and as a writer and editor for a small newspaper. She lives in Portage, Michigan.

What The F*ck is Going On?

By Arlene Rosales

I don’t quite recall the last time I fully understood something that happened in my life. Two seconds ago, I was just entering high school and worrying about keeping my room clean, and now I am working five days a week, going to school, and trying to sleep more than 4 hours; and I am doing it all in a different country. For a long time, I begged for a pause. The world finally heard me —the novel Coronavirus hit the world in March of 2020. My life took a 180-degrees turn, just like everyone else’s. However, I was not affected by the shortage of toilet paper, Criminal Minds ending after 15 seasons, Zoom classes, trending workout videos, the emergence of TikTok as the new Vine, and not even having to spend five months by myself. What impacted me was time and how suddenly, what seemed like a blessing turned into a curse. It is 2 am, and my wrist hurts from awkwardly holding my phone; I have been trying to sleep since 11 pm, but my mind keeps running: What the f*ck is going on?


As a child, there was a point when my parents had to beg me to go outside to play, but it wasn’t always like that. My parents tried to keep me away from social media for as long as possible. For years, I only cared about finishing my homework and playing soccer with my brother and cousin. Those years when I was innocent, when I could wear long basketball shorts and bright t-shirts, when having one friend was enough—the years when I did not care about what the rest of the world thought about me. Now, I find myself stuck living in a time where my presence online is more important than who I am. I feel the pressure of the whole world watching me, waiting for the moment I finally make a mistake.

I opened social media for the first time when I was 12 years old. As I scroll through my friends’ requests on Instagram, kids no older than 11 have sent me requests. It makes me cringe. I don’t want to sound old-school or dull, but life has become monotonous since everyone has become obsessed with social media. We all follow the same people, trends, and music; we even shop for the same clothing items. For example, I bought a $100 pair of jeans just because my Tiktok page told me I needed them. I am sure I am not the only person who has surrendered to what the internet tells them. New trends come and go; some are good, like metal straws and the ice bucket challenge. Some others just bring the worst of each person out — like the Birdbox Challenge and Pokemon Go.   

The hard pill to swallow when it comes to social media is that it has taken control of everything. But, honestly, how do you explain to someone that having less than 100 likes on an Instagram post is okay? We have created such a toxic online culture that likes define how much you are worth. Now that I am older, I can see what is wrong with that mindset, but growing up, I remember how self-conscious I was about every pic I posted and how important it was to follow the steps:

  1. Selfies. Full body pics are for girls with good bodies, and mine was not it.
  2. Editing. A plain picture is a mediocre one. It needs to be touched, and if your friend with a thousand followers does it, then it is better. If the image is not good, black and white always does the job.
  3. Time. Anything before 6 pm is lame. Cool and older kids always check and post their pictures around 7 pm, but never after 8:30 pm. Time = likes = popularity.
  4. Tell everyone. The moment you post, you need to tell the whole group chat you posted, so they can go like it and comment, which will boost your post.

Now that I am typing these “rules,” I realize how stupid they sound. It also reminded me of one of my favorite songs – Crazy by Simple Plan.

Tell me what’s wrong with society
When everywhere I look I see
Young girls dying to be on TV
Won’t stop ’til they’ve reached their dreams

Diet pills, surgery
Photoshopped pictures in magazines
Telling them how they should be
It doesn’t make sense to me
Is everybody going crazy?

Now, is everybody going crazy? Or am I the problem?

What would happen if I did not fit into the world created for me? A world where I need to study and then work for the rest of my life; a world where I need to dress girly but not like a teenager; a world where religion is not necessary anymore and having kids is not a dream anymore. For years, I have seen how cruel the world can be, even worse if you are naive. The idea of “wanting to grow up” to finally be free was and probably still is the biggest scam I have succumbed to. At the end of the day, half of the things you see on the internet are fake, but so many people take them as the ultimate truth. And wanting to go against the majority is scary.

