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Aesthetic Transmissions:
A Conversation with Robert Hass

By George Guida

Robert Hass, U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus, Distinguished Professor in Poetry and Poetics at Cal-Berkeley, and long-time environmental activist, published his first collection of poems, Field Guide, in 1973, and his latest, Summer Snow, in 2020. In all he has published seven collections of original work, eight volumes of translation (seven of Czeslaw Milosz’s writing and one of Japanese Haiku), and four volumes of criticism. Hass has won a myriad of awards and prizes, from the Yale Younger Poets Award to the Pulitzer Prize, and for five decades has been a presence on the California literary scene.

George Guida: Did you understand from an early age that you wanted to be a writer?

Robert Hass: I didn’t know how you got there from here, whether it was a pipe dream or not, but that’s what I thought I wanted to do. When I graduated from college, I was writing poems, stories, essays. It was in graduate school, when I was 21, 22, 23 years old and had access to a library that had lots of literary magazines, where I really started reading contemporary poetry. I also took a couple of graduate classes with teachers who were very charismatic.

GG: Who were they?

RH: One of them was Ivor Winters, who was an incredible reactionary. I didn’t agree with anything he said. Actually, I didn’t know enough to agree or disagree, but I had never heard anyone talk so passionately about anything in my life as he talked about poetry.  He was extremely contemptuous of his students. He’d say, “I’m an old man, but you’ve come to hear me, because I said, ‘Crane got sold the Brooklyn Bridge by Emerson and Yeats is an overrated poet and a fascist.’ Let me tell you this: Poetry is a serious art. People go into it with almost no apparatus to defend themselves against their feelings. My friend Heart Crane killed himself. My friend Ezra Pound ended up in an insane asylum. Coleridge was an addict and a depressive. I don’t have much use for you. I think you’re going to become sentimental old college professors, dabbling, to the destruction of your betters,” and he walked out the room. First day of class.

GG:  This was at Stanford?

RH:  Yes, in 1963. I thought, “Wow!” But he interested me, and, again, I was reading the literary magazines, which featured novelists of the period: Bellow, Roth, Updike, Cheever. And I read the poets and thought they were way more interesting.

GG: Who were those poets?

RH:  Gary Snyder, for sure, for California writing. I was also reading Ed Dorn at that time, and William Stafford, because they were also Western writers. Then too I read the New York School and the Black Mountain School. The Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, had just come out. It seemed like there was this incredible range of ways you could go about writing poetry and also of materials you could get to from writing it.

GG: At that point did you feel not only that you wanted to write poetry, but also that you wanted to be a part of that world? 

RH: No, I didn’t imagine such a thing. The world that I imagined joining existed in the literary reviews—The Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, The Nation, The New Republic—but it wasn’t particularly about poetry. The world I was signing up for included James Agee writing about movies, Clement Greenburg writing about art, Delmore Schwartz writing about Kafka and existentialism. It was a world of ideas and art. It was thrilling to me.

I could see that among the poets at Stanford there was this little clique of people who were trying to write in a way that Winters would approve of. And I knew that there was a Beat scene, where something really interesting was going on, and that was also a community, I didn’t particularly think of it as a literary community. I thought of it as a countercultural—though we didn’t have that word then—community.

GG: What was your relationship with the countercultural community, other than seeing it from afar?

RH: In high school our older brothers and sisters, not mine but my friends’, were in North Beach. They were the people who were sort of the outsiders in high school and who listened to Jazz.

GG: Were you a city kid?

RH: No, I was a Marin County suburban kid. In the city we got snuck in with fake IDs to the Anxious Asp, to hear Jack Spicer read his poetry on Blabbermouth Night. At the time I didn’t know what I was seeing. It was only years later that I read about the event.

GG: So you probably ran across a lot of the figures of the era without knowing who they were?

RH: I knew where City Lights was, and I recognized who Ferlinghetti was. Another thing that would give me a sense of community were the journals in the basement of City Lights.

GG: The mimeographed magazines?

RH: Yes. I remember that Ferlinghetti published a magazine called The Journal for the Protection of All Being. It came out once a year for a few years. There was an essay in it by someone who, at the time, I’d never heard of, Gary Snyder, called “Buddhist Anarchism.” And I thought, “I’m not sure what Buddhism is and I’m not sure I know what anarchism is,” so I started reading. And then there was the symphony and the kids in my high school who were interested in classical music, which I knew nothing about. Wednesday night was a student night in the balcony and I would see these older students, now college kids, wearing black jeans and black turtlenecks, alongside all the fancy folk who had symphony tickets and were dressed up.

GG: Did you come from a family of intellectuals?

RH:  No. My parents were socially a bit unusual. They were from the Depression Era. Their parents had been to college, but they didn’t go. They were plenty smart, but they were just raising kids. My dad was a tax attorney for an insurance company. They read the Saturday Evening Post and subscribed to the book of the Month Club.

GG: But you had this younger generation around you and your grandparents.

RH: My grandmother would recite poetry

GG: What would she recite?

RH: “Godfrey Gustavus Gore / would you please shut the door? / I’ve told you again /  I’ve told you before.” But she could also recite some Joris-Karl Huysman and the poets a literate college girl of her generation would have known.

GG: So your entrée was mostly the older kids and what you read when you got to college.

RH: Also the Donald Allen anthology gave me a sense that there were poetry communities and a poetry world. At that point I was trying to write stories and poems both. I was involved in activism on civil rights and against the war. I started a weekly newspaper with friends, called Resistance. The first issue we called Commitment: A Journal of the Asylum. It reflected the existentialist ideal and our political commitment. The more radical people in our group wanted a more militant sounding name, so we changed it to Resistance. A lot of what we did was research into military contracts. The Stanford Research Institute was helping to prosecute the Vietnam War.

GG: I know when your first book appeared, and I have a timeline of when you start publishing your work, but when did you start perceiving yourself primarily as a poet.

RH: Sometime after 1967. At Stanford there were a group of people–partly around Ivor Winters–and each of them was going around writing poetry, saying, “I’m a poet.” Robert Pinsky was one of them. James McMichael was another. John Mathias and Kent Fields, who was Winter’s replacement. I I thought they were conservative in their practice. Then I met Mitch Goodman, who was the husband of Denise Levertov and an anti-war activist. He was a lecturer for a couple of years. He saw that I moved around Wallace Stegner, and he thought, “Here’s someone who isn’t a Winters person.” He would say to me, “What poets would you like to hear? We’re trying to invite some that Ivor”—”Arthur,” they called him—”would disapprove of.” I said I’d love to hear Denise Levertov and Frank O’Hara.

The last couple of years at Stanford I started to write more poems. When I thought of a line, I couldn’t wait to get home and write it down. I had little kids, so I would go home and take care of the kids and take out my notebook. And I saw once that a copy of The Hudson Review had the last fragments of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and they said there would be more in another issue. And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to be published in the same magazine as Ezra Pound, so I sent poems to The Hudson Review, and they took two of them. To me that was an incredibly big deal, and I had absolutely no one to tell it to except my then-wife, and she said, “That’s nice.”

Then I got my first job at SUNY-Buffalo. I went there because it was teeming with poets, though I didn’t quite understand how much. The summer I arrived, I saw this whole rich—I wouldn’t say community. “Network” is certainly a useful word for this purpose. That is, many different groups interacting, and playing out their rivalries. I thought I was going to Partisan Review heaven. Leslie Fiedler had taught there. Joe Barber. Michelle Foucault was on the faculty. Susan Sontag was there for the summer. My second year there, Merce Cunningham and John Cage had a joint appointment. Robert Creeley was on the faculty. Charles Olson was on the faculty, and he’d hired a lot of Black Mountaineers to teach in the night school. There was a very intense group around Creely and Olson. There was an intense group around John Logan, and around Irving Feldman. The younger generation of poets from the New York School, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, and Tom Clark, were very active. That was when I came to see that it was a scene. By then I was trying to focus on writing poetry. I had done my academic work in a completely other area, and I didn’t even tell them I wrote poetry when I was hired at Buffalo.

GG: Your degree is in?

RH: A Ph.D. in comp lit and the novel. I’d done a dissertation on Dickens and Doestoevsky and Freud and capitalism and blah, blah, blah, blah. And I was still thinking that stuff through, because I had finished the dissertation when I was there, but I had lost interest in it. I was really interested in writing poems.

GG: And you entered into this world of poetry silos at Buffalo. These were not overlapping circles of poets. Were they camps?

RH: It’s difficult to describe.Here’s an idea: I had mixed feelings about the social position of Elizabeth Bishop. That was a period when Howard Moss was Poetry Editor of The New Yorker. Bishop’s poems appeared there regularly, and they seemed, at that wild and wooly moment, very well-behaved—but subtle and musically kind of amazing. Creeley would ask me, “What poets are you reading?” and I happened to say Bishop, and he said, “Oh, dear.” I thought, you may not like her, you may think she’s conservative, but how could anybody who writes poetry not think she has an amazing ear. Hearing Creeley read, you understood his poetics. Logan read in this rich, orotund way these off-rhymed Lowell-ish poems. Irving Feldman was outside of poetry scenes and contemptuous of them. He was writing out of the Jewish Eastern European experience.

GG: When and where would you hear these people read?

RH: Almost every night. In coffee houses, on campus, all over the place. I had gone from Stanford, where you just didn’t hear much poetry at all, and then suddenly there were readings everywhere. The summer I arrived, there was a reading from summer visitors: the Irish poet Austin Clarke and William Empson. Empson was there for 2 summers, and I was put in charge of taking care of him. He was a serious drunk. Paul Carroll, who was the editor of Big Table Books. Michael Rumaker, who was a fiction writer and poet from Black Mountain. There were tons of poets reading, and there were overlapping communities of interests. The Olson people were either, “You’re cool or you’re not one of us.” Logan’s circle of friends included A. R. Ammons and James Wright, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Isabelle Gardner, Adrienne Rich and W. S. Merwyn. They were a group of poets who were expressive, while the avant garde poets were more interested in analytic technique issues. The bars were full of poets.

When Creeley was going on leave, he said, “Why don’t you try teaching my contemporary poetry class while I’m gone?” I was teaching these courses on the novel. I said, “What I’d really like to do is take the difference between your salary and my salary and bring in a bunch of poets. I can teach the poet’s work on Tuesday, have them read on Wednesday, and they could teach the class on Thursday.”

GG: That sounds like a perfect world.

RH: Sure. So I invited Alan Ginsberg, who said he would only come if I invited Gregory Corso. Years later I stood on Corso’s grave in Paris and said, “Gregory, you owe me 400 dollars.” Anyway, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, William Merwyn, Ed Dorn, Ginsberg and Corso taught the course. Corso gave a talk on the origins of cave drawings of people getting stoned on morning glory seeds. I was suddenly submerged in this world. And there were many other things going on that were interesting. Ray Federman was part of a group of people, along with John Hawks and Jon Barth, the new fictioneers.

GG: It may warm your heart to know that Buffalo still has a vibrant literary community on many levels, including the local community level, but the scene you’re describing is remarkable.

RH: There were readings at bars with local poets. I remember one guy with a Greek surname, from Buffalo, who read a long poem that went on and on about the Marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. He didn’t quite get booed off stage, but after a while people said they’d really heard enough. He came to the bar, and I said, “That was a long poem,” and he said, “Onassis is going to be so pissed off.” Delusions of grandeur.

GG: The distinctions between academic poets and community poets have, axiomatically, eroded over the last twenty or so years. What was your experience negotiating those two milieux?

RH: I was aware of the distinction early on, and my impulse was not to buy into it. The way the allegiance thing worked was that if you were in the Creeley camp you had to think Joel Oppenheimer was a great poet and Galway Kinnell was a terrible poet. I would think, “Joel is a charming guy and he’s kind of writing like Creeley. He’s very funny, but his poetry isn’t very deep.” At the time Galway Kinnell was writing The Book of Nightmares, trying to write Rilkean poetry in America. The place asked you to choose camps, and I didn’t want to choose. I also saw that, in ways that seemed to me not completely healthy, they formed affiliation gangs. Each one drew on the energy of the star poet in the center of that group. It’s perfectly natural it would happen. It’s the way aesthetic and spiritual transmissions get made.

GG: How do you mean?

RH: Around that time, I was in New York visiting a friend. She was taking acting class. We went by to pick her up and we were standing outside the classroom where Uta Hagen–who had been in Lee Strasburg’s class and had done the first blind reading of Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando–was teaching this group of students And it raised the hair on the back of my neck, thinking about the way artistic transmissions happened. It’s very much like the way transmission happens in Buddhist communities: You find a master, you learn from the master, you eventually become a master yourself. It’s through that semi-erotic attachment, complicated by power relations. I loved the work of several of those poets, but I didn’t want to sign up particularly.

GG: So at some point you left this community in Buffalo?

RH: I would come back here in the summertime, and I would see the silos in San Francisco.

GG: Do you agree with that assessment, that it’s a siloed city?

RH: Yes and no. There’s leakage all over the place. I came back in 1971. I published my first book in 1973. At that point what I was interested in was poetry. I also saw here versions of what I’d seen in Buffalo: this group, that group. There were the San Francisco State poets. Berkeley was pretty dead, actually, in terms of a poetry scene, but here were terrific poets. Thom Gunn was here, but he was interested in the Castro and that world and not interested in a poetry scene. Ishmael Reed was here. Pinsky was teaching in the English Department. Josephine Miles was at the edge of retirement. So Berkeley had a rich tradition of growing poets–Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer—so there was a lot here, but the graduate program was not a creative writing program. After I got a book published, I got invited to read in Berkeley, and someone said—maybe it was Jack Foley—”Good luck. It’s like beating a very ancient carpet.” It didn’t feel welcoming and alive.

GG: San Francisco did?

RH: San Francisco did. 

GG: When you say San Francisco, are you talking about City Lights or other venues?

RH: I’m trying to remember. I was raising small children, so I didn’t have much of a social life. But I would get out every once and a while to poetry readings at the San Francisco Poetry Center. But from here that’s a long schlep over to San Francisco State. Intersection was the place that tried to make an art community in the city at that time, and that’s where a lot of the cool readings were. It’s gone now, but I think for 20 years it was a venue. I forget what year New College began. The language poets as a group in the 1980s gave a series of talks at 80 Langston St, which is a little alley between Market and Mission. And that became a kind of downtown place for all non-academic-centered ideas, particularly linguistics and critical theory and language poetry. That was the cool scene, and they were interested in their different kinds of community. Folks like Ron Silliman. They would read for a couple of hours outside BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] stations. At the time Silliman was helping to edit The Tenderloin Times, which was a newspaper for street people to sell, in order to have something to do.

GG: Now the reading that happens at BART station is an impromptu spoken word event where they draw a chalk circle at the 16th and Mission Station, and there’s no order. It’s just jump into the circle, jump out of their circle.

RH: The language poets’ writing was extremely heady, but Silliman would tap his feet to the rhythm as he read. So it was poetry that denied having a body, even though it was totally bodily in the way that it was performed. There were a lot of people working in different ways. There was still a kind of Beat scene, though Gary Snyder was gone and Ginsberg was long gone. Jack Hirschman and Neeli Cherkovski were there, among others. There was a group of poets around Robert Duncan at San Francisco State. Stan Rice, the husband of Anne Rice, was a hot young poet in San Francisco, before they moved to New Orleans. Jack Gilbert and his partner Linda Gregg formed a kind of group.

GG: I want to go back to your idea of community in a more platonic sense, regarding poetry and being laureate. What’s your perception of the situation now in San Francisco? Of the community’s poets? Of poetry here generally? The power of it, relative, cultural?

RH: I don’t feel at all on top of what’s happening here, but one of the things that’s definitely happened is this: When I started reading poetry in 1963, ’64, ’65, I could read every book of poems published in America in a given year, including the mimeographed stuff. There were maybe 17 books of poems published a year. Last year there were 1400 books of poems published.

GG: Those are just books by the presses acknowledged as national presses.

RH: There was no thought that you could make a career writing poetry. When I was graduating college there were two creative writing graduate programs: Iowa and Stanford. I was in Stanford, and I wasn’t in the creative writing program.

GG: But you were aware that the MFA existed.

RH: I wasn’t actually, I don’t remember being aware of it as a choice. I thought at that point, “I want to be a writer.” I’d already gotten married, I’d worked 2 summers doing research at a bank, and it made it perfectly clear to me that I didn’t want to put on a suit and go to an office from 8 to 5. And it seems that’s what you do when you graduate from law school. I went to graduate school for a PhD in the same spirit in which I might have decided on law school. There weren’t models of poets teaching in the university, particularly, yet. What changed things was by the time I was back here in 1971, there were creative writing teachers at every college, so there came to be MFA programs, which exponentially increased the number of people writing poetry, and the number of people publishing poetry, and the number of communities usually organized around the aesthetic of the charismatic teachers in each program. That was also true of New York at the time.

