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Hot Days Are For Listening

December 30, 2023
broken TV television

There is nothing but talk in the village now.  Buzzing talk like hornets.  Who did it?  How dare they?  Who could betray us like this?  There will be a trial at the kgotla tomorrow, even though there are still no suspects.  No one has confessed and no one will.  They are afraid to be outcasts in their own home, avoided and shunned.  All anyone knows is that the new 55” high definition TV screen in the community hall is shattered.  Mma Bogwasi found the stone that did it lying on the cement slab floor of the building.  “Someone has hatred in their heart,” she cries loudly, shuffling past each of our doorways in turn.  “Oh Lord, forgive us!”  I want to swat her words away from my ears.  It is too hot today for loud talk.

I go to sit at the edge of the yard where I can hear the wind in the motshaba trees.  When I feel the sand turning cooler beneath my feet, I perch myself on the large tire that encloses Mama’s herb garden, daring the dusty rubber to scald the backs of my legs.  Insects chirr their secret language in the nearby brush.  I smile, thinking how there will be no more screaming football or slick politicians babbling from the TV with promises of more jobs and schools, like their mere words are diamonds spilling through the screen.  Mama tells me I shouldn’t sit so far from the house because up in the trees is where the leopards like to hide.  I imagine they are sitting among the chattering leaves, looking down at me while I boldly raise my face to them, both of us enjoying the shade.  Leopards don’t watch TV.  They prefer to watch children like me and think about eating them.  I don’t think they will eat me though.  They like relaxing in the shade better.

The TV was a present from the Americans.  They came to our village three times.  That is two more times than all the other foreign visitors, so we knew they would eventually bring what we wanted.  The elders ask for a TV every time foreigners visit our corner of the Okavango for safari… which is many more times than three.  They said it would keep the young people from trouble like drinking and having sex.  But I don’t see how having sex is any real trouble.  My oldest sister is pregnant and she lets me touch her belly which sometimes jumps.  I can see how a jumping belly could cause some trouble, but it keeps her from drinking, so I think it is better for her belly to jump than to be sick.

“Foufetse!” she calls me now, “Get some more water!  Hurry!”

She never asks nicely, even though she is only four years my elder.  But I am happy to hear her voice.  Sometimes, if I sit too still in Mama’s garden, I become invisible, and all day people cannot see me.  Even when they walk past on their way to the community hall, so close I can touch them, they do not see me.  I worry that one day I will disappear for good.  But my sister reappears me now with her barking demands: “Foufetse!  Now!  The baby is coming!”

It is the middle of the day, so the sand in the road burns my feet, encouraging me to shuffle faster with the full water bucket to the house.  I stop in the cool outside the open doorway where the reeds from the roof overhang to form a moat of shadow.  From inside, I can smell the gas that runs our small appliances and the mustiness of old clothes, waiting for washing day.  “Sister?” I call into the darkness.

Mama steps outside and takes the water from me.  “What took you so long?” she scolds before slipping back inside, not waiting for an answer.  I hear my sister groan.  I stand there for a moment, wishing I could watch.  I wonder what it looks like for life to enter a newborn body and give it its first breath.  I wonder, standing so close, if the curse I was born with might pass on to the new baby like lice.

I wander into the deserted kgotla—an assembly of empty plastic chairs, gritty with dirt and disuse, gathered beneath the acacia trees.  Meetings have been few since the arrival of the TV.  The elders congregate in the western-style community hall instead.  It is hot inside because the roof is made of tin instead of thatch and there is no breeze.  I do not know why they prefer it there.  The TV talks over everyone, even the village chief.  Chief Tshepo is often long-winded, but the TV is even longer and windier.  It talks loud and fast, like it doesn’t need air to breathe.  Sometimes it shouts “Goooooal!” and everybody in the hall shouts.  Usually, though, everybody is silent while the TV chatters on and on.

Since I am invisible again, I sit in one of the prohibited chairs and pretend that I am an elder.  “A community is not a community without honor, and honor means we speak only what is truth!” I parrot Chief Tshepo.  “So if you are truthful, speak!  If not, hold your peace!”  I wait, letting my words ring across the kgotla.  “Who broke the TV?” I demand.

Someone laughs.  It is a surprising sound.  Usually I am alone here while the whole village is in the community hall.  But now the TV is broken and there is laughter outside again.  I smile at Mma Bogwasi.  “I did not hear you arrive, Mma.  Hurry, come join us.  The meeting has already started.”

“You going to become the village chief one day, little Foufetse?” she asks, creaking heavily into the chair next to me.  Normally, she would stand with the other women and the children during a meeting, but since it’s just the two of us, she makes herself comfortable.

“Yes,” I say, sitting up straight, “and when I am chief, I will ban TVs forever from the village.”

Mma Bogwasi’s voice turns serious.  “Why would you say that, child?  That TV has made people here very happy.  A terrible shame someone went and broke it.”

“When everyone is watching in there,” I complain quietly, “the village stops breathing.”  I don’t expect her to understand.

“You’re a strange one, Foufetse.  God help your mother, raising a child like you.  But I suppose you’re the only one here who isn’t all that upset about what happened, seeing as you never got to watch the TV in the first place.”

“The village dies,” I continue in a whisper, “and then I disappear.  I am here, but no one sees me.”

“No one sees you?” Mma Bogwasi laughs again.  “More like you can’t see nobody.  The kudu doesn’t graze in peace just because it doesn’t see the lion hunting it.”

She’s tickled, like she thinks she’s taught me something I don’t already know.  But I am eleven and I’ve learned many secrets that nobody thinks I can know, like how people turn their faces when speaking: the dominant elder facing the listener, the dutiful listener facing the ground.  I turn my face to Mma Bogwasi now, showing that it is my turn to be listened to.  “I know all about my curse,” I say.  “My sister is having her baby and Mama doesn’t want me to hold him because she says I might trip over something and drop him.  She doesn’t see what I can do.  I carry the water every day without spilling a drop, but Mama still doesn’t see me.”

Mma Bogwasi sighs.  “Well, that sister of yours isn’t having a baby just yet.  I came up here from your Mama’s house.  That girl just wants some attention is all, imagining contractions.  I tell you, everyone in the village is restless today.  It’s this heat.”

Not the heat, I think.  The broken TV.

When Mma Bogwasi leaves, I stay seated in the kgotla, the heart of the village, and listen to its rhythm.  I’ve learned that hot days are best for sitting still and listening.  Our neighbor rides by on his donkey and the smell of grass and manure tickles my nose.  Young children shout in play.  Dogs quarrel.  I hear my mother scolding my younger brother.  Someone crushes aluminum cans.  Dried reeds whisper in deft, weather-worn hands.  Skirts sigh against bare legs.  A distant hippo bellows.

The village is restless, yes.  But alive.


The next morning, everyone gathers in the kgotla.  I sit in the sand with the other children, but it is difficult to sit still.  I am anxious to know what will happen in the trial.  Chief Tshepo opens the meeting with ceremony and gravity.  No one is laughing in the kgotla today.  A fly lands on my neck again and again and I swat at it.  Mama toes me in the back to be still.  This makes me happy.  I am not entirely invisible today.  Not yet.  But when the village chief demands a confession, I feel myself start to disappear again.  I know that Chief Tshepo’s eyes are searching the crowd for the culprit.  But he will never find me.  He will not see me because he does not think that a blind child can hit their mark with a throwing stone.  No one here knows how I practiced for days, out in the yard by the motshaba trees.  I collected rocks and hung the water bucket as high as I could from a branch, then counted my paces back from the tree—the same width of the community hall.  No one heard the ringing of the pail when I began to score.  They were all huddled inside, listening to far off strangers gossip.  I raised my arms to the cheering sun and quietly shouted, “Goooooal…”

“Do you think God will favor you if you keep quiet?” Chief Tshepo bellows.  “You think your stomach will not sour when you next taste water, from holding your guilt inside?”

My sister groans suddenly.  The women around her murmur.

I hear Chief Tshepo stand suddenly, and I know his muscles must be taught like a predator’s, his dangerous energy rippling through the kgotla.  “Do you think you will be safe in childbirth?  That your son or daughter will not be made helpless with blindness when it is born, like Foufetse?”

“Enough of this,” Mma Bogwasi cries, the only woman bold enough to interrupt.  “Her contractions are real enough this time.  She needs to be brought back inside the house.”

There is a shuffle of hands and feet.  My sister cries out again.  She has stolen the show and now the trial must be put on hold.  Around me, the village is stirring, murmuring, my sister’s name on their lips.  I sense fear in their movements.  I hear their heads turning every which way, looking, looking.  But they are all blind.  They are now the nervous kudu antelope who do not see the lion in their very midst.  None of them can see what is so obvious… my sweating palms and my shaking knees as I stand and step into the center of the circle.  How bad can it be, I wonder, to be shunned if you’re already unseen?

I speak in a loud, high voice that stills the kgotla.  “It was I, Foufetse.  The so-called helpless child.  I threw the stone, and it was I who broke the TV.”

Now there is nothing to hear.  Only the shiver of the acacia leaves.  But I can feel it.  The entire village… everyone is looking at me.

And I smile.  I am no longer invisible.

Bethany Nuckolls is an educator, world traveler, and writer based in Charlotte, NC where she lives with her bestie and two huggable plush sharks.


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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Guest Posts


December 26, 2023

Missy caught the firefly in mid-air, cupping her hands around it to form a tiny, dark cave. She could feel the insect’s delicate footsteps tickling her skin as it wandered across her palm, searching for a way out.

“Got you!” she whispered, victorious.

It was almost dark. The sunset was nothing but a burnt orange smear on the horizon. Usually, her backyard would be a brilliant starscape of twinkling golden lights at this hour. But tonight, there was just one lonely firefly hovering around the garden.

Missy lifted her hands to her face and opened them just enough to peek inside. A soft yellow glow spilled out, reflecting in her pupil like an ember.

“Hey, there,” she said. “How come you’re all by yourself? Are you lost?”

The light brightened, then dimmed.

Missy looked around her yard for something she could use to hold the firefly. A jar, maybe, or a glass that she could turn upside down on the table. Something she could keep her newfound friend in so that it wouldn’t fly away. She wanted to show it to her sister, Helena. She had to.

Helena was sick. She wore a silk scarf with an elaborate pattern of colorful swirls wound around her head and had a special plastic band on her wrist that told the doctors what medicine she could take. She had been in the hospital for a long time, but the doctors finally sent her home to rest. Once a day, a nurse came in to check on her. No more doctors, though. She didn’t need them anymore.

Missy wasn’t allowed in Helena’s room. It was too full of tubes and wires, and machines that hissed and beeped all night. Missy snuck in anyway. She would bring in flowers, or pretty speckled rocks, or whatever objects she could find that might brighten her sister’s day. She would leave them on the nightstand for her to find when she woke. If she woke. Sometimes, she slept all day.

Missy glanced over her shoulder at her house. The whole place was dark except for her sister’s room. Missy could see her mother inside, framed in the bright light of the window. Her face was in her hands. Her shoulders rose and fell in sorrowful waves.

