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Grief, Guest Posts

Touch Trail Romper

June 3, 2024
romper

The bag of clothing sat where Oliver’s mother, Sarah, had set it on my worktable. I reached in and pulled out a white baby romper, its soft fabric sewn with tiny decorative pleats. I held it out in front of me and felt my knees go unsteady with sorrow.

In my imagination, Oliver came alive, wearing the romper as he toddled around, then, as he grew, wearing other clothes from the bag. His first pair of jeans at age five. The black shirt he wore in high school on days when he had a wrestling match. The timeline of his clothing ended there, at sixteen, when a single pill laced with fentanyl took him from the world.

I am a textile artist, specializing in memorial quilts made from the clothing of those who have died. After years of doing this work, I’ve developed, not distance, but equanimity. I see grief as a deep connector between human beings. My role is to listen, not internalize, these stories. I am only their temporary keeper and interpreter.

I came to this work as a textile designer, first for Nike Apparel, later as a freelancer. During that time, I was asked by a friend if I could make something out of a handful of her father’s neckties, her only keepsakes from him. I was not expecting how powerful and healing the resulting quilt would be for her. When I experienced my first profound loss a few years later and made my own memorial quilts out of my grandmother’s clothing, I felt firsthand the significance of the meeting point between grief, memory, and clothing.

But Oliver’s story infused into my bones. Was it because I have an only son who was born around the same time? Or because Oliver was a red head, like me? The fullness of Sarah’s grief was clear for me when she dropped the bag of her son’s clothes at my studio. Her palpable grief was in the air around her. When she hugged me, I felt it seep into my own body with that familiar grief-claustrophobia I’ve felt with my own losses, almost wanting to jump out of my skin and away from the truth, away from the finality of it.

There is something poignant about handling a garment worn by a person who has died. It’s like a touch trail or a talisman. A tracing of their energy. A connection to their spirit and history. I’m fascinated by the conversations I can have with people who are gone and whom I’ve never met. Establishing trust is paramount, especially with clients turning over keepsake material.

These quilts are not for the dead. They are one hundred percent for the survivors, shaped by the memories they choose to share with me. Oliver might have disagreed with his mom about which was his favorite shirt, but that is completely beside that point. What Sarah chooses to remember and how she remembers is the entire point. The quilt is her tableau.

The process by which I arrive at a quilt design from the grief stories people share is a bit of a mystery even to me. The tiniest observation can spark an idea. For Oliver’s quilt – the stories Sarah told me were so much about his boyish curiosity – I imagined a compass. Sarah loved the idea of a compass-like pattern with small squares and colors radiating out from the center. It was all I needed to create the quilt’s organizing principle.

Measure, count, cut, arrange…creating the quilt itself is like a dance. Ideas, feelings, fabrics, and colors swirl around. In piecing the story together, I must account for the fluidity and lack of chronology of memory. The quilt becomes an abstract vessel holding powerful hints and prompts, but never a literal scene.

Part of grief is the fear that we’ll forget the ones who are gone. Will we remember the sound of their voices? Or the particulars of their first days of school? With this quilt, Sarah will see the fabric from Oliver’s black shirt, even when it has ceased to “present” as a “shirt” within the quilt. She’ll be transported back to wrestling match day and remember Oliver’s face filled with pride as he competed, and more memories will cascade in.

That day when I picked up my scissors and cut into Oliver’s white romper, I didn’t hesitate. I rarely do, anymore, because after so many years, so many grief stories, so many quilts, I know it’s the first step in the transformation process. The idea of “white romper” will never go away but how it exists in the world is what will change.

The power of art lies in its ability to transform – viewer, maker, the living, and the dead. Memory quilts continue the kaleidoscope after our years walking the planet have ended. Oliver’s romper was so small it didn’t provide many fabric squares to use, but its significance was clearly mighty for Sarah, and her continuing work with grief is my inspiration. Hiding from it, we miss its gifts. Facing it, we are transformed. For that reason, I placed those bright white romper squares at the quilt’s very center. At the heart of Oliver’s story.

Lori Mason’s fine art memorial quilts, crafted from clothing of those who have passed away, are a healing gift, connecting grief, memory and transformational design. An award-winning, deeply empathic fine artist, Lori works with the bereaved to “piece together” a visual story of the one who has died. She has been a guest on Grief, Gratitude and Greatness podcast, the What’s Your Grief blog, and recently had a solo exhibition at The Dalles Art Center, with earlier inspiration appearing in the Smithsonian and Philadelphia Museum Craft Shows. She lives in Portland, Oregon. See more at her website and on Instagram.

***

Looking for your next book to read? Consider this…

Women, the exhilarating novella by Chloe Caldwell, is being reissued just in time to become your steamy summer read. The Los Angeles Review of books calls Caldwell “One of the most endearing and exciting writers of a generation.”  Cheryl Strayed says ‘Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.”  With a new afterward by the author, this reissue is one not to be missed.

***

Our friends at Corporeal Writing continue to offer some of the best programming for writers, thinkers, humans. This summer they are offering Midsummer Nights Film Club: What Movies Teach Us About Narrative. Great films and a sliding scale to allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The conversation will be stellar! Tell them we sent you!

***
***
Your voice matters, now more than ever.
We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every voice matters.
Guest Posts, Relationships

Temperance

May 31, 2024
nick

I was two weeks from starting house arrest for DUI’s, also pretending to be blonde, when Nick and I officially met. It was Halloween and I was dressed as Marilyn Monroe in her Seven Year Itch white dress. We were at a bar whose name has changed so many times it’s not worth trying to remember what it was called at the time. I was wearing a blonde wig and red high heels, the whole shebang. I had seen Nick around the bars of Downer’s Run, but I had never considered him romantically before that night. That night, the strobe lights cavorted in slow motion in my peripherals when he danced into my line of vision.

My first thought was, “He’ll do… for now.”

I slept with Nick the first time he came over. After two months, he moved in. By then, I had moved out of Aunt Marnie’s for the second time and into my own apartment on the Avenue. I picked Apartment Z because of its proximity to bars. Ten bars within walking distance and I still managed another DUI.

As my second charge, the judge ordered counseling and sixty days of house arrest. It was brought to my attention late, like day fifty-seven, that incarceration doesn’t technically begin until the first full 24-hours of imprisonment. So, for sixty-one days, I wasn’t allowed to leave. I had work release. I could grocery shop. I did leave, but when you’re stuck inside, legally not allowed to leave, house arrest feels entirely different from any self-imposed isolation. It fucks with your head.

Especially when your live-in-boyfriend is hiding full beers in the couch cushions.

Apartment Z was shaped like a crooked letter Z: the hallway connecting the two rooms was one diagonal line. During a nap, a second room appeared. A new room through a new door on my living room wall. How had I lived here for so long and never known this room existed? Why hadn’t the landlord told me I had this room? I was paying good money for it, too, I thought. Then I woke up.

My interpretation: there were new parts of myself I was about to discover.

A year after Nick moved in, we were lying in bed, and I embraced him. He was snoring, obnoxiously drunk, and yet, I loved him almost impossibly. I prayed to the universe to bless us. To please, please, please, take care of us. I could feel energy surrounding us like an ethereal blanket. Love, pure love, is the secret to magic.

Three months later, Nick won a poker tournament for over three-hundred thousand dollars. He proposed to me next to a slot machine. He told me I was the biggest jackpot and went down on one trembling knee.

“Yes.” I said, “Of course, yes.”

The only thing I could think was, “Would you just get off the floor?”

With his winnings, we bought a little house with a little yard. One night, he came back to the house after his shift at the restaurant, his face pink and shiny from the booze. He was cheery and blubbery. Liquor always made him emotional.

He squished me in an embrace and told me that I tricked him.

“I had never planned on loving you. I just planned on moving into your apartment. Using you, until I found something better.”

He shook his head like there was no way I could possibly understand.

He went on, “You got me stuck. I fell for you, hard.”

His bearded face smiled at me, blinking back tears. He genuinely believed he was utterly romantic. A week later, my sister Rebecca delivered me a pregnancy test. I was smoking a blunt while she and I awaited the results.

Rebecca was gentle with me. “It says here, a plus sign, no matter how faint, is a positive test.”

I remember dramatically squishing the burning weed into the ashtray. I texted Nick right away. I swiftly typed, “Hurry home. I have a surprise for you.”

I took a pea from a bag in the freezer and left it on the windowsill and waited.

When Nick arrived, hours later, he was beyond drunk. His cheeks not jolly pink, but red like rouge. The pea had softened to mush.

He walked through the back door straight to the refrigerator.

My heart was pounding. The words had burst from my mouth, “That’s how big our baby is right now.”

I was pointing to the windowsill as the refrigerator door closed.

He cracked a beer in response.

“Whaaat?”

Maybe I should’ve waited until he was sober, though my words seemed to have processed because his face widened.

He bellowed, slurring one long sentence, “We’rehavingababy!”

He kissed me. Hard. An assault of liquor and beer permeating beneath the sweat and grease of working over a fryer with little ventilation. I felt suffocated.

“We have to celebrate! I need cigarettes and I’m going to get us lottery tickets.”

Nick grabbed the keys, even though the gas station was half a block away. After all, he had just walked from the restaurant. He turned for the door.

“Wait, Nick.”

I stumbled over my words. “Hey, you know, over the next nine months, you’re going to have to slow down drinking… Just cut back, I’m not saying stop completely… if I can’t party… it’s going to be harder than house arrest was… watching you drink.”

He turned on his heel and kissed my cheek. “Baby, you knew I was an alcoholic when we met,” as though it were the sweetest sentiment. “You know that’s not ever going to change.”

He left the backdoor open as he strode to the driver’s seat. I listened over my heart as he started the car and left.

For the next twenty minutes I stood by myself in the kitchen. Visualizing my belly growing. Six months pregnant. Eight months. Holding a baby. Chasing a toddler. In every visualization, I saw myself alone.

I saw in my mind, kids playing in the background as I answered the phone. It was the police calling, he was at the station, and needed a ride. The phone rang again, this time to tell me he wrecked the car and was in ICU. There the police were, knocking on the front door in the middle of the night, there to tell me he was dead.

When I discarded the pea, something inside of me changed.

Gina Moriarty is an emerging writer who earned her MFA through Chatham University in Pittsburgh where her thesis was the recipient of the Katherine Ayres Award. She’s mostly a nonfiction writer but dabbles in poetry. Typically, her work covers the themes of addiction, heartache, and coincidence beneath an umbrella of hope.

Her nonfiction has been published by Permafrost Magazine, the AROHO Foundation, the Braided Way Magazine, and 3 AM Press. Upcoming by Marrow Magazine and Purple Ink Press Bimbo Feminist Anthology. Her poetry has appeared in the Brief Wilderness, the Ekphrastic Review, and the Classical Poets Society. Find Gina online here

***

Looking for your next book to read? Consider this…

Women, the exhilarating novella by Chloe Caldwell, is being reissued just in time to become your steamy summer read. The Los Angeles Review of books calls Caldwell “One of the most endearing and exciting writers of a generation.”  Cheryl Strayed says ‘Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.”  With a new afterward by the author, this reissue is one not to be missed.