GG: Those developments have had enormous implications in a couple of ways. The first of which is for the state of poetry. Do you have strong opinions about those implications? 

RH: The writers of the older generations were extremely suspicious of the academy. There’s a poem of Theodore Roethke’s era about Roethke raging in the cage of the university. Kenneth Koch wrote in “Fresh Air,” that poets were “trembling in the universities and publishing houses,” “bathing the library steps with their spit.” They feared the university as a trap. 

The greatest period in the history of lyric poetry was the Tang Dynasty in China, which produced, over 100 years, five or six of the greatest poets who have ever written in any language, and they all had to take exams in poetry in order to get the jobs as secretaries, in the waterworks, and in the other administrative jobs for Confucians. The evidence is that the more a culture encourages poetry, the better the poetry it produces.

GG: You would say generally that there’s more good poetry being written now than at any point in American history?

RH: We don’t know. Great poetry is mysterious. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are. On one hand the history of American poetry is the original work came from people who were on some level profoundly loners. I mention the Tang example as a counter argument to the idea that there’s a kind of static uniformity.

GG: Not a static uniformity, but let’s say we have a large number of programs producing poets who then become solitary poets, and they’re all over the place, and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poet in the United States.

Robert: I think that’s a really important thing. Look at early 20th-century American literature. In 1915, roughly when Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and Pound were getting started, only 16 percent of Americans graduated from high school.

GG: It makes me think of poetry scrapbooking in the early 20th Century. It was a time when many people had scrapbooks of poems, but not everyone was writing poems. Now not too many are keeping scrapbooks, but everybody’s writing poetry.

RH: It was middle-class people who were keeping scrapbooks. In Sherwood Anderson’s stories of small-town life, people were going crazy and running through the streets naked in the middle of the night, in these oppressive environments. Now every disturbed and upset person in the country can find their way to some community college where somebody who loves poetry or painting or musical composition is teaching them. What’s not good about that?

GG: There is no downside to that.

RH: But this was the point I was coming around to, what’s been interesting about the Bay Area in the last 20 years. The creative writing program at Dominican University at San Rafael, the old hallowed one in San Francisco State, the College of Arts and Crafts, St. Mary’s, Mills College, they’ve each spilled into their surrounding communities. The graduates from my wife’s program from Saint Mary’s now have two or three different weekend poetry reading programs. There’s an audience of 75 to 100 people every couple of Friday nights. There are salons. And the groups intermingle and overlap–some, and some they don’t. The young poets want to take their art out into the community.

GG: That’s the experience that I’ve had, that just as you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poet, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a poetry reading, Everywhere, every night of the week almost.

RH: You’ve got people saying that Americans don’t like poetry.

GG: That’s hard to believe.

RH: There were maybe 5 poets working in every University in America in 1948. Now every single college, university and community college in the country has two poets and two fiction writers teaching creative writing.

GG: It’s an amazing industry.

RH: And somebody’s paying for it, tax money mostly. We have on this campus our monthly poetry reading series and a biweekly one. Meanwhile there’s the Starry Plough and Studio One, off-campus venues

GG: So this is progress? Socially?

RH: Absolutely.

GG: The effect on society is positive, because…?

RH: It’s hard to say exactly. Everyone loves to quote William Carlos Williams: “men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found [in poems].” Jeremy Nobel, a doctor at Harvard, started a non-profit called The Unlonely Project. He started working with veterans, writing and reading poetry. There are things like that going on. Lyn Hejinian has said that poetry coteries, her word, are necessary, because young poets need support and nurturing to find their little groups.

GG: I’ve discovered that poets leave coteries.

RH: People have talked about that in different ways. Somebody asked Robert Pinsky about being a Jewish poet and he said, “It’s the neighborhood I come from.” Some people stay there forever, or at least they become professionally associated as a spokesperson for that neighborhood of poetry.

Jane Jacobs, who is great on the subject of community, said, “New ideas come from old buildings.” Most new social initiatives of all kinds have to do with creating community. Another background of all of this is the distinction between community and network, and the networks that capitalism, a market economy, creates; and the kind of community good that has become the rhetoric of poetry and of the people who try to raise money to promote the arts as a way of promoting community.

GG: There’s a network of practicing poets in the academy. I have poet friends who know your wife professionally. I didn’t know that until two days ago when one of my friends mentioned it. There’s a reason they meet at the AWP conference every year. Then there are many communities that I’ve encountered in which people have absolutely no interest in networking, less than zero. They don’t care to get out beyond their specific communities. And I would say that’s the majority of people who write poetry. Were you aware of this when you were Poet Laureate?  Did it feel like part of the task to encourage any particular sort of community?

RH: I had been traveling around the country, giving readings, for maybe twenty years by that time. I knew that in Yakima, Washington, you might think you’re going to get four people at a reading and the place is full, because somebody happened to have taught your poetry in their class, and you go to another place and nobody shows up. From that perspective, a poetry community feels like a pond where the temperature keeps changing.

As Poet Laureate I was interested in creating readers for poetry, figuring out how to do that, and using the position to confront fundamental issues of literacy. Because I  was also the first person from the West of the Mississippi to have this job, I thought I should do something related to the environment. And they said, “We have $30,000 for you, to have some kind of conference.” Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress had just been elected. For the first time in fifty years, a Republican was in charge of financing for the Library of Congress. So I said, “I’d like to get the environmental writers together, because I hear that the lobbyists are sitting in the offices of  these new freshmen Congressmen, rewriting the environmental legislation.” I went back the next week and they said, “We thought we had money available for a conference, but turns out we’re not going to this year. Sorry”.

GG: The Contract with America.

RH: So I said to them, “If raise the money, could I go ahead and do it ?” And they said, “Sure, if you raise the money.” I had never tried to raise money for anything. I called around to some people. Very quickly somebody called me, a guy named Charlie Hopper, who was the director of a foundation that used the Sara Lee Cheesecake family money. He said, “I hear you’re thinking of doing an environmental program at the Library of Congress, and I think that’s wonderful, and maybe we can give you some help”. I said, “I could use about $30,000.” He said, “How about 100,000?” I went to the Center for the Book, at the Library of Congress. It’s a place that produces those maps of writers that you see in schoolrooms. I thought “Bingo! If you just add environmental responsibility and the natural history writing tradition to these maps, you’ve got exactly the community poetry is interested in.”.

GG: But this could apply to other issues as well? It’s just a sort of paying attention that poetry demands.

RH: When Rita Dove had the job, she organized the first literary conference on the great diaspora, on what took black people out of the Jim Crow South and into the cities of the North, and created the art scenes that happened in places like New York and Chicago. It was about literature creating communities for people.

GG: As a white male Poet Laureate, were you very conscious of the imperative to diversify perspectives in and on poetry? We’re to the point now where many of the most celebrated books are by poets of color, gay poets of color, immigrant poets.

RH: I was certainly aware, because I grew up with the civil rights movement, so I understood very well the need for it, especially sitting in the Library of Congress where almost all of the employees were black and all the appointed staff were white. One day I went to work, there were an older guy and a younger guy, like they were in an August Wilson one-act, sitting on a bench outside the entry. The young kid said to the old guy, with tears in his eyes, “I don’t have to take this shit anymore.” And the old guy said, “Son, you do.” 

I’d also started this environmental poetry program for children, and the first place we did it was in the Anacostia district in D. C.. I met a guy, who was a descendant of Daniel Boone, who created the Friends of the Anacostia River Society. Washington has a dual-store sewage system, like most American cities. Every time there’s a heavy rainfall in D. C. the sewers from the Federal Triangle overflow into the Anacostia River, and all the Congressional shit flows through the poorest neighborhood in the city. How’s that for a definition of community? So I was discovering a lot of stuff from doing that and feeling like bringing poetry into these communities that were concerned with the environment and with social justice was part of the work to be done.

GG: Is this something inherent in poetry which lends it to alliance with social justice movements? Or is that something that’s just happened?

RH: Well, that’s an interesting question. What do you think?

GG: The thing that occurs to me when I think of this possibility is that I have a friend who’s a a good poet, a professor, and a very conservative Christian. He rages about having to be a poet in an academic environment defined by the constant imperative for social justice. He thinks it’s all a bunch of…

RH: Bullshit.

GG: Right. To my mind poetry usually attracts people who are concerned with social justice, because it’s the people who reflect the most who are most concerned with social justice. I don’t know if that’s right, but that’s what it feels like.

RH: You can date the imperative for social justice of the kind that we have now, poetry arts in general, from Romanticism and the French Revolution. Was Shakespeare concerned with social justice when he was writing the Sonnets? I don’t think so. Were the great 17th-century religious poets concerned with social justice?

GG: I would think about Blake, but I would say poets of those times were concerned more with the awareness of social injustice, not so much with campaigning for social justice.

RH: So Blake is the turning point.

GG: The Industrial Revolution.

RH: Somebody said that The Vicar of Wakefield is the first novel in which someone mistreats a child. And it’s the same period when poets started writing poems about wounded animals, like Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse.” The moment of the birth of modern liberalism comes from romanticism and poetry of that period. Resistance to power has been an element of the arts since the end of the eighteenth century.

GG: At the risk of sounding ill-informed, when I think about the Modernists, I don’t think particularly that that’s a group of poets concerned with social justice. Eliot, Pound, even Stevens.

RH: In the Depression they turned themselves to that question, each of their own way.

GG: So you look at the poet of The Four Quartets as a different poet from the poet of The Wasteland.

RH: At the same time, Langston Hughes was writing, Carl Sandburg was writing. In his way Stevens, in “The Man on the Dump,” tried, from his lofty heights, to address the Depression.

I have a friend who was reading applications in the graduate program he’s in, with a couple of younger poets on the faculty. One of the applicants said that she particularly wanted to come to this program, because she really wanted to work on issues of gender injustice and inequality, and this older poet said, “This is not a program in gender and social inequality. It’s a program in poetry.” A younger poet on faculty went to the chair of the department and made a formal complaint against this poet for making a racist remark. Somebody else, somebody teaching at Harvard, told me that he was teaching Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” After class a woman came to him and said that, as a survivor of sexual abuse, she was very disturbed by how casually he had used the term “ravished.”

GG: I’ve heard people put this more vulgarly: that having the correct pronoun is not the same as having someone grab you.

RH: So right now that’s the moment. On the other question, of the spread of graduate programs, which has caused people who want work and who love this art to want it in more communities, I remember when Dana Gioia published the book Can Poetry Matter? Czeslaw Milosz was enraged by that title. He said, “This assumes John Carson matters.” He meant Johnny Carson and late night t. v. It was evident to him, who had seen whole generations carted off to the gas chamber, that the conversation that went on in poetry was a matter of life and death. That way of thinking also belonged to a time when it was only an educated aristocracy who read and wrote poetry.

GG:  I did take issue with Gioia’s argument. It seemed to me that he was talking particularly about a subject of his next book, about San Francisco and the way the publishing industry here had disappeared.

RH: There’s another aspect to that discussion. First of all it’s only from the middle of the 19th Century that most people could read. And right around the time of Whitman’s debut there began to be cheap enough printing to make books.

GG: Compulsory education began in 1840.

RH: 1840. Unless you were black, and then you could still get killed for trying to read. During that period from about 1840 to 1920, the main source of information was newspapers and magazines, so people who work in the print media created celebrity. And what happened, beginning with radio and then with t. v., is that celebrities became people admired by the producers of news and entertainment. So the Modernists, who disliked popular poetry, which people had been working very hard to use in the spirit we’re talking about, for creating a community, were basically biting the hand that fed them just as it was being withdrawn. And they remained stars, so they–you know, Eliot and Pound, would show up in Bob Dylan’s songs. That was the end of that particular kind of celebrity for writers.

GG: I often look back on the 1980s, when I was in undergraduate, as the last gasp of the New York literary old line. I interned at The Hudson Review and The Paris Review then, and that was the last gasp of seeing literary types go to Elaine’s or seeing John Updike get into an elevator at a swank party. That sort of literary celebrity doesn’t appear to exist much anymore. And that’s not all bad. I can come here and interview you. You were Poet Laureate. And I was able to ask another Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, to visit with my class. And I’m just some guy at the City University of New York. It’s not the same sort of exclusivity.

RH: I have no clear picture of the way things are now. It’s clear that the Internet is changing the whole discussion about community and how you make it. Virtual poetry communities are everywhere and nowhere. I think the rise of identity politics is a subject for poetry, is connected to everywhere and nowhere. You have to talk about this carefully, because it has a blood and soil element. It was complicated for me, figuring out how to do environmental poetry without talking about how important attachment to community is, at the same time that cosmopolitanism is the solution to small-town prejudice. You encourage Nebraskans to be Nebraskans by taking care of their environment and stop polluting their rivers.

GG: I talked to two people this week who have said outright or implied that when push comes to shove people retreat to their tribes. Last night someone very close to my age who was running a poetry slam said basically as much. Berkeley is for Caucasians. Oakland is for brown people, as she put it. And last night at the Oakland Slam, there was as diverse a mix of people as I’ve seen, and I come from a place that was diverse and have taught for 30 years at a university that is.

RH: Fifty-five percent of undergraduates from Berkeley are not European-American in one way or another, and twenty percent of them don’t speak English as their first language at all.

GG: The definitions of diversity are interesting too, because back at my college in Brooklyn, the students speak one hundred and fifteen different languages. If there’s a dominant group, maybe it’s Latino students, but even they are from various places. I’m staying by Lake Merced in San Francisco, in an area that is predominantly Chinese American, almost entirely. Is that diversity?

RH: In my growing up, San Francisco was very much the patchwork model.

GG: Yes, and that’s New York as well, in terms of ethnic neighborhoods. I perceive that this generation of students is different. They really are blending together in a way that previous generations have only lip paid service to. But there still seem to be lingering doubts, especially among people who are part of communities of color, that there is a kind of final blending of communities, which includes poets. Do you believe that poetry is an effective vehicle for social change? Not necessarily for social justice, but for change.

RH: Here’s my formula for understanding poetry this way. For reasons that nobody quite understands, in the middle of the 18th Century, theologians were really puzzled by the existence of mountains, because they were such a waste of space. By the 1790s Friedrich Holderlin was writing these amazing poems about climbing up mountains. Coleridge and Wordsworth read Holderlin, and Thoreau read Wordsworth and Coleridge. John Muir read Thoreau. And Teddy Roosevelt read Muir. And we got national parks. Poetry isn’t responsible for what happens, but it’s the archive of everything human beings have thought and felt, more powerfully expressed than any place else. The idea is that the seeds of new things find their first shape in music, images, lines of poetry.

GG: What distinguishes poetry from other sorts of writing that could effect social change is that it’s got those elements that are part of the subconscious, that consciously work on a subconscious level.

RH: In the way that metaphor does. The oldest associations of poetry in every language from which written language emerges are with memory. It’s the power of poetry to invoke memory, making the way you say things memorable by making it rhythmic. If there is a world community, it’s that community. You were talking about poets belonging to networks on one hand and communities on the other and kind of moving between them. But I want to talk about this other thing, about spiritual traditions of transmission that happen inside and across communities. That is to say that people who love and practice an art are companions to everyone who loves and practices the art. When a painter dies it means something to the community of painters. That’s why the elegy of a poet for a poet is such an important form. I respect the work of almost anybody who gets work done.

GG: Did you continue to teach when you were Poet Laureate?

RH: I taught  on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I caught planes on Wednesday mornings. What I did first, before I got involved with the environmental stuff or with writing the column, was to talk about literacy. I got invited to a downtown Oakland business club, and I called somebody in the school of education, and I asked, “What’s the graduation rate from Oakland high schools?” and they told me. Then I went to the Oakland Rotary’s breakfast and said, “How many of you can name all of the linebacker corps of the Oakland Raiders?” And everybody could. Then I said, “How many of you know the graduation rate from Oakland high schools?” And nobody could. And I said, “I couldn’t either, until I asked.” Then I said, “They’re you kids. If they can’t read, it’s your fault.” That was my attack on community at the outset. I ran around saying that imagination makes communities. Self-interest makes networks. Imagination makes communities. I just said it as a mantra. Poetry, by feeding the imagination and describing for us our shared world, makes a community of value. That’s partly true and partly a wish.  



BIO

George Guida is author of nine books, most recently the novel Posts from Suburbia (Encircle Publications, 2022) and the collection of poems Zen of Pop (Long Sky Media, 2020). He is at work on Virtue at the Coffee House: Poetry and Community in America.