Missy heard the back screen door squeak open. Her father’s face appeared in the dim circle of illumination cast by the porch light. His cheeks glistened.

“Missy? We need you to come in now, okay? We –” His voice hitched in his throat. “We need to talk.”

“Okay, Dad!” Missy called. “One second!”

The screen door squealed shut.

Missy opened her hand and looked at the firefly.

“You can go,” she said quietly. “I won’t keep you.”

The firefly walked to the tip of her finger and perched there for a moment as if considering whether to fly away. Its glow pulsed once in silent farewell.

Then it took flight, rising skyward until its light became one with the moon.

*This piece was originally published in 2020 on Furious Fiction.

Warren Benedetto writes dark fiction about horrible people, horrible places, and horrible things. He is an award-winning author and a full member of the SFWA. His stories have appeared in publications such as Dark Matter Magazine, The Dread Machine, and Haven Spec; on podcasts such as The NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, and The Creepy Podcast; and in anthologies from Apex Magazine, Scare Street, Eerie River Publishing, and more. He also works in the video game industry, where he holds 35+ game technology patents. For more information, visit and follow @warrenbenedetto on Twitter and Instagram.


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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, writing

Fake It ’Til You Make It

December 16, 2023

For most of my twenties, I was a magical thinker. During this period of my life, I was reading a lot of self-help books, including the best-selling The Secret, and though I was in a Ph.D. program to study physiology for five years, The Secret had me believing I could do anything, have anything, be anything; all I had to do was ask the universe.

If becoming financially free was only a matter of making requests of the cosmos’ abundant piggy bank and holding my desires in my mind, why wouldn’t I ask to become a millionaire by thirty? Why stop there? Why couldn’t I write a commercial novel that would shoot to the top of bestsellers lists with the velocity of a Dan Brown thriller?

The spell began to break when my thirtieth birthday came and went and my wishes hadn’t been fulfilled: I wasn’t rich. My novel hadn’t attracted an agent; instead, I self-published. And like most of my friends, my talents were being exploited for profit in Corporate America. What had happened? How had I been so easily duped by The Secret’s tantalizing messages?

I later realized I was predisposed to the state of mind self-help books exploit.

When I was younger, my parents—especially my father—had a cliché for everything. For struggle, he claimed, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way;” for pain, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger;” for trauma, “Let the past be the past.” On birthdays, he’d announce half-kiddingly, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” His adages helped inform him, instruct him, and inspire him.

They did the same for me in adolescence and into early adulthood. Like my parents, I had a motto or cliché ready for most situations. For work: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” For hardship: “Don’t worry; be happy.” For imposter syndrome: “Fake it ’til you make it.” To pay homage to my father, I collected his favorite axioms into a book, Life According to Dad, and gave it to him for Father’s Day.

Using clichés to guide my life worked until my late twenties, when they began to lose their potency. After graduating with a master’s degree, I became a marketing writer for businesses and nonprofits in Boston. I lived in the city, working on complex problems with smart people from diverse backgrounds, most of whom didn’t view the world through rose-colored glasses.

I’ve been an idea person throughout my career. Many of my ideas, which can often be categorized as “big picture,” have been implemented in anything from advertising campaigns and event themes to product names and product messaging. But whenever I used clichés to propose a solid idea in the workplace, others took me less seriously. Without acknowledging potential unintended consequences, I might come off as unrealistic, impractical, or too rosy.

I once helped build and drive the vision for a company’s blog, but I underestimated the time and technical resources needed to develop and maintain it. At lunch, I reflected on the process and dropped a quote from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich: “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” My coworkers thought I was naïve, perhaps even delusional.

Clichés had helped structure my way of thinking, but they had become inadequate. They didn’t reflect the complex environments and circumstances of my adulthood. After a period of disillusionment, I knew I had to change. I started questioning the clichés and the way I dealt with reality.

Clichés, I realized, were too biased toward the positive at the expense of potential dark possibilities. When “times get tough,” it’s not always easy for the “tough” to “get going.” Sometimes, we’re just flat-out beat, and it’s wise to retreat, regroup, and reflect so we can “fight another day.” I was always told to “keep my head up,” but sometimes it’s tough not to lower it in defeat. While “smooth seas never made for skillful sailors,” storms hurt and can even break us.

Clichés no longer rang true for me because life wasn’t always easy or sunny. Reality didn’t always bend to my will. I pursued my goals, but they were tougher to achieve than I expected. I took wrong turns. Systems were unfair; folks were unkind. People let me down, insulted me, betrayed me.

In my late twenties and early thirties, I started accepting that life is as much disaster as triumph. We don’t always get into the school or program we seek. The job or career we want might not want us. Love can go unrequited. Financial setbacks happen. Accidents occur. Illness can strike. People lie. People die. By encouraging us to always stay positive, the clichés deny the reality we must face.

I eventually found a way to deliver my first death blow to the clichés that ran my life: therapy. My therapist was a social worker and a psychoanalytically-informed therapist not much older than me, so we were dealing with similar life-stage problems. His approach didn’t involve dispensing advice as a life coach might. Rather, he encouraged his patients to evaluate their reality objectively. To see themselves clearly. When people thought critically about themselves and their circumstances, they didn’t need advice, he reasoned, because they would know what to do.

Following his guidance, I realized my parents had raised me in a rather uncritical environment. Their philosophy was to “let sleeping dogs lie.” We avoided reflecting on pesky matters like what made us sad or mad lest we make things worse and cause new problems. For instance, if I had asked my parents about their divorce, they wouldn’t understand why I couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Such an uncritical environment ensures that nobody ever thinks about anything. And if someone doesn’t know what they think about something, they don’t know how they feel about it either. Using clichés is a way to avoid thinking. “Leave the past in the past” was the perfect countermeasure to talking about the trauma of my parents’ divorce. Clichés robbed us of the chance to acknowledge it. They robbed us of the chance to heal so the pain wouldn’t resurface in inexplicable ways, like overwork or substance abuse.

Despite the importance of thinking, therapy taught me that thinking is difficult, another reason some might want to avoid it. It takes time and energy to think through complicated matters, and people are always having to expand their vocabulary for puzzling issues.

Thinking is also messy. A person seldom comes to a complete understanding of the issues they face. Before therapy, whenever I might have reached the edge of my understanding, I’d employ a cliché that approximated my thoughts or feelings on the matter. But in therapy, I checked my clichés at the door. I was pushed to find words for how I thought or felt about events or people that troubled me. I rambled and talked nonsense, but insights came. Sometimes, we would unlock something that had been a mystery.

Living and working in rural New Hampshire, where my parents have spent their entire adult lives, is simpler. One can often get away with using clichés to navigate and interpret life in such rural settings. In the city, however, where I’ve worked in modern offices, life isn’t black and white but shades of gray. Negotiating city and corporate life requires more complex systems of thought. While rural life might lead to simplistic thinking, city life can lead folks to become critical and cynical.

I wanted to evolve past my uncritical origins, but I didn’t want to go too far in the other direction and become a coldhearted cynic or nihilist. I still wanted to believe I had some control over my life. I just needed to find values, systems, and worldviews that accepted that life was sometimes unfair, often indifferent to our wishes, and actively resistant to our desires.

Enter the second death blow to living a clichéd life: philosophy or the love of wisdom. In my thirties, I replaced new-age and self-help guides with philosophy. I read books on Eastern philosophy, like Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and Confucius’s Analects, and on Western philosophy, like Plato’s Republic and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I joined philosophy groups, watched documentaries, and read biographies on Friedrich Nietzsche, Viktor Frankl, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.

Stoic philosophy was undergoing a resurgence at the time, and the tradition helped me cope with day-to-day challenges. For example, stoics believe that events don’t harm people as much as their judgments of the events do. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, encourages readers not to worry about things outside their control; instead, they should act on things within their control. Stoics also recommend living in accordance with one’s nature. If someone is athletic, they should do athletic things. If they’re brainy, they should do intellectual things. Such philosophy equipped me for life while also allowing me to accept its complexities.

Philosophy also helped me manage the dread that started to creep in as I approached midlife: knowing I was going to die one day. Enter existentialism.

The philosophical tradition of existentialism has been described as less a school of thought and more a mood or attitude toward life. It deals with matters such as anxiety, death, authenticity, isolation, and the search for meaning in one’s existence. More than any other philosophical tradition, existentialism has helped me address the realization that life lacks intrinsic meaning.

“No why. Just here,” as the composer and philosopher, John Cage, put it when Life magazine asked him about the meaning of life.

Faced with this understanding, I had to invent meaning for my life to avoid despair. But how? Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea that humans are radically free was both terrifying and exhilarating. According to him, “existence precedes essence.” In other words, no one is born with innate character traits. Rather, we construct who we are with every choice we make.

Albert Camus also agreed that life has no intrinsic meaning and reasoned it was absurd to seek meaning from a universe indifferent to our desires. He urges us to rebel against life’s absurdity by finding meaning in our relationships, our families, and our projects. In his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus compares life’s absurdity to the punishment of Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology who was condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down whenever he neared the summit. While Sisyphus was punished to forever perform a meaningless activity, Camus suggests that perhaps Sisyphus could find some joy in the absurdity of rolling the boulder. Maybe Sisyphus could even learn to be happy in his fate.

Once I accepted that the only meaning my life would have was the meaning I gave it, I began to engage in meaningful activities I found enjoyable, like writing: the final death blow to living a clichéd life.

Back when I started writing in my late twenties, I fell into every possible cliché trap. Let’s say I was writing a fictional action sequence where the hero confronts the villain, his former mentor, in a dramatic climax. In their final duel, the hero might get off a perfect shot, fatally wounding the villain.

“Great shot,” the villain might say, holding a hand over his bleeding stomach.

In that moment, the hero would likely say something like, “I learned from the best.”

Alas, I couldn’t keep that. It’s a cliché! And they are off-limits for writers. Why? A cliché might once have conveyed a truth, but readers have encountered it so often in movies and books, it no longer has the impact it used to. Through study and practice, I’ve learned that all good writing is a never-ending war on clichés. A writer must always search for fresh language. If I accidentally employ a cliché—which happens often—I strike it out in revision. This practice of avoiding clichés on the page has found its way into my life.

When I reflect on my evolution from a magical to a critical thinker, I realize that using clichés for so long allowed me to rely on the wisdom of others while I figured out who I was and what I thought. They gave me something to hold on to during the painstaking process of updating how I viewed and thought about myself and the world.

Now, in my late thirties, I realize the cost of not relying on clichés. They allowed me to avoid the difficult task of thinking. They allowed me to deny reality, which can be difficult to see clearly. Ignorance was bliss. Without clichés, life is messier, more nuanced, and sometimes incomprehensible. But “the truth hurts,” right?

Dustin Grinnell is a writer based in Boston. He’s the author of the short story collection, The Healing Book (Finishing Line Press), and host of the podcast, Curiously. His creative nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New Scientist, Vice, Salon, Hektoen International, and Writer’s Digest, among others. This story appears in his collection of essays, Lost & Found, which forthcoming with The Peter Lang Group. See more of his work at his website.