***

Our friends at Corporeal Writing continue to offer some of the best programming for writers, thinkers, humans. This summer they are offering Midsummer Nights Film Club: What Movies Teach Us About Narrative. Great films and a sliding scale to allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The conversation will be stellar! Tell them we sent you!

***
***
Your voice matters, now more than ever.
We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every voice matters.
Guest Posts, writing

I’m Just Curious About Your Soul

May 28, 2024
Sky Alexanderplatz

“I’m just curious about your soul.” This thought found its way into my journal one December morning. I was sitting in bed, finally alone, when the distant church bell rang, softer than I remembered. My gaze drifted out to the dusty sky. “A cold blanket,” I wrote, “muffles the world today.”

I don’t usually write in this setting. The morning often stirs my thoughts, like beasts awakening from under tree roots. These thoughts tug at me, leaving a scatter of hair in their wake—on my ivory sheets, across the floor, throughout my day, and in the mirror. I can’t stand my reflection. But sometimes, I can’t look away, not even when the electric kettle clicks off. My tea is doomed to turn cold, forgotten until I’m staring at my screen, pondering the amount of hair I lose in a day, with nothing else to write.

That morning, a desire to write kept me sitting in bed. It had started while I was lying down, my thoughts drifting to a story unlike my usual reads—‘The Cafeteria in the Evening and the Pool in the Rain’ by Yoko Ogawa. The feelings it evoked reflected the view outside my studio—stretches of windows distant enough for private viewing pleasure. This view hadn’t changed since I came back to Berlin, except for the twinkle of Christmas lights through a window and dead branches. As I stared, the word ‘evergreen’ buzzed at the tip of my pen.

But my thoughts seemed to get stuck, whether between the pen and the page, or between my thumbs and the screen. Not just the story, but also the person who had introduced it, lingered in my mind. I pulled my phone out from under the blanket, hesitated to text him. It wasn’t gratitude I struggled to put into words, but wonder—a feeling I could never contain. ​​It was like walking with glitter in my hands, leaving a shimmering trail wherever I went. The glitter spilled without my permission, offered to the wind, the sidewalk, even the strangers I passed by. And at night, when I looked back on my paths, I wished for a sweeper. Under the starlit sky, I’d gather these scattered sparkles, just enough to return to my vial and bring them home.

I dropped my phone and wrote a phrase I hadn’t used since my teenage years: “I’m wonderstruck.”

We had met at a writing group, back when hair was the last thing on my mind. Our apartments shared a U-Bahn station, separated only by a boulevard, so we often took the train home together. Thoughts and dreams poured out during these rides; conversations flowed the way time rushed as we were about to miss our train. “I love it,” he said about the dissonance of Alexanderplatz station’s post-war architecture. “These ups and downs remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog, the video game.”

The scene came to life as we dashed across the platform. Tiles pixelated. Beeps quickened. We slipped through the closing door with supersonic grace. Later, as we stepped out onto our station, drifted toward opposite ends and up separate stairs, pixels settled like confetti. I marveled at the sight, comfortable in the mystery.

Another church bell echoed through the hazy sky. I noticed a crack on my phone screen, but it was just a hair. I flicked it away, only to pull out another one from my mouth.

One midnight, walking home together from a samba evening, the wonder man asked what it was this thing between us. The air was fresh, the sky clear, yet I danced around the topic as if we were still on the dancefloor of Café Atopia. In response to my ambivalence, he mentioned Wong Kar Wai’s film, ‘In the Mood for Love,’ and suddenly we were enveloped in a cinematic haze, a curtain of cigarette smoke dividing us. Goodnight bid with glances, the boulevard dissipated into glamorous alleyways, bringing me home.

Reading ‘The Cafeteria in the Evening’ felt like peering through a gap in the cigarette curtain. To my surprise, the story took me to another time, an evening at a wine bar, where my ex and I sat surrounded by midsummer fairy lights. Like the two strangers in Ogawa’s story, all remained between us was anguish. It was our last in-person encounter, a goodbye before he left the States after losing the visa lottery. As we delved into the past, two different versions came to light: one where he believed I hated him, and one where I had failed at communicating. A few glasses in, his eyes glinted rosy. His voice cracked as he asked, “Where was the feedback all this time?”

The McKinsey card he used to pay for our drinks lay clipped on the table.

I stared back, spellbound. My vision swirled, like looking too long into a rose. Words spilled out of my lips, a flurried speech about how our differences—or perhaps just youth—had made raw honesty impossible between us. And when I stopped talking, he leaned in. His hand came so close to my face that I could feel the force of my breaths, the stirring of anguish. His touch warm and raw.

If I hadn’t been sitting frozen, I would have registered his fingers brushing my hair. I would have felt the soft weight of those long, thick strands. Despite a gentle sway, they remained firmly rooted as if vowing never to shed, while my ex fought back his tears.

Instead, my spine stretched, unnaturally stiff. So did the distance between my waist and the high-rise of my girlfriend jeans. Although they were made to sit lower, I preferred to wear them cinched at the waist, to see how far I could extend the tail of my belt. This reminded me of the delicate parts of my body I overlooked. They were like tender moments, unacknowledged as I plowed my way through life and kept myself from falling apart. As my ex gave me our last-ever hug that evening, I didn’t budge. Every fiber taut. My goodbye bounced off his dazed look as they had a few years before—when I had ended our relationship at Café Milano.

Café Milano, too, had lights strewn across the wall. Each bulb twinkled like a figment of memory. The campus nearby held fairy-tale spots: a rose garden, iron gates, moonlit terraces. Once, the Philosophy Hall had turned into our giant sandcastle. In a dimly lit nook overlooking Strawberry Creek, we made love. I had just returned from my study-abroad summer in Berlin, the city where, a decade later, I found myself typing in the dark, “I saw fire in our fate.”

December morning came Berlin-style—in wisps of snow. My writing stalled. I reread Ogawa’s story and collected the strands on my bed, fashioning them into beautiful swirls. My scalp tingled. Inspiration pulsed like electric drumbeats across my crown, urging me to reach out—to my ex-boyfriend, my old self, to the man from the writing group.

“Soon,” I promised my journal, “because I felt a long-lost glow I’d been missing like fate.” I missed it like the gaps in my waist, like the sandcastle terrace and the stars that seemed forever etched to the sky.

Two months passed. I still hadn’t kept my promise. A flurry of doctor appointments had swept through my calendar, and I was stuck in a crowded U-Bahn. In a bus with my head pinched in a saran wrap, beneath a polka-dotted shower cap beneath a hood. My head still tingled. But the sensation wasn’t the gold flash of impulse. It was the silver of injection needles. The tiny red marks they left on my skull resembled constellations, burning brighter than the phone screen as I confronted the empty inbox. Snow blanketed my view overnight. No point in recovering lost or tracing causes, the doctors said, addressing the mystical nature of auto-immune conditions. “It could be anything.”

My reflection echoed their words until half my hair had fallen—settling on the pillow, the shower drain, on the dustpan—swept up like words taken back too late.

Seated once again before my screen, tea in hand, I put the glow I had felt into words. The thing between me and the wonder man. Unlike the wildfires of my Californian years, it was the glimpses outside my window—the flicker of December spirit over a lifeless tree, the new year buzz in the fog. My Christmas had no crackling fire, just embers. And when January arrived, I would drift through a lonely forest, circling bare patches. Hair would snap like twigs, fall among dandruff snowflakes. Each fall ushered me back to my roots, my studio solitude.

As I write, a question hums in the background: Will I be bald, or is it just my bold imagination?

There’s no answer, just anguish. This is the condition of autoimmunity, of self-preservation.

But there is—and this is—also the promise of wonder. Electricity flows from my head to my fingers, short-circuits millimeters from my heart, and still, I can see glitter drizzle down the sky. Stardusts I’d spend nights, maybe a lifetime, sweeping up.

If my words read like a confession to you, dear reader, it’s because I let them fall—without permission. And if they resonate, then I hope that’s enough—the glimpses of our wondering.

This is how it starts: I’m just curious about your soul.

Ning De-Eknamkul has lived in Thailand, the San Francisco Bay Area, Germany, and on the road. She helps people learn languages as a product manager, while also learning a couple herself. When she’s not writing, she likes to explore sunlit spots in forests where she daydreams about life’s mysteries and unforgettable characters.

***

Looking for your next book to read? Consider this…

Women, the exhilarating novella by Chloe Caldwell, is being reissued just in time to become your steamy summer read. The Los Angeles Review of books calls Caldwell “One of the most endearing and exciting writers of a generation.”  Cheryl Strayed says ‘Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.”  With a new afterward by the author, this reissue is one not to be missed.

***

Our friends at Corporeal Writing continue to offer some of the best programming for writers, thinkers, humans. This summer they are offering Midsummer Nights Film Club: What Movies Teach Us About Narrative. Great films and a sliding scale to allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The conversation will be stellar! Tell them we sent you!

***
***
Your voice matters, now more than ever.
We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every voice matters.
Guest Posts, memories

A Mexican Boy from El Paso

May 25, 2024
pharmacy

At the University of Texas

 My parents lived in five rental houses in El Paso before I graduated from college, all within a block or two from each other.  My bed was a couch in various rooms of those rental houses. I never had a bed of my own.

As I was boarding the plane for Austin to start pharmacy school in the fall of 1965 at the University of Texas, I realized that from now on I’d only return home for school vacations. Rather than thinking about the heavy course load awaiting me for the next three years, I smiled to myself that I’d sleep in a real bed of my own for the first time in my life for any extended period of time.  I found a boarding house near campus (my first rental in Austin) and shared a room with three other guys, each of us having a bed, a small dresser, and desk with a chair.  That evening I looked out the window towards campus in the distance and thought about my early life growing up as a Mexican boy in El Paso.

Jim, who I knew from high school, needed a place to live when he started pharmacy school, one semester later than me.  One very cold day in January of 1966 Jim arrived at the door of my boarding house room, needing a place for the night.  I had expected him to arrive the next day so we could go to an apartment I found near campus.  He was in luck because one of the boarders had quit school and there was an unoccupied bed in the room. The next day the maid saw that Jim had slept in one of the spare beds and yelled out to the landlady downstairs:  “Mrs. Johnson, there is a strange boy in the house!”  Jim and I grabbed our bags and hoped that his old Dodge convertible with a dilapidated top had survived the drive from El Paso and the cold winter night parked near the boarding house.  Jim had picked up a hitchhiker about 300 miles from Austin and allowed him to spend the night in the backseat.  He let him use an old blanket to keep warm during the night.  He apparently survived the night because he was gone when we arrived at the car.  It sputtered but started after a few tries.

I found a place on San Antonio Street, one block west of the main drag, Guadalupe Street, that separated the campus from the commercial and residential areas of the town.  That was my second rental in Austin. The house had a detached garage in the back which had been converted into a small apartment with two single beds.  Again I had a bed of my own. The couple who owned the house had been renting it for many years to students.  They were kind and friendly; it was cheap and clean.  It did not have much of a kitchen, but we charcoaled burgers and hotdogs in the backyard when it got warmer.  We survived that spring semester of pharmacy school.