George Guida

Professor
English Department
New York City College of Technology

Author 
Posts from Suburbia (2022)
Zen of Pop: Poems (2020)
New York and Other Lovers: Poems (2020)
Pugilistic: Poems (2015)
The Sleeping Gulf: Poems (2015)
Spectacles of Themselves: Essays in Italian American Popular Culture and Literature (2015)
The Pope Stories (2012)
The Pope Play (2009)
Low Italian (2007)
The Peasant and the Pen: Men, Enterprise and the Recovery of Culture in Italian American Narrative (2003)

Georgeguida.wordpress.com

Thrice

By Emilio Williams

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

To Carson Grace Becker


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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



BIO

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



A Prequel to My Sister’s

By Donna Talarico




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just. Come. HOME.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

It was a rough couple of years.

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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



BIO

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



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

By Joan Frank



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            He’s made himself at home inside it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            I couldn’t. Can’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Except, guys? To hell with it.

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

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

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

            “Make it go away!”

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

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

            “Leave me alone to make—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BIO

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



The Arraghey Wander by Seven

by Ruth Heilgeist


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was trying to get you to stop.”

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

“Run.”

“And people?”

“I think it is going to rain today.”



BIO

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

How to Break and Mend Your Mother’s Heart

by JoAnne E. Lehman



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



BIO

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



Hashbrowns and Termites

by Jamie Good



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott and Beth exchange wide-eyed glances.

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

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

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

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

“Help me.”

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

“Jack!”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want them to burn,” he says.

“The termites?” I ask in disbelief.

He nods.

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

He doesn’t move.

“I don’t care about the termites.”

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



BIO

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



Sportin’ Life

by Graeme Hunter



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two months,” I replied.

“Two months!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



BIO

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



Pauline Butcher Bird is a unique and remarkable historian. Not only does she write about life in Los Angeles during the wild and wonderful 1960s and 1970s, she actually lived it. Her fantastic book, Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa, is a personal account of her life when she lived with Frank Zappa and his family in their legendary Laurel Canyon home. The “Log Cabin” as it was known had become Rock ‘n’ Roll central in the spring/summer of 1968. Pauline, a British citizen, found herself mixed up in this wild life of big personalities—and was clever enough to write it all down as it happened. Her memoir of this time is one of the best books on life in the famous Canyon.

Pauline graciously agreed to an interview and let us know a little bit more about her life and work. Thank you Pauline!

Pauline Butcher Bird

How long did it take you to write Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa? When did you first begin the book?

Freak Out! Started as a radio play. A producer was working with me but Germaine Greer got wind of it and made her own documentary on Frank Zappa (full of errors) and the BBC said they would not do two programs on Frank Zappa in one year, and mine was dropped. I was so mad, I decided to turn it into a memoir. I wrote to every suitable publisher in the Writers’ and Artists’ book saying I was writing this memoir about Frank Zappa and 12 wrote back and said send the chapters, so I knew I had a marketable product. Of course, I hadn’t written any at that time! But

The period your wrote about is from 1967-1971. The book was published in 2011. What was it like to relive all those memories some forty years later?

It would not have been possible without my diaries and more importantly, the letters I wrote to England which both my mother and my close friend kept. It took me nine months to type these out into chronological order and it was from these that the memories came back.

Why did you decide to write a book at that time in your life?

I have always wanted to be a writer, but my life was taken up with raising our son. I was a very hands-on mother. I don’t know how female writers who have children manage it. But when our only child, Damian, left for university, and my husband was constantly abroad with his work, I knew I had no excuses left. This would be 2001. I spent six years sending off play after play to the BBC until a producer told me, ‘Write something that no one else can write,’ and I thought my Zappa experience is the only story that no one else could write. So, I wrote it as a radio play as I state in my answer to your first question.

So, six years after struggling to get a play on the radio, and Germaine Greer intervened, I began the memoir, and it took four years to finish it. Therefore, from the moment I decided to write, after Damian went to university, and publication in 2011, it was ten years.

Your book is very well written, extremely engaging and highly detailed. I often felt like I was there with you. Did you keep a diary of this period in your life?

Absolutely. I have kept a diary all my life. But the letters were more informative and thank goodness my mother kept them in a shoebox for 40 years because I wrote them in great detail, some of them ten page long, as if I was writing a novel.

Pauline and Frank Zappa

What do you remember most about living in the log cabin? Looking back, was it like being in another world?

It was. As you know, I wrote the memoir very much ‘in the moment’ and did not look back and make judgements from today’s perspective. Now I am able to do so.

Looking back, many questions are raised in my mind. For example, Frank and Gail were newly married with a young baby, just like millions of other young couples. So why did he choose to live in a huge rambling house in the middle of Laurel Canyon and have living with them eight others? And in the process, he ignored us all. Only once in the five months we lived at the log cabin did Frank join us in the kitchen to socialize. We had to tip-toe round him.

I remember feeling buffeted between Pamela Zarubica and Gail. I was out of my depth with those two and was never sure if they were friends or foe which gave me a constant feeling of unease and anxiety.

And of course, the man with the gun, a terrifying experience which I’m not sure if I adequately conveyed in the book.

On the other hand, I loved the experience, despite the house being such a wreck although as I describe, I did make my own room the jewel in the crown as it were.

Paradoxically, I loved the times when Frank was away, although I missed him and wrote letters to him when he was away telling him so. Which is why I think when he returned after two weeks away the first time, he knocked on my door and wished me good night. I remember that moment.

But when he was away, we had lots of fun in the house, especially later on, when no one bothered to visit any more, and it was just the ‘family’. We showed films and played silly games.

Talk about the writing process. How did you begin the book? Was it written chronologically? How long did it take to write a chapter?

I wrote the first chapters in Australia because we were travelling at that time. I still have them, and they are awful.

I wrote the chapters chronologically, following my letters and diary entries and as they appear in the book. Of course, the first part, in England, was done completely from memory, but the whole experience of meeting Frank Zappa in London was imprinted on my mind because it was so life-changing.

As were the two meetings in New York though they were more hazy because my sisters were very against any connection with Frank Zappa, his image of a drug-crazed hippy not helping!

I sent the first three chapters to my agent, Laura Susijn, and she wrote back and said, ‘Can you make it more literary?’ She was also concerned when she read more chapters that I was not conveying the charisma and dynamism of Frank Zappa that got to me personally. So I had to make those changes.

How do you write — at a computer, in a certain place, at a certain time? Describe your work space?

We were in Australia six weeks, and then on to Singapore. The book was written in Singapore. We had a huge mansion set in two acres of land with a pool outside under jungle trees. There I sat, under the arbor, each day.

We had a live-in maid who lived in a two-roomed cottage in the grounds. She brought our breakfast in the breakfast room, our coffee, lunch and afternoon tea outside under the arbour by the pool, and dinner inside. I helped her one hour a day to dust away cobwebs and such in the eves and skirtings as an attempt to keep lizards at bay – I was terrified of them.

So, I had the whole day to write, and even so, it took over two years. My husband and son kept urging me to send it off, which I did, and I regret because it got published straight away, and I wish I had put it in the drawer for three months as you are advised to do and then read it and edit again.

My publisher is putting out my revised re-structured version in August this year. It takes out many of the peripheral characters, brings most of the stuff about the Mothers together instead of all over the place, and ditto Gail and the GTOs.

I am present writing a novel and try to start in the morning but I usually find there are e-mails and phone calls and domestic issues to deal with, and I always stop for coffee and while listening to an audio book, or BBC radio 4, I solve a killer sudoku to keep the maths side of my brain awake.

So, usually it is after lunch when I start writing with a break for a short walk with my husband. I continue into the evening, usually till 10pm.

I sometimes write sections by hand, but mostly it’s at the computer. I am a fan of Anne Tyler, and she writes her novels by hand, then types, and then writes it all out again by hand! I don’t have the patience, but I have tried writing out certain sections by hand after I’ve typed them. But overall, I would say mostly I write at the typewriter.

Who edits or sees your work first?

No one except me. I had no editor. It was published as I wrote it.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What books did you read? Who were your favorite authors?

Yes, an avid reader. I don’t remember what I read as a child, but as a teenager, I read everything I could get hold of but again, I don’t remember what. I presume it was romantic female novels.

When I was in California and after I stopped working for Frank full time, I visited every few days a local book shop on Melrose Avenue. I decided to work my way through the fiction section starting in alphabetical order of author’s names, and started with ‘A’. If I liked the author, then I read others by that author, but if not, I moved on. I don’t remember where exactly I got to, but I think it was about ‘G’ which, paradoxically, included the newly published and sensational The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer.

The writers I turn to while I’m writing are:
• Anne Tyler – everyone of her books except those with a male protagonist.
• Gone With the Wind – no explanation needed
• J M Coetzee – Boyhood, Youth, both of which I think are wonderful
And of course, I believe I’ve read every ‘how to . . . . ‘ write novels/be a better writer genre that is going.

The GTOs at the log cabin

Have you been back to Laurel Canyon and Lookout Mountain since you lived there? Would you like to return again?

We returned in 2008. My husband and I had dinner with Gail in the Valley. She did not mention Frank once but wanted to talk about Bill Clinton whom she’d met at the White House after she’d donated to his campaign.

She showed me round the house which I did not recognize as they had made so many changes.

We visited the site of the log cabin which of course was a wild site, no sign of the house, and all the others mentioned in the book.

What are some of your favorite rock ‘n’ roll memoirs?

I don’t have any.

What are you working on now? How is the process different? Has your writing changed?

I am writing a novel set in the 2nd World War and finding it very difficult. I am 80% way through. I just want to get it finished!

Was there a wine cellar in the basement of the log cabin?

There was a vault and that may have been used as a wine cellar, but not in Frank’s time. The GTOs used it to write their songs. It had pine walls.

Did they call Frank Zappa’s home on the lot a “Tree House” back then?

No. It was called the log cabin. The tree house was simply the end part of the house above the kitchen and my office. It was Calvin’s apartment and was called the tree house because the enormous tree at the end of the house had a stair-case wrapped round it that led up to a balcony sticking out from the bedroom up there and you could step across from the metal staircase on to that balcony. But the real entrance to the ‘tree house’ was up wooden stairs outside the back door and they left up to the main door into that apartment that was called the ‘tree house’.

Did anyone ever mention architect Robert Byrd in connection with the log cabin? He allegedly built one of the structures on the property?

No.

How do you want people to remember Frank Zappa and Gail Zappa?

Not a question for me to answer.

Who are you favorite authors today? What are you reading currently?

I’ve listed those above. I also like ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and ‘Alone in Berlin’ but I can’t remember the author’s names. I’m currently reading everything about life during the second world war.

Talk about the letters you wrote to your mother back then. How long were they, how often did you write her, etc.?

Some of them were ten pages long or even longer, single spaced on American A4 size sheets. I wrote every week in the beginning, sometimes more often. As I became immersed in my life there and no longer an outsider but part of the team as it were, I wrote less and less. This is shown in the memoir which has 200 pages on the log cabin and 100 pages after we left.

Did you take any mementos with you when you left working for Frank Zappa?

I have a lock of Frank’s hair that Frank gave me when he was having his hair cut in the bathroom.

Pauline, 1971

If Frank wasn’t married at the time, would you have been interested in having a serious relationship with him?

Yes. But I think I would have been swallowed up. I could not have coped with his womanizing. I have every admiration for Gail’s stamina to have withstood it all.

What is your life like now? What do you do for fun?

We have had a year of lockdown. My husband was an academic when I met him, but became a banker and adviser on gas/electricity/oil/nuclear power stations. We live a comfortable life. Our son lives in London and we have not seen him since Christmas because of Covid-19. We are soon to get our second jabs, so life should start to open up again. We socialise by inviting our friends here. I love the theatre and cinema but all that has been on hold.

Do you spend more time writing, or editing your work?

The two are interchangeable. They run together – write, edit, write, edit.

Any advice for anyone wishing to write a memoir?

Don’t try to write your whole life. Choose a section. Know the ending.

Try to make each chapter change in emotion – happy to sad, unknowing to knowing, anger to peace, and so on and vice versa.

Make each event cause the next event – the biggest difference apparently between those who get published and those who don’t. They just write random events. It doesn’t work.

What music do you listen to today?

BBC Radio 3. Classical

Do you have a timeline for the book you’re currently writing?

Yes, but I’ve already over-run it.

How much research is involved with your current project? Is it all online, do you spend time at the library as well?

Masses. My dining table is covered with books by people who lived through the war.

What is your favorite Zappa album?

I don’t have one. I have been promising myself since time began to make my own because I like some tracks from each album, but not all the tracks.

Was anyone living in the Houdini mansion across the street during your stay at the log cabin? Did you ever visit inside the home?

No.

Pauline’s book has been translated into several languages.

I love the ending of your book. Talk about what happened next, and what you did for the next five years.

I went to Cambridge university, studied economics and psychology. Met my husband. Moved to Scotland. Lived there for seven years where our son, Damian, was born. Lived in Norway, Australia and Singapore. We are now back in England.

Thank you for taking part in this interview.

http://paulinebutcher.com/


Guide to the Ruins

by Eve Müller


I.

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

II.

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

III.

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

IV.

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

V.

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

VI.

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

VII.

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

VIII.

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

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

IX.

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

X.

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

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

XI.

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

XII.

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

XIII

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

XIV.

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

XV.

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

XVI.

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

XVII.

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

XVIII.

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

XIX.

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

XX.

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

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

XXI.

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

XXII.

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

XXIII.

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

XXIV.

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

XXV.

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

XXVI.

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

XXVII.

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

XXVIII.

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

XXIX.

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

XXX.

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

XXXI.

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

XXXII.

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

XXXIII.

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

XXXIV.

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

XXXV.

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

XXXVI.

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

XXXVII.

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

XXXVIII.

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

XXXIX.

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

XL.

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

XLI.

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

XLII.

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

XLIII.

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

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

XLIV.

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

XLV.

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

XLVI.

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

XLVII.

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

XLVIII.

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

XLIX.

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

L.

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

LI.

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

LII.

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

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

LIII.

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

LIV.

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

LV.

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

LVI

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

LVII.

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

LVIII.

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

LIX.

You lure your husband into yet another argument:

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

LX.

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

LXI.

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

LXII.

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

LXIII.

You give your husband an ultimatum:

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

He turns away without a word.

LXIV.

His silence spills into days and then weeks.

LXV.

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

LXVI.

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

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

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

LXVII.

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

LXVIII.

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

LXIX.

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

LXX.

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

LXXI.

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


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


BIO

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

Marked

By Deborah A. Lott


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BIO

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



In the Houses of Others

by Anita Kestin


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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

*****

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

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

***** 

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

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

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

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



BIO

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



Dust Bowl Venus by Stella Beratlis

Reviewed by Linda Scheller

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

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

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

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

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

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

                        Which galaxy

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

                        I saw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



BIO

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



Hit That Ridge Again But This Time Hit It Full Speed

By Riley Winchester


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Feel what?”

“That jump!”

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

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

Then he said it.

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

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hit the ridge.

And this time I hit it full speed.

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

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

I heard a familiar voice over Kylan’s screams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

———

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

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

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

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

But the normalcy was short-lived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t faking it.

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

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I know they meant a lot to him.

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

Memoirs of a Lady Cab Driver

By Katy Wright


Prelude: Whether Permitting

I never planned on driving a cab.

I was a school bus driver, and proud of it. But I needed to make some summertime money until school started back up in September.

Both my brothers were cab drivers, and they both talked me into trying it. It had no real time commitment. As an independent contractor the cab company didn’t care who came and went. They just rented expensive yellow cars on the daily.

Trying out a new career would only cost me the price of getting a taxicab driver permit and a map book or two. What did I have to lose?

I had just finished my last run of the year as a school bus driver. My uniform shirt had served as an autograph collection device. One of the junior high school kids drew a fouled anchor on my sleeve, and wrote under it, “See you next year, you old sea hag!” and other nicer sentiments were all over various parts of my shirt. Nothing risqué, nothing written on any suggestive body parts. But it did look… silly.

I went to pick up my taxicab permit at the Santa Ana Police Department. If I recall correctly, I submitted my paperwork already, and returned later with my passport style photos and to get my fingerprints taken. It was Friday the 12th of June in 1981.

Time Twister by Katy Wright

So there I sat in the lobby of the SAPD. I was asked to take a seat, and told that an officer would be with me shortly. Then an officer did show up. He approached me in the lobby, asking me my name. Confirming my middle name, my date of birth, and my driver’s license number, he then put down his clipboard. He said to me, “I have to tell you that you have an outstanding…”

I knew he was going to compliment me on my perfect driving record. While I was honest enough with myself to know that I would probably never win the “Driver of the Month” award at Orange Unified School District, I knew I was probably an outstanding example of a safe driver. By cab company standards, anyway.

“…warrant for your arrest. Please walk this way.” He led the way to the guts of the building.

My reverie was shattered. I followed him, thunderstruck. There must have been some mistake that would sort itself out soon.

“If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder.”

The officer looked puzzled.

“Old joke. Sorry. Not the right time for a joke.”

“What’s the joke?”