I dreamt about finding love, getting married, and raising kids with the perfect husband for years. However, the more I thought about these dreams, the less likely they seemed. I can summarize how each relationship I’ve had has gone using five words: a different idea of love. I had my first crush. Then, the older guy, who I thought was more mature, and since he liked me, I was also mature (none of us were). After that, the first t heartbreak — I fell in love with my best friend, and he then fell in love with my girl best friend. By 14, I was sure love was not for me. Two years later, I decided to try again; however, the naive part of me was unaware of how much things change when you enter high school.

Parties, alcohol, drugs, and sex, but love was never an option. Every Friday, while all my friends were out partying and making out with strangers, I was alone in my room watching their Snapchat and Instagram stories. What a loser, you might think. I was a loser, but was I wrong for trying to find love? Was I wrong for wanting to fall in love with someone and stay together longer than three months? Was I wrong for thinking about the future? When did society start to tell me how I wanted to love was wrong? When did love became a competition to see who could hook up with the most boys? When did still being a virgin mean that you were wasting your life? The world was not stopping, and social media kept adding to the struggle of growing up in the internet era.

I saw my friends post about their perfect relationships when I knew about all the fights and cheating scandals. I read posts about lovely moms for Mother’s Day when half of my friends couldn’t even communicate with theirs. Pictures about a current disaster were everywhere, asking for help and donations when I knew my friends were the first to ignore a homeless man begging for food. Wanting to be someone else was the norm because showing who you are meant social suicide. Many still fail to realize that the word suicide has slowly started becoming a reality for many young teenagers – teenagers who fail to live up to the expectations of many faceless trolls hiding behind a screen.

According to the Global Health Organization, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. I wish I could act surprised, but this is something well known among my generation. I was 14 the first time I thought about dying, the same age I was when my “friends” started bullying me for not using curse words, going to church with my parents, wanting to find long-lasting love, and many other views. Years later, I still think about death constantly. I know there is something wrong with me, but nowadays, everyone wants to die, so I don’t know what to believe anymore. It is a coping mechanism for me, but I know deep down I am scared. However, I don’t actually fear death and how it might present to me, but how fast it is approaching. There is no point living in a world that is slowly dying, thanks to global warming and an older generation that cares more about two girls kissing each other than the well-being of their children. Dying is this generation’s joke, and if that does not make you wonder what the fuck is going on with society, you are part of the problem.

It is 2022, and I deactivated my Instagram 6 months ago. The Coronavirus is here to stay. I eat two meals a day and go to the gym, so I don’t kill myself. I listen to sad music when I am happy. I stay up scrolling down TikTok until 2 am. I drink more coffee than water, and I ignore my parents as much as possible. I follow clothes trends, and I dye my hair. Welcome to the world where teenagers are “talking back” to their parents if they express how their actions make them feel. A world where having no social media is a red flag[1]. A world where having a college degree does not take you anywhere most of the time. A very warm welcome to the world where nothing makes sense anymore, and at the end of the day, the same question goes without an answer — What the f*ck is going on?


Arlene Maria Rosales Alvarado, born and raised in El Salvador, I left my house when I was 16 to study in an international high school in rural India through the United World College program. I fell in love with writing and film while there and once I graduated I was accepted into the University of Oklahoma on a full scholarship. I am currently 21-years-old and a junior in college pursuing a double major in Creative Media Production and English Writing. I plan on going to Grad school for Creative Writing and I hope to write a book that I can later turn into a movie. 

[1]  Red flag: a sign or warning of any impending danger, disaster or doom. This is the Urban Dictionary’s definition, which is nothing less than another fake source teenagers (myself included) use to feel like they are making a difference.