Across the street from the couple’s house was a small joint that had live performers on weekends.  I heard for the first time Lightnin’ Hopkins play his guitar and sing; he is considered to be a major influence on many rock guitar players. I saw him for the price of a couple of beers.  It was a good place to relax after a hard night of studying and have a beer before strolling back to my apartment and falling into bed.  In addition, I went to several concerts that were held on campus.  One in particular that I remember was Duke Ellington and his band; it is only today that I realize that I was in the presence of greatness.  “I love you madly”!   I saw for the first time “A Hard Day’s Night”, an instant classic that confirmed the originality and genius of the Beatles.  There were things that I did not like about the University of Texas but for sure it gave me an excellent education in all aspects of my life.

By the time I completed that first year of classes, I learned how to study and prepare for my remaining years of pharmacy school.  The summer after my first year of classes I returned to El Paso to save up money for my last two years of pharmacy school.  My old couch in the back of my parents’ rental house was there for me.  At that time in 1966, the biggest retail pharmacy chain in the city was Gunning-Casteel, which had a monopoly in El Paso.  I got a job in one of their stores, which were bright, clean, and modern. Not having a car, I took a bus using two transfers to work at a new Gunning-Casteel in the south side of town near downtown.  It was my first taste of working in a pharmacy, encountering demanding customers and working the cash registers during the rush hours.  I also took prescriptions to the pharmacist, quickly learning drug names, and in my free time I’d study some of my pharmacy texts to determine what conditions were treated by those drugs.  I also found out that the chief pharmacist in a retail pharmacy was expected to manage all of the sections at the store besides the prescription area–cosmetics, OTC drugs, gifts and various sundries, tobacco and alcohol, and the fountain if there was one.  I remember an incident that summer when the head of cosmetics accused a senior drug clerk of stealing money by not ringing up certain cash sales.  The chief pharmacist had to handle the situation.  I never found out what happened; I had to attend fall classes in Austin.

Jim and I found a modest and inexpensive apartment (my third rental in Austin) for our second year of pharmacy classes in the fall of 1966 a few blocks south from our garage apartment on San Antonio Street. This one was bigger and had a kitchen that we rarely used.  The front door opened to a living area consisting of a double-sized bed, sofa, and a small desk and chair.  We flipped a coin on who’d sleep in the bed; I won.  We stayed in that apartment for two semesters.

One interesting feature of this small apartment complex was that it was owned by a retired pharmacist who lived on the first floor directly below us on the second floor.  When we returned from classes, she seemed to be around as we went up the stairs. Jim and I politely took time to chit-chat with her about our pharmacy classes.  She was somewhat amusing; I did not really mind talking to her.  But one day she was quite agitated when I passed her front door, and she grabbed me by the arm to tell me that the older lady living next door to her was taken to the hospital by ambulance.  I hoped for a medical explanation of her tenant’s condition, she, a licensed pharmacist and all and me, a pharmacy student eager to learn more about drug effects.  Instead, she told me that the old lady had a taken an overdose of her sedative, and to quote her–“she went coo-coo!”  So much for a detailed discussion of a drug’s pharmacological action on the brain by a highly educated pharmacist.

When I returned for my final year of pharmacy classes in the fall of 1967, I found a modest and inexpensive apartment behind the landlady’s home (my fourth rental near campus).  Jim had found a girl to marry, and I luckily teamed up with Nick who needed a roommate. This apartment was the best of my four rentals with a fully carpeted living room and a spacious bedroom with separate beds and two desks. I fell in love with my new bed. The rooms were soundproofed with egg cartons nicely arranged on the ceilings of the different rooms. Nick and I became friendly with the landlady who sometimes invited us for supper with her teenage son.  But I had very little money for food and other living expenses.  My answer was to work about 25 hours a week as a kitchen worker in exclusive private dorms for rich co-eds whose parents demanded the best living arrangements for their daughters and as a pharmacy clerk at a discount pharmacy in downtown Austin.  My reason for working so much was to save up money for a new car before I graduated.

When I started out at as a Mexican boy at the University of Texas, I did not know what to expect. By the time I graduated, I knew.  Mexican American students at the University were definitely in the minority, and I was usually the only Mexican kitchen helper at the private dorms.  I saw more signs of discrimination at UT and in Austin.  I was able to make friends with other Mexican American pharmacy students, and mainly studied and went out with them.  Because of my grades, I had the opportunity to associate with some white classmates in student organizations and honor societies.

I was nearing the end of my patience with not having a car. I had saved a good sum of money for two years but was still not able to buy a new car outright. I did not want a used car. What made the difference was that I received a scholarship for my final year of study.  I got the check in the mail and immediately cashed it.  I could do whatever I wanted with the money—presumably quit my jobs and concentrate on my studies and use the money for tuition and living expenses. Instead, I bought a 1967 sky-blue Mustang and continued to work at my two jobs to pay for car insurance, gas, and my other living expenses.

The Vietnam War was heating up.  I definitely did not want to be drafted, but I knew if I were drafted, I’d not leave the country for Canada.  A couple of my professors encouraged me to think of graduate school and to consider a career as a pharmaceutical scientist.  They were very optimistic that I’d receive a graduate student deferment.   I took the GRE and applied for several fellowships to cover my graduate tuition and living expenses.  Then I waited to see if I’d get a draft deferment for graduate school.  Several months before graduation, I learned that I had received a prestigious, nationally competitive fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which allowed me to use the fellowship funds to attend a university of my choosing.

My parents, my older sister’s family with her husband and three kids, and my unmarried younger sister came to Austin to celebrate my graduation.  After the College of Pharmacy graduation ceremony in early June of ’68, where I received several pharmacy textbooks for graduating with Highest Honors as the top student in my class, I took my family back to my apartment to eat. Nick and I went to Kentucky Fried Chicken and got several family meals. We ate, talked, and laughed.

The next day I said good-bye to my family and took off for Houston to take my pharmacy board exams. My next stop was the University of Kansas to begin graduate school.  I knew I could not work as a pharmacist for the rest of my life, but a pharmacy license would be handy to have while I was in graduate school. One month after my arrival in Kansas, LBJ canceled all graduate student deferments, and I was inducted into the army on October 6, 1968.  The next bed of my own was a barracks bed in a room with 30 or so strangers, my fifth rental so to speak.

In the Army

For my first eight weeks in the army I was assigned to a platoon that was composed mostly of draftees who were white, young, and came from lower income families.  There were a few who were volunteers and wanted to go to Vietnam.  There were a few Hispanics like me and surprisingly only one Black. Most of them were in their teens or early twenties.  I was one of the few college graduates in the platoon, who were no longer able to keep their school deferments.

Although I tried to keep to myself, it was hard because of the tight space in the barracks for thirty GIs and the close sleeping arrangements with bunk beds. Yes, I had a top bunk bed of my own. There was one large area for communal sinks, toilets, and showers. I made friends with several of the Hispanic guys who were recent high school graduates and who teased me about being the old guy in the platoon.  In the first week of training, our drill sergeant sarcastically made an announcement, making it clear he was not happy with the company commander’s order to inform us about a new program for officer training.  I am sure he thought none of his recruits were interested.  I asked the company commander if I could get more information about this opportunity.  One of his lieutenants (who was a Texas A&M graduate) whispered to him: “Who does he think he is-a Harvard graduate?”  I did not know if he knew I was a UT graduate; the Longhorns and the Aggies are bitter rivals in academics and especially in sports. The captain smiled and told me that I needed to take the morning off from training to fill out an application.

The drill sergeant was mad that he had to drive me to the other side of base to complete the application. To make matters worse, he drove me in his very sporty ’66 Mustang with a special paint job and an upgraded interior.  It was nothing like my base model ’67 Mustang.  I started to tell him about my car, but he quickly told me to shut up. I filled out the application and quickly forgot about it. There were three or four drill sergeants that I encountered throughout my training; one was a Hispanic who I thought was a Mexican American.  He did not play favorites and treated all of us the same.  The troops saw that he and white drill sergeant often disagreed on the format of some of the training exercises.  In the third week of training, there was a vocal outburst between the two of them, and they agreed to settle their differences mano a mano on the weekend.  The next week the white sergeant had been assigned to another company.  That is all we knew about the incident.

After completion of basic training, we received our next assignments.  Many of them were assigned to the infantry and had to take advanced warfare training.  They were going to ‘Nam.  Because of my college degree in pharmacy, I did not need any advanced training and was given several weeks of Christmas leave in El Paso.  I was one of the few lucky ones assigned to a base in the states.  My older sister, Tina, was now working at Ft. Bliss as a civilian administrator at the base EEO office.  When I told her that I was still waiting for news about the status of my application for officer training, she recommended that I contact the Inspector General at Ft. Bliss and make an official complaint.  I gave him all of the information and explained that I had tried to get more information from the First Sergeant at my basic training unit.  At that meeting with the sergeant, who was very courteous and a model of professionalism, I saw the company commander’s office near his desk.  It seemed that the commander had been informed of my meeting and that his lieutenant and drill sergeant were whispering in the office when I arrived in my civilian clothes.  They saw me enter, angrily stared at me, and said nothing to me. They knew that I had filed an official complaint and knew if they said anything to me it could be viewed as intimidation.  The Inspector General apologized that his investigation had to take a month or two to complete and that I had to report to my next assignment.  I was assigned to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah as a pharmacist at the base hospital, which served to train helicopter pilots and to treat returning pilots who had been wounded in the war.  I retrieved the Mustang from my parents’ home and drove to Georgia to begin my first year of two years in the army.

A few months later at Hunter Army Airfield I received an official letter from the Department of Army in Washington, D.C.  The letter explained that my application had been misplaced in a bottom desk drawer of the file clerk, most likely a private first class or corporal, at my basic training unit headquarters.  I read between the lines that the file clerk was probably told to hide the file because I was informed in the letter that the drill sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and their superior officers–a major and lieutenant colonel-were all given an official reprimand which was placed in their personnel records.  Such a blot on their military records may have affected their future promotions.  That was not my intention; I just wanted to see what happened to my application.

The Department of Army apologized for this incident and wished me well in my future endeavors in the army, which I did not consider after my two-year commitment to my country. Oh, by the way, I was able to get permission to live off base and found a comfortable bed of my own in a spacious room rented out by a gracious Southern lady.

Dan Acosta is a first-generation Mexican American, whose mother and grandparents emigrated from Mexico. He is a former professor, research scientist, and administrator, who retired in 2019 at age 74. He writes about his experiences as a Mexican boy trying to succeed in white America.

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We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

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Guest Posts, Relationships

Alternate Universe

May 21, 2024
alternate universe steve

My husband’s family: I belong to them, and they to me. Today, when I visit with Steve’s mother, she hugs me and waits for me to speak. I know what she needs to hear. “I miss your boy,” I say into her ear. She tightens her grip around my waist and, not wanting to break the connection that is mother and wife and friend, neither of us lets go. When Leal at last releases me, she steps back, her face wet with tears. I know she’s thinking what we’re all thinking: Steve’s death will forever be with us, forever a weight to bear. His family and I stand in the driveway of his sister’s house, reluctant to say goodbye. There’s an understanding now between us where there wasn’t before, and we struggle to accept this truth.