“Guy goes into a drugstore and asks the pharmacist where to find the talcum powder. The pharmacist says, ‘Sure, walk this way.’ The guy answers ‘If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder.”

The cop politely chuckled. I bet he knew the joke, but was trying to put me at ease, or determine my demeanor. I don’t know.

The officer asked me if I remembered signing a ticket while driving a non-registered vehicle. Damn. The light dawned immediately.

I was pulled over while driving my dad’s pick up truck. He had procrastinated about getting it registered into his name. He had received it in exchange for sheet metal work he had done. It was an old work truck. I had signed the ticket and gave my dad all the paperwork. He said he would take care of it. I had even asked him about my ticket just a few months prior to being arrested.  

“Don’t worry about it. I’m taking care of it all.” I believed him. I forgot all about it. It then led to a warrant for failing to appear.

The officer had me place my belongings into a locker, and then he led me down the hall to a holding cell to await the next step, which was to be processed into the Orange County Jail. The holding cell itself was dreary. I seem to recall it was a dull yellow color. The bench in the cell had a large brown stain. I wouldn’t sit. I just stood near the bars, not touching anything. Holding my arms in front of me, by each elbow, hugging myself. Before much time passed, I suppose, another officer collected me to take me to jail. It just felt like forever.

“Sorry you had to wait, it’s shift change.” He handcuffed me with what seemed like a ziptie. Then he collected my things from the locker, and put me and my stuff in the patrol car. When we reached the sally port, he announced us in on the two way box at the gate.

“One cooperative female.”

It hit my imagination how, under different circumstances, having a handsome young cop call me a cooperative female would have definitely been foreplay.

There was what looked like a loading dock, with an open air bank of public phones. I was able to make a phone call. I called home but nobody answered. They allowed me to make another call. I asked my neighbor, Pat, to make sure somebody picked up my son Patrick from the day care center. And of course, pretty please, contact my brother Mike so that somebody can figure out how to get me out of jail.

I was then led into the building, and underwent processing. My belongings were stowed away. My identity was confirmed, pending additional processing that would happen when it was convenient for the system.

I was led, autographed work shirt and all, into a large holding tank with about 10 women. And a big stainless steel toilet on one side of the room. Wide open to the elements, as it were. One lady had to use it while we were all waiting for the next step, and everyone tried not to look. Dignity is often either acknowledged or disregarded depending on the group of people you’re with, ever notice that?

There were brief conversations around the room. Not exactly introductions, more like, “What are you in for?” One lady, dressed kind of like Peg Bundy (but not as brassy) embezzled from an employer. One lady was in for writing hot checks. I think one was in for burglary, I was never sure. There was one biker mama whose crime was never mentioned. And there were about a half a dozen prostitutes. The biker chick was after them like a Eugene O’Neill character, badgering them about giving up their hard earned money to pimps. They raged back, defending their bastard bosses to the bitter end.

Someone kept staring at my shirt.

The district did not issue an actual uniform. There wasn’t an actual dress code. But a lot of us voluntarily bought nice looking long sleeve button down shirts and sewed on the official Orange Unified School District Transportation patch. The circular patch was mostly orange, gave the name of the district in a circle around the outside perimeter, and had either a wheel or a bus logo. I don’t recall the graphics. But it was really neat looking, on a par with the kind of patch motorcycle cops wear, the kind with a wheel on it.

While staring at my shirt, and reading the “sea hag” quote below the district patch, the burglar asked me what my crime was.

“Failure to appear.”

She stared me in the face as if to question my intelligence.

“I got a ticket for driving my dad’s unregistered pickup truck, then I forgot about the ticket because –“

Just at that moment, an officer came to the bars and told me that I would be going upstairs for fingerprints. I was glad. I felt like they were all about to move away from me on the Group W Bench anyway.

Details blurred once I left the holding cell. The sheriff’s deputy was helpful, telling me what to expect next. It seemed like everybody knew I didn’t belong there. Not everyone who gets incarcerated is entrusted with the lives and souls of up to 79 kindergartners at a time in Southern California traffic… as my shirt proclaimed like a billboard. Hold the fat jokes, okay? If not white privilege, maybe it was school bus driver privilege? Maybe it was not unusual. But I appreciated the courtesy.

“In an hour or two, we will be processing everybody from the holding tank into the regular population. You will be given jumpsuits and dinner. But in the interim, you will just be shuffling here and there. And waiting.”

We went into an elevator and then a maze of corridors as she told me what was happening next.

“This next step is your mug shots. Then we will take your fingerprints. Ah. Here we are. Walk this way.”

I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t repeat the talcum powder joke.

I was positioned. I was given the obligatory black sign with the little plastic letters that went into the felt grooves. My name, never thought I’d see it like this. My bad. I was positioned and repositioned as the shots were taken.

“Well, Katy! I never thought I’d see you in here.” Chuckling arose from a voice that I couldn’t place.

Then Kristi Howison stepped from behind the camera.

We had taken a speech class together at Santa Ana College a few years back. Her talks were about her efforts to join the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (no trade secrets were revealed, just generic clues on how to get a decent government job). She also gave a self-protection lecture aimed at women.

“Oh my God, Kristi! I never expected you to see me here either! What are the odds?”

I went on to explain my embarrassment at having done something so stupid. She told me not to worry, it probably wouldn’t ruin my life. Then we laughed about my shirt. Some of the autographs on it were Hallmark quality cute. Then of course there was the old sea hag jab, which I assured her was good natured.

“Your brother is downstairs, trying to get you released. He was already admonished for yelling at the desk clerk. He was getting close to being arrested, himself. Kept going on about you not belonging in here.”

“Whew. I was wondering if he got my message.”

We exchanged more pleasantries while she took my prints. I’ve had prints taken for the bus job, so I knew the drill. Still got my fingers all blackened. We wished each other all the best.

‘You’ll notice I’m not wearing high heels, I am teachable.” We chuckled, that was my biggest takeaway from her shtick about street safety for unaware women. Heels are not safe in a crisis, too hard to run away.

Back to the holding cell. More awkward stares at my shirt. More ragging on the hookers from the Harley-attired chick. She was a true feminist. She wasn’t judgmental about their profession, just giving away a percentage of their take to their manipulative managers.

I was called away, my release was arranged. We collected my purse and stuff, then I was led through a door to a lobby where my brother Mike and our family friend Steve “The Greek” Chronopoulos were waiting for me. They were both amused by my shirt, by the looks on their faces. But we didn’t talk about that.

On the ride home, much information was covered. Steve drove, bless him, because neither of us was operating on all cylinders. Mike was still red in the face from his emotions. He said that when he told our brother Noel, he had a fit about it.

“‘You’ve got to get her out of there! She doesn’t belong there! She won’t know how to act!’,”  Mike quoted Noel as saying. Noel would have come along, but he had a long drive home after a long day, if memory serves.

“And by the way, what was all that about picking Patrick up at day care? Don’t you remember he stayed home with Nita because he had a cold and you kept him home?”

All I could do was shrug. I thought they’d all rag on me, but any anger and frustration was saved for Stan. If he would have not blown me off about the paperwork on the truck, I would have seen that I screwed the pooch on the overdue traffic ticket.

I suddenly realized how catastrophic it would have been had I been involved in any kind of fender bender with a school bus full of kidlets. Because even when an accident is not your fault, you still have to provide all relevant info. In an idiots way of thinking, you could say I got lucky.

“I guess this means we won’t be taking my training day tomorrow, huh Stavros?” I asked Steve. He was scheduled to take me out for my first-and-only day of training the next day. Newbies got one day of riding along with a veteran driver, and to get that one day, they had to show their Santa Ana taxicab operator’s permit. I still didn’t have it yet. Something interrupted me … oh yeah. I remember. I got arrested.

The legal ramifications were minimal. I had to pay a hundred dollar fine to the courts. I had to show that I had registered my dad’s truck. The judge told me not to worry. He said that most people get arrested at least once in their lives. He predicted that I would learn from this one mistake and never let it happen again. The school district made me fill out reports, but it didn’t jeopardize my “real” day job of bus driving next year.

Monday I got the taxicab permit. Tuesday, Steve The Greek took me out and gave me the best cab driver training that the company allowed. 

But that’s another story.


BIO

Katy Wright is a retired Jill of trades, and avoids recidivism after rehabilitating herself. She can be found on Facebook as Katy Wright Arts and Letters.

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Schooled

By Donna D. Vitucci



Sister Antoinette

In sixth grade the music came to us. Sister Antoinette brought her mouth organ to our classroom. That’s what the boys called it, no matter its official name. The instrument was a piano-like keyboard the nun blew into, while playing the keys. Never saw one before, and haven’t seen one since. To us, she was old but I bet no older than I am now. Hard to gauge a nun’s age when her hair was covered with the wimple and her body hid inside a shapeless dark habit. The old-lady black lace-up shoes and the round rimless glasses she wore didn’t help. Most nuns were sexless and old, in our experience. Sister Antoinette taught all three sixth grade classes music. She brough it to us in Room 206 on Tuesdays after lunch.  She changed classrooms, we stayed where we were, all day in that one seat, arranged alphabetically by last name so I sat near the front, with a prime view of Sister’s spit when it leaked out the end of the instrument after fifteen minutes of off and on blowing.

Our school had finally purchased music books. Prior to that year, music instruction had been church hymns and mass hymns and hymns for sacraments we were preparing to receive: First Confession, First Communion, Confirmation, and the school-wide yearly May Crowning. The new books had words and music, the staff and the cleff, whatever those were. Words, to me, mattered, as they do today. What we learned: As Those Caissons Go Rolling Along; Roll On, Columbia, Roll On; This Land is Your Land; I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair; Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal—The American Songbook.

Sister Antoinette may have been hard of hearing, not swift for a music teacher, but Catholic elementary schools invested more in religion than the arts. Her slight deafness, or pretended deafness, allowed the boys to make fun of her, her mouth organ, the songs, and the spit. She was the butt of their jokes, and they piled on while my anger increased like rain in a barrel.

Here, in the person of Sister Antoinette, good was tackled and taken down. Bad would not always be punished. Disrespect slithered along and the boys’ mocking accrued as the music classes added up. I ached for Sister Antoinette, what she acted blind to, or was blind to. That she let bad run riot disgusted me. She was either blind and deaf, or a coward. They were just puny sixth grade boys, who held our lives in their hands, in their words, in the ways they cut us down or spared us. Us being the girls.

At the end of music class one day, Sister left our room for hers. I rushed to Mr. Miller, our usual teacher, who’d returned to assume his class.

“I need to tell Sister something,” I said.

He waved me on. “Well, hurry up.”

I dashed next door, to a classroom like the one I’d just left, full of trapped, mopey sixth graders.

The nun’s bleary eyes took me in their focus.

“Sister,” I said. “I’m not like those others. I’m sorry they won’t listen, won’t behave. But I’m not like them.”

She nodded, she probably thought I was nuts. Or a suck-up. And I guess I was.

Because it was a lie, and not even my best lie. With no spick of rain or salt. The lie lacked the fork. The lie lacked spice. Bold-faced, it was the lie trying to get across the border, the one where an adult would take note of a child, where the spotlight shone down through the young one like a knife pinning her to the earth. The lie was in the child’s mouth, there right now, glinting on her molars, x-ray-ing the wisdom teeth still inside her gums. Nothing else in the world was so shiny as her standing before the woman, and making the child, herself, into a spare truth. She was a tattle tale. She was her own livid dream.

May Crowning arrived, an evening of whole-school procession, class by class, grades one through eight, around the school and church grounds, praying and singing to the Virgin Mary statue in the parking lot, amid her circular bed of flowers. Children were instructed to bring a flower from home, then the flowers were collected in each class and one representative brought the room’s bouquet to the Virgin, stepping out from the rest of the children.

Mr. Miller couldn’t attend, so he sent his wife to organize our class. Mrs. Miller didn’t know us, she was ignorant of who merited the bouquet. She deferred to Sister Antoinette’s choosing.

Thus I earned the great honor with great treachery. I wanted the privilege and I also didn’t want it, a chance to grandstand, to draw my classmates’ attention. I processed with Room 206’s bunch of flowers, for all to see, and who was watching anyway, except God? My skin burned with my-only suspicion Sister had chosen me due to music class piety. I had always been a head-down don’t-make-waves girl, complete your work, do it well, make your parents proud. Up to then, every “A,” every holy card, every gold star I earned, I earned, but I snagged the May Crowning honor by tattling. What’s worse, I bore it alone–punishment of sin, demerit and demotion, demolition of a child’s small will.

Look at me, at an age older than then-Sister Antoinette, still flush with this sick memory. Priests and nuns, with their voodoo, they really needled us good.

Folz

Boys were smart but girls were smarter, until junior high when boys wised up, quit their high-jinks, or they managed high-jinks and high math like salt and pepper, one in each hand. Where girls suddenly found the allure in dumbing down, noted how not-so-smart girls, even slutty girls, caught the boys’ eyes. We noted and absorbed as if by breathing, that knowing wasn’t all there was to knowledge.  We were twelve.

Then the rumored math teacher walked in. Newly-minted, he set to teaching us seventh grade algebra. Mr. Folzenlogen, only the second male teacher the school had ever hired in those heady experimental days of 1970. Even nuns had to nod to the changing times. They let their crow ranks be infiltrated. And we were ready for pants.

Mr. Folzenlogen charmed us from the start. Blue-eyed, almost twinkly blue-eyed if you must know, he had a few freckles across his nose, just the right amount. Black-rimmed glasses were his one cast-back, in this wire-rim time, to his own school days. He had a kind voice, a manner wrought with good cheer, with making math fun, and for the boys, sure for them, utter jokiness, for he knew he had to win them over first, and he did, with a maneuver he displayed on his first day.

Math was for figuring, and figuring was chalk on a blackboard, and chalk was Mr. Folzenlogen’s lasso. My uncle had a wart on the underside of his forearm, about an inch up from the elbow. Look for yourself and you might see a slight dimple on your own arm there. In this spot on Mr. Folzenlogen’s “almost-elbow” he set the stub of chalk he’d chose to write with and then in one motion snapped his arm, let the chalk drop and caught it in his hand. His signature move. First, we were tickled by it, then we took it for granted. It was his nervous tic, his trademark. He roped us in; we were caught.

During out-of-school time, the boys worked at mimicking the move, then perfecting it, doing it swifter and cleaner than Mr. Folzenlogen, if they could, as they bragged they could. What boy doesn’t want to best his brother, his father, his teacher, his boss? Because here was the time when the boys we grew up with—those boys we’d sat alongside in classrooms since first grade, who we’d tottered behind at school skating parties when they rolled past us faster and ten times more recklessly, who we’d passed notes for while trying to earn their favor—these boys were coming into their own knowledge that they were bound to outpace the fastest skaters, the nuns’ crabbiest lectures, the most charming math teacher.

If life was a race—and at that time junior high encompassed all of any life importance to us—then Mr. Folzenlogen drew our starting line with his chalk.

Facts in Five

In a ranch house, in a house of achieving, lived a family of smarts. To you he was a just a boy. A smart boy, but still a boy. Boys didn’t much take notice of you, except that you were smart, too. Not smartest, but among the smart.  Also among a group of boys and girls, all smart, in a certain geographic radius within the same Catholic grade school, in the top reading and math groups. All on the accelerated tracks of ninth grade.

It was a wretched time, especially for smart boys and girls. Yes was on the stereo. A cinnamon cake baked in the oven, its welcome aroma in place of the parents who were gone, or at least unseen. Danny was your host for Facts in Five.

Invited were Sue, John, Tim, Danny, Karen, you.

Sue. A girl among brothers, lived just over a short hill, a distance your mother permitted you walk when you were six, if you carefully crossed the street. Sue’s backyard had a tall slide like those at playgrounds, and a sandbox, a fence where the large yard went larger. There were sleepovers at her house. The morning after one slumber party, all were carrying cups of hot chocolate down the stairs to the finished basement. You slipped on the carpeted steps, splashed hot chocolate all over.

Karen. Came to the crowd later, later being fourth grade; the rest started as one group from the first grade gate. She played the flute, she had a beagle named Penny who you adored and petted every time you visited. She enjoyed a free rein that made you green-eyed; she attended Seals & Croft and Yes and Alice Cooper concerts on school nights. As her Biology lab partner, you heard of these escapades, what your mother would never allow.

John. A brainiac in a family of brainiacs. He wore glasses, for many years black-rimmed plastic, but in 1972 they were gold wire rims. You invited him, as your “guest,” to Straight A ticket baseball games once or twice. Double dates, parents still driving, dropping off and retrieving, no romance, no matter how much you wished. The baseball was forget-able.