Father’s Day

By Kate E. Lore

            Maybe for father’s day I could rent a boat and take him out to the lake. We could go fishing like we did when I was a kid. Maybe I could introduce him to Columbus, and Cincinnati the way he showed my Chicago. Maybe I’ll stick to cities with C’s to start; Cleveland, Charlotte, Colorado Springs. Maybe he’d have flown out to see me read my work at Corpus Christi for Texas A&M University. Maybe he would have felt proud to watch me win first place. Maybe it would make up for that time in middle school when I tied for second place with Power of the Pen. He lived within walking distance. But I didn’t invite him. It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to go, it’s just that I hadn’t heard from him in so long. I guess I’d gotten too used to his absence. Like now.

            Once when I was working at Mc Donald’s, my first job, second year, I was seventeen, I saw a man who looked like him, like my father. My heart leapt up so high in my throat it choked me with shock. Without thinking I rushed out from behind the counter, and through the door. I chased this man to the edge of the parking lot. He turned around. A stranger.

            It never happened again. I don’t even double take anymore. I’ve gotten used to his absence.

            If my father were alive he would have gone to my high school graduation. If he could. If my father were alive he might have gone to my community college graduation, watched me get an associates degree, watched me get my bachelors degree, maybe I’d invite him here to see me receive a masters. Maybe he’d stay off heroin for good. Maybe he’d get his life together. Maybe he’d get back together with Karen and we could go fishing again at that pond by her condo where I once caught a carp. Where I once went swimming with my friends.

            Once I saw him in a dream. My father. I kept asking why I hadn’t seen him in so long. He wouldn’t tell me why. He kept changing the subject, shifting the way dreams do, morphing again and again into something else. When I woke up I remembered. A cold shock of water. I remembered his absence.

            Maybe if my father were alive I wouldn’t have made such bad choices. Maybe if my father were alive my sister would be better adjusted now as an adult. Maybe her anxiety would ease like a slow release of air. Less pressure. Maybe if my father were alive I’d have asked him for his advice on Los Angelis. What to see and do in this non-C city? Maybe I’d tell him about my professors, maybe I’d tell him about my friends, that one homeless guy, that one ex, her, him, them. Maybe I’d tell him about you.

            Maybe I’d answer the phone every time he called me no matter what. No matter where I was, no matter what I was doing. Maybe I’d never turn my phone off. Maybe I’d keep the volume up, always, no matter what. Maybe I’d keep it on vibrate too. Maybe I’d carry a battery pack. Extra charger. Maybe I’d make up for that period of time in which I refused to speak to him. That long never goodbye. The silence that grew and grew and became forever. A silence so long I can scarcely remember the sound of him. An absence gotten used to.

            Maybe If my father were alive we’d have a huge graduation party and invite over all our family and friends. We’d plan it over the phone. Maybe we’d face time, months of arrangements and research. Maybe we’d fight about the theme. Maybe I’d want to keep it simple but he’d want more. Maybe we’d compromise and settle on a cookout by the lake. A fish fry. Maybe the charcoal would burn too hot and our smoke would bellow up into the sky, a trail, a cloud of silver lining, something to be seen from Cleveland, from Chicago, like a flag of pride, a boast, a scream. Maybe we’d run and charge like there was never anything to fear in the first place, no reason to avoid, nothing to make up for, maybe we’d jump out so far and so wide each splash was an explosion, each wave tidal, something louder than a phone call, an absence that could never be missed. Water like a river running for millions of years carving deep into the earth the words we never said, the words we owe each other, I’m sorry where it can never be missed, never forgotten.


Kate E Lore is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. With many publications in both genres, Kate has been featured in Orsum magazine, and Longridge Review. Originally from Dayton Ohio, Kate is currently earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Miami University. Kate got her bachelor’s from The Ohio State University.

A jack-of-all-trades Kate splits her time up between fiction and nonfiction, screenplays, flash prose, full-length novels, painting, and comics.

Kate is openly queer and neurodivergent. She grew up the youngest of four, scraping by on low income, raised by a single widowed mother.

Kateelore.com, @kateelore (Twitter), kate.e.lore (Instagram), https://www.facebook.com/writerlore/