In my alternate universe, Steve is alive, riding his bicycle alongside me at twilight, oaks spreading their canopies as if to protect us, keeping our connection intact. Steve laughs at the sight of an otter tumbling down a creekbank, and a beaver in a pond, its bullet body torpedoing forward through water clotted with branches. The images get me through, and so I tell myself I’ll stick with those imaginings, until the day unfolds when I no longer need them, how many years from now?

In my alternate universe, I haven’t yet given away our camping gear—sleeping bags, cookstove, axe, and tarp—and Steve loads everything into the back of his pickup. I climb into the truck, sit beside him, and we head northeast from Sacramento, toward the Warner Mountains. We’re the only humans for miles. We set up camp on the evening of the summer solstice, the best night for viewing stars. We hope to view the Northern Cross at 10 p.m., but at 7,000 feet, it’s thirty degrees, so we slip into our sleeping bags, cocooned in winter clothing. Steve looks at me, I look at him.

“Should we get that pup we’ve been talking about?” Steve says, his face a sketch in the dark.

“Should I write a second novel?”

The questions are easy, the answers clear. We say yes to everything.

In my alternate universe, Steve is here for our daughters when they need him most; when they despair of letting him go, because they owe him something. “What?” I say. “What do you owe him?” I know they’re thinking loyalty and gratitude, and while I understand this, I have something to tell them. It takes a long time to get the words out. “Dad is dead,” I say. “He taught you everything you need to know to move forward. He gave you permission to move forward. Now do what you need to do.”

In my alternate universe, I haven’t hurt my husband. I haven’t betrayed him. I never dream about him, and I don’t kneel at his feet. But in the real world, I ache for his forgiveness. The yearning is constant, a rhino on my chest, a python around my heart, and so I step into a carnival wheel like a wooden barrel, its interior lined with humans. I stand shoulder to shoulder with the Others. My anticipation is high as the barrel starts to spin, slowly at first, and then picks up speed. All at once the floor drops out and I slip downward, knees folding against my chest. I laugh. I cry. I laugh again.

And then all at once the ride slows, the floor rises, and the barrel jolts to a stop. “Everyone out!” the carny barks. I extend my legs and rub my hands, breath outside my body. My vision settles, and I see Venus through the widening forest, a she-star waiting to greet me. “Hello, forgiveness. I’m here,” I say. “I’ve waited a long time to meet you.” I reach out—I want to connect. Venus stretches toward me her long tentacles of silvery dust, but our fingertips don’t touch. “Be patient,” she says. “Try again,” she says. “I’ll still be here tomorrow.”

Renée Thompson is the recipient of Narrative’s Fall 2023 Story Contest prize and was a finalist in The Missouri Review’s 2023 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors Prize, as well as Missouri Review’s 2023 Perkoff Prize. Other honors include placement in competitions sponsored by the Literary Death Match Bookmark Contest (judged by Roxane Gay); Glimmer Train; Writer’s Digest; and Literal Latte. Essays and short stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Twenty Twenty—A Stories on Stage, Sacramento Anthology, Nevada Magazine, Sacramento Magazine, Crossborder, Arcadia, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and elsewhere. She is the author of two novels and is devoted to birds, mammals, and the people she loves. Renée lives in Folsom, CA, with her black Lab, Donner.

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Your voice matters now more than ever.
We believe every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

To make a difference, you must register to vote before your state’s deadline. Voting is crucial not only for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates, and make an informed decision.

Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.

 

Guest Posts, memories

Outcast

May 19, 2024
home

It was the first time I ran away from home.

I was fifteen in 1971 and school had just closed for summer vacation. I was fat. At five-foot-two-and-a-half-inches tall and a Junior Size 13 pants, let’s just say at least my lower half was disproportionate to my height, and I was embarrassed to wear a bathing suit in public. It was all about the thighs. They were roiled with excess wiggles of flab – a wicked combustion of puberty and genetics. Dieting was useless and my endless hours of exploring Atlanta’s winding hills on my bike didn’t make a dent in my flab other than to tighten my calf muscles.

I was a self-made outcast. I hated my body and I hated myself. And I was certain that people knew this and were critical of me because of it. So, I figured drastic measures were in order.

Without telling anyone except my best friend, I hopped on a Greyhound bus for Panama City. I’d been there before on family vacations, so I was comfortable with the idea of it if not familiar with its various beaches and bi-ways. My hope was that separating myself from the temptations of my suburban family’s refrigerator, replete with Sarah Lee poundcake, full-fat cheeses and other temptations, plus walking along the beach for several days would find me in slenderer shape.

Good thought, bad follow-through.

I had no plan, no expectations. Subliminally, that food in the fridge represented all of the people in my family who I thought were ruining my life… my peers in high school with whom I felt no connection… and the general alienation I felt from the stifling middle-class values that pervaded my upbringing. I had already rebelled by becoming a vegetarian, but it wasn’t enough. Of one thing I was certain: I had to get away from it all.

The first night of my arrival, I stole some sleep on a poolside chaise at the nearest beachfront hotel, then spent a full day traipsing along white-hot Florida sand, only to be rewarded with a fiery sunburn. The second night I camped near the ocean, my knapsack serving as a pillow. A stranger in light blue clothing awakened me at dawn. On his shirt, reflected morning light glinted from something metallic. A badge.

“Excuse me, you know it’s illegal to sleep on the beach.”

“Oh, I didn’t know… really…”
“Okay, how old are you? Do you have ID? And how much money do you have on you?”

“I’m 15. And I have around 25 dollars. Here’s my learner’s license – but you aren’t gonna call my parents or anything are you? Please… don’t. I… I’ll be heading back home soon anyway.”

Whatever happened next, I figured I was sunk. He’d either throw me in jail or call my parents and scare the shit out of them or send me home on the nearest Greyhound bus, the same way I came.

“You can’t stay on the beach. It’s loitering, or camping, but anyway, it’s illegal. So I’ll have to ask you to leave right now. Either get on home or find a place to stay. Get yourself some money together to get on home, but you can’t stay here.”

Whew! I copped a break. A little scared and a lot intimidated, I could have found the nearest pay phone and called my parents to wire me money to get home. But that would be a total cop-out and I had to see this thing through on my own.

I picked up my sunburned body and struggled on my way. Out on the street, there was still little relief from the heat of the day, so I cautiously headed back toward the ocean in search of a motel pool where I could cool off. Here in this strange place where no one knew me, I wasn’t as self-conscious about my appearance, and certainly no one would judge me as harshly as they had at home, so I thought. This made it easy to strike up a conversation with other teens hanging by the pool. Despite not having a place to bed down and not knowing what I was going to do for money and food, a feeling of relaxation began to wash over me that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

“Where are you from?” asked one young girl, probably a couple of years older than me.

“Atlanta. I just got kicked off the beach for, like, loitering or something.”

“Loitering? What were you doing, drinking or something?”

“No, I… I… I fell asleep on the sand…

“Ohh, I get it. So, you don’t have a place to stay?”

“Um, well, no, not yet…”

“Hey, if you don’t find a place tonight, you’re welcome to crash in my room. Room 312. Just knock. My name’s Julie.”

It would certainly make my limited funds go further. So I graciously thanked her.

I’m not sure what I did the rest of the day, just sort of hung out, but at nightfall I found myself knocking on room number 312. Someone other than Julie opened the door.

“Uh, is Julie here? She said I could crash here for the night.”

“Come on in, I guess,” said a young pimple-faced guy. There were about six or seven other people hanging out in the room. Beer cans were strewn everywhere and from a transistor radio blared a Jimi Hendrix song. Hendrix was my hero! I’d played the album Band of Gypsies so many times on my cheap record player that I knew exactly where the permanent pops and scratches would come through on each song. A couple of people were already asleep on one of the two beds. It was definitely a party atmosphere, but not too crazy. I had been to a couple of wild parties given by high school buddies at home, but this was so different. Not knowing anyone meant not knowing what would happen from one minute to the next. I was nervous and excited; it was like taking a dive into a pool before testing the temperature, plunging into uncharted waters.

But I happen to be a good swimmer, and the metaphor fit. So I was fearless. As I entered the room, for a fleeting instant I sensed the freedom that comes from making my own choices and being in control.

“I’m John. Julie said she has reserved the bed for herself. So, well, you’ll have to sleep on the floor.”

Tall and lanky with a wide, toothy smile, John reached out to shake my hand. He seemed like a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. A genuinely friendly person with absolutely no ulterior motives, no pretense, no mischievous intent, John was the self-anointed official greeter.

Since not being picked up by the police was top of mind, I welcomed the safety of the room. Floor or bed, it didn’t matter. I gratefully slung my knapsack onto the sticky carpet and searched for a place to stretch out.

Just then, there was a knock on the door. John ushered in two more people. This continued all evening, the room filling up with young people who were tired, drunk, high, or all three. The place had become a crash pad for wayward teens.

A good night’s sleep was impossible. There were loud discussions about keeping the radio on, turning it down, getting more beer, where could we cop some more weed for everyone to share, who had more matches, and how we would hide the evidence if the motel manager came to the door. We were also running out of toilet paper and had to find a find a volunteer to get more from the motel lobby.

Interestingly, although smoking was allowed inside the rooms, we unanimously agreed to forbid cigarette smoking inside the room, while pot was just fine. As a joint was handed to me, I shot a wary look at the guy who had just taken a toke. A fleeting concern crossed my mind. What if he had some weird disease? Could I catch something through his saliva? Should I even care?

I quickly sized up the situation and in an instant (my mind worked fast in those days) I created a pact with myself. You chose to come here, you decided to sleep here, so it’s time to chill. Don’t second-guess yourself. Go with the flow.

So I took a toke and passed it along to a skinny girl with long, stringy blond hair. That was the kind of skinny I was striving for, even if she wasn’t every pretty. I believed that if only I was thin I could be happy, or at least feel free enough within my body to go wherever I wanted and feel comfortable with anyone in any situation. But looking at that girl sitting beside me, with her sunken, scared eyes and bony knees drawn up to her chest, I thought, no, I definitely wouldn’t want to be like her. I mean, it would be nice to be about 20 pounds lighter and never worry about my wiggly thighs, but as I pondered her further, it occurred to me that I had better stop comparing myself to other people or it would ruin me. All it was doing was making me miserable. To protect myself from what I thought other people thought of me, I had constructed an illusory wall, an emotional barrier that kept others at a distance. Here, I was being fully accepted by people of all shapes and sizes, girls and guys of various races. That wall was turning into rubble.

And then and there I realized it wasn’t home I wanted to flee, it wasn’t even my body from which I wanted to escape. I needed a friend, and desperately needed that friend to be, well, me.