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Looking to jumpstart your writing? Need to reignite your creativity? 

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Designed to transform your creativity from stuck and frustrated to unblocked and an endless source of inspiration, for any creative journey you can dream of.

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction


December 10, 2023
car mph

The white car pulls up super close behind me at the light. Kind of a shit car, but hey, this ain’t utopia, we can’t all have fuel cell electric vehicles. It’s California. But in my California, cars space out at lights, often leaving room for a whole nother car between them, like they’re waiting in line at the doctor’s office or the bank and don’t want to intrude on, overhear the private details of whatever condition, slow burning contagion, almost negative balance, or end-of-life indicating pain in the side that has brought them to this crossroads. This guy must think he’s immortal. The driver’s head doesn’t move. What’s his problem? It’s a long light, no use in fighting it.

I open my window, smell cinnamon rolls on the breeze. A crow lands on a power line, inspecting us. There’s a lemon tree by the side of the road. Meyer lemon. The lemons, they look like breasts, they look like testacles, they look like grenades. The light changes. I power the window closed. Two lanes feeding the 101 ease to the left and down the highway entrance ramp. I’m in the right lane on a gradual acceleration. The white car doesn’t pass but stays locked on my bumper.

He’ll get bored with this game. Must be on his phone. Jackass. Maybe girl trouble or something. Or just trusting me not to run into something, keeping an eye on my bumper. Whatever. Yeah, probably girl or boy trouble. Lover trouble. Is it, the thrill is gone or raw jealousy? Poor guy either way. Like is it better to be settled and bored, or in-play and enraged by paranoid visions of infidelity? Apathetic or angry? Coward or paranoid? I’d like to think I don’t know which I am, that by intellectualizing it I can abstract myself from participating in this bullshit.

Still there. 45 mph and climbing. Could it be a woman, driving like that? But I can’t see him– them. It’s a basic white Kia with dark windows. Looks like they’ve got their seat reclined to full blowjob, ball cap on backwards, eyes just over the top of the steering wheel like a kid, like they’re in a swimming pool, raft deflated, or sitting in dad’s lap getting that first driving lesson. How big the steering wheel seemed.

I look ahead. 58 mph. Merge. Hit play. Tune them out. 60 mph now.

It’s a podcast called The 101 on the T-72. The T-72 is a Soviet Era tank still in use by the Russian Army, designed to be light and fast with an autoloader for the big artillery shells in the gun turret. It only takes three men to operate, where American tanks need four– the fourth guy loads the shells– no autoloader in an American tank. Slow American tanks.

I’m at 64 mph. I turn on the adaptive cruise control. Three lanes southbound through rolling brown hills. Other lanes passing. I’m taking my time. Is the moon stealing glances at us through the scattered clouds, or just appearing in the gaps like a zoned-out commuter in a bus window? The California sun heads for Hawaii.

I’ll probably catch the big truck in my lane in a couple of minutes and then draft behind the trailer, cutting my wind resistance, saving more fuel. Mindful driver. Slow exhale. I’d take the bus if it didn’t take three times as long.

The cabin fills with the smell of skunk. I swerve to miss the mangled corpse. Jackass hits it. I don’t know if I’m more annoyed by the lack of compassion, or the lack of self respect.

In the T-72, the autoloader holds the artillery shells in a big ring around the base of the turret. It’s like there’s a hoola-hoop sized necklace of explosives around the gunner’s neck. Talk about going commando, the shells are not separated from the crew by an armored locker like in US and German tanks. These boys have it all out in the open. If one of their own shells is hit when an enemy shot penetrates the Soviet era armor, the shell goes off inside the tank, inside the cabin where the three men are about to say whatever Russians say when they say Shit but don’t get a chance to because all of the shells go off and blow the turret off the top of the T-72. The Ukranians call it the Jack-in-the-Box.

The podcast says the burnout from all of the shells igniting basically vaporizes the Russian crew. Lots of Instagram posts of decapitated, burned out tanks these days. What does it feel like to vaporize someone? Can someone care that much, hate that much, that they could do that to another person with such passion and self-righteousness? Or do they even feel? What is the point of stealing land, of dominating local populations?

I’ve gotta wonder how many of these Russian soldiers are apathetic and would be just as happy to play chess, or drink vodka with their passionate Ukrainian peers instead of becoming steam and smoke and driving up the cost of gas in the world. Do they even know what’s going on? Is being a soldier just a job?

I check the mirror. Still there. My heart hits a bump and another and I put my hand on my chest and then it steadies. I’m not going to let this get to me. Maybe we should just have a vodka and a game of chess. Hah. We can talk about our romantic woes, or basketball, or some universal bullshit like that.

This guy, (it’s gotta be a guy, right?) doesn’t even know me. They can pass. I see the line of their eyes like they’re a tank driver looking through the “vision block,” the small rectangular window at the front of a tank. No mirrors, very little peripheral vision. What’s right in front of them. The target.

When you can control what’s in front of someone, you can control what they think about. It’s like that tank window is designed not to let your mind stray. The generals don’t want any sudden rushes of compassion. I wonder if there are women generals, women tank drivers in the Soviet army. I mean Russian. Are they measurably more or less compassionate than their male counterparts? Someone should do a study.

They pull out, come up next to me, pace me.

Don’t look over, I tell myself. Don’t look over. Pretend not to notice. Goddamn I’m getting sick of this jerk and their jealous rages! Take it out on someone else you fuck!

I flip the bird at the inside of my car door. Yeah, I wave it, wag it, and make that chicken sphincter grimace that says I really mean it. Adrenaline rush!

Then a sudden urge to side swipe, knock them into the next lane! He swipes me back and then I pin the Kia to the cement median, sparks and metal scraping, oh the movies in my head right now. My lips have moved from chicken sphincter to hissing cat, teeth bared and I’m elevated, elated, superhuman, so high on this feeling that I could slam into him. Do it! I look over, poised.

But there’s nothing to see through the blackout film of their passenger window. They probably didn’t hear me either. We’re all isolated in our steel and glass cocoons. I halfway wish it was just some miserable fuck in a Dodge Ram, who’d see me see him, flip me off vigoursly in return through the passenger window, mouthing the predictable prayers for my downfall, and leave me in a cloud of diesel soot. But this guy, I can’t even see. I don’t know what this is about. Why do I make up their story? What if there’s a kid in the back? God that would be a buzz-kill.

I slow down. Who cares. Let them pass. They do. Thank you Lord.

The podcast is saying that the Russian Army views its soldiers more collectively, as disposable when there’s a tactical advantage. Their tanks are faster, lighter, and they fire faster too. But at what cost? On some level you’ve gotta respect the warrior mentality that designed those tanks though. I mean, I’m basically a pacifist, but if you’re gonna invade, go all in. If your tank can shoot faster, roar across a field faster, it’s worth losing a few men in the short run. Not that that’s what’s happening in Ukraine. What are those guys thinking? Babies are dying, it goes without saying.

I’ve come to the narrows where the hills rise to a road cut at the border between two counties and the 101 drops to two lanes each direction. I merge over. The narrows condense and slow traffic as the hill climbs to the saddle. It’s where the worst jams happen. Funny to think of a tank in a traffic jam. Outta my way mothafuckas!

I pass, suspended from a green pole, a bell, a rusty bell. People used to walk this road. Ride horses. Herd cattle. It’s an old waypoint on the El Camino Real, and a reminder of the Mission era. Has our culture settled on these reminders, out of apathy, the way a person settles on a partner, or the way an invader settles the land? We embrace our aggressions, we make a culture of them. We know we are right, better than, entitled to.

Eventually people choose what’s in front of them in partnerships or in picking fights or invading a country. Because I can see you, I have a right to you and to your things. Settling is really kind of unsettling. Ring the bell. Cross the border. Get in someone’s face.

There are people who love these bells up and down California and there are people who don’t, and they’re at one another’s throats, the settlers and those who didn’t particularly want to be settled, and then there are those who are tired of thinking about it and just enjoy a fight. Do they justify their apathy by baiting the people who give a fuck?

I look at the speedometer and the car’s down to 58, but we’re still moving.



It’s the white Kia, in front of me now. Still there. Slowing without hitting the brakes. I lock my eyes on their back window. They’re just gradually easing off the gas, no one in front of them, and my car’s adaptive cruise control slowing me down, keeping me a safe following distance away. 56 mph. 54 mph. Everybody’s passing us in the left lane now.

55 was the national speed limit for a while. We saved a lot of gas by driving slower. And lives. Babies in back seats were saved, I remind myself. I’m in no rush. 53 mph. Say it again, I’m in no rush. I’m in no rush.

52 mph.

This fucker’s obsessed. I hope he hasn’t bred, the world doesn’t need his spawn.

The weird thing is that the Ukrainians have similar tanks from the Soviet era, but they don’t seem to be having the same trouble. That’s gotta piss off the Russians.

Do they expect me to tailgate them? That shit car probably doesn’t even have adaptive cruise control, or anti-lock brakes. I wonder if it even has airbags.

The Russians have lost more than 500 tanks in the invasion, Zelensky says more than 1000. Whatever the number, the Ukrainians have learned how to hit the T-72’s in their weak spot.

I’ve had it with this bullshit.

I watch the passing traffic for an opening, pull out, floor it: 60, 65, 70, 75

They’re speeding up too, staying ahead of me, not letting me pass. They cut me off but I swerve and go around them to the right, get past them.

I’m not saving gas anymore, I’m flying. 76, 77, 79 mph. I wonder how fast a T-72 can go. I’ll just burn like this for a while I tell myself, like everyone else, and leave old Jackass behind.

After a few minutes, we come out of the narrows. The road widens. I keep to the right lane and slow to 65, resetting the cruise control. I take a deep breath. A few cars pass and then the white car swerves right in front of me, breaking hard enough that a big red collision warning message lights up on my dashboard. It says BRAKE! I hit the brakes but ride their bumper, staying close now, they’re signaling for the exit ramp that’s right there. We’re close enough to be parallel parked at highway speeds.

I get this vision of myself from above as my cartoon rage head pops up through the sunroof like a jack-in-the-box, spinning eyes the size of grapefruits and a big drooly grin on my bobble-headed face.

I’m fully locked on. I’m all rage, and it feels freeing. What bliss to think about nothing else but this clear unambiguous purpose. I’m looking at their tail lights through a tank’s vision block. We go down the ramp and they lock their brakes in the shoulder gravel, sliding to a stop.

Even as I’m still rolling, I see myself opening the door, going to the trunk to pull out my softball bat. I hear the whoosh and crack of bones, the melony cartoon sounds of wood on head. I slide to a stop right behind them on the shoulder of the exit ramp, shift to park, hover my hand over the button to unlock the trunk, set the fantasy in motion. Their brake lights are still on, red as evil.

The podcast is describing the anonymity of much of the war, how the soldiers rarely ever see the enemy thanks to precision guided technology… I shut off my car and pop the trunk.