Danny. His brothers and his baby sister were all freckled. Some few, some many, Danny many. Blond haired, a little bit of a tic in the slight way he often adjusted his head on his neck. A math whiz. A prodigy. You didn’t know the select classifications they have for behaviors and personalities. Your junior high classrooms had acoustic tile ceilings. And Danny counted the length and breadth of dots on one tile, and then counted the tiles and multiplied, or whatever math to determine the number of dots in your classroom ceiling, an astronomical number that didn’t stick with you. Just Danny being Danny.

Tim. Another genius, or maybe he memorized facts and trivia really well, maybe he had everyone snowed. In fifth grade he gave you a gold and crystal ring from the gumball machine, so for a brief time you considered him a boyfriend. He taught you how to roller skate one Saturday afternoon in Price Hill, that roller rink long ago demolished. He took the errant path during the ascendance of grass, those heady high school years, where he got lost in the weeds.

You were all smart, and backward in boy-girl relations. To develop a sexual self, to flirt, to tease, to be honest—where are the books for that? All had sat in the same accelerated classes in Catholic school until age fourteen, then split for sex-segregated high schools, and Danny helped mend the rupture with his Facts in Five.

You stumped each other with questions, five facts, a pre-Trivial Pursuit trivia game. The boys played air guitar. Rod Stewart was Maggie May-ing. Later, you were on the Roundabout.

“In and around the lake
Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there”

Cinnamon cake that Danny baked—a boy that baked!–and the time it took to devour it.  Boys wolfed it down, girls licked fingertips and then pressed fingertips into crumbs, brought crumbs to tongues, tongues being the point. A keep-away game devolved from tossing a ping pong ball, to tickling, wrestling, touching.

No boy dove for the ping pong in your belly or armpits. Karen and Sue whirly-dervish- kicked, the shag carpet electrified their hair. They had tears in their eyes, happy tears, fever tears. Never had they been more clear-eyed.  You barely contained your want to suffer a rug burn, a pinch, to tear up from over-tickle. Shrieks– the good kind–crabbed and died in your throat. In your diary you would call the afternoon half-hearted, hard-hearted, a catalogue of rust.

You slumped in Danny’s living room, on the floor because everyone was on the floor, the rug a comfort that equalized heights. It was hotter on the floor since you were closer to the core of the earth. The boys’ top lips, where they would later grow moustaches, dimpled with perspiration. They were in every game to win. And you? You didn’t know one fact, much less five.

There was little color to these memories except…

The pale pink of the fetal pig Karen and you flayed and labeled.

The iron rail you gripped amid skaters shouting and wheeling, and Tim encouraging yes, yes, yes alongside you the whole rink’s circumference, the din-filled cavern where you bloomed.

The blond table where Danny rap-rap-rapped his knuckles. He dumped Facts in Five from its box, and your crowd took the kitchen. Your elbows dug into cake crumbs, as you leaned in with magnificent feigned ardor.

Pokeberry Interlude

See these poison berries? An elemental player in our summers, in our games, in our imaginary world of princesses and queens. A girl imprisoned, a boy must rescue her. She was carried away in a wagon into the woods. The wicked queen brewed up the poison berries which grew plentiful in every damp corner of the woods, alongside the long hill that was our backyard. The gullies especially favored the pokeberries. In the sandbox, with the muffin tin, we “made” muffins topped with pokeberries.  We never thought of eating them. Pokeberries were props, they stained our fingers, they made the birds crap purple.

Israelite Village

My Israelite village could not be transported by bus to school. Our classrooms and busses were overcrowded. The bus drivers insisted we sit three to a seat. Small skinny children could pack in like sardines, but we carried school bags and lunch boxes and we wore bulky winter coats, girls clad in uniform skirts and white anklets. Our little bowling pin legs chapped and went numb at the bus stops, so some girls in the coldest of weeks wore leggings but had to shed and store them in their lockers.

Three to a seat provided no room for my Israelite village anchored to a very large rectangle of poster board.  It would be smashed in transit.

“Your daddy will have to drive you to school,” Mommy said.

My daddy was an up-and-at-‘em guy. As usher at Sunday 8 o’clock Mass, he arrived at the locked church and had to wait for the priest to let him in. Weekdays at work he was first to arrive, and started coffee brewing for his colleagues. He left home in the dark and he came home in the dark, especially during winter. And he dropped me off at the school in the dark—except for the parking lot spotlight and green glowing emergency exit lights– before anyone but Mr. Burke the janitor stirred.

My fourth grade class was in the new annex, off the basement cafeteria, an area that had housed the Undercroft until the summer’s renovation.  The rooms down there had windows at the top of the wall where we could observe feet walking by– three fourth grade classrooms and a one-room library. Before that we had Bookmobile visits.

Outside my classroom I slid my back down the wall, tenting my legs and warming them under my uniform skirt. My Israelite village I placed carefully flat on the floor. I straightened the  pipe cleaner men and women. I pressed down on the edges of the short cardboard tube that formed the village well. Alongside my project I poised my school bag and my lunchbox, handles straight up and ready to be grabbed once someone came and brought me light.

Groundhog

I was a child who could not bear the spotlight, nor the teacher’s disappointment, my classmates’ rubber necks, the soul-deficient shotgun-shouldered lack. I completed extra credit like a demon. I was already in Sunday night bed when horror struck me. I jackknifed to sitting beside my snoring sister, my heart a mallet beating the bars of my wispy chest cage. I forgot to write a school report due first thing Monday morning!

Daddy lounged on the living room couch watching television, but my mother stood ironing in the kitchen where the glow of the wall lamp my sister made in Girl Scouts turned everything, including Mommy, soft and golden. Soft-gold-Mommy, in her untucked button front shirt and pedal pushers, penny loafers yawning over her insteps. She never slouched at the ironing board; she shoved into the press of the iron, every item flattened, hot perfect percale. Her hands adeptly wielded the sprinkle bottle and the Procter Silex. Solution, heart salve, comfort – Mommy!

“What are you doing up?”

“I have a report to write for tomorrow.” I was unlatching my school bag and fumbling inside for pencil and lined paper.

“Just now you remembered?” Her tone doubtful, or Sunday night-weary.

“I said I forgot.” I sat, the scalloped shaped wood of the kitchen chair cool through my nightgown.

I chewed the eraser, my mind blank, my heart skipping madly along with the elapsing minutes. Time and fear held hands, embedded in Al Schottelkotte’s report from the living room TV. Whenever I heard the 11 o’clock news pipping through the walls, I panicked. Why couldn’t I fall asleep? I was a child insomniac who chewed orange baby aspirin to help me relax and hoodwink sleep into my lair. Panacea, placebo, no words on paper. It was late and I wouldn’t be back to bed for a while. I had no story, no report.

“I can’t think of anything!” Goody-two shoes anguish.

I cried, I chewed baby aspirin, my teeth marks mucked up the pencil that was cramping my hand. My life lacked story, spark, lift, surprise. I had nothing to shape or build a report around.

Mommy said, “Why don’t you tell about Mary and the groundhog?”

Downstairs neighbor Mary Clements, bottom tenant matching we top-floor renters, she’d been about to drop trash into one of her outside metal garbage cans when she was…think of a good apt word—ambushed? surprised? scared out of her wits?—Mommy challenged me to describe it like it happened to me even though I never witnessed the animal popper. The story was my mother’s heresay, and she passed it to me like an heirloom.

“Go on, use it. Make up the rest.”

You might as well accuse me of knitting the fabric surrounding Mary, her groundhog and his shiny barreled hideout. I fashioned my report, and thus a fiction writer was born. Thank you, Mommy. When I sleep, because of you I dream.

Rosary

A verbal prayer formula, a mantra, its rhythm and pronouncement, bears power.  This, the Sisters would have us believe. Prayers have less sense and information inside them and are more like the Essence of God. Such words repeated, or even better, chanted, create a sound temple, a sealed sacred place, a zone of contact with the divine. Spoken prayer surrounds and envelops us in holiness.

Prayer then is the trance, the ecstasy, an insensible mantra that facilitates rapture—like the trance brought on by praying the Rosary. When I was a little girl I prayed, especially when I couldn’t sleep, Hail Mary after Hail Mary, decade after decade, rote and repletion that ran together in my head like a stream or a train, failing eventually into nonsensical babble, the words eliding, skipping, no thought, no real thought, in the praying. But while babbling, inside the babbling, my mind closed off other things and spiraled me into something both smaller and larger than prayer beads and prayers. The Rosary, as mantra, brought my smallness closer to the bigness. As a child, this ecstasy slayed me. I believed utterly, not a whiff of doubt in God as my Savior, in Jesus my rescue. I’m not much able to get inside that prized babble anymore; too much noise, too much right brain-halt, I’ve lost the naivete and trust. But I’ve got a Rosary stashed somewhere, I know.

Voting on Arrow

Without speaking the words, we somehow knew since the time of President Kennedy that we were Democrats. Mommy and Daddy weren’t political, and it was the rare family discussion that touched on government. We knew that Tricky Dick was mocked and pitied, Bobby Kennedy revered, and Ronald Reagan dissed for being movie-star-folksy. What crested the waves of our supper table talk: Daddy’s commission check, what could be froze from the garden, the knocking noise in the car, quiz me on my vocabulary words, and sign this permission slip. I will say this– and it was not shocking, it was no ripple in the norm, it just was–my parents voted every November.

They did it quietly, without discussion, almost ploddingly. Once they took me with them to vote, this in the days when polling places had sometimes been assembled in the basements of neighbors. It’s true we lived in a rural area. They took me with them to Arrow, a street off Boomer Road, about a mile from our house. I was small because I remember standing among their kneecaps in the tiny lighted booth areas. From over my shoulder in that rearview far-off, I can see me wanting to more than stand alongside them in their civic duty.  I wanted to vote, to pull the lever or color in the box (I excelled at coloring!). The Arrow basement appears green-hued in my memory, grassy and with hope. The green lighting in each of the individual voter stations told me “go,” be positive. You there, it’s a privilege.

Kreimer’s Interlude

A gaggle of girls sat on Kreimer’s front slope, that small dip to the Stop sign plugged into their yard, or rather into the ten feet of public property at the intersection of Boomer and Race. The four way Stop slowed plenty of hot rods for our inspection, the drivers and riders offered up, or so we expected, for our perusal. All of us under fourteen, a couple only ten or eleven years old. Tanned summer girls, aimless. Barefoot, short-ed, middy-shirt-ed or haltered, with nothing much to halter. Not smoking yet, but we might as well have held cigarettes. We posed and screamed and shouted to boys as they slowed or screeched to their stop. Race Road had the hills they liked to hop. Hot-rodders passed by, windows all open and they smiled, hooting at us. Or convertibles, maybe on their way down to the Par 3 Golf Course, the driving range, the snack bar, but heavens, no liquor. We tried buying cigarettes there. That didn’t fly. The boys, teenagers, not very often men, but yes, sometimes young men, even old men (in our minds they were old) they slit their eyes at us, estimating, split-second rejected us. But nothing wrong with a little jive at the Stop sign, dusk coming on fast, the clover and onion grass perfuming our butts, the sweat pearling at our hairlines and pasting long hair and ponytails on our necks. We would slouch home to watch innocuous summer re-runs, the riders and the drivers meant for darker, dirtier ruin. We had no truck with that. We tossed it all off like sweat, sweat that blackened the already black road, the newly set tar, just another summer job that brought workers to our street and men into our lives. Men and their whistles, which we craved without understanding.

Christmas Coats

Aftershave, perfume, leather, cold gusts trapped in molecules of wool and fur collars, mothball smell, heady in the spartan bedroom where the coats were piled on Grandpa’s bed. The cranked heat and the laughter, your grandma’s cackle and the booming baritones of your uncles, the warm light downstairs, curled around your feet in their patent leather shoes, your good shoes. Christmas seeped through the floor boxes for cold air return. You called them radiators, but they were really the opposite. Radiators were free-standing metal monoliths you must not touch lest you burned. They were seething pieces of furniture.

Christmas coats were shed in the spartan bedroom shared by Grandpa and Uncle Joe, your bachelor uncle, the good timer adored by every niece and nephew. Handsome, happy-go-lucky, in service to his mother and father. Only later, many years later, would you consider him chained to this tan room, with tan bedspreads on the twin beds, tan furniture, real wood, but not Grandma’s rich and dark dresser set across the hall. The blonder wood was spare mid-century modern, though you didn’t know that style-name yet. Two beds and a chest of drawers. Atop the chest presided a familiar Virgin Mary statue. Your own chest of drawers at home had one. Mary was blessed and beautiful, hands folded as she stood forever looking down on you, praying for you, because you needed those prayers.

Grandma’s room across the hall was a womb of dark wallpaper, coral pink bedspread and draperies, the dark polished wood of her dresser, which was stocked with glorious perfume bottles, just as your mommy’s dresser. Here Chantilly and Lily of the Valley. Mama’s had Tigress and Ambush. Your mommy was no sexy thing but she bought with the times. Her party dresses would be your dress-ups one day. Till then, you stroked her satiny skirt when you sat on her lap. She drew you close, you little imp, protecting you from what?—the cold? the booming uncles with their sloppy kisses?. Your family was somehow outsiders in this Catholic bosom, though you were as Catholic as children come. Mommy was the outlier, the Protestant who attended no church, and who ushered you girls out the door with Daddy to eight o’clock Christmas Mass so she could enjoy a bath.

Aldona

Our 1960’s American neighborhood, more rural than suburb, with roads hilly and twisty, no sidewalks, had backyards that declined into woods, ravines, and pastures of cows, sheep, horses. Our neighbor to one side had ponies. Our neighbors’ family names: Sanders, Donahue, Taylor, Griffith, Mueller, O’Donnell—Germans and Irish. We celebrated Sunday Mass one mile up the road at St. Ignatius Church, our parish for church and school. Our—everyone’s–parish. We spoke English, except the Binder’s old German grandmother. That grandmother didn’t count. You only met her, and smelled her, when she opened the door to you peddling Girl Scout cookies.

One across-the-street family had emigrated from Lithuania–a country you’d never heard of. The boy and girl were called Algist and Aldona, with last name Liauba. Their language crunched consonants; the one word I recognized from Mrs. Liauba was her daughter’s name—Aldona. I felt between us a special link, since with my name Donna, we were called nearly the same. Likeness begun and ended. Aldona, blond and fair-eyed, paled beside my dark brown hair and eyes. My hair was curly, hers straight. We were both skinny. She was older, and a loner, you hardly ever saw her.

We didn’t know the word immigrant. Friends at school and on our street were the same in my eyes, our families had been Cincinnatians for at least two generations. Even most of the grandparents spoke English, owned farms or houses, were established Americans.  What to think of the Liaubas? Their house smelled like no other house, with their particular cooking. Their language abrupted the scenery. The parents didn’t pal around with neighbors, and the children kept to themselves. Maybe three times at most Aldona invited me to play in her finished basement. It was linoleum-floored, with impossible light for a basement and airy because of block glass windows set high up in the walls, sparsely furnished. Today I would know to call the décor modern. Liaubas were miles ahead of us in style.

The Tall Book

It was a tall book, one that fit only into the double deep desk drawer, bottom right.  This book of fairytales had a cover shaped like a tall tree trunk. Depicted around its roots and the ground where it anchored were mushroom, chipmunk, ant, acorn. Halfway up, a hole where a squirrel peeked out and a woodpecker at work on a knot. The branches at the top of the book sprouted off the edge. I carried this book like a log in my armpit.

Each page featured a complete story. There were known stories like the Billy Goats Gruff and The Woodsman, but one story I’d never read or heard before became my favorite: The Pot That Would Not Stop Boiling. A gruesome-looking young girl (horrible drawings on purpose?) was given a magic pot and brought it home to her poor mother, poor home, poor village. All she need say was: “Boil, little pot, boil,” and soon it filled magically with piping hot porridge that satisfied her and her mother. “Stop little pot, stop,” were the words that made the pot cease cooking. But satisfaction was rare, fleeting, if not downright absent, and in that absence rooted greed.

One day when the girl was away, the mother wanted to show off to the villagers and got that pot’s magic going. But when the time came for quitting, she couldn’t remember the command. Porridge overflowed the pot, then the kitchen, and onto the streets of the village, sweeping all the people down a huge river of porridge, until the flood rushed past the girl, who’d been visiting a neighbor village. She rushed against the porridge current, all the way up the long tall page to her home where she yelled, “Stop, little pot, stop!” Mother suitably humbled, village destroyed, villagers mollified and ugly girl back “on top.” What was porridge anyway? This story stuck with me, all its elements, down to the white apron the little girl wore, her knobby elbows poking where she had pushed up her sleeves, her hair thin and fastened in a sensible bun, her ears big, even her lips gross in their largeness. The repelling illustrations dizzied. For the first time ever, words came in second.

Santa brought me this book one Christmas. It has long been torn, tossed, lost.  If anyone knows it, please please tell me its name or how I can find it.