All the noise and talk and knocks on the door, the coming and going, made it difficult to doze off even for a few minutes. My space on the floor kept getting smaller, and by morning, I was squished in-between two people, my face crunched against the back of hoodie that smelled like pepperoni pizza and cheap sangria. I think I may have drooled on the hoodie, I’m not sure. The limited space forced a lot of skin-to-skin contact, but there was nothing sexual about it. We were all too exhausted or wasted and anyway it was just too crowded for any hanky panky. By the early morning rays of an already steamy sun streaming through a window, I counted about 25 of us curled up or stretched out on the floor and the beds.

And then it was daybreak. Someone opened a large bag of Fritos and offered it to me.

“Breakfast. Have some,” he said.

It was then I spotted Julie. She was friendly but a little perturbed that her generosity had resulted in this rag-tag horde of people traipsing through her space.

“Hey, we’re gonna have to be cool about all this. If the motel manager finds out so many people are staying in my room, I’ll be in trouble… and I don’t want to get kicked out. I’m planning to stay a couple more nights. I wanna make sure I have a good tan before I go back home.”

A couple of visitors offered to give her a few dollars if she’d let them stay, and she accepted. I thanked her for letting me stay. She smiled and held my arm for a few seconds.

“Look, I didn’t mind you staying here at all. Sorry it was crazy.”

“But Julie, do you actually KNOW any of these people?”

“Yeah, those two girls on the bed. We came down from Pennsylvania. Drove the whole way. We’re on a tight budget and, well, other people are in the same predicament and really, everyone here’s been really nice, and it’s been fun, but, maybe it’s time to scale back.”

I told her I might see her around, and with bleary eyes and still suffering from the sunburn, I tumbled onto the street. I had enough cash to stay in a cheap motel for a couple of nights. And, after walking several blocks, cheap I did find. I had never seen so many roaches — they call them palmetto bugs in the South — in one room. I slept with the light on in hopes it would minimize their constant scurrying, and I stomped on as many as I could. For seven bucks a night and cold, running water to salve my skin, it was worth it.

Still, I knew I had to find a way home. I mean, it was never my intention to be a permanent runaway. Hitchhiking was out of the question (and I was the last person to have predicted it would be totally in the question a few years later) and that meant I needed more money. And although they would have gladly paid for a flight home, calling my parents was another thing that was out of the question.

This was MY quest and I had to see it through MY way and not wimp out. So after a couple of recuperative days I snuck my head into a few retail stores and hotels to boldly describe my plight and ask for temporary work.

“I can work as long as you need me. A few days, a week or two. I’m being honest. I’m from Atlanta and just need enough money to catch a bus home. I can start right away.”

I spotted a small, old but clean cafeteria a short distance from the motel. My honesty apparently made an impact on the manager, a sweet, balding, rotund man who said he had a daughter about my age and he would do me a good turn.

They would give me a hair net and a long apron to wear — conveniently covering up my cutoff jean shorts and sleeveless tank top — and I would dish out heaping servings of mushy squash casserole and canned beans soaking in bacon grease and overcooked fried fish slathered in day-old béarnaise sauce.

I worked a solid five days in that place. It was a great feeling to have cash in hand – about $64.00 — for committed effort. It was an even better feeling to finally be rid of the roach-infested motel. As I untied my apron for the last time, I exalted in my accomplishment. My adventure was coming to a close but I felt a door was opening. I had tripped up a few times, yet I came out ahead. I was a stronger person, a more trusting person, and even more important, it was the first time I felt I could trust the one person I would be living with the rest of my life: myself.

As the bus rambled away from the station, my thighs sticking to the damp, sweaty vinyl seats and my hands resting atop my knapsack, I was comforted by the aimless chatter among the jumble of strangers — black ladies in lacy cotton summer dresses, farmers in overalls, children clutching dolls and toy trucks and clinging to their mothers, young working-class men gazing at the landscape buzzing by, dreamers hoping for a better future.  And the intermingling of odors among the passengers — perfume and peanut butter crackers, after-shave lotion and bologna sandwiches, perspiration and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum — created an earthy admixture that had a calming effect on my soul.

I felt at home among these people. As if I belonged on the road. But in an odd way, I looked forward to coming home, too. Because even though my body wasn’t toned, my mind was attuned to an energy I’d never felt before, my nerve endings tingled with the anticipation of what it might be like to escape again, to explore other places, to take more chances. And mainly to make my own decisions about who I wanted to be with and where I wanted to go.

What my parents were thinking, what their punishment to me might be, or how they would react to my running away, did not consume my mind at all. I knew the ups and downs, the challenges and the exhilaration, of running away, of being on the move. And I just wanted more.

Ellen Berman is a professional marketing and advertising copywriter, editor and erstwhile journalist whose articles have appeared in a variety of consumer, trade and business publications both regionally and nationally.

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We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

Every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.
Guest Posts, memories

Walked (and Found) in a Strip Mall Drugstore

May 17, 2024
store

Most Christmas Eves, I worked the night shift in a small-town drug store tucked, not stuck, at the end of a suburban 70s-era strip mall. The store was located a few yards from a major highway, its exits and on-ramps always growling. Dinner consisted of a tuna sub with extra relish (ordered from the pizza shop next door just before its early close, owner’s treat), a full-sized candy bar (typically Twix) that I’d make last until twelve, and a bottle of cola (typically Orange Crush). I’d select the candy bar from the drugstore’s front display and the Crush from the ice box cooler, then count out my coins at the register. 

 

The stacks of leaning pennies, nickels and dimes would be anchored by a single quarter. In the towers, I’d imagine bright lights and big cities. I’d wonder if the holidays were celebrated similarly. My hometown went all in, with lights and carols, though my family, small – just my father, a goldfish, and me — rarely noticed. My father worked nights at the local hospital and took on extra shifts whenever allowed. I knew he grew up in what he called “the projects”, but I had always understood that to mean that we made something out of everything, and nothing went to waste. I saved extra earnings (tipping strictly prohibited, all register drawers carefully checked at shift changes and closing) for gifts come Christmas morning. I had them pre-picked and on layaway. 

 

While my tag proclaimed by official title – clerk, I embraced the role for all its unknown worth. I always felt at home in the store’s aisles. I thought of my job as service oriented. Christmas Eve, I adopted an even more universal attendance. I was as determined as Rudolph when it came to ensuring all customers left with a heartful of holiday warmth.

 

I manned the front of the store and the register – a manual machine with hand-stamped numbers and letters. One more soul in need of Christmas dough worked the store’s back wall. I’d eat just before eight. Then, I’d buy a pack of Life Savers (butter rum or cherry) and wait. Last minute shoppers were my pride and my forte. 

 

On one side of the storefront, there was concrete. Hard, unforgiving. A reality. On the other side of the chimed door, the wall-to-wall carpet was dark. Unnoticeable. Like me; I could blend right in. The store was more than a destination for pain relief; it was also a home to a new way to see. The shelves were stocked of items brimming with possibility. From Aspirin to Band-Aids. Clorox, Deodorant, and Eyelashes (fake). Gnomes from the 1940s. Hallmark cards and ice cream treats. I don’t remember the lighting, pot lamps I believe. There was a single camera, tucked in the back with the pharmacy and its mysterious bottles. It provided an aerial view of what, I believed, was a homemade Disneyland. Each day, and especially Christmas Eve, we created real-life manifestations of dreams.

 

Our customers were as varied as the store’s collection. Slumped shoulders in plaid overcoats. Construction workers in high-top boots. Suits and heels. After-doctor visit details. Those for whom we had to raise our voices to be heard. Others with whom signing to cross language barriers was the only path forward. Singles. Double. Triples. One of my favorite aspects of the chimes above the door was the unpredictability of who’d come into the store. 

 

Hello, I’d say. Welcome to Bluestones!

 

Most would turn, nod, then carry on. I’d designate characters as I watched. Jane Eyre, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Nancy Drew all shopped with needs to fill. Except for Christmas Eve, when all hearts were open and varied needs morphed into visible displays of need. A last-minute invite, oversight, oh my! Of sorts. Customers would enter the store, the chimes still on, and then take a hard stop. Like a deer (sorry Rudolph) in headlights, the 3000 square foot artificially lit box was a lot.

 

I’d get right to work.

 

“Merry Christmas! Can I help you find something?”

 

“Yes, please” was the most likely response.

 

I’d field requests for babies and bouncers. Grandparents and ghoulish neighbors. For first loves and final visits. Forgetful spouses. I’d lead and they’d follow. I had gift ideas from every aisle.

 

In between customers I’d take stock in preparation for the late-night, last-minute flock. I had patterns, as did they. While last-minute shoppers would typically start to wander in around eight, my work began days prior. I was anywhere from fourteen to eighteen. Dressed in black combat boots and spandex leggings. I wore my hair straight. A group of local boys liked to come in and giggle. “She’s Elvira,” I’d hear them say. They couldn’t bother me, as much as they’d try. Not on Christmas Eve. 

 

I’d curate mental notes of curious collections. Stationary, toys, cosmetics. I knew all the hidden sales. I prepped for all budgets (with most sales under $5), reminiscent of my own days at elementary school holiday shops and book mobiles. Cash in hand. Hurry, Transactions in demand. I helped process rebates (answer this, sign here), shared coupons (clipped and cut), and spread holiday cheer.

 

The gifts were as varied as the shop’s stock. Sock puppets, Sweet and Sour Mixes. Boxes of Red Hots, Jawbreakers, and L’eggs plastic hose. For the readers — three recent paperback releases (from Harlequin romances to Stephen King’s trances), tie-dye reading glasses (powers of 1.5, 2, and 3), and a case of Kleenex. Matchbox cars for adventurers. Jean N’Ate, heart-shaped box of Whitmans, and an I Love You sticky notes for first-timers. For the love struck: a small teddy bear, cranberry lip gloss. For the movie buff — five pre-selected dollar store flicks, microwave popcorn, and a fleece blanket. A traditional — 12 candy bars – one for each of the 12 days of Christmas. For the bird lover: dove soap, red robin hand cream, and hummingbird-shaped mints. Kodak keychains, rolls of film, print-while-you-wait images. Baby reveals and sounds of music.

Plastic recorders and handwritten dinner orders in a spiral notebook with a promise to clean and cleaning supplies. About faces – makeup bags for night’s in. 


I helped teens find gifts for working parents. I helped working parents find gifts for their support networks. One year, Christmas Eve coincided with a fiftieth wedding anniversary. We packed ten packs of Juicy Fruit (five sticks each), a soft teddy bear Beanie Baby, a faux rose for old time’s sake, and three packs of pop rocks. Love sizzled bright. For a builder — Potato Sticks tubes and letter blocks. The alphabet from A to Z. Toothpicks and marshmallows. For the word lover — word searches and a can of Campbell’s soup, all for two bucks.

I’d study the card aisle and I knew what overstock was in undershelf bins. I’d color coordinate all pickings — A $100,000 Grand bar and ten pouches of Pop Rocks for the guy who planned to propose a life of big dreams. Big League Chew and soda pop for an impromptu gathering of a baseball team.