I climb out of the car and go for the bat. It’s like I’m a new man, twenty years younger, freed of the hesitancy, failures, ambiguities of experience. I.AM.CLEARLY.IN.THE.RIGHT.

Standing I can see the sunroof of the Kia is open– there’s a high-pitched buzzing sound and then a drone flies up and comes right at me. I swing and it feints, I miss. It comes at me again. What’s it gonna do with those tiny propellers, cut my hair? This time I connect, I can feel the heft of the battery pack bouncing off the bat as it tumbles through the air and flops in those scrubby roadside weeds that smell like licorice, the motors pulsing out a couple gasping spins before they die.

I stomp over to it and give it a couple of gratuitous whacks, then turn back and there’s a hand holding a cell phone through the sunroof, aimed at me. I assume the victory pose and let out a mighty roar, bat held high like one of those chimps with a bone at the beginning of 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Then the hand retracts, the brake lights go out, the front wheels spin in the gravel and the car launches itself down the exit ramp, running the stop sign and back up the entrance ramp onto the 101. All so fast, I’m still holding the bat in the air. What the actual fuck?

I get back in the car and just rest my forehead on the steering wheel for a while before driving on.

About a week later I get a text from a friend with a Twitter link– is this you?! It’s an anonymous account. There’s video of a middle aged guy bashing and bashing and bashing the dirt with a bat for like a full thirty seconds, then he’s doing the victory pose, and he’s got an ape face superimposed on him.

I text back, Ha Ha that can’t be me.

Jack Derby is just back from his first trip to the southern hemisphere and he’s kicking himself for not looking at the night sky, especially after David Crosby just died, because, you know, the “Southern Cross”. He did look at the stars at Bread Loaf, at Sewanee, and after class during his MFA at the University of San Francisco. Derby’s short film “Wishbone” received best short comedy and best actress in a short film at the Oregon Independent Film Festival. His most recent poem was in Zyzzyva, most recent book review in Kenyon Review Online.


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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, writing

On Lists and Women Named Lucy

December 5, 2023

The attic was long overdue for rigorous sorting if not deep cleaning. An oversized walk-up with easy access that was rarely assessed, the attic space had become a default location for anything (and everything) without a designated place. Earlier this summer, I spent an unseasonably cool afternoon sorting through boxes of clothing, mostly outgrown, with few fabrics worthy of much contemplation, and stacks of papers from a time before our world was fully digitalized.

As I sorted, I stumbled across school reading lists that I don’t remember saving. I’ve always been a fan of books, lists, and writing; truth be told they’re my love language, but that’s too close to home and overly sentimental. While saving the list may have been intentional, the act was more likely nothing more than an effort to move never-ending clutter. I never gave much thought to how simple it was to add more stuff to the attic’s heart (and warmth). The attic’s availability and familiarity opened up an opportunity for both delayed and default reactions.

I’d regularly store undersized coats, oversized toys, and unused stacks of most anything (Peanuts figurines and crib mobiles, for example), always saying I’d sort and recycle when I had the time. The attic made it easy to defer all decisions, even those in list form, of worth, relevance, and currency. But now, with sorting on my weekly to-do list, an old reading list caught me by surprise, as book lists often do, and I paused my, until then, semi-automated routine. Books, including in list form, had always been that for me – a reminder to be and to believe in possibility.

When my children were young, we’d review summer reading book lists religiously. We’d check all titles and reconcile those for which we had copies and those which we’d need to borrow or renew. Like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we were in perpetual states of readiness to consume — words as delivered, school assignments as listed, and comic strips as written. Charlie Brown and Lucy Van Pelt, along with my children, were regular sidekicks. We’d read the Sunday morning cartoons, delivered to our doorstep early mornings, religiously.

As my children are, now, nearly grown, I’m much less likely to know what they read. I don’t know when the bookshelves turned to dust-collectors, but unless my kids order something from our shared Amazon account or happen to mention a book club pick or a surprise find in a free library (a Peanuts collection a recent swap), we’ve stopped, somehow, regularly sharing the words and writings that inhabit our coat pockets. I hadn’t realized until the book lists knocked.

That afternoon, I cleaned in an empty home. I flipped through the newly rediscovered book lists and became less eager to refresh the space and more nostalgic for passed days. As my eyes scanned the titles, I was struck by just how similar the contents were to each other and, also, how male-dominated. Somehow, the distance and the change in circumstance prompted me to re-see what I had regularly consumed as ordinary. Suddenly, I felt a bit like Lucy Van Pelt.

Lists had always been something I’d receive and then treat as sacrosanct – at doctors’ visits, school check-ins, and other socially constructed things. When my children were young, I don’t know if it was that I was too busy to question or still too unsure of my own place in the world. I didn’t believe anyone would pay five cents for my opinion. I also did not think of school-sponsored lists as something which I could, or should, co-create. Now, I’m not any less busy, but I am much less trusting of authority.

Suddenly, the same lists I had previously treated as a guide to stay on track began to look different to me. I thought, too, of how different each of my four children’s interests were (and remain). Yet over a span of over eighteen years, they were largely assigned the same summer readings. The lists maintained remarkable consistency. Works like Several Short Sentences About Writing were a regular a bookend to classics like All the Kings Men, The Outsiders, and Call of the Wild. Each appeared yearly on lists with male voices, perspectives, protagonists, and plot directors, at the center.

At one time, in the hustle and hustle of a household on steroids, I might have shuffled the pages and continued. Now, something, something had changed. As I reviewed recycled lists (World History, Psychology, and English Lit), I saw patterns I hadn’t before recognized. Why weren’t more women authors short listed and why had I not before realized?

Alongside the lists, there were doodles formed of my daughter’s careful loops – squiggles of butterflies in beds, smiling pigs playing baseball, and talking dandelions. What I had before seen as idle sketches I now saw as a voice. Some of the sheets had tallies with my children’s initials at the top. Reading was as much a shared camaraderie as a condition. At the time, the school required all minutes to be tracked. There were also signs of distractions, a few rounds of Tic-Tac-Toe and Hangman.

A small game of Hangman, Charlie Brown’s Lucy Van Pelt sketched and penned in a right margin, prompted more unexpected reflections. How come we rarely read about Lucy’s in real-world form? I thought, for example, of Lucille Ball, the first woman to head a TV production company and activists like Lucy Burns and Lucy Stone. Instead, All the King’s Men, presents a single type of Lucy – Lucy Stark, wife to Willie, who repeatedly sees her opinions ignored.

The lists’ hand-drawn doodles made me think of Nina E. Allender, an artist, cartoonist, and women’s rights activist. Allender popularized new ways of seeing women and reimagined what it means to be a girl. Allender was a leader of the National Women’s Party, alongside others like Lucy Burns and Lucy Gunner Branham.

I studied the cartoons penned by my children. Where I’d once seen a butterfly, I now saw interlocked questions and cocoons in the past tense. I wanted to know why Nina Allender and a whole host of Lucy’s and women like them were not on the roster.

I’ve since run some fresh searches. In the cooler air of my kitchen, I’ve learned that little has changed. The site domains are updated yet the book rosters are largely the same. Much like the attic had become my default, the lists themselves had become static. Even now the assigned readings posted on my local district’s website are surprisingly uniform. Our district is not alone. Quick research reveals striking similarity and sustainability across years, lists, and titles. The Wayback Machine confirms. The book list persists as an easily scalable and sustainable device and tool to perpetuate the same.

How had I not recognized the consistency in and across lists over time? Default reactions denied, I had been on autopilot, focused on getting through each day. I readily consumed and complied, all while doing my best to meet all trains, planes, and automobile deadlines – Oh my. The lists, and their patterns, were as much in need of sorting and deep cleaning as the attic, yet, as expectations associated with required readings were school-authorized, I had relied on their expertise. Why?

It’s taken me years, but I’ve finally begun to understand the meaning of voice, including my own, the power of writing to make meaning, and the importance of making sure all lists are marked by more than consumption. As my kids grew, I drafted (and regularly checked) lists for everything – meal prep, carpool, who needed new socks. But the school’s recommended reading list, I left untouched. I accepted the canon rather than questioned it. Not until my children were all nearly grown, and I was cleaning out an attic did I begin to appreciate the dangers of as-is conditions.

As my children have grown, I became increasingly curious about pedagogy and curriculum. I went back to school and now teach full-time. I’ve also found more space to pursue my own interests and writing, and, with time to reconsider default reactions, I’ve found many of my choices and reactions surprising. I wish I had questioned sooner and questioned more. How had I not known?

Thankfully, I never lost my love for reading. Reading led me to teaching and teaching led me back to writing. Mothering has been an integral part of it all. Like the Lucy’s I came to know through their written words, I joined a movement to more deeply engage in the question and meaning of education and change. Over the past year, I’ve been reading and writing about lesser-known women’s suffragists. Suffragists about whom I knew very little. Suffragists like Lucy Burns, Lucy Stone, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, and Nina Allender. Lucy Burns endured more jail time than any other suffragist. Lucy Stone was a prominent orator, abolitionist, and suffragist. Amelia Jenks Bloomer was the first female editor of a newspaper. Nina Allender created more cartoons than any other. Their names and their stories, along with so many more, were neither on the recommended book list nor in the school-issued textbooks.

In my own reading and writing, I am less interested in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution than the lives of women subject to it. This past Spring, I joined an online writing group. I submitted a draft in progress, a novel following the life story of Lucy Burns, the most-jailed suffragist, and my writing teacher expressed surprise at the character’s strength – “I never knew,” she said, then added, “That’s what writing is for.”

For years the only writing I did was signing quarterly report cards. Now, I write daily across genres – poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and more. Writing has been a way for me to engage, to learn, and to inform. It’s a form of social activism, in forms I understand. That’s one of many reasons why I’m drawn to novels in verse (a quiet act of rebellion against form, pomp, and circumstance) and Nina Allender’s work. As a cartoonist, Allender used images to say what others couldn’t (or wouldn’t).

Motherhood changes lots of things. I don’t believe I’d have ever become a teacher if not for motherhood. I also don’t believe I’d have understood the depths and breadth of the challenges of being a teacher without the experience of raising my own children. Now, I believe that part of my role as a mother and teacher is to help write new stories and ensure less-known stories are told.

Most of all, motherhood has been the most powerful reminder of the continued importance of engaging with lesser-known stories and lists yet-to-be-written, I thank suffragists, Lucys, and others like them. As I continue to sort through boxes, prior lists, and telling markings, I hope my students and my children find their Lucy. I also hope they write new lists and write bravely.

Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania.


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Guest Posts, Fiction


November 29, 2023

Amir pulled his taxi into the circular driveway and idled the engine. He liked to pick up fares at the King David hotel on Saturday evenings, when the American tourists, anxious to get to the airport to catch overnight flights to New York, had no interest in making pointless conversation with the taxi driver. The King David was still the classiest hotel in Jerusalem, in Amir’s opinion, and the guests were the most generous tippers.