Rock Of Ages

David Cassidy’s was my first rock concert, the summer between seventh and eighth grade. My then-friend Sharon and I raged with adolescent silly over him, the kind of innocent yearning I doubt exists anymore. Adoring boy-man idols used to be a rite of passage.

I papered one bedroom wall with glossy covers and inserts of David Cassidy from Tiger Beat and Sixteen. I swooned over The Partridge Family TV show and The Partridge Family albums. I knew all their lyrics. David Cassidy’s favorite artist, reported by the teen mags, was BB King. Who, I thought?

David Cassidy announced a summer tour, and I begged, pleaded, whined: “Daddy, please please please, if he comes to Cincinnati, promise me I can go.”

Daddy resisted and then caved, the way he said okay to nearly everything we wanted, a funny and unenforceable response since he was never the final arbiter.

A Friday evening in June would be the breathless event, a night in which I could barely stay in my shoes. I felt sure I’d levitate. But before that, a wedding invitation arrived for the very same Friday, at the very same time. My oldest cousin was getting married. Out of the question, our refusal to attend, or further, my dragging a parent from that wedding so as to drive me to a David Cassidy concert. My dad would not miss his nephew’s wedding. We’d already bought the concert tickets. In my family, if we’d paid good money for something, what had been bought would not be forfeited.

In the back of church, Mommy lingered with me while the bride walked the aisle and met my cousin at the altar. We slipped out before the vows, picked up Sharon, and then drove on to Cincinnati Gardens, where I’d only before been to see the Shrine Circus via free tickets from our landlord. Once we passed through the admission, from the opposite side of the turnstile, Mommy said: “I’ll be right here to pick you up when this is over.”

An opening act played too long, and David Cassidy took the stage later than promised, wearing a white-fringed Elvis-like jumpsuit. With the concert behind schedule, I wondered if Mommy would return and drag us out before the end. I wanted my “money’s worth.”

Driving from the Gardens to Cincinnati’s west side, and traversing the highway, fighting traffic, not to mention parking hassle or cost, meant she never went back to St. Theresa’s Church, or on to the wedding reception. She stood outside Cincinnati Gardens or sat in the car or remained planted at the turnstile where I’d turned my back on her. Waiting for four hours, in place, is what I would have done for my own children. I was just twelve or thirteen then, barricading against her moment by moment. One long, cruel I Think I Love You story, hardly about David Cassidy and all about my mommy.


BIO

Donna D. Vitucci has been writing forever, and publishing since 1990. Her latest novel, ALL SOULS, is offered by Magic Masterminds Press, as are her previous 3 — AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE, SALT OF PATRIOTS & IN EUPHORIA. Her work explores the ache and mistake of secrets among family, lovers and friends. She writes whatever in her head sounds good, and then she chops and squishes and compresses until it pleases her. Cadence has a lot to do with it. She lives in North Carolina, where she enjoys her cherished grandsons and burgeoning gardens. Her work appears most recently in Red Coyote and The Sextant Review; forthcoming at MemoryHouse Magazine, SinFronteras, and Gargoyle. Read beginnings from her novels and selected stories at: www.magicmasterminds.com/donnavitucci

Birthday Surprise, 2003

by Lourdes Dolores Follins

“Ma, whaddya wanna do fur yer birthday?” I nervously ask my mother. Her fifty-fourth birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks and I am calling to find out if I need to take the day off to spend time with her. She still lives in our hometown, Staten Island, N.Y., while I live in Brooklyn—only fourteen miles apart, but a world away. I’m half hoping Mom says I don’t need to miss work. I nervously play with my short, black two-strand twists and wait with bated breath as I walk into my bathroom. Glancing at my smooth brown skin in the chrome-rimmed medicine cabinet mirror, I adjust my nose ring.

“Oh, I dunno,” my mother comments. Somehow, she manages to make a two-syllable word (‘dunno’) have three syllables.

I’ve been asking Mom the same question every year for the past four years, and each time, she seems surprised by my question. Four years ago, when I turned thirty, I realized that if I wanted our strained relationship to improve, I had to be more accepting of her and be the one to make the effort to change it.

As a child, I was a satellite in my mother’s world, soundlessly orbiting her. Mom often worked overtime at her job as a psychiatric nurse so that she could send me to parochial school. That meant she was usually either sleeping or getting ready to go to work when I came home from school. The few times we were around each other, Mom rarely spoke to me. She raised me to speak when spoken to, so I learned to be silent. I interpreted Mom’s silence as disinterest in me and because she often complained about being tired, I studiously stayed out of her way. A voracious reader, I secretly wished that Mom was like those White, middle-class mothers I read about in the Judy Blume and Nancy Drew books she bought for me each month—warm, doting, and attentive. I assumed that she too, believed in the stories in those books and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. So, I worked harder at getting good grades.

Before I started contacting my mother for her birthday, I barely called her because we have nothing in common except being Black women and even that we experience differently. Mom is a Baby Boomer who never discussed race and racism with me, while I, her Generation X daughter, constantly fumed to friends about the racial microaggressions and systemic racism I faced at the historically White schools my mother worked so hard to pay for. As a result, I always think about race and racism. I imagine that we’ve both experienced racial discrimination and microaggressions, but Mom’s response is to ignore them and work harder, while mine is to call out people and fight back. An example of this was when I was called a nigger, the ten-year-old version of me cussed out that little White boy the best I could. When I told her about it, Mom simply shrugged her shoulders and said, “People are stupid.”

But the main reason I barely speak with my mother is because she rarely calls me. I’m not sure if it’s because Mom doesn’t want to talk to me, she forgets about me, or because she’s busy with work and other family members. However, when we do talk on the phone, the ‘conversations’ tend to be soliloquies for her. This is a continuation from my childhood—all of our conversations revolved around her: her work, her life, her thoughts. But I am working to change our relationship and making the effort to spend time with her for her birthday is part of that process.   

As a result of those books and 1970s television shows, I subscribed to the societal belief that every daughter should want a good relationship with her mother. But by the time I turned thirty, I’d accepted the fact that we would never be like those White TV families. As working-class Black people, we had more important things to focus on, like surviving in a borough that didn’t want us there and working twice as hard to get half as far in work and in school. I wanted our relationship to improve not out of obligation, but because it was the right thing to do. As a Black woman, I believed it was my duty to foster a relationship with Mom in a world where we are all we have. Also, I look like my mother: I have her almond-shaped eyes, oval-shaped face, and very expressive eyebrows. Even though she annoys the heck out of me, how could I not have her in my life when I am constantly reminded of her when I look in the mirror?

So, today I pace while Mom thinks.

“Whaddya mean, you don’ know?” All my life, I’ve worked hard to suppress my Staten Island accent because I think it sounds ugly and coarse. It reminds me of the anti-Blackness I experienced from White Staten Islanders. But when I’m speaking with my mother and I’m frustrated (these two things often go hand in hand), it slips out. Staten Island-ese sounds like a cross between Brooklyn-ese (think Saturday Night Fever, Do the Right Thing, or Just Another Girl on The IRT) and New Joisy-speak, but a little slow-a.

“I dun-no.”

“Ma-a-a-a-a-a-a!” Exasperated, I try another route. “Well, if you could do anything for yer birthday, what wouldja wanna do?” I’m still pacing.

“Oh, I dun-no…”

“Ma, yuh know we go through this every year, right?”

“And every year, I dunno what I wanna do for my birthday. I know what I want for my birthday, but I nevah know what I wanna do for my birthday.”

“Well, whaddya want?” I ask with trepidation, even though I know what’s coming next. I put my hand on my Gladys Knight forehead, as if it will ward off the impending headache.

“A million dollas!” With that, Mom cracks up. She has made herself laugh so hard that she doesn’t even notice that I’m not laughing at the same old, tired joke she’s been making for years. I roll my eyes, hold the phone away from me, and stare at it incredulously for a minute. Then, I sigh.

“If you could do any-thing for yer birthday, Ma, what wouldja wanna do?” I ask again, hoping this time will be the charm.

“Hmm. I nevah really gave it that much thawt.”

“Give it some thawt now, Ma. We can do whatever you wanna do. We can go wherever you wanna go, and you can have anybody you want present.” I plunk down on my futon and sit cross-legged. I glance over at my orisha altar and silently ask Obatala to give me strength and patience. Conversations with Mom are like walking with a toddler—slow-moving at times, wandering to whatever topic catches her attention.

“Oh…” she responds finally.

Mom has never considered the fact that she can choose who to spend her birthday with. I know this is foreign and radical to her. I give her this option because my mother is still angry with my dad for losing their rent-to-own home last year. My family had lived there for twenty-four years and, in keeping with their overall lack of communication about challenging topics, Dad didn’t tell Mom that he fell behind in the rent. As a result, they were evicted. I figure not being with Dad will make her birthday easier for all of us.  

I can hear the cogs of Mom’s mind turning through the telephone wires. At times, they creak as if they haven’t been oiled in years and at other times, they quickly glide against one another.

“I wanna go to a casino,” Mom says.  

I shake my head, astonished. In the process, my hair shakes a bit and my large silver hoop earrings gently slap the side of my face.

“A ca-seeno?! You wanna go to a casino fer yur birthday?” I stop myself from climbing on a soapbox about gambling and pissing away one’s money because I did say that if she wanted to do something, go somewhere new—besides going out to eat at her usual spots, Perkins and Charlie Brown’s—I would go with her.

“Okay, Mom. We’ll go to a casino. Who do yuh wanna to go with, besides me? It can be just the two of us or you can invite anyone else you like.” I half expect her to say that she wants Dad to join us because they go almost everywhere together.

“Nobody.”

“Hunh. Okay, do you want to invite any of your friends?”

“No.”

I am relieved. The prospect of spending the day with Mom and her girlfriends would drive me to drink. They’re nice enough, but my mother doesn’t seem to know any other reserved middle-aged women; her friends talk non-stop and they would talk at me. In her friend group, Mom is the quietest of them all. There’s Pat, a boisterous African American woman who laughs so loud that God covers their ears; there’s Beverly, a garrulous Jamaican woman who’s always got some rip-roaring tale about her family members, and then, there’s the other Pat, an Irish American woman who claims to be a witch. Of course, all of these women are psychiatric nurses like my mother.

“Is there any particular casino that you’d like to go to? One that you’ve visited before or have wanted to visit?”

“No. I mean, I’ve been to Atlantic City and that’s fine.”

My face involuntarily wrinkles in a disapproving frown. Hmpf. You can go there any time! If I’m going to schlep to a casino, it betta be someplace we can explore togetha, I think to myself. Because Mom lives in Staten Island, she can get to Atlantic City in two hours. Less, if she’s driving with her usual ‘lead foot.’ 

“How about we go somewhere you haven’t been?” I ask.

As if on cue, the catchy jingle from the 1996 Mohegan Sun casino commercial pops into my head. “Moe-hee-gun Sunnnnn!” The first time I saw the commercial in the 90s, I thought, “Oh, cool!” But then I realized that it was land owned by the indigenous Mohegan people in Connecticut and I was ambivalent about the fact that an Indigenous tribe needed to make money through casino ownership. Questions about reparations for Indigenous people and the morality of facilitating gambling addiction, alongside images of busloads of barely ambulatory senior citizens clutching walkers with those greenish-yellow, Wilson tennis balls on the bottom, and smoke-filled rooms ringing with the cries of people losing their life savings danced in my head. Shaking these images out of my mind, I suggest we go to Mohegan Sun and Mom is game. She’s not usually an adventurous type, but if she’s driving, she’s down to go almost anywhere.

With that, it’s a done deal. Mom and I are going to spend the day together, at a casino! I’ve never been to a casino before because they’ve never appealed to me and even though it’s my idea, I’m nervous about spending the entire day alone with my mother. Did I mention that my mother doesn’t really talk with me, that she talks at me, without pausing or coming up for air? It’s as if she’s throwing pasta at a wall and seeing what sticks.

Most of the time when we’re on the phone, I take a break by gently laying down the receiver while she’s talking and walk away to tend to something more pressing (cooking, dusting, folding laundry, etc.). When I pick it up again, I’m sure Mom didn’t even notice that I was off the line (she never does). But driving together for almost three hours is daunting because I can’t remove or shut off my ears, jump out the car window, or anything subtle like that. No, I’m going to be stuck listening to my mother talk at me for almost three-long-Gawd-forsaken-hours. Alone. Did I mention that we’re going to be alone? I just want to make sure.

***

The day of Mom’s birthday, I call her soon after I awaken at around 6:45 am, because I’m fairly certain she’s awake.

“Heh-low?” Mom sounds groggy. I doubt she’s slept soundly. Mom sleeps with the TV on; she says she listens to it while sleeping.

“Hi, Ma! Happy birthday!!” A few years ago, I began what I think is a cute tradition where I call my mother twice a year—once for her birthday and once for mine—to wish her a happy birthday. Mom never seems to fully get it, but she always humors me, says, “Thank you” and then falls silent. In keeping with said tradition, that’s what happens this morning.

“Whaddya doin’?” I’m trying to be chipper. I’ve prepped and psyched myself up for this trip for the past two weeks. I talked to all the people in my support system (i.e., those to whom I have complained about Mom’s emotional coldness and seeming indifference about my life): my girlfriend; my closest friends; my spiritual godmother; and various people from my 12-Step fellowships. They all assured me that this would go well, or if it didn’t go well, it wouldn’t go too badly. Honestly, I expect the latter.

“Oh, just watchin’ the news,” Mom replies.

“Where’s Dad?”

“In the living room, I guess.” I imagine her shrugging as she says this. The living room is so close to my parents’ bedroom that she can hear if Dad is there. I decide not to probe about Mom’s lack of interest in Dad’s whereabouts. Since the eviction, Mom doesn’t have a kind word to say to or about Dad; it seems as if he can do nothing right in her eyes. This breaks my heart as Dad is the parent who taught me things (chess, using hand tools, cooking, gardening) and let me ask questions. Although Mom provided for my material needs, Dad nurtured me in his quiet, patient way.

“Okay, so are we still goin’?” I ask with crossed fingers.

“Yeah,” Mom affirms.

Drat! I think to myself.

Why? Did somethin’ come up?” Mom asks. She almost sounds like she’ll be disappointed if we don’t go.

“No, just checking. What time do you wanna meet up?”

“I’ll pick you up at eleven.” I know that really means eleven-thirty, noon.

“Okay! See you then, Mom.”

***

Like clockwork, Mom picks me up at noon. It’s just above seventy degrees, so I’m wearing a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of navy-blue sneakers. I’ve got a tan, lightweight jacket, my Nikon camera, and a few toiletries in my forest green backpack. As my mother pulls up in her navy-blue car, she’s smiling a bit.

“Hi, Ma!”

“Hi,” she says weakly. She stiffens as I give her a peck on the cheek. For years, I thought Mom didn’t like it when I gave her a kiss. I’ve since realized that she freezes up and moves away when anyone (except young children) is physically affectionate with her.

“I printed up the directions, so we’re good to go!” And with that, we’re off! With WCBS-FM playing in the background, I direct my mother to the first leg of our journey.

“How’s Cassandra?” I ask. Mom’s relationship with my twenty-year-old sister has grown progressively worse over the years. There’s a fourteen-year age difference between my sister and I, so we’ve never been close. Although Dad and my sister had a great relationship, my parents only found out that Cassandra was expecting because my mother snooped in her things. By then, she was seven months pregnant with my niece, Kira.

“Oh, yuh know… she’s workin’ fifteen ‘ours a week at Sears. She’s makin’ signs and puttin’ them up around the store. She seems tuh like it.” Mom shrugs and frowns.

“Fif-teen? Why so few hours?” Since my sister isn’t paying rent and doesn’t have to buy anything for my niece, I figure she can save money so that she can move out of our parents’ home. In my mind, she’s taking advantage of them.

“Oh, I dunno. Yuh havta ask her. But she took Kira to see Gabriel and his family.” Gabriel is my four-year-old niece’s father, but he and Cassandra broke up soon after she became pregnant. My parents didn’t even know my sister was dating someone, let alone that she was having sex. “And, she’s been disappearin’ for ‘ours and then, comin’ back like nothin’s happened.” Mom sounds indignant.  

“Ohhh.” Glancing over at her, I notice Mom’s thick hands gripping the steering wheel a bit tighter. Her nails are freshly painted in Fire Engine Red, but her cuticles are dry and cracking. Her Jheri curl is as moist as a freshly baked, Betty Crocker Bundt cake. Two short, dark brown hairs sprout from her jawline and a few gray hairs insistently peek out from her dyed, ear-length bob. My eyes get wide and I gulp. The situation doesn’t sound good and I’ve avoided giving my parents advice on how they should handle it. I steer the conversation to neutral territory—the song playing on the radio. It’s Nelly Furtado’s, “I’m Like A Bird.”

“Hey! Didn’t this song win a Grammy last year?”