We offered gift-wrap services for no extra charge. I knew how to tuck corners and apply invisible tape with no marks. As I wrapped, I’d listen. Visibly relieved that their shopping needs were met, the customers would inevitably want to chat. Some told tales of loss – a first, second, third holiday without someone or something. Each of them had a tale and, often, wanted to tell it.

 

I’d consume stories of sugar plum fairies and red brick houses. Three-tiered cakes, decorated with spice. Drops of candle wax, gold bands (engagements to be) and American Bandstand (nostalgia always sprouting like seeds). Carrots and walking sticks. Fountain sodas with two straws. Drugstore aisles stocked of final desires waiting to be shared or salvaged. One year, an elderly man was desperate to replace his wife’s scent. She had recently passed, and he couldn’t recall the name of the perfume she’d wear. The next year he returned in need of gifts for a newborn grandson. For some, the holiday was a blend of the beauty in the world and the terror of being alone. 

 

Sometimes, customers paused and took pity on me. “You poor thing,” they’d say. “What are you doing here on Christmas Eve?” At the time, I simply smiled. Truth is, even now, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. I’d return tomorrow if I could. But the local shops are mostly closed. 

 Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, works, and writes in small spaces in and around Philadelphia.

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

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Guest Posts, Nature

Animal Solitude

May 15, 2024
bird

I’m standing in a meadow, an old woman swinging meat on a string.

Whop! A big bird slams down from a tree, whacks me with his wing.

Instantly he’s back in his tree.

“So what was that?” He didn’t taloned me, though he could’ve. “Yes, I left you out all night. In the dark. Alone. HUNGRY! Didn’t you ask to be free?”

We look at each other. As we always do. Eye to eye.

***

My first close sight of a hawk was 68 years ago, a bird tethered in my science teacher’s backyard. Unmoving, huge, regal. Infolded power, I think now. But then I just felt it – power waiting in those great wings and killing feet. My teacher, a falconer, reached down, removed her hood, and amber eyes locked onto mine. We sat, bird and girl, studying, ignoring the sillies who gawked and giggled. When we left, she watched me go. My teacher gave me a book called Hawks.

So I learned about them, how to look for them, how to tell one from another. I’d whisper to myself, “Red hawks, buteos” beauties – reach up into the wind. Fly! Be the hawk. “But remember,” the book chided, “humans and wild animals are far too different to connect. You can only study them from a distance.” Or from dead things, cut-off parts that made me feel hollow.

But I only half-believed the book, so I became a falconer. I used the falconer’s tricks, withholding food until the birds got hungry and did what I asked. The birds and I each did as we were taught.

But it was never the real thing, wild, free beings in charge of ourselves.

What did the bird think, what did it feel? Were we just playing with death?

***

This young rascal, though! A pistol from the start. He came to me from the local avian specialist. “Zorro, we call him,” he said. “Four months old, brought in with a virus.” Could I monitor him, watch to see if his disease recurred? Make sure he could support himself?

“Well, actually,” I said, “I’m retiring. I’m 80, got no business chasing after a fat hawk.” My joints hurt all the time, and so on.

“Oh, he doesn’t need raw strength,” the vet said. “That’s why I’m asking you – he needs subtlety. This time, you can’t use hunger, you’ll have to invent.”

Subtlety? Oh my!

***

I started by sitting on the floor in my spare room, near his perch but not too. Studying him while he studied me. Thinking of that first magical bird, eons ago.

“Zorro?” That wasn’t a name. “Bird – that’ll have to do till you name yourself,” I said. “Meanwhile we need a language.” Chunks of quail lay on the floor between us. “You know meat. I know meat. Let’s talk flesh and blood.”

So there we sat, looking at each other, looking at the meat. After a time, I left one piece of quail in his reach. In the morning it was gone.

I moved him outside to a room of his own, a mews. Twice a day, I gave a soft whistle, and stepped in, offering him a piece of meat on my glove. “A-B-C-D,” I said, to say something. “ABCD goldfish. No, make it mouse. ABCD mouse. Now you say, LMNO mouse.” With the white walls and one window, there was enough light to see a little. He looked away. Sneered.

The second day, I didn’t leave the meat. The third day I did. The fifth, a meat day again, he was a little hungry. Just a little. I wasn’t hurting him by all this, but I knew what it was to feel a little weak and afraid.

In full light, he edged along his perch toward me. He leaned forward, eyeing me, Come closer, come closer! When I didn’t, he eased one foot onto my hand – paused. Eye to eye. Then the weight of the body, the other foot. He bent his head to eat. “Ah, gorgeous creature!”

Dark head – young, golden eyes. Brown and cream breast, wings with that dark under-patch at the bend that says “Red-tail” when they’re soaring. His tail, not yet orange, was striped brown, white, and salmon. Salmon? Definitely a fancy-pants!

Two days later, he jumped to my glove.

“Now we’ve been properly introduced,” I said, “let’s go out on a date.”

“This is called a creance.” I clipped a long leash to the jesses on his feet. I am much alone, these days, and my own voice is a comfort to me. To Bird, too?

“This is the lure. From old German, luder, bait. You’ll itch to chase it, like a hungry fish.” I bobbled the lure on a string through the tall grass. He leapt, caught, ate. In an hour, he was addicted – flying 100 feet, all the force of his passion in those razor-tipped feet. “Aren’t you the genius!”

***

Every morning he called me from his mews: “Let’s gooo! Go-gooo!”

Out in the air, I tempted him with live mice I’d trapped in the barn. He caught them, every one. Too bad, too bad for the little pounding hearts, flashing feet. “Death and life,” I said to him. “I didn’t invent it. But you. Suave, elegant murderer! You should be in the movies.”

We were ready for the second big test. “I take off the leash, you follow me.” He stared at my hovering hand. “I’ll be a good birddog, kicking up hot, wiggly things. Well, let’s hope. I’ve gotten pretty slow.”

I really was too slow for this work. My falconer pals were scornful. “He’s not hungry,” they said. “Look at him, he’s fat! You’ll lose him. You can’t run after him for miles and sleep under a tree to lure him down in the morning!”

Can’t? What stick-in-the-muds! I hope, I was thinking, not very specifically. Hope, hope, hope.

In the meadow, I unclipped the leash. Bird – that would do till something better came to us – flew into a tree. He was a bit slow, too. “Fine pair we make!”

I swung the lure. He looked away. I swung again. And again. Just when I was about to give up, he dropped down, gulped a treat – then back to his tree. I kicked over a stump, a lizard zipped out. He attacked, missed. Back to his tree. His bright eye met mine. Laughing! “Ah,” he cried, “a game!”

“Just like your ma would have done with you,” I said.

Finally, I whistled for him to come in. And glory be! He came and we went home.

Next, Bird in his box, I drove to an abandoned farm. There, in this new place, he changed. When I took him out on my fist, he trembled, hesitated. Looked all around, stared long up into the sky. Then – a rabbit! He was off, swooping low, twisting, dodging. Oops, clear through the falling-down barn – smack into an old tire. He scrabbled with his feet, yelping, dragged the poor rabbit out at last – it was twice his weight.

“You’re brilliant,” I said.

He squeezed, squeezed, squeezed. Turned his back to me and gave a killing crunch. And ate.

We made our way to the car, leftovers in one powerful foot. Meat was indeed the subject.

***

From December to March, we hunted almost every day, and at night, both slept, exhausted, me from age and strain, Bird from excitement and a hundred flights. He was getting strong, fast, sure. I was getting slow, achy, tired tired tired.

I began eating my dinner in his mews, while he ate his. Sometimes I’d roll up in my sleeping bag, while on his perch above, he rested his head on his scapulars. A down pillow, I thought, envying. In the morning, I said, “Yo, Bird,” and he landed like a breath on the glove.

Once I got careless, moved my ungloved hand too close. In a blink, my fingers were locked in his talons. How easily they could plunge through the flesh! He looked at me, that way he has. Gave me a quick squeeze and let go. “Thank you, Bird!”

By now my falconer friends were urging me to release him. “Fatten him up. Wish him godspeed. He’ll have about a 40% chance – good as it gets.”

The veterinarian said, “No, no. Keep him through his first molt, two more months.”

“Can you manage another two months?” I asked Bird. “Can I?”

***

I got up every morning at dawn, took him hunting, came home at dusk, aching aching. Slept until dawn. “I’m fading on you,” I said. “I’m your old granny, living on aspirin. But you, young Bird-invar, what do you care?”

Driven by some internal force, he cared about something. He began flumping about in his mews, calling, calling. Reminding me of our third – private – covenant, just between us. To listen. We were clearly beyond meat. Beyond that fundamental, that home note. “What do you want?” I asked.

Let me go, he said, shivering his whole body, clattering his feathers. Let me go.

So I did. Removed everything that held him to me physically. And he flew.

That night, alone, I read my notes aloud for the feel of words in the air. Then slept. Long past sun-up, I strolled through our meadow, past the lovely knoll where a breeze always blows, past the rabbit paths, past the gopher holes, down to the pond with its throb of frogs. “Where are you?” The trees were silent. “No, I won’t worry.”

Liar! Did he know enough to hug the bole of the tree at night so Great Horned Owl, laser eye and ear, wouldn’t find him? I’d taught caution about cars – but owls?

This was very moment when he hurtled down and whacked me.

***

For a month, we played. I whistled. He grabbed tidbits in midair. He perched where he could see my eyes, and we held there, for our long, sweet minute. With a message oh so clear: “I can live without you!”

Oh, yes. We’re way beyond meat. And the leash is now on me!

***

Today, eight years later, Bird has a mate, and years of younglings. Convention says never ever look a wild predator in the eye. But Bird looks long into my eyes. Our eyes are doors.

Sometimes, he plummets out of the sky, a battalion of crows on his tail. If I’m not waiting, he may call. Or fly past my window. I’ve stopped whistling, that only attracts his tormentors, but I’ll point to a certain tree and he lights on the top, like a Christmas-tree angel. Or I step outside and in a fiery swoop, he passes low, wind ruffling my hair. He’ll never touch me again. Dear Bird!

From me I believe he’s learned something about community. From him, I have learned a different solitude.

One day, he won’t come. The next day the next the next – no Dear Bird. How long before I stop waiting?

Perhaps, since I’m the old one, I’ll be the first to go.

Will he feel it, that hole in the world where we were?

Every day is a rehearsal, a dance in the dark.

When his eyes slip into mine, we cross a border, our minds touch.

For a breath!

One breath . . .

Sallie Reynolds is a writer of fiction and essays, living in Northern California. Her stories have appeared here and there, recently in Writers of Mendocino County anthologies, and Dorothy Parkers’ Ashes, in press.

***

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We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
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Guest Posts, memories

My Mom Drives a Red Race Car

May 13, 2024
Traci

When my mother was alive, she never drove a car. She didn’t fly on airplanes, either or climb the slatted staircase to the observatory at the college where my father taught, to see the stars. My mom had severe anxiety and agoraphobia, and throughout my childhood, our one weekly family outing, besides attending church, was a trip to the public library.

But my mother drives now. She wears glamorous black sunglasses and a scarf around her neck as she roars off in her red Pontiac GTO, similar to the souped-up 8-cylinder Mustang I would have bought with my inheritance, if I’d been brave enough to rumble up in such a car to my job as a college professor in Los Angeles.