But he was picky. Amir avoided the religious families. The heavy suitcases bursting and tied up with cord, the men holding round hat boxes on their laps, the women exhausted and cranky, the children–four, five, six of them–dressed in matching outfits, fingers sticky with candy, eyes heavy with sleep. He had nothing against religion or children. Amir had grown up with a heavy dose of traditional Judaism that stuck to his bones, and he adored his pious father. He and his wife Tamar had married off three daughters, only the youngest boy, Yonatan, still at home eating his mother’s food and challenging his grandfather’s old-fashioned ideas. What Amir couldn’t handle was the crying and the bickering in the enclosed space of his car. Give him a business traveler in pressed khakis and a button down shirt, briefcase in one hand and garment bag in the other. No hassles.

Still, it was illegal, or bad form at the least, to choose which passengers to pick up. For that, Amir relied on Udi, a cop and old army buddy, who worked security at the hotel when off-duty. Udi was a bouncer with a gun, throwing his substantial heft around without the benefit of superior intelligence or strategic purpose. Early in their service, Amir had saved Udi’s ass during a combat training exercise, and he never forgot. Udi couldn’t repay him, but on the nights he worked at the hotel he steered the uncomplicated travelers to Amir.
Amir drove toward the front entrance where a casually dressed man and a woman stood close together, heads bowed and typing on their cell phones. One piece of soft-sided luggage each at their feet. Amir wouldn’t need Udi tonight. If he was lucky, they’d be on their emails all the way to Ben Gurion.

As Amir pulled closer, he saw a woman standing off to one side under the lights. She might have been fifty as easily as thirty; tall with remarkable posture, her flimsy yellow dress loose on her willowy frame. She had her arms wrapped around herself as though she were cold, although the approaching sunset hadn’t put a dent in the heat of the sweltering August day. Her hair hung down long and straight over her shoulders and the color reminded Amir of wet sand on the beach in Netanya where he’d grown up. As he drove past her, Amir felt the woman’s gaze fixed on him. In the headlights he imagined that her eyes were the color of sea-glass.
Hitting the brakes, he reversed slowly. A taxi driver behind him leaned on his horn, and Amir opened his window and gestured for the car to go around him. The driver picked up the cell phone couple. Amir put the car in park and got out.

Up close, the woman looked less fragile. “Where are you headed?”

“To the airport.”

Amir popped the trunk and picked up the woman’s suitcase. Her arms weren’t wrapped around herself as Amir had initially thought. She was holding a briefcase tightly against her chest. When he reached for it, she took a step back.

“I will hold on to this one.”

Amir shrugged. “Up to you.” Her English was more fluid than his own, but he couldn’t place the accent.

“Where are you from?” he asked, when she was settled in the back seat.


“I’ve never been.” He didn’t say so, but the truth was, Amir had never been anywhere that his taxi couldn’t take him. Or his tank, in years gone by.

They rode in silence for a few minutes, Amir looking at his passenger in the rear view mirror as much as safe driving would allow. She’d strapped the briefcase in with the seatbelt beside her, although she’d left herself unbuckled.

“Have you been in Israel long?” He wondered at his own curiosity. What did it matter? In a moment she’d be gone.

“Two weeks.”

“What did you think?” Amir slammed on the brakes and hit the horn as a red Mazda shot out in front of him, cutting him off.

“I think Israeli drivers are crazy.”

Amir chuckled. “Driving here is like being back in combat.”

She nodded, momentarily locking eyes with him in the mirror. “Which was your war?”

Amir slowed the cab. The question startled him. The phrasing and the tone mimicked the way Israelis asked each other about the horrors seen by innocent eyes, the nation’s young soldiers always on the front lines of a conflict or war. It was an offhand question that got to the guts of the collective experience of the country, the bravado a scant cover for the trauma that lay just beneath the surface. It wasn’t a question asked by outsiders fom Antwerp.

Still, he answered her. “Yom Kippur.”

Her voice was smooth and musical, beguiling. “Sometimes it’s easier to speak about such things with a stranger.” How did she know that he didn’t talk about those experiences, not even with his own children when he saw them off to their own wars?

Amir strained to keep his eyes trained on the road, grateful that there wasn’t much traffic. When the woman spoke again, she took a different tack.

“Where are you from?”

“Here. Where else?”

“Somewhere before.”

“Why do you think so? I told you, I was a soldier in 1973. I was eighteen then. I was born in Jerusalem, in 1955.”

It had started to rain. The woman turned her face to look out the window as Amir flipped on the windshield wipers. The swishing sound filled the silent space between them, obscuring the pointless lie he had told. He could feel the woman would bide her time until he answered her question truthfully, holding her peace until they reached the airport if necessary. Amir felt a pressure in his throat, a choking sensation, the words he tried to suppress bubbling up into his mouth.

“My father was born in Iran in 1930 into one of the wealthiest families in the country. They were in textiles, with factories, warehouses, a fleet of trucks for distribution. In January, 1955, my father was a young man, ready to learn the business and enjoy the family’s wealth. My mother was pregnant with me, but they didn’t know it yet.”

“How fortunate for your parents.” She leaned forward a bit in the back seat, flirtatious, no longer a middle-aged woman, but a teenage girl. Amir glimpsed her collarbone at the neckline of her yellow dress, could imagine her breasts. He focused on the road as he spoke.

“Not so fortunate. Soon after I was born, my father became very sick with excruciating headaches that no painkiller made better. Because they had money, my grandparents were able to send him abroad to Europe to receive treatment. He had to leave my pregnant mother behind. He was gone for nearly a year, missed my entry into the world. By the time he had regained his health and was ready to go back to Iran, the government had taken pretty much everything his parents had.”

Amir tried to catch her eyes in the rearview mirror, to see if his earlier lie about where he was born had registered, but she was looking out her window. The rain had picked up into a downpour.

“It doesn’t rain here in this season,” Amir said. “It doesn’t rain until after the festival of Sukkot.”

“Apparently it does.” The rain was so loud on the rooftop that Amir could hardly hear her. The strangeness of the weather frightened him. He wanted to drive faster, to drop her off, to go home to Tamar. But the highway was slick and it was getting dark. And the woman had a plane to catch.

Amir gripped the steering wheel and tried to keep his hands from shaking. When the woman implored him to continue his story, he felt powerless to resist.

“Through their connections, my father was able to arrange for my mother and me to come to Israel; he met us soon after. We had nothing. My father dreamed of starting a new textile business and regaining his wealth. Meanwhile, he learned a trade. He became a locksmith.”

Amir felt a surge of anger run through him at his father’s humiliation, the way he’d run at the beck and call of a housewife who’d left a pot on the stove in the kitchen and her keys inside when she stepped out, the door locking behind her. But as quickly as the anger came, it passed. His father hadn’t been humiliated. He’d been humble and grateful. “My father worked hard. He took care of his family. He maintained his traditions.”

“And what did you dream for your life?”

“I wanted to go to University to study literature.” Amir smiled. It seemed so far away and so absurd now. He gestured toward his taxi. “This is my meanwhile.”

The rain had petered out, and they were quiet as they approached the airport. Amir pulled up behind the line of taxis and opened the door for the woman before taking her suitcase out of the trunk. He had the sensation that he needed to tell her something more, to offer her something she could take with her back to Antwerp that would mark their unlikely connection. But he had nothing in the car except the second half of the egg salad sandwich Tamar had made him for his dinner.

“Well,” Amir said, “I wish you a safe trip home. Maybe you will visit our little country again sometime.”

She took a step toward him. She kissed her fingertips and then pressed them softly onto Amir’s chest, over his heart. Then she turned and walked away. By the time he realized she hadn’t paid the fare, she’d already disappeared into the terminal.

Amir sat down in the driver’s seat and waited for his head to clear. He turned to take a look in the backseat, wondering if he could conjure the woman for just a few more moments. Instead, he saw the briefcase, buckled in safely.

“Damn it!”

Amir parked the car in the lot and ran over to the terminal, the briefcase knocking against his leg as we went. The line to check in snaked back and forth, hundreds of passengers waiting. It had been less than ten minutes, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. He sat down on a bench near the entrance to examine the briefcase. It was locked, and there was no identification on the outside. He shook it gently and heard only a muted shuffling.

Trudging back to his car, Amir alternated between cursing the woman and touching the spot she had kissed with her fingers. He placed the briefcase carefully in the front passenger seat and buckled it in as she had. Then he drove home, giving up on the rest of his shift.

When he arrived at the apartment hours ahead of schedule, Tamar fretted.

“Your son is growing like a weed. He needs new clothes all the time, and eats more than all three of the girls combined. How can you come home at 8 p.m.?”

“Relax, Tamar. It’s just a few hours of lost fares. Have we ever gone without?” Then he told her about the woman, leaving out the kiss to his heart and the feeling of longing he’d had in her presence. Amir showed Tamar the briefcase.

“Well, open it. Maybe her name is written on something inside. What are you waiting for?”

“It’s locked.”

“And your father is a locksmith. You know how to open a cheap lock on a cheap briefcase.” Tamar went to the silverware drawer. ‘What do you need? A knife?”

Amir hesitated, but Tamar was insistent. “A paper clip and maybe a screwdriver.” His hands were shaking again like they had in the car.

In a few minutes he had the briefcase open.

They both stood back from the table, mesmerized by the neat bundles of bills tied with rubber bands. When he could tear his eyes away, Amir slammed down the cover of the briefcase.

Tamar drifted over to a kitchen chair and sat down heavily. “How much do you think is in there?”

“I don’t know. A lot. But it isn’t ours. And keep your voice down please. You’ll wake my father.”

“Then whose is it? You found it! We’re barely getting by. God gave you this reward for your hard work.”
Amir picked up his car keys. “I don’t know that God was involved here, Tamari.”

She got to her feet and stood between her husband and the door leading from the kitchen to the front hallway. “Where are you going?”

Amir sidestepped her and left the apartment, Tamar’s voice still ringing in his ears.


When he reached the police station, Udi was manning the intake desk.

“Brother! What’s happening?” He came around the desk and slapped Amir on the back. “You missed me at the hotel so much you came here to visit?”

Amir put the briefcase on the counter between them. “I wish you had been at the hotel. You could have saved me a whole mess of trouble.”

“What are you talking about? What is this?” Udi ran his fingers over the leather briefcase. “This is classy stuff. Whose is it?”

“A woman I took to the airport left it in my car. Buckled into the back seat. Open it. Don’t worry, it won’t explode.”

Udi opened the briefcase. His eyes grew wide and he whistled through his teeth. “Wow, wow, wow,” he said, under his breath. Then he looked around the room and closed the briefcase. “Get out, Amir. Take this and go.”

“What are you, crazy? You’re supposed to be the law, Udi.”

“First, I’m your friend. This is enough money to change your life forever. You can buy the children houses, get Tamar fancy jewelry, go and study your precious literature. And we’ll be even. You don’t know who this woman is, and she’s never going to be able to find you.” He closed his eyes as if deep in thought. “Maybe she meant it as a tip for your wonderful driving.”