“Oh, yeah! It did.” Significant discomfort averted. For the next two and a half hours, Mom and I chat about her job, Kira’s capers in daycare, the latest thing Dad did to piss her off, my mother’s friends’ drama, and wherever else my mother’s mind goes. Much to my relief, it’s a relatively smooth conversation. Mom typically only sees her friends two or three times a year (even though they live in the same borough), so Dad ends up being the person she talks with the most. However, she’s still pissed at him, so she vacillates between berating him and chatting with him as if nothing happened. It occurs to me during the ride that talking with me provides Mom a much-needed outlet, so even though it’s draining for introverted me to be ‘on’ for this long, I oblige her. It is her birthday, after all.

When we finally reach the casino, Mom parks the car, and calls Dad to let him know that we’ve arrived. While she does this, I take out my little digital camera and start snapping pictures of her and the place so we can have something to commemorate the day. I’m twisting and turning like Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Gordon Parks, trying to capture the way the sun’s rays land on my mother’s nut-brown face. Mom rolls her eyes at my antics as she adjusts her oversized denim button-down shirt over her grey t-shirt. She hefts a navy-blue tote bag over her right shoulder as she holds her cellphone to her ear. Her gold-tone eyeglasses sit perched on the bridge of her angular nose. I never noticed until now, but Mom stands upright like a solider—with her feet about a foot apart.

“We’re heah! Everything okay? Whaddya doin’?” she inquires, rapid fire. I don’t know how Dad does it. The way Mom asks him questions, it’s like he’s completing an oral obstacle course.

“Oh. Okay,” she replies. I suspect Dad said something satisfactory to Mom, for there is a smile creeping across her face. I exhale a bit. It’s become difficult for me to spend time around them when they’re together, because it’s too brutal and painful to watch. Mom is harsh and scathing, while Dad says nothing in response. The rare moment he snaps back—like a snapping turtle awakened by a child’s prodding—seems futile in comparison to Mom’s vicious verbal attacks. It wasn’t like this when I was a child; Mom was civil then.

“Alright. Well, I’ll give you a cawl when we’re leavin’. Bye.”

My right eyebrow creeps up on its own accord. I’m surprised that there was no badgering, no snide comment about how “pitiful” my dad is. Mom seems…peaceful, placid, like the man-made lake alongside the casino. I seize the moment and ask, “You ready tuh go in?”

“Yeah,” Mom says eagerly, as she stretches and arches her back a bit. That slight smile remains on her face as she steps forward in her black leather Reeboks and her navy blue, polyester elastic waist pants. She looks as if she’s heading in to do a shift at the state psychiatric hospital where she’s worked for most of my life. Her house keys, car keys, and some keys from work all dangle and clank against one another from the royal blue fabric lanyard keychain around her neck. I smell the flammable Soft Sheen Care Free Curl Gold Instant Activator—even though I’m standing four feet away from her—and am trying not to gag. I am well acquainted with that smell, having had a Jheri curl when I was in high school in the 1980s. Twenty years later, Mom is still hooked and loves the look.

As we walk into the casino, I notice the stacked stone veneer on the walls and the lit metal sconces. All the colors in the casino are muted, as if we’re in the desert. That is, a desert that’s actually a resort, with hundreds of slot machines and table games, several poker tables, forty-seven bars and restaurants, multiple nightclubs, a hotel, a spa, a golf course, a planetarium dome, concert and sports venues, and thirty-four shops. There are lights everywhere—bright lights, flashing lights, dim lights, and for some odd reason, strobe lights.

“My gawd! I hope there aren’t any epileptics here, with all the strobe lights.” As a nurse, Mom always notices the medical aspect of things. Meanwhile, I’m agog by the never-ending line of boutiques chock-full of gorgeous things. I’m a sucker for jewelry and nice clothes; I suspect it’s because Mom was never into those things. Both my grandmothers are clotheshorses; Mom is a workhorse. I’m a cross between the two, a workhorse trying to be a clotheshorse, but never quite succeeding. As I flit from store to store, oohing and ahhing, Mom chuckles with her hands folded behind her. After about two minutes, I realize she’s not even remotely interested in any of these things, so I flit back to my mother’s side like Black Tinkerbell and steer her towards what we came here for: the casino.

Once we enter the first casino room, Mom is in her element and I’m getting whiplash, looking from side to side, up and down. I quickly notice that almost all of the people here are middle-aged or senior citizens. There’s an East Asian posse of seniors with canes and large, colorful twenty-ounce plastic cups filled with something that’s making them guffaw and smile broadly. Just past them is an equally large group of Black senior citizens channeling the 1970s, wearing matching t-shirts, baseball caps, berets, and jeans, giggling with glee as one of their own has just struck it big. On the other side is a gaggle of White senior citizens in velour lounge suits chattering to each other, as they pull down their slot machine levers in sync. The only people under forty-five are Indigenous workers and me.

“Whoa!” I exclaim. “I had no idea…!”

“Whaat?” Mom asks. It’s also really loud in here. I make a mental note to check my hearing when I get back home.

“I had no idea so many…older people come to these places!” I’m not sure what the lingo is these days—‘old people’, ‘older people’, ‘senior citizens’, ‘elders’, or something else—and am trying to be respectful.

“Oh, yeah! They spend hours, even days heah. They come by bus!”

Just as I suspected, I think, pursing my lips in disapproval. “Hunh.” I eye the elders, looking them up and down, trying to figure out their deal. Where on earth did they get the money to be here? And what happens if they lose it all? I wonder. But it’s too loud for me to think clearly and too dimly lit for me to see much.

As I ponder the politics of the place and grimace at the intermittent mournful cries, Mom finds a slot machine at the end of an endless row of them and whips out a little black Le Sportsac bag. I inch closer, peer over her right shoulder, and realize the bag is filled with quarters.

“Ma! Ma!! Ma-a-a-a!!!” I shout until my mother hears me over the din.

“Whaaat?” Mom barely gives me a sidelong glance, transfixed on her mission.

“Can I have some?” I meekly point to the bulging bag.

“There’s a change machine ovah there,” Mom gestures over her left shoulder. This is the same woman who’s never given either of her children a sip from her cup or a forkful from her plate. Why on earth did I think she would spare some change?

“Okay.” I trundle off glumly to the change machine. I warily gawk at everyone I see seated in front of hundreds of slot machines that fill a room that has the size and acoustics of an auditorium. “Cling-ca-ching! Ding-ca-ching! Clunk-a-dunk!” These sounds bounce off the walls in supersonic stereo.

After getting thirty dollars’ worth of quarters, I wander back to where my mother is seated. Serendipitously, there’s an empty machine right next to her. It’s obvious that Mom’s done this before: her eyes barely leave the screen as her hand dips into the bag of quarters, picks up a quarter, drops it into the slot, grabs the lever, and pulls it down. A broad, toothy smile fills the bottom half of her face, as the light from the machine emits an eerie glow onto Mom’s face, making her look like a zombie. I don’t know whether to be horrified or awed, so I silently mimic her actions. Unlike Mom, I’m not numb to each successive loss of a quarter. It feels as if pieces of me are dying each time. I grimace, groan, and barely manage to stop myself from falling onto the floor, bawling in the fetal position. This goes on for two solid hours. Mom and I seated side by side, both losing money—I am the first to call ‘uncle’.

“Ma? You hungry?” I plead to God that she is; I’m not sure if I can take much more of the overwhelming sights, sounds, and loss of money.

“Not really… but I do havta go tuh the bath-room.”

“Hunh. Well, I’m hungry and tired. This place is wearing me out, Mom.”

Mom chuckles and flashes a smile. “Shucks! Just when I was about to start winnin’ again.”

I blanch at the thought that I took my mother away from a winning streak on her birthday, so I ask her if I am taking her away at a bad time.

“Kinda… I lose some, then I win some, then I lose some, and I keep playin’ ‘til I win it back. I was just beginning the part where I play to win it back.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mom!”

“It’s okay.” Mom glances at her gold-tone, stretch wristwatch. “We should be heading back soon anyway. It’ll be dark soon and I wanna avoid traffic.” And with that, Mom gathers her things, meticulously and unhurriedly. As she turns to me, I notice she walks like a grizzly bear—slow and heavy.

We leave and grab something at a McDonald’s on the way home because it’s her favorite restaurant. The car ride back to New York is smooth and easy, as I ask Mom questions about her previous experience at casinos. As she talks, there is a light in her eyes, and she looks free. I’ve never seen Mom look free before and I am taken aback by both the image and the realization. At some point, she mentions Dad and something he recently did that pissed her off. Feeling emboldened by the ease and levity of our conversation, I take a chance and ask Mom something we’ve never discussed before.

“Ma, do you love Dad?” My breath catches, for this is a question that I don’t know the answer to and I don’t know what possessed me to ask this. A pregnant pause follows as Mom’s mind registers the question.

“Yeah?” she replies as if she is half-asking herself.

“You do?” I’ve never seen my parents show any verbal or physical affection towards each other or talk about one another in even remotely loving ways in the twenty-eight years they’ve been together. I’m beyond shocked.

“Yeah….” Mom shrugs her shoulders as if to say, ‘I can’t explain it, but I do.’

“Hunh.” I’m not sure what to say now since we don’t discuss feelings in my family. But another question tumbles out of my lips before I can stop it. “Did you love my father?” I’m referring to my biological father, the man who co-created me. “Dad” is my stepfather, the man who raised me.

“Oh, yeah! Even afta he made me have an abortion.”

My head jerks involuntarily so that I’m staring at Mom’s profile with the sun setting behind her. “What?”

“He made me have an abortion after I had you.” Mom says this off-handedly, as if she’s talking about what she had for breakfast this morning.

Another question forcefully pushes past my lips. “How many have you had?”

“Two. One with your father, and the other with Harold before Cassandra was born.” Harold is Dad’s name.

Feeling as if I’ve been punched in my stomach and all the air has been sucked out of the car, I lean back in my seat and quietly hyperventilate. I didn’t know that my mother had any abortions, let alone two. As someone who’s never had an abortion or seriously considered giving birth, I can’t imagine Mom as a young woman making such a life-changing decision, nor can I imagine what it was like for her to undergo this procedure as many times as she’d given birth—twice. I catch my breath and stare out the window, barely noticing the lights from the storefronts and strip malls we pass on I-395.

As I collect myself, I recall that in my sophomore year of high school, Mom woke up early one weekend morning and quietly rushed around before leaving the house.

“Where you goin’? It’s seven o’clock in the morning!” I asked. I was reading the Sunday comics in the living room. Mom isn’t a morning person, so seeing her moving around so quickly and so early in the morning was unusual.

“To Washington. There’s a march,” she replied, as she grabbed a tote bag and her jacket. Mom only walks to and from her car, so I couldn’t imagine her marching anywhere, with anyone, for any reason. Sixteen-year-old me stood with my mouth agape, watching Mom brim with excitement. Mom’s pretty impassive most times and hardly ever looks excited about anything. It was odd.

Bringing myself back to the present, I ask, “Hey, didn’t you go to some march when I was in high school?”

“Yeah, the March fer Women’s Lives in ’86. It was organized by NOW.” Mom responds, as she looks at the road. The lights on the highway are all we have to guide us now.

“Wow! You marched?” I gaze at my mother in awe.

Mom chuckles. “Yeah, for a bit. But then I got tired, so I stood on the sidelines and listened to the speakers. It was thrilling!”

“Wow. I had no idea.” I murmur, turning back to look out the window. “You are full of surprises, Mom.”

Mom laughs and says, “I don’t know about that….”

I do.”

I’d learned more about my mother in one day then I’d ever learned in the thirty-plus years that I’d known her. All this time, I’d only seen her as someone who loved her job more than she loved her children. I never considered Mom’s inner life or what her life was like before she had my sister and me. Clearly, I really didn’t know my mother. The word ‘love’ was never spoken in my parents’ home. So to hear Mom say that she loved the two men she’d only ever been with is both jarring and oddly reassuring. Weary from the day, I lean back in my seat and ponder what to do with this new information and more importantly, how it will change how I see Mom from now on. 


BIO

Lourdes Dolores Follins is a Black queer woman who comes from a long line of intrepid women and working-class strivers. She’s been published in Rigorous, Watermelanin, What Are Birds, HerStry, Feminine Collective, Writing in A Woman’s Voice, Writing Disorder, and elsewhere. When she isn’t writing, she works as a psychotherapist with QTIPOC and kinky people. Check her out at www.lourdesdfollins.com





Tricky Friend

by Natthinee Khot-asa Jones and Hardy Jones

When I started kindergarten, Father bought me a new school uniform: a navy-blue skirt and a white dress shirt. All of the girls in my school wore this uniform and all of the girls had the same haircut: short bangs in the front and a bowl-cut on the sides and back. Also, the boys had the same haircut—a crewcut—and uniform: brown short pants and a white dress shirt.

The female teachers had an official uniform that they wore on certain days such as when they had parent conferences or a government leader visited. But on regular days they wore their own clothes, usually a skirt with a split in the front or the back. I was impressed with how beautiful the teachers’ skirts were and wondered if I could ever dress like them.

One day after school, I didn’t change out of my school uniform and played with my best friend Na. We played in our homemade playhouse under a tamarind tree. Na asked me: “Do you want to have a beautiful skirt like our teachers with a split?”

Na’s question reignited my dream to dress beautifully.

I immediately told her: “Yes, I want to have a dress like our teachers.”

“I can make a split for you.” Na said and took me to her house.

She went inside the house and returned with small black scissors that her mother used to cut her hair.

I was excited to have a split in my skirt; it would make me feel beautiful and grown up.

“Would you like to have the split in the front or the back?” Na asked and smiled.

“May I have one in the front and one in the back, please?” 

Na bent down and used the scissors to slowly cut the bottom of my skirt. “How about two inches?”

“Good. I like it.”

“Do you still want to have one in the back?” Na asked.

“Definitely!”  I turned around.

“Beautiful. This looks like our teacher’s skirt,” Na proudly proclaimed.

I was happy with what Na did for me. We played a few more hours, and then I went home to see Father.

When I entered the house, Father immediately looked at my school uniform.

“Come here, baby girl.”

I stood in front of him and smiled.

“What happened to your skirt?” Father asked and bent down to inspect my skirt. 

“I wanted my skirt to have a split like the teacher’s skirt. So Na helped me. Isn’t it beautiful, Father?”

“Na cut it for you or you cut it yourself?” Father’s tone was harsh.

“Why are you so angry at me?”

“Just answer my question. Did you cut your skirt or did your friend cut it?”

“Na cut my skirt.”

My answer saddened Father’s eyes. He looked down and took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure if he was disappointed because my skirt had a split or if he was disappointed because I allowed another person to cut my skirt.

Father straightened up and looked in my eyes.

“Your school uniform should never be cut like the teacher’s skirt. You are not a teacher or an adult. You can’t wear a skirt with a split. This is not right.”

I realized that I had done something stupid again and made Father sad. I lowered my head and was afraid to look him in the face.

“I’m so sorry, Father.”

“Your skirt is cut. How can you wear it to school? No student in your school has a skirt split like a teacher, and you should not cut your skirt for any reason.”

I didn’t answer but kept my head bowed. I felt so guilty.

“Did Na cut her skirt too?” Father asked.

“She cut mine only,” I said quietly.

Father’s face turned red and his tone grew harsher.

“Your friend tricked you, don’t you know? A few weeks ago she tricked you to eat her boogers, and today she tricked you to cut your school uniform. You should know what’s right and what’s wrong!”

I could tell that Father wanted badly to spank me, but he knew that I was naïve enough to be tricked.

Whatever happened to me, good or bad, Father always blamed himself. He never spanked me but only talked loudly to me when I did something wrong. Father knew that he didn’t have time to raise me like families with two parents did their children. Father tried his best to work and support all of us and teach us to grow and become good people.

Father went to the market and bought me a new skirt. He asked my oldest sister to patch up an old dress for me to wear around the house. I didn’t get to play with Na for a few days, and when I did ask Father if I could play with Na, he told me: “Don’t let your friend trick you. Do you understand?”

“Yes. I will protect myself.”

Those were Father’s final words about Na and her tricky ways.

Later, when I was thirteen-years old and in my first year of junior high school, Na was in her second year at the same school. After her father passed away, she quit school and worked full-time with her family, taking care of her family’s water buffaloes. One weekend I went to take care of my family’s water buffaloes on the south side of the village and saw Na.

“Do you like school?” Na asked.

“It’s ok. Not too bad.”

“If you don’t like school, why don’t you quit like me? It’s more fun to take care of water buffaloes than to go to school.”

I thought about her advice. It sounded good for a person who didn’t like school, but for a student like me who loved school (after my rough start, I became fluent in Thai, made many friends, and enjoyed learning), it didn’t sound good.

“No,” I said. “Taking care of our water buffaloes is fun on the weekend, but I want to get an education so I can have a good job. I don’t know how to work in the rice fields like my brothers and sisters. Education will help me get a good job.”