Recently, when I told my therapist about my mother’s post-death transformation, his face grew still, a noticeable effort to conceal his reaction. I don’t blame him. I’ve had a hard time believing it myself, but the truth is that my daughter Ivy is a medium, and according to her, my dead mother has things to say.

When grief-stricken people come to Ivy for a reading, she senses the personality and sees the faces of their departed loved ones clearly enough that she could draw their picture. The dead show Ivy images in her mind’s eye, and she describes these to her clients, evidence from their lives the dead can see, or items they remember: a teacup set painted with twin cherries, a toddler’s Jellycat sloth, a hidden box of love letters, lilacs that bloomed where a grapevine was planted.

I didn’t know Ivy was a medium until two years ago. She went to Dartmouth and USC, where she now teaches, and if anyone else had told me they could talk to dead people, I would have had the same reaction as my therapist. But Ivy has always been a thoughtful and serious person. After her fiancé, a beloved psychiatrist, drowned in a surfing accident, as she describes it, “the dead became too loud to ignore.”

Thanks to a research study that involved Ivy as a subject, I now understand that mediumistic experiences, whatever they are, often emerge alongside unexpected loss. When she first told me, though, I was skeptical. I teach critical thinking for a living. As a young mother, I’d left the evangelical church in which I was raised and had spent my adulthood as an atheist. To go back to believing there was an afterlife after all felt like reverting to an inside-out version of the organized religion I had years before dismissed.

But I wanted to support Ivy, somehow help her bear the weight of grief. To understand mediumship better, I set an appointment, using an untraceable fake identity, with Traci Bray, a medium certified by researchers affiliated with the University of Arizona. I had heard it suggested to ask a departed loved one ahead of time for a sign, and although I felt sure I would hear nothing of the sort, I asked to be shown the Christmas cookies with pastel-colored icing and sparkly sprinkles my mom baked with me and my sisters every year, a tradition I had carried on with my daughters.

“Hello?” Traci said on the phone. Her voice seemed surprisingly ordinary, and after offering to allow me to record our call, she immediately came up with the name of my high school boyfriend, the name of my youngest daughter, Allison, and an accurate description of our family dog, who had died years before. She also said my mom was there, showing herself, and gave my sister’s middle name as evidence.

My mom showed the specific grosgrain ribbons she’d tied on my braids in girlhood, then showed herself taking deep, relaxed breaths. Traci asked if that meant anything to me, and I thought back on my mom’s last days. She’d been intubated and I’d sat by her side watching the machine artificially, and what had seemed violently, pushing air in and out of her lungs.

My mom also showed herself reaching for a glass of orange juice from a refrigerator, and when Traci made a point of describing the glass as small, my eyes welled up. Many people drink orange juice for breakfast, but my family’s dietary habits were a defining feature of my childhood, which I have often recounted to friends. My mom grew up traumatized by an alcoholic father. She wanted to give me and my sisters lives of stability, and to her that meant a familiar routine. She made us the same breakfast every morning—one scrambled egg, one piece of toast, a large glass of milk and a small glass of orange juice.

Traci then asked if my mom had had Parkinson’s – no, I said, but she did have an essential tremor, which others often mistook for Parkinson’s. Was this coincidence? Just good guessing? Lots of older people have shaky hands. But of the many symptoms a person could have when they are aging, Traci had described the symptom my mom had found most distressing. In the last few moments of the call, Traci asked, “Did your mom have a special recipe for the holidays, some kind of sticky green spread or cream cheese you’d spread on crackers?” It took me a minute before it dawned on me. Was she seeing our Christmas cookies?

I found the conversation remarkable and moving, but later in the day I was surprised to hear Ivy had another message for me. “Gran’s here,” she said, and when Ivy described seeing a name-inscribed, silver chain link bracelet my boyfriend had given me in high school, my mind began to shift. I hadn’t thought of that bracelet for years. How would Ivy know something I’d forgotten about myself?

Still, trying to absorb the surreal possibility that my dead mother could talk to me felt difficult. When I was a small child, my mom sometimes disappeared into her bedroom for hours, leaving me to cope on my own. And although we had cozy times, too, Sunday night popcorn, reading in lawn chairs together in the front yard, and as many presents on Christmas and birthdays as she could manage, much of my young life revolved around her distress.

The year I was a sophomore in high school, my parents and sister and I went on a rare outing to a new restaurant at the mall, which was on the second floor, up a flight of red-carpeted slatted stairs. When we got there, my mom put one foot on the first step and one hand on the railing, but couldn’t get herself to go up. The restaurant was visible above us on an open balcony, and I remember gazing at the people chatting at tables, as my dad searched for the elevator. After we realized it was out of order, and we’d spent a few moments standing awkwardly around, we got back in the car and drove home.

When I was eighteen, my sister and I tried to teach her how to drive on a country road near our home in southern Idaho, but she gripped the steering wheel for only a few minutes before her arms began shaking from fright and exertion. I can imagine how she might have felt, the road stretching out into the distance, impossibly long, open fields all around. When she put on the brakes and the car jerked to a stop, my hand flew up against the dashboard, and she didn’t want to try again. Everyone drove in Idaho—it was the way we got around, and her refusal to take agency over that part of her life felt emblematic of the way fear was allowed to rule our lives.

But we didn’t press her on these issues. We kept silence around them; that was our family’s unspoken pact. And now in this moment, I was finding it hard to accept this new mom, talking to me so openly, as if my childhood trauma had never taken place.

I decided to schedule a follow-up call with Traci, to confide in her about Ivy’s mediumship experiences, and the conflict I was feeling. “They’re showing me your mother’s anxiety came partly from her own unrecognized psychic abilities,” Traci said, describing mediumship as a strange inheritance that often runs in families. Traci said her own family has refused to acknowledge her stigmatized profession and remarked that my open-minded curiosity was a gift to my grieving daughter, who was struggling with self-acceptance.

And whether I believed it or not, Ivy frequently felt my mom’s presence, so I kept listening. “Why does Gran keep showing me a single raspberry and then strawberry shortcake?” Ivy asked me one night.

I was stumped, then remembered the cereal heaped with raspberries I’d had for breakfast. That morning, I’d been thinking of my girlhood, and how fresh berries had been a rare treat. I have so much, I’d thought, feeling grateful. I had said nothing out loud to anyone about this, but through the images she was showing Ivy, my mom was bringing it up.

“We did have strawberry shortcake in the summer. I remember that now,” I said, laughing at my mom’s correction of my memory, a moment that felt like normal conversation between two people.

It took a while after I started hearing messages from my mom for me to say to her, “I know you loved me so much, but I wish you had been more consistently present for me.” It took guts to say that, even to a dead woman.

Through Ivy, she responded, “I’m so sorry. I will say I’m sorry as many times as you need me to.” And then she said, “that’s the reason why I’ve been showing up so consistently for you now, because I want to try to make up for that.”

Her words made me weep. There were regrets on my side, too. I’d felt guilty when she asked to live with me in Las Vegas where I had a teaching job at the time, choosing instead to visit her in Idaho at the assisted living facility where she spent her final months. But now she showed herself to Ivy in what was unmistakably her own sense of humor, flying over The Strip in a cartoon airplane, quipping, “Granny goes to Vegas! Can you imagine? That would have been a disaster!”

I’d also felt ashamed about the amount of my inheritance I’d wasted buying clothes online, but before I even asked, my mom communicated that shopping had been a form of self-care for a grieving daughter. She said she was glad I’d found a way to bring myself joy in a hard time. I hadn’t known how badly I needed to hear that, and a knot of tension released in my chest.

I marveled at all my mom seemed to know about the private moments of my ongoing life, and she responded by showing Ivy the “cone of silence,” the goofy device used on the TV show Get Smart to send secret messages, as if to show me I now have a direct pipeline to my mom with my thoughts. It seemed purely silly, another perfect example of her sense of humor, until I watched a clip of it again on YouTube, and listened to the dialogue in the scene. Max says, “Well, Chief, I appreciate you taking me into your confidence like this.” And the Chief replies, “Max, there is always someone in whom we must have faith.”

My other daughters say I seem lighter now, more attuned and present. I know intellectually from therapy that my wiring from my upbringing has the potential to tip me into fear and anxiety, but as my ongoing relationship with my mom has evolved, I can feel something inside me healing.

Recently, Ivy spoke as a medium on a podcast hosted by two therapists called Love, Sex, and Attachment about how evidential mediumship can help the grieving develop a more secure attachment through the cultivation of continuing bonds. Similar to narrative therapy, Ivy’s abilities have helped me rewrite my own story of loss.

Somewhere I read that healing doesn’t occur outside of relationships; healing occurs inside safe relationships. Perhaps the most convincing evidence that my mom really might be alive and well in another dimension: my relationship with her is finally becoming a safe place to be.

Constance Ford is originally from Idaho, and has earned degrees in creative writing from Hollins University and UNLV. Her short stories have been published in Pif, Switchback, and Brain, Child, among others, and she currently has a novel out on submission. She lived in Las Vegas for thirteen years, raising her daughters there, and now teaches writing at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her daughter, Ivy Sunderji can be followed at here.  

***

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.

Family, Guest Posts

Staying Out Of The Doghouse

May 9, 2024
doghouse

As a baby, I didn’t like men. I would squirm and cry to the point you would have thought I was having an exorcism, even around my father from time to time. My grandfather was no exception until the day he saved me from a relentless, paint encrusted clown in Gunther Toody’s. I sat, pinned inside my plastic tower, without the use of my legs and hardly any control over my own voice. My grandpa offered me one of his fries, and after that, my mother said he became one of my best friends.

Rick wasn’t my real grandfather; I didn’t look a thing like him and neither did my mother. But even from a young age, I never disregarded his love. My maternal grandfather Clarence was long disowned and dead, having left my grandma with four young kids in the 60’s. My mother was only four, the same age I was when my own father left.

“I saw Rick at Margie Stewart’s house at a party, I don’t remember what for, and I told myself ‘I’m going to marry that man one day.’ And I did, didn’t I?” My grandma used to chuckle, deep and rich from her belly.

My grandpa Rick had big steel blue eyes, larger than any harvest moon you’ve seen. I always knew him as tanned from the sun and leathery with age, but in a solitary photo of his adolescence, he was a cherub in sepia. During the Depression, he hitchhiked on train cars with his brother from Arizona to California, working odd jobs and sending money back home until he was old enough to enlist. Rick had all kinds of professions – banking, janitorial, landscaping, automotive. He never retired until he had to, cleaning an elementary school for a decade until he broke his hip. After, he volunteered the last decades of his life to maintain the grounds and facilities of the Synagogue across from their house. No one in our family was Jewish; they held his memorial service.

With a floppy, checkered bucket hat tied around my chin, I used to sit in the cool grass watching grandpa pull weeds until the soft, green blades had formed divots in my chubby toddler legs. When I was old enough, he let me help, though that mostly consisted of me sitting on a roller cart and scooting myself around by thrashing my small body back and forth, running over corpses of weeds discarded on the sidewalk. On one occasion, I remember helping wheelbarrow rocks, most of them as large as my head. I thought I was Wonder Woman doing the heavy lifting, but photos show him carrying the ends of the handles behind me.