“Listen, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I don’t want anything to do with this woman or her money.” If Udi noticed him blush, he didn’t say anything.

Udi picked up the briefcase and took several steps toward the back of the station house. “Ok, ok. I know when you get your head set on something, you don’t change your mind. Go home to your wife and family.”


When Amir walked through the door, Tamar was waiting, her eyes teary. “Your father has taken a turn,” she whispered.

Yonatan was sitting by his grandfather’s bedside, holding his hand.

“Abba!” Yonatan yelled to Amir.

“Abba!” Amir yelled to his father.

It was too late.


On the last day of the shiva, Tamar approached Amir where he sat with his childhood friends in the living room, reminiscing.

“Do you remember the time your old man helped me break into the school after hours because I left my textbook inside and I had a big test the next day?” Shlomo laughed, patting Amir’s knee. “He was a wizard at locks. A genius.”

“You’re full of it. He was as honest as the day is long.” But Amir knew the story was true. His father could always be counted on to help.

“Amir,” Tamar interrupted. “Udi is here,” she said.

Amir shrugged. “Nu? He’s come to give his condolences. Just under the wire. Tell him to come in.”

“I don’t know. Please, come to the kitchen. He’s waiting for you.”

Amir got up slowly from his low chair, his legs stiff and aching. From the hallway he could see Udi’s broad shoulders as they filled the doorway. He thought to retreat to the living room where his friends continued to share memories about his father. But when he turned, Tamar was behind him. “Go.”

Udi wasted no time handing Amir the briefcase. “It’s been a week. No one has come to inquire or to claim this. I won’t hold it for you any longer.”

“Don’t you have a word of consolation for me?” Amir pleaded.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Amiri.” Udi put his hand on Amir’s shoulder. “Now go fulfill your dreams and your father’s too.”


Amir sank down into the cushions of the chair in the hotel lounge. What had Tamar called such a chair recently? A chair and a half. She’d ordered two for the salon in her and Yonatan’s new apartment that looked out on the Old City, just a stone’s throw away from where he sat now at the bar in the King David hotel. Tamar seemed determined to spend the money on everything and nothing.

He threw back a scotch, his third. He signaled to the waiter.

“Come, have a drink with me,” Amir called out. His voice was louder than he realized, and a couple at the next table looked up from their lunch.

The waiter looked down at him. “I’m working, sir. Anyway, it’s early.”

“If you won’t join me, I’ll have a double for both of us.” The waiter walked back to the bar to fill the order.

Amir hung his head. “This morning I said the Kaddish prayer for my father for the last time,” he said, to no one in particular. “Eleven months of mourning. And in that time, I’ve managed not only to lose him, but everything that was important to us both.”

The waiter had returned with Udi by his side.

“You called security on me?” Amir asked, his voice filled with shame.

“You’re drunk, my friend.” Amir could hear the disgust in Udi’s voice and he reveled in it.

The flash of a yellow dress in his peripheral vision and Amir rose on unsteady legs, lurching toward the kitchen.

“That’s her! That’s the woman!”

“What woman?” Udi said, following close on Amir’s heels.

“The one who left the briefcase. The one who destroyed my life.”

“That’s Karla. She works in the kitchen. She didn’t leave you a fortune to throw away.”

But when Amir caught up to her, he grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him. His skin tingled where it met hers and her sea glass eyes flashed in anger.

“Why?” Amir cried, as Udi stepped between them to separate them. “Why did you do it?”

The woman swayed and shimmered. Amir lunged for the woman as she faded, cracking his head on the swinging door that led into the hotel’s kitchen. Udi caught him as he fell to the ground and laid his body down, feet toward the door.

Reyna Marder Gentin is a recovering criminal defense attorney and novelist. She lives with her husband in New York. You can find out more at


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Guest Posts, Fiction


November 26, 2023

The afternoon I returned home from taking Paul to college, I stepped out of the car and stretched my creaking limbs with a groan. After seven hours of travelling, I felt at least a hundred and six years old, and even though Paul had done the driving up to school, we had been crammed into the front seat with the entirety of his belongings filling up the rest of the car, leaving not a molecule of daylight. I took stock of the dry grass, and hesitated before climbing the three stairs to the front door. There was a stranger in the house – Paul’s absence – and I was not yet ready to confront it. To my left, I saw what appeared to be a pile of mud on the ground in front of the kitchen window. Late August heat seared my bare shoulders as I walked across the strip of lawn to investigate. Sunscreen had been the last thing on my mind at 6 am that morning, as I packed my son, with his bedding, photographs, and a garbage bag full of sneakers, into my car to move him away from home forever.

Year after year, robins built their nest in the juniper tree which stood dead center in front of the house, and which was growing so tall it seemed to bisect the structure into two distinct halves. When I went downstairs each morning to start my coffee, and the kitchen window had been left open overnight, I startled the birds and they in turn startled me with a flapping noise that was always unsettling for a moment, so close was it to my ears.

I did not remember the night before as distinctly windy, though I had lain awake, trying not to focus on the enormity of the day ahead. My boy was leaving for college. He’s ready, and so am I. In two more years, it would be Kelly’s turn. I needed to wake up in six hours, now four, now two. But at some point, something had unmoored the nest from its perch, and there it was, flipped onto the strip of lawn, slightly flattened due to its tumble to earth. Shards of eggshell were scattered in a small radius on the undergrowth but one unscathed egg sat close by in sky-blue perfection, balanced on a myrtle leaf. I turned over the nest, whose center basket retained its curve, and patted down the grass and mud on the underside. I put the egg inside, and rested the whole apparatus on the top step by the door, in the corner.

I regarded this archaeological finding as more than a little absurd, and laughed out loud. It could be that the fallen nest had been there for weeks but in the last month, I had barely looked up, so focused was I on getting Paul ready, on my new responsibilities at the hospital, and on Kelly’s breakup with the wealthy boy from Ames. There was no way of knowing; some signs can only be read by the willing.

During the year that my husband Dan thought about leaving me, and then finally did, the disturbance honed my senses and I became superstitious. Not about ladders or black cats, although I did avoid the panther cage when I accompanied Paul’s sixth grade class to the zoo.  Rather, I assigned power to whatever was littered in my path, as if my surroundings offered a puzzle of encoded messages, and none of the pieces could be ignored.

I believed that a dried leaf that floated around my feet nudged me with a message (decay is also beautiful?), or that my grandmother’s topaz that sat in my jewelry case suddenly caught the light and my eye, with ancestral wisdom I had to decipher.  I began to collect charms which I wore on a chain around my neck. A seahorse, which only swims forward; a sun, which glows behind rainclouds, the cross from my baptism, to remind me of the child I had once been. But despite my attempts at sorcery, soon Dan moved in with Laura, a grad student in town, whom he loved as much as he had loved me when I, too, was twenty six. The talismans that dangled around my neck seemed like pathetic attempts at optimism. So, I removed them, and everything became what they had been before: A dead leaf, a rock in a box, a bunch of gold charms.

My son had been gone for exactly eight hours but my house was already changed. The emptiness consumed the quiet rooms, which seemed to honor Paul’s departure by manifesting a respectful stillness. Baxter, our mutt, did not spring up to me in his usual way, but rather took his time, loped towards me, not wanting to seem too cheerful in case I was in a state of full-on despair.  I slipped the sandals off my feet and joined him on the kitchen floor.

“Bax, Bax, Bax,” I said. “You okay, boy? ‘Cos I am.”

I ran my fingers along his neck and curved around, scratching vigorously around his ears. I had dreaded getting this dog, a blatant attempt to buy my children’s happiness after the divorce. But like any adopted baby, I fell hard for him, and could not imagine life without his good cheer and even keel. It was Baxter who pitched our family into balance, and sometimes I believed he was a better, more capable, and certainly more patient parent than I.

I rested my forearm, and then my head, on his side. “You know, it was time.” I stood up, still stroking his fur.  “You’re getting gray around the edges, my friend,” I said. “Welcome to the club.”

There was a note on the counter from Kelly. Mom, I’m doing the 7-3 today. Tom wants to see me (!!!). Call me! Love, K.

 It pained me to think that after her summer of heartbreak, she would run back to Tom as soon as he beckoned. He was a junior who lived a half an hour away, and he had succumbed, cruelly, to the charms of another girl in June. It had been tortuous for me, as I felt somewhat responsible for their romance in the first place. Tom’s father was an orthopedic surgeon in the hospital where I taught nursing. I had taken Kelly to the university Christmas party last year in lieu of Keith, the man who had been squiring me around but was not much up for the office holiday bash.

She had worn a black camisole dress with rhinestone spaghetti straps, and silver heels she bought online. I marveled at the ease with which my daughter glided across the room, not to mention the salt-covered, ice-slicked parking lot. Tom noticed her, of course, and they got together a few weeks later on New Year’s Eve. I did not care for his father, who still swaggered like the star quarterback, and was known to have skillful hands and an eye for my students, but not much of a healing demeanor. It should not have colored my feelings for the son.

I picked up the phone and dialed Kelly at Bank Street Grill, where she was a waitress. She would be nearing the end of her shift, dead on her feet, wavy hair beginning to unravel from her clip, still smiling at customers.

“Hi sweetie,” I said. “Long day?”

“Totally. We’ve been really busy. Did you get Paul settled?”

“Yes. Alex was there, his roommate. He seems great. They have a kitchen.”

“Are you sad, Mom?”

“Don’t worry about me, Kel. He’s ready and that’s what counts.”

“We’ll see him in a few weeks, right?”

“Very soon. Honey…Tom?”

“I know, I know. But I’m excited.”

“You’ve been great lately.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. Gotta go. I’ll see you in an hour. Love you!”

Don’t worry? I held her like a baby for hours this summer, felt her hair soak my fingertips from the heat and exertion of her sobs.  For days, she had not left the house, despite platoons of ponytailed friends and soccer teammates who came by on bikes and in cars to get her back into the sunshine. Despite my promising her a hundred times that her heart was still whole.  That no boy, or man, or person, could rob her of her soul and that it, too, was intact.

I poured coffee from the pitcher in the refrigerator, splashed in a drop of milk, and grabbed ice cubes from the freezer. Water condensed quickly around the glass and I gripped it as if it could steady me from what might be imminent in Paul’s room. The familiar faces on the wall greeted me. Usain Bolt, the 1998 Bulls. Inside the closet, I gazed at the empty space. I sat on the bed and remembered assembling it from printed instructions, learning the finer points of an Allen key screwdriver, shocking even myself with my ability to do things without Dan.

My brain scanned my body for sadness and regret, but it came back blank. For months, people began to treat Paul’s leaving as if it were his and my simultaneous demise. But I felt great satisfaction at raising a good man. I also felt one step closer to my own release.  My friends and I – parents I’ve known since Paul started kindergarten, from the auction committee and the Little League candy bar drive – all found ourselves in the place that every mother and father does eventually, with kids moving away and for the most part, trying to prove they no longer needed us. It was sad, yes; tragic, no. We had worked hard and prepared them well.  We, too, would be released.