Even though I went to the rice fields with my family, my job was to cook delicious food for them and take care of the water buffaloes, a job Father and my siblings didn’t like. That’s why Father assigned this job to me along with cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These might be hard chores for other adolescent girls, but for me they were the best jobs ever.

“Silly, girl,” Na said. “A junior high school diploma won’t help you get a good job. You need to get a college degree.”

“Well, first I have to finish junior high school, graduate high school, and later go to college,” I said.

“I don’t think you can do it. You don’t have any money. Poor country girls like you and me, we will never get degrees. Sometimes you need to accept who you are,” Na said.

“I accept that I am a country girl and that I am poor, but it is free to dream, and I dream to have a college degree. Don’t you have a dream?”

“Nope, I don’t dream of anything. Just live day to day.”

That was the last day I talked to Na in our village. I didn’t see her for more than two years. I found out that she went to work at a plastic factory with her oldest brother in Prapadeang, a city near Bangkok. After I graduated from junior high school, I too worked in Bangkok, and even ended up working with Na at the plastic factory. I was only 15 years old: too young to get a good job. Our time at this factory was fun but it held no future.

Our job was to cut the plastic into smaller sizes to be shipped. We worked 12 hours per day, 5 days per week. We were paid 100 Baht per day (about $3.15 per day) and if we worked on Sunday, we were paid double. The job’s only benefits were that it provided you with a room that included utilities—electricity and water. We bought our own food. Early on, I liked the job, but when I thought about my future, I knew this job was not good. I needed to work where they provided benefits like healthcare, life insurance, and a retirement.

Today we hear a lot about the exploitation of child labor, and that was what this job did to Na, me, and thousands of other Thai teenagers. As time went on, I kept telling Na that I didn’t want to work weekends. Instead, on the weekends I wanted to go to school to get an off-campus high school diploma (GED). Na didn’t like my idea. She repeated constantly how much she hated school.

I only worked with Na one year and then I got a job with an American company (Seagate Thailand). This company was good; they provided great benefits and were ranked as a top 50 company to work for in Thailand. An important element at Seagate Thailand was that they would assist you with your education. When an employee took GED classes, the company paid for a teacher to come to our company and conduct classes. I earned my high school diploma in less than two years.

After I graduated, Father passed away. I resigned my job and went to a Business college in southern Thailand for two years, receiving my Associate’s degree in Accounting. After graduation, I returned to Bangkok to work with a Japanese company. I had a good job with great benefits, and I appreciated how education helped me move up economically and professionally.

One weekend, my sister wanted Na to join us in her Bangkok apartment to cook and hangout. I was happy to see Na again. She worked in a different factory and earned a set salary with no overtime or benefits. I tried to convince Na to go back to school, but she wouldn’t listen. Same old Na: live day to day.

After lunch, Na and I agreed that we would take turns pulling each other’s under-arm hair—we never shaved our armpits like farang (Western) women. I pulled her under-arm hair first, and when I lay down for her to pull mine, she said, “I’m tired. I don’t feel good.”

“Are you ok? Or you just don’t want to do your turn?”

“I just don’t feel good. I’ll do it for you later.”

Same old Na: tricky ways.

Although she tricked me, as a friend I forgave her; but I would never let her trick me again.

After that day, I didn’t see Na for more than five years. I considered Na my friend, but I categorized her as only my childhood friend. As adults, she didn’t seem like a friend; I couldn’t trust her with all of my heart. I just hope she does not treat others the way she treated me.

Tricky ways create bad karma.


BIOS

Natthinee Khot-asa Jones is a memoirist, novelist, and short story writer publishing in Thai and English. She is a country girl from the Thai side of the Thai-Cambodian border who grew up speaking Cambodian, Thai, and Laotian. In 2001, she graduated from Sophon Business School in Thailand, and later attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Auburn University, and the University of New Orleans. Her English publications include the memoirs Wal-Mart Girl, When I Was a Child, A True Story of Child Labor. She is the co-author of the story collection Coconuts and Crawfish, and the novel International Love Supreme. Please check out her books at https://www.amazon.com/Natthinee-Jones/e/B089G9GH8R/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_ebooks_1.

In addition to being a writer, Natthinee is a photographer, and one of her photos was used for the cover image of the “Family Secrets” (Issue #44) Sugar Mule Online Magazine. In 2006-2007, she was a Laotian translator and interpreter for Louisiana’s Folklife “New Populations Project.” For this project, her husband Hardy Jones received a research grant to write about Songkran, the Buddhist New Year’s celebration in the Laotian community of Lanxang outside of Lafayette, Louisiana. The essay and photographs from their research are on the Louisiana Folklife website. Natthinee loves cooking Thai and Cajun food, and in 2006 her Phad-Thai recipe was featured in the Wal-Mart Family Cookbook. Organic gardening is her newest passion, building on her childhood experiences on her family’s farm in Thailand. Her website is www.natthineeandhardy.com.  She is the co-founder and the Webmaster of the online journal Cybersoleil (www.cybersoleiljournal.com).

Hardy Jones is a Creole/Cajun educator and author in New Orleans. He is a two-time Pushcart Nominee, the author of the novels Every Bitter Thing, International Love Supreme, the memoirs People of the Good God, Resurrection of Childhood, and the story collection Coconuts and Crawfish. He is the co-author of the memoirs Wal-Mart Girl, When I was a Child,and A True Story of Child Labor. Please check out his books at this link https://www.amazon.com/Hardy-Jones/e/B00494EAS6/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_ebooks_2. His creative nonfiction won two grants. His stories were anthologized in the 2009 Dogzplot Flash Fiction Anthology, The Best of Clapboard House Literary Journal, Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South, and Summer Shorts II. He is the co-founder and Executive Editor of the online journal Cybersoleil (www.cybersoleiljournal.com). Hardy holds a Ph, D. in American Literature from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis, and a M.A.T. in Secondary English Education from the University of New Orleans. He taught in universities for 18 years and is a certified teacher. His website is www.hardyjoneswriting.com and he is on Twitter @HardyJonesWrite. Hardy splits his time between New Orleans, Louisiana and Si Sa Ket Province Thailand.



The Blizzard of ‘47

by Anita G. Gorman

In 1947 few cars were parked on our street in Elmhurst, Queens. Those who had cars kept them hidden in garages behind their homes. Rarely did a neighbor drive a car to work; most took the bus on Queens Boulevard or the subway at the Grand Avenue station. An occasional car might travel up or down 55th Road, on its way to the excitement of Manhattan, perhaps, or in the opposite direction toward residential neighborhoods in the more hilly part of Elmhurst. In the summer I would ride my bike up and down the street, and when I was a teen I would venture as far as the World’s Fairgrounds in Flushing or the congested areas of Long Island City. But in 1947 I was only eight and not allowed to venture far from home. Our street and the nearby streets, filled with two-storey houses and narrow driveways, sidewalks and elm trees, would have to provide the entertainment I craved.

On summer days we kids would play potsie—the New York version of hopscotch—or I Declare War, a game that involved a ball and a large chalk circle drawn in the middle of the street and divided into countries we had heard of but never visited. And when winter came, we looked forward to sledding down 55th Road, which boasted a small hill at its top.

As Christmas approached, we hoped for snow, knowing full well that snow and Christmas went together, along with presents and Christmas cookies, and Christmas trees with ornaments and tinsel. In our house Christmas also meant my Swedish mother’s endless toil in the kitchen, making korv (sausage) and head cheese (pressylta) constructed from unknown parts of the pig, jellied veal (kalvsylta), and rice pudding (risgröt) with an almond hidden inside, promising to its lucky recipient good luck in the near future.

How excited we were as we imagined the presents we would receive on Christmas Eve and the second batch of presents on Christmas Day when my mother’s cousins, Ethel and Mabel, would arrive for dinner carrying a suitcase filled with delights for me and my little brother. How excited we were as we imagined the snow that just had to arrive in time for Santa Claus and his sleigh, and for the neighborhood kids and their sleds.

Yet in the midst of all the excitement and happiness, fear loomed, fear that we would be thwarted in our attempts to glide down our little hill on our American Flyers, thwarted by a lonely woman who lived in a basement apartment at the top of the hill. The apartment was part of a two-family house that fronted onto Van Horn Street, and the rear of the basement was exposed so Mrs. Hume did not have to walk down steps to get home. She was tall and thin and had white, curly hair. She lived by herself, and we had no idea what had happened to Mr. Hume. Did she ever have any children? She certainly did not like children. We did not seem to bother her too much in the summertime, since our games were held outside of my house on the more level part of the street. It was during wintertime that we played near her apartment, because she lived right by the little hill, and we needed that little hill. When it snowed, we would pull our sleds up the street to the top of the hill and begin our descent with a flying start at the summit, hoping our sleds would run fast, faster, as fast as possible. Our sledding enraged Mrs. Hume.

At first she would look out the window and peer into the street, scowling at our red and laughing faces. Then she would appear at her door and yell at us, telling us that this was her part of the street and we were not allowed there. I knew that Mrs. Hume did not own the street, that we had a right to go sledding and that she could not stop us. Ah, but she could, and she did.

Snow had already fallen that December in 1947, and we had played boisterously in spite of Mrs. Hume. Then about a week before our Christmas vacation was to start, snow started to fall again. I was in my fourth-grade classroom at Public School 102 at the top of our little hill. Our teacher was employing her usual method of dealing with my naughty classmates: she was yelling at the top of her lungs. That day the yelling didn’t bother me so much, since the snow was falling and once school was over we could take to the little hill and fly down 55th Road until our sleds stopped somewhere in the middle of the street when it became more level.

The snow kept falling, and I was so happy, happy that I would be able to hop on my sled that afternoon and fly down the hill. Finally the bell rang, the snow had stopped, and we were out the door. Our house was a minute from the school, and I was soon in the door, gulping my glass of milk and stuffing a cookie in my mouth. Then I put on my snow pants, my hooded jacket, and my boots. My mother opened the garage door for me, and soon I and my sled were walking up the street. Other kids, I knew, would soon be joining me.

Suddenly I stopped short. Something was wrong. A black line had appeared across the little hill on top of the newly fallen snow. I went up to it, wondering what it could be. I approached slowly. Then I saw what had happened: a path of ashes was now wending its way from one side of the street to the other. Where were the ashes from? They had to be from Mrs. Hume’s coal furnace. Who else would have sprinkled ashes across the street? She had to be the guilty person. Mean Mrs. Hume! There would be no sledding on the hill that day. I turned around and went home.

But that is not the end of my story. Christmas came, and so did my presents and Christmas cookies and the long-awaited visit from my mother’s cousins. Then Christmas dinner was over, and vacation days stretched out in front of us. We longed for more snow. We longed for so much snow that Mrs. Hume would not be able to put ashes on the road. The snow would fall and fall, and no matter how she tried she would not be able to prevent more lovely snowflakes from covering her awful ashes. I was going to get my wish.

The snow started falling on Christmas Day. It did not stop until the next day. I was jubilant. We—Mother Nature and I—had thwarted Mrs. Hume. She would never be able to compete with the Blizzard of ’47. By the time the snow ended, more than twenty-six inches had fallen, and drifts much higher appeared throughout New York City. Mrs. Hume could not leave her apartment to toss ashes on the street. There was one problem: we could not leave our houses either. There was too much snow. Mother Nature had thwarted all of us.

BIO

Anita G. Gorman grew up in Queens and now lives in northeast Ohio. Since 2014 she has had 71 short stories and 19 essays accepted for publication. Her one-act play, Astrid: or, My Swedish Mama, produced at Youngstown Ohio’s Hopewell Theatre in March 2018, starred Anita and her daughter Ingrid.

Let He Who Is Without Sin Hurl The First Haggis

By James W. Morris

Like most fiction writers, I spend a significant portion of my time alone, obsessively and intensively fretting about the personal problems of people who don’t exist. Whether an inborn proclivity for solitude leads a person to accepting a calling to write fiction, or whether a fervid desire to write fiction forces an otherwise normal person to develop a tolerance for being on his own is a controversy on which I take no stance. I’m not worried about it either way.

Neither am I concerned about the fact that I talk to myself when I’m alone. I often compose sentences aloud, voicing possible dialog, or sounding out hard-wrought descriptive passages, listening ardently for the music I want them to make.

What I am worried about is that lately when I talk to myself I’ve been doing so with a Scottish accent.

My first thought upon making this realization was just what anyone else’s would be: “Hey, I’m suddenly speaking with a Scottish accent! I must have had a stroke!” But then I remembered that having a stroke makes speakers of English produce a French accent, not a Scottish one, and I felt a bit better.

But the question remains: why Scottish? I have had some minor contact with that culture over the years, but enjoy no direct ancestry from that country that I know of, and even if I did, my family on both sides have been in America for centuries. It’s true that my grandmother’s second husband was a Scottish immigrant, and I liked him and occasionally emulated the interesting way he talked, but he was no blood relative, so I can’t imagine how any previously-dormant, burr-inducing gene or revenant race memory could cause my new way of speaking.

Of course, as a writer, I have found much to admire over the years about the literary culture of Scotland. A number of great authors hail from there—Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Burns, the nation’s premier poet, who in the 18th century wrote these memorable lines:

                        Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

                        Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!

These thoughtfully constructed, sincerely admiring lines were part of a lengthy (eight stanza) love poem addressed to—you guessed it—a haggis. How very Scottish.

Speaking of haggis, I experienced some hands-on contact with that moderately-disgusting feature of Scottish culture in 1998, when I attended a local festival and managed second place in a haggis-hurling contest. A haggis, by the way, is a traditional Scottish pudding made from a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, chopped up and mixed with oatmeal and suet, and slow-cooked in the animal’s stomach. (If you don’t know what suet is, be glad.) Creating a contest in which the (surprisingly dense and heavy) haggis is tossed for distance might seem an arbitrary exercise, but to me it makes perfect sense: the first thing any sane person should want to do when faced with a haggis is throw it as far away as possible.

Maybe I’m just bored with my normal way of talking. I’m from Philadelphia, and we have a distinct, if not entirely charming accent, being fairly well-known by linguistic types for pronouncing the word “water” as “wood-er.” Also, try to stop us from substituting an “f” sound for some our word-ending “th”s, and inserting an arbitrary “h” between any “s” and a “tr” we come across. Thus, we might say:

                        “Yo, go wiff me up Fiff Shtreet to get some wooder ice.”

Let’s face it: you can get tired of this sort of thing after a while. So is it entirely unreasonable to imagine I might make an unconscious decision to employ a more enjoyable accent—one with trilling “r”s and rising inflections on sentences that aren’t even questions—as long as no one else is there to hear it?

But writers are as superstitious as ballplayers, and we worry about little things affecting our individual prose style the way a batter worries about his swing. Could talking to myself, composing sentences in an accent other than my traditional one, infect my precious prose? Might it, in some indefinable manner, add a deadly taint of falsity? A P.G. Wodehouse story read in a Jamaican or Transylvanian accent would still be quite amusing, yet ridiculous in a wholly unintended way. An author can be always be silly but should never be ridiculous.

Sometimes the best way to consider a proposition is to reverse-engineer it: can I picture Robert Burns amusing himself by speaking in a Philadelphia accent while penning paeans to haggis? Well, no. He was true to himself and his culture, and I should probably just shut up and be true to mine. As one of the great philosophers (Popeye) once said: I yam what I yam. Besides, I’ve realized there is a locally-made foodstuff I could write about which is the gastronomic and moral equivalent of haggis—scrapple. This product is the equivalent of haggis because anyone contemplating eating some should be equally afraid to know what is in it. A cement-colored thick meat paste, scrapple is molded into a brick shape, then sliced and fried. According to admittedly unverified rumors I heard as a kid, it contains mostly ground-up pigs’ guts, blood, eyes, lips, bones, gristle, snouts, hoofs, and tails, as well as whatever was swept up from the floor of the slaughterhouse at the end of the night—including sawdust. As a vegetarian, I’m going to find it a quite a writing challenge to compose an eight-stanza love poem about scrapple—but at least whatever I produce will have a genuinely Philadelphian accent.     


BIO

James W. Morris is a graduate of LaSalle University in Philadelphia, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published dozens of short stories, humor pieces, essays, and poems in various literary magazines, including PHILADELPHIA STORIES and ZAHIR. He has also written one play, RUDE BABY, which was recently produced, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno.

The Other Daughter

by Lourdes Dolores Follins


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

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

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

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

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

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

Subject: Re Leon Follins

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

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

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

Hi Lourdes,

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did your mother go?”

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

“So, you lied,” he responded curtly.

“What?”

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

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

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

 “Um…no, I forgot.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?”

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

“Follins, you said?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great!” Yida exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head. “Seriously?”

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

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

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

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

“Your father was so loved!”

“Your father was a dear friend!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BIO

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

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