He used to drive me to McDonalds in his old Ford Ranger and we’d share a large fry. Travel-sized tissues, loose change, tire pressure gauges, and old sweat-stained hats were smashed into the crevices of his windshield. There was always a bottle of water on the faded bench seat, sliding and sloshing through every turn.

At fifteen he took me for a joyride before Christmas Eve, when I’d turn sixteen.

“Stop being so goddamn chicken or Mom will put me in the doghouse for taking you out in the snow. She’s not supposed to know we’re out here and the longer we sit here the sooner she’ll come looking.” He put a large hand on my shoulder. “Now, that’s the clutch, that’s the gas, that’s the brake. I’ll help you shift.”

His ever-present doghouse was a metaphor he had used since before I could understand English. Instead of threatening me with a time-out or no supper, he’d tell me I’d have to sleep in a doghouse if I continued to act out. Or worse – he’d get thrown in the doghouse if he took the fall. If ever he was in trouble, or trying to get himself out, he’d pout out his bottom lip and widen his blue eyes in protest like some cartoon character.

“Don’t put me in the doghouse, Mom!”

He got out of almost everything. They didn’t even have a doghouse, let alone a dog.

That afternoon, I eventually stopped stalling the truck and got the foot dance down. We traded seats on the way home so he could drift oblong circles in an empty parking lot full of fresh powder. He hardly ever smiled; taking pictures, we’d unanimously groan at his lack of enthusiasm. But he smiled that day, and I’m almost glad I don’t have a picture of it. Almost.

Not even a month after I graduated high school, we moved to Colorado. My mother had lost her business and the house had fallen into foreclosure. All we had left my senior year was an SUV, a pawn with which we played an unaffectionate game of hide-and-seek with the repo man as we bounced between rental houses in California; he eventually won.

With no one to turn to, no hands to lift our tired bodies, we came home to the peppered foothills of the Rockies. Moving in with my grandparents was a last resort. They were the mirage in the desert, an island chain through chasmic ocean. We were stragglers tumbling in for a drop of water, never asking if it was drinkable.

My grandfather had continuously rising medical issues that sent him to the hospital every few months, a result of his covert drug use and lack of dietary fiber. However, they refused to pay for an ambulance. So instead, one of my aunts or uncles would get woken up, drive thirty minutes out to their little turquoise house with the little chain link fence, and race him to a fluorescent facility only to find he was constipated and not, in fact, having a medical emergency.

They lived in a cracker-box tri-level house with a yard my grandfather meticulously manicured. The lot was disproportionately sized, like a one-room cabin in the middle of a national park. While we found our footing, my mother and I moved in. We helped with everything from cleaning, to cooking, to ordering oxygen bottles. I started working full-time so we could eventually afford a place of our own.

I slept in the same twin bed in which my mother experienced growing pains, draped in the same dark green and gold paisley quilt she always loathed. The same collection of Little Golden Books, the thin ones with ornate metallic spines, sat in a cardboard sleeve on the tall dresser; my grandma used to read them to me on long forgotten afternoons. The same jackrabbit hung on a wall the color of robin eggs, stuffed and glued together in such a terrifying way that I could not bear to open my eyes lying down, even as an adult. It always stared down into me, its lifeless eyes calling attention to its deformity and making me feel small.

Every night, my grandfather would play his country music. 98.5 KYGO lulling him to sleep and keeping all of us awake until my grandmother decided to hit the hay around midnight. Except, he never really was asleep, because you would always hear “Love you, Mom” and “I love you too, Dad” through the white striped wallpapered walls. They always called each other ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, their names long overgrown with the curling tendrils of parenthood.

On a February morning, I brought waffles up from the basement freezer because grandpa had mentioned they needed to be eaten. Frozen in a basement and completely encrusted with crystalline flakes of freezer burnt delicacy. Probably expired — but who cares? — right next to the pork loin.

We usually sat together before the sun took its first yawn, when I left for work and he went outside to inspect his yard. He would have his liquid breakfast, black and steaming in a once-white coffee mug. I made myself a slice of Wonder Bread with salted butter, sometimes jelly. As people of few words, we hardly ever said anything to one another other than morning greetings, but just having company was conversation in its own right.

My mother would later tell me that after I left for work, he would have a side of Percocet with another cup of watered-down coffee, the grounds stretched out with water from the hot pot rather than a fresh pour.

I was oblivious to such things until after he died. I helped my grandma go through the house to find his hiding places. Little white pills, some of them half and some of them whole, tucked under a dusty doily, peeking around a ceramic platter in the cupboard, or hidden inside an antique Ritz Cracker tin can. Many still tucked away in his jacket pockets, folded inside used napkins, or powdered into ashlike embers.

On this particular February morning, I wanted to do something nice for everyone. After I had thawed the ice-block waffles, I scrambled some eggs. I offered a plate to my grandfather even though he never had breakfast. But then he did something that surprised me — he ate it. I left a sticky note sealed with a smiley face for the matriarchs, the waffles sitting on a red plastic plate next to the sink while the eggs steamed up a glass lid.

When I came home that evening, the entire house was dry heaving with tension. The walls stretched, the roof groaned, the shades pulled themselves into a knot. Crossing the threshold, everything was quiet. Where Steve Harvey’s voice usually rang out, threatening to pop the speakers with “Name something” this or “Name something” that, a silence violently spoke. I left my shoes by the door and my mother whisked me up the ever-tired stairs. Her eyes were red, puffy, and distant as she told me my grandparents were beyond upset that I had cooked the waffles without asking for permission. She had packed our suitcases in anticipation, having been kicked out in her twenties over some nonsensical argument.

Blood filled my chest and cheeks, the heat blistering to my ears at the thought of causing an argument over breakfast. I marched down the narrow, creaking staircase and into the purple and green kitchen where my grandma was stirring brown gravy on the stove. The forty-year-old original cabinets shone with remnants of steam and oil residue, yet the wood refused to peel. School photos of all my cousins stared at me from above the kitchen table.

“Why are you upset about the waffles? I didn’t mean to make you upset, I just wanted to make breakfast for everyone.”

“You’re eating us out of house and home,” she had said, faceless and unmoving.

I stared at my grandmother’s back. Her words rang out the way one might turn a cheek to a stray dog, unwilling to acknowledge the animal’s needs yet holding all the power to change its circumstance. The words ‘What a poor dog’ become piteous comment instead of action.

I remember letting my voice expand into the space between us, thick enough to lean on. “We’re grateful for everything, but we don’t ask to be fed. We buy our own food, so you don’t have to. I just wanted to do something nice for everyone.”

My grandfather came in from the garage, a stream of smoke trailing behind him that coagulated with the scent of gelatinous packaged gravy. He started using language I had never heard the man use in my nineteen years of life before vanishing back into his cave.

“Don’t you raise your voice at your grandma. The both of you get the fuck out of here, or I’ll call the cops and they can remove you! Get out of my goddamn house.”

I should have known then that he was high, but I didn’t. My grandfather’s soft-spoken nature succumbed to the euphoric-induced rage of his addiction, unleashing a violent and abusive man that no one would have predicted. My grandmother played along, enabling his outrage and the absurdity of it all. In fact, until the day she passed, she denied the event ever happened. Everything after that — scrambling out of the house, vocal chords growing hoarse — is a blur, as it should be.

With a life and dogs in the back of our SUV, we drove to Walmart. After every call to an aunt, uncle, cousin, or friend in the state, we were told that they just could not take us in, especially with pets. For months we cleaned ourselves in public restrooms, heated microwave meals from Dollar Tree in Seven Elevens, and slept in our car though we didn’t really sleep. While I worked, my mother would sit in parks with the dogs or pet-friendly cafes to look for work, commandeering the Wi-Fi.

If you ever want to feel the heat of an eye narrowing in on you through a magnifying glass, brush your teeth in a public restroom. Better yet, wash your face and comb your hair, and you can almost feel your flesh start to smolder with smoke under the concentrated light. People will gawk and side-eye you like you’re naked, standing for all to see with a big sign that says ‘Look at me’ hanging off your neck.

“Haven’t they ever seen someone brush their teeth before? What are they looking at?” My mom would complain. She ended up standing in stalls so no one would look at her.

The car was spacious enough with third row seating for all of us to fit — my mom, myself, and two dogs — but only if we kept our bodies in specific positions. I hated the way the windows mirrored my body lying in the seat and I avoided looking at myself whenever I could. Only, the windows also let the outside peek in. The world never settled the way a house does, constantly yelling and moving, just like the voice in my head.

Two Februaries later and a week after my grandmother’s birthday, my grandfather passed. I stood in a churning sea of impatient people on a median at LAX trying to get home, clutching a suitcase to steady my knees against the swells of disbelief. My face was ugly and my voice no less as I cried into the phone where he silently listened. I imagined my mother holding the phone to his ear as he laid in a hospital bed, buried beneath a gown too large for his bony, tired body.

“You be a good girl and stay out of the doghouse, okay? I love you baby.”

My grandmother called me one afternoon asking for help changing a bulb; she was family and frail, so I didn’t turn my cheek. One way or another, we became inseparable. She didn’t know how to pump gas, so I showed her one stuffy June afternoon; she never did it again and had me fill her old Buick up once a month. We used to go thrift shopping on Saturdays when Goodwill was half-off, buying Christmas presents throughout the summer so we’d be ready come December. My mom ended up getting rehired by a company she left twenty years prior with her tenure. She’d travel a few weeks out of the month, so grandma would have me over for dinner. We’d watch her favorite shows and I’d sit in grandpa’s matching periwinkle recliner, the old tufted armrests weathered from years of rocking.

On her deathbed, grandma gifted me her wedding ring. My grandfather worked so hard for the small, jeweled thing that replaced her simple band on their twenty-fifth anniversary. It’s reminiscent of the Red Sea Moses parted in Exodus, with ten small diamonds holding up two waves of smooth gold. One of the only times I ever saw him cry was when he gave it to her, complete with a big old kiss right on the lips — something they seldom did in public. One aunt told me to melt it down and distribute the diamonds. Another told me it was weird that I’d wear a dead woman’s ring. One uncle told me I needed to sell it to refill the estate coffers. I wear it every day.

My grandma died on my birthday in the living room, which became mine and my mom’s four years after the waffle eviction. We closed on the house — by pure chance — on my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, July 6th. I almost wish I made this up. Our procurement of a home prompted my aunt and uncle to sue us for cheating them out of inheritance; a judge ruled in our favor. My mother and I spent months touching every single thing my grandparents ever owned, cleaning up the remnants of their life like diligent hostesses after a party, deciding what was trash and what was suitable to be kept.

Natalie Gramer is a pilot and ground instructor holding a Bachelor of Arts in English Writing with a minor in Anthropology and a Bachelor of Science in Aviation & Aerospace Science from MSU Denver. Natalie has been published in the Shot Glass Journal and enjoys mythology and history.

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