I hesitated and looked blankly around the room. The ceramic mug he made when he was three or four still sat on the desk which was otherwise cleared of his entire schoolboy history.  He had not packed it, and although it did not much surprise me that a college freshman would not be sentimental about a pre-school clay project, I was nevertheless surprised to see it left behind. I had thrown it away once, long ago, after the handle cracked off. Paul had dug it out of the trash, and brandished it before me, shedding angry tears, crying, “This is my CUP!”

I rose to pick it up, felt its smooth painted yellow sides, rough at the broken points, and looked inside. There was a pen cap, some paper clips, a blue cloth patch of some sort and a small bright orange shell. I removed it and wiped off the dust with the pad of my thumb. It was about the size of a nickel, unscarred and whole. A living thing had inhabited this shell in some far-flung sea. Then it floated to shore and was plucked off the sand by a boy. We were landlocked by over a thousand miles, had been to a half dozen beaches over the years, but I had no idea where it came from. I stuck it in my pocket.

I walked out and towards the bedroom, and gazed at the pile of books that sat, ever waiting for me, punishing but welcoming just the same. Now, I might have time for them. I looked up at the shelves stacked high with novels that held not only their own stories but the ancillary ones: where I was in my life on this earth when I read them. There were books from my honeymoon, and ones I had plowed through when I was on bed rest while pregnant with Kelly. Books that I read, or tried to, when I worked overnights as a young nurse, my eyes lacquered with fatigue. Others I had carried through airports, on vacation with the kids.

I picked one up and shuffled quickly through the pages, as if the smell of coffee and black tobacco would float towards me again, as it had while I read it in a cafe in Paris. I took myself there the first summer after our divorce when I had to give up my children to their father for two weeks. I recalled the agony, the bewilderment, the pointlessness of my attempt at escape. The stub of my boarding pass floated to the floor and I retrieved it: Carolyn Schepis, seat 46B. I stuck it back between the pages and as I reshelved the book, I heard the squeak of the front door.

It was Keith, whom I referred to at times as my boyfriend. He had begun to make noises about moving in together but as much as I liked sharing a bed with him when I was in the mood, the idea of committing to his laundry and general caretaking gave me the sensation of a hand gripping my throat. He too was divorced, and we had been together, or something like it, for a year.

“Carolyn?” he called. Always a question.

“Up here Keith,” I replied as I headed for the stairs, still barefoot. Keith stood in the foyer, holding forth a bag that looked like lunch, and when he saw me, he shut the door behind him. As he did, a mass of sticky heat from outdoors lumbered into the house, dissipating quickly in the air conditioning. He was in his coaching clothes, shorts, a gray T-shirt, fresh from pre-season practice with his high school soccer team. His smile betrayed more than a drop of sympathy which I tried to ignore by beaming back to him, widening my eyes gratefully at the appearance of both him, and food.

“I’m just seeing if you’re okay,” he said, wrapping a moist arm around me, and kissing me fully on the lips.

“You’re so sweet.” I continued, “Everyone keeps asking me that. I think I’m not supposed to be.” I looked in the bag. Chips. Good. “But I’m okay.”

“Where’d you find the nest?” Keith asked.

“Out front,” I said.

“Can I at least take you to dinner tonight?” Keith asked. “To celebrate? Or not…”

“Can I let you know?” I replied, grimacing. “I’m pretty tired. Kelly’s getting back together with Tom.”

“She’ll have to learn somehow,” said Keith. “Let me pick you up at 6.”

“Come by at 7. Now, I need a nap. And a shower.”

“Do you need company?” he asked, “’Cos I could use some.”

“Nice try,” I answered. Ridiculous to think I would be in the mood, and he knew it.

“I’m kidding,” Keith said, sheepishly.

“You are not,” I said. “See you later. Thanks for the lunch. I don’t deserve you.”

“No,” he said, “You don’t. But I keep hoping you will.”

I closed the door behind Keith and in the kitchen, opened the bag of potato chips. It was cool inside the house, and in my tank top, I almost needed a sweater.  I chewed on half of the ham sandwich, with mustard only, just how I liked it, and left the second half uneaten. I went upstairs and while getting undressed, I noticed gold tips on the leaves of the sugar maples that lined the back fence. Late August always seemed incongruous, how the trees just knew their time for turning, as if on cue.

After my shower, I heard Kelly come inside.

“Mom!” she cried. “That nest! You know it’s good luck to find a robin’s nest with whole eggs?”

She walked into my room as I was buttoning up my jeans.

“You should bring it inside,” she said excitedly.

“I’ll leave it out on the porch for now,” I said. “I’ll call Flanders, maybe they can pick it up or tell me what to do.” The nature center was a mile away, and could probably offer some quick advice.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” She plunked down on my bed and curled up like a tired, satisfied kitten. “Do you have any laundry?” she asked. “I need to wash my restaurant shirt for tomorrow.”

“Sure, honey,” I answered, gathering my dirty clothes from the morning, and stopping to kiss her on the cheek as if she were a napping baby. “I’m doing a load now. Bring it downstairs.”

After she dressed for her reunion with Tom, I met her in the kitchen. She was fresh, her cheeks were lightly shimmered. She had done battle with her thick curls for years, had attacked them with all manner of flattening iron, conditioning salve and straightening paste. My hair is thin and barely holds a wave, and so I genuinely envied her mane, even though saying so had me branded as patronizing and, as her mother, I had no credibility anyway. Lately, though she seemed to have embraced her wild hairstyle, which was distinct in our flaxen-blonde town.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” I said.

“Mom,” she groaned. “He said he was sorry.”

“But he cheated on you, Kelly. You can’t get in the habit of thinking that’s okay,” I insisted.

“He made a mistake. We all do.” Kelly took a can of seltzer from the refrigerator and plunked it on the counter in front of me, popping it open with the aplomb of a veteran bartender.

I wanted to add, “And his father is such a creep,” but I held my tongue, knowing that it would be unfair to pass such judgment onto his son. It was, in fact, awkward to see Tom’s father in the hospital corridors, and I assumed he was doing perpetual reconnaissance on the fledgling nurses, especially the petite, busty ones. I felt sorry for his wife.

“Mom, you just hate men,” Kelly said, matter-of-fact.

“Kelly! I don’t either,” I said, recoiling somewhat from the sharp sting of her words. “What a horrible thing to say!” We fought rarely, and when we did, it wore me out for days. I scrambled for a reply. “You don’t deserve a cheater.”

“I’m sixteen, Mom,” Kelly exclaimed, hands extended before her, palms upturned.  She looked at me and gulped from the soda can. “Not forty-four. Which should be considered young, but which you have redefined as “Time to give up.”

“Kelly,” I said limply.

“Look at how you treat Keith,” said Kelly. “Why do you even bother?”

“That’s really none of your business.” The unspoken words soured in my mouth. I cursed the rulebook that I wanted to tear up again and again, the one where it says a spurned spouse is not allowed to disparage the ex—ever, under any circumstances—to the children.

“Mom, so my heart broke. And we’re getting back together. It’s good and I’m happy.” I stared at her and she continued, “He screwed up. Who doesn’t?”

“It doesn’t mean you have to be waiting at the bus stop as soon as he wants to see you…” I began to feel something close to embarrassment, so I stopped.

“I’ll be home by 12. Promise. I have to be at work at 6 in the morning.” Kelly leaned over and pecked me on the forehead, and I stood to walk her to the door. Confidence lightened her bearing, it was impossible not to see that. “Don’t forget to put my uniform in the dryer! Thanks, Mom!”

My daughter disappeared into the early evening sun, which pooled on the walkway between the hedges. Above it, a wall of heat and light formed, thick and blinding.         

Keith picked me up for dinner in town, and afterwards, I promised my favors for some other time. As we said goodnight, I asked him about Kelly’s accusation – there was no other word for it. I was not angry, but rather mystified.

“You don’t think I hate men, do you?” I asked.  Moths congregated with loud flapping all around the porch light. One sat large and still on the door, a deep celadon green.

“Why do you ask that?” he said, tucking a lock of hair behind my ear, twirling it for a second around his finger.

“Kelly said that,” I answered.

Keith took a deep breath. “She’s a preternaturally wise young lady.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.

“You don’t hate men,” Keith said. “You just don’t like that most of them love women and have no idea how to do that right.”

“That’s absurd,” I protested.

“That’s the truth,” he said, kissing me again. “Now hurry up inside.”

I undressed in the dark, listening for a noise, any noise. I went to Paul’s room, and lay across his bed in my summer night gown, grasping the still-strong scent of a teenage boy. I stared at the ceiling while tears flowed straight down my cheeks, pooled around my ears, soaked my neck and eventually the pillowcase under my head.

Around midnight, I heard Baxter welcome Kelly home with the gentle bark that informs me of my children’s arrival, and not the one he employs to warn me of something menacing or unfamiliar. The door creaked open, and I could hear the faint whisper of the kids on the front porch. There was a sudden quiet, during which I assumed they kissed each other goodnight.

Kelly’s shoes plunked on the floor. She tiptoed into my room. “Mom?” she said, “Mom?” Her voice raised in alarm.

“In here, sweetie,” I said, swinging my legs around to the floor where Paul had planted his size 13 feet every morning. Kelly walked in and sat down beside me.

“I think a raccoon or something got to the nest,” she said, and tears gathered in the corner of her eyes.

“It’s okay, honey,” I said. “What’s wrong? Did tonight go okay?” I took her head in both hands and tilted it up to face me.

“It was great, Mom. Really.” She was crying. Briefly, her expression showed relief.  “Now it’s gone. It was going to bring you good luck.” She looked around, wiping her cheeks and then waved her hands towards the darkness

“The robin’s nest?” I asked. Kelly nodded. “It already did, honey. Now go to sleep. You have an early morning.” I stood and walked her to the bathroom, and myself to my own bed.

When she left for work at 5:45, the sky was just pale enough for me to see her bicycle whir to the stoplight and veer towards town.

Kelly had gathered the eggshells and put them back into the nest. There were a few scattered bits on the porch, but whatever had eaten it had swallowed the inside whole. The trough held the pile of fragments. They were so blue. Aegean, celestial, oceanic blue. I could not bear to think of the devastated mother robin. I wedged the nest into the dark interior of the juniper tree.

In the kitchen, I started my coffee and made my foray to the laundry room. Every morning my feet carried me there, unwittingly, to my children’s clothes. I folded them and put them in piles, which, with an ache of tenderness, I patted and pressed with my palm. With Paul gone, there would much less housework to do, at least until Thanksgiving. In six days, I would be back at the college, with a new school year of my own.

I opened the dryer, gripped the lint catcher, and peeled off the soft gray sheet. It was satisfying, as it always was. Something fell on the floor, bounced once, and landed square and whole. It was the orange shell from my jeans pocket, from the deepest ocean, from a beach somewhere, from a small boy’s hand. I went to Paul’s room and returned it to the cracked clay cup.

Marcia DeSanctis is the author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, a New York Times travel bestseller. She is a contributing writer at Travel + Leisure and Air Mail, and also wrote/has written for Vogue, BBC Travel, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Tin House, Coachella Review, The Common, and many other publications. She has won five Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers, including one for Travel Journalist of the Year.



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Guest Posts, Self Image

Body In Motion

November 19, 2023
body in motion

I don’t know when it started, but it may have been on a bus.

Growing up two easy hours north of New York City, it was common for a community group of some kind to organize a day trip to Manhattan on a Greyhound coach. My mother, eager to show me the world outside my small hometown, would frequently shell out the thirty or forty dollars to reserve two seats, usually coordinating with parents of my classmates. We’d meet before dawn in a grocery store parking lot—a space big enough to idle the bus—Dunkin Donuts coffee in hand for the adults, plastic bottles of juice for the kids, Munchkins to go around. My friends and I would jostle for spots in the back to warnings of “behave or we will separate you.” Rowdy on sugar and novelty, we got a stern glance now and then during the first half hour of the ride, as the driver took us across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and onto the thruway headed south to the city. After a while, though, the too-early wake up (on a Saturday!) and consistent humming of the motor would lull nearly everyone asleep, save perhaps the almost-elderly, whom I now suspect were used to rising at that hour and enjoyed the eventual peace and quiet.

The days might be spent in combinations of parents and kids, sightseeing the obvious landmarks, eating street-cart soft pretzels, and trying not to get lost so we wouldn’t have to embarrass ourselves to chic New Yorkers by asking for directions. Sometimes, the trip involved seeing the matinee of a Broadway show, and our large group, having splintered off at the 8 am arrival into Port Authority, would reconvene in the balcony to enjoy Phantom or Cats or whatever musical was just enough past its prime for a bunch of out-of-towners to score a group discount. Mostly, though, my mom and the other parents would try to get us kids to learn something at Ellis Island while we begged to go to FAO Schwartz. The Museum of Natural History tended to be a decent compromise, because at least we got to see the dinosaurs.

We would eat dinner at tourist-trap restaurants in Times Square—Planet Hollywood or Hard Rock, choosing overpriced chicken fingers and whining to buy overpriced merch. Afterwards, we’d begin the walk back to meet the bus and our driver, possibly stopping on the way to buy a magnet or postcard or other memento from exactly the kind of shop you imagine. Hopped up on caffeine from free Coke refills at dinner, we’d clamor aboard to return to our original seats, so marked with personal belongings leftover from the morning whose purpose was solely to occupy empty space and ensure the rightful reseating of its owner. The parents, exhausted from a day of shuttling us around, fell asleep almost immediately, and if nothing else, we were smart enough to keep the volume down as we chatted with each other about the gravely significant moments of junior high. We’d successfully fight to stay awake on the return bus ride, only to fall asleep immediately in the car during the fifteen minutes it took to get from the parking lot back to our quiet small town homes.

Most of these trips blend together. Once, I remember wearing garbage bags as rain gear because my mom refused to shell out twenty bucks for two blue plastic ponchos when an unplanned downpour met us upon arrival.

And another time Glenn told me how fat my thighs were.

Despite being two years my senior, this one trip home we ended up sitting together. He was the older brother of a male classmate. I was in the window seat and had on shorts. Not short-shorts—my rather prudish mother would never allow me to dress “like that”—but shorts of a reasonable length for a tween. I remember now, though I didn’t always, that he poked his finger into my inner thigh as the bus maneuvered the bumpy potholes of Yonkers. “Look how it jiggles!” he laughed.


I moved the food around on my dinner plate just enough to look like more was gone than had made its way into my mouth. I became a vegetarian—yes, certainly because of the inspiration from my Birkenstock-wearing, Phish-listening camp counselors over the summer, but also secretly because I would be able to consume less while standing on a soapbox. After school, I would take the bus home, let myself in, and run the carpeted stairs in my small townhome for an hour until my mom came home from work, then go for a jog. I used her antique marble bookends as weights to do biceps and triceps. Though planks weren’t en vogue then as they are now, I did all manners of ab exercises on the scratchy living room rug.

One evening after rehearsal for the school musical, my then best-friend’s mom took us to Burger King. When asked my order, I chimed from the backseat that I wanted a veggie Whopper—basically the bun with the fixins’—and a Diet Coke. Mrs. F looked at me from the driver’s seat and commented on my sallow skin, sunken eyes, and lifeless hair. “I think I know what you’re doing,” she said, “and I will tell your mother.”


It is an unnaturally warm October afternoon; an Indian Summer, I might have called it once. My car is so hot from the sun beating through the windows all day that I decide to risk my physical safety to remove my shirt while I drive down the equally unnaturally empty Schuykill Parkway toward downtown Philadelphia for an appointment. When I am eventually forced to sit in traffic, I rationalize that the passenger in the car next to me can’t see more than if I were on a beach in a bikini, not that I would wear one.

I walk into an office building and wait to be called in. I am there to be evaluated as part of an experimental treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder being run through Temple University. Entirely self-diagnosed, I signed up to participate in this study mostly out of curiosity, understanding full well I could easily be part of the placebo group. Eventually, the researcher appears in the room to bring me back. She introduces herself, explains the purpose of the study, and has me sign the requisite consent forms before giving me a questionnaire to assess my overall mental state. After several minutes of quiet save the scratch of my pen, I hand it back. She quickly takes inventory of my answers and looks at me as she places the clipboard on her desk.

“Well, I think you’d be a good candidate for this study, to start,” she says. I smile, glad my trip to the city on a work night wasn’t wasted. “Let’s talk about your body issues.”

“I…um, ok?” I stammer. I’m sweating again.

“How long have you thought these things?” she asks, gesturing at my answers. “It’s obvious there’s something there.”

“Well…kind of always? Definitely since middle school, but, I’ve never, like, told anyone.” Mrs. F’s warning flashes in my mind.

“Tell me more about your eating and workout habits,” she coaxes.

She listens as I tell the superficial truths about my lifestyle, making sure to point out that I do eat, even if I also workout with extreme regularity.

“Have you heard of Body Dysmorphic Disorder?”

“I haven’t.”

“Without doing a full evaluation with you as my patient, I can’t say for certain, legally. But…” She trails off; I understand her meaning. She steers the conversation back to my original purpose for being there, and I leave that evening with one of those light-boxes and a sheet to track my usage. For being in the study, I got to keep it.


My friend BP and I scurry into class a wee late, Starbucks guiltily in hand. It’s a small doctoral seminar, so we can’t hide, and our professor chides us good-naturedly before continuing her lecture. As usual, she’s holding court from the front of a conference table, unconsciously waving an invisible cigarette as she waxes on. Two hours later, we are dismissed, and she grabs me before I leave to hand me her extra set of keys; I’m house-sitting for her this weekend like I often do when she travels. “Have the girls over for wine and enjoy the deck!”

I do just that, since I never host at my tiny apartment. We settle into her cushioned patio furniture with drinks and a cheese plate. After the requisite complaints about various papers and professors, the conversation turns to our absent host and how much we adore her and her wacky-chic aesthetic: a severe dyed-garnet bob; a uniform of all black denim, even in the humid Ohio summer; cherry-red manicures.

“I don’t know how she lifts her little arms with all that silver jewelry!” I joke. “She’s so tiny!”

“You’re the exact same size!” BP admonishes from across the table.

“On what planet are we the same size!?”

“This one,” chimes in Kate between sips of her Pinot Noir.

“No way. Absolutely not. She is minute. I have chunky workout legs and she is a stick!” I put down my wine glass to gesticulate for emphasis.

“Easy way to solve it. Go try on her clothes,” Erin shrugs. I protest that this seems like a housesitting violation. But they won’t leave it alone, so we go upstairs to the main bedroom.

I rifle through her walk-in before selecting a pair of her oft-worn black jeans with rhinestone swirls on the back pockets. I tug down my yoga pants, muttering that this is dumb and stupid and that my friends will be really embarrassed when I can’t even get them over my ass.

Not only do they slide on easily, they’re almost too big in the waist.

I emerge, sheepish and making excuses, to several pairs of eyes staring I told you so.


I wish trying on those jeans had resulted in an epiphany that catapulted my life forward with a newfound body awareness and resolve to fix the fucked-up cycles of my brain. It didn’t, of course. BDD isn’t your garden-variety westernized hatred of the female body. Like most women I know, can list off in rapid succession aspects of my appearance I wish were different: too-fine hair, too-pug nose, too-pale skin, too-small breasts, too-thick ankles, even a too-long toe. Like my mother, I have one droopy eyelid, veiny hands, and very pointy elbows. BDD is more than this. It’s like living in the house of mirrors at a carnival: rationally, I know that how my brain interprets my reflection is distorted and keeps me confused and trapped, but I can’t escape. I walk around pretending to ignore the feeling that underneath my skin is a skeleton covered in a suit of sludge.

Not common parlance when I sort of stopped eating in the early 90s, “disordered eating” is part of my struggle, and why other people with BDD often get misdiagnosed with anorexia. Memes about “not having to earn your food” or “there’s no such thing as bad food” are de rigueur on body liberation social media accounts, now. The raging feminist in me celebrates these sentiments, as well as those about BMI, obesity, and fat being dangerous myths perpetuated by the billion-dollar diet industry, because I honestly love food. Yet I am constantly calculating what I put in my body and how I’ll compensate for it before or after. I pre-check menus if I’m headed to a new restaurant to adjust my lunch in preparation for my dinner. I choose hotels with fitness facilities when I travel, so I can enjoy those out of town restaurants more easily. When I go home to visit my mom for winter break, I pay the daily rate at her local big box gym to compensate for the champagne and holiday snacking we’ll enjoy for a week.

Ironically, people often comment on “how much I can eat.” One Thanksgiving, Kate’s grandfather clapped me on the shoulder for helping myself to thirds, boisterously questioning where I was putting all those potatoes. What he didn’t know is that I went to the gym earlier that day and extra the next. You can find me hovering around the appetizer table at most parties. I stress-eat after a breakup or other emotional setback. A child of a Boomer whose parents lived through the Great Depression, I’m a lifelong member of the Clean Plate Club at meals.

Until recently, I have shared my struggle with very few people for fear it translates into mere vanity, or worse, an acquiescence of the patriarchal beauty standards in a culture that commodifies the body. But the distorted eating and gym obsession is more than the desire to maintain a “healthy lifestyle” or whatever palatable phrasing we’re using now. I literally can’t help it.

Eating makes me anxious. Not exercising makes me more anxious. Thinking about either makes me anxious. I do not feel right or think right or act right if I am out of equilibrium, a delicate homeostasis that requires calculated measures to achieve in the first place. Sometimes, my desperation is so real I fantasize about a Faustian solution. To be rid of this anguish is one of the three wishes I’d ask of a genie—but only if it came with the “good day” feeling, too. The downward spiral of knowing how much more I could be and do and want and allow myself, if only, is a feedback loop of fear and frustration with no finale.

This loop is further fueled by: how dare I.

I am white and cis and able-bodied. I am squarely middle class with access to several grocery stores and the transportation and literacy to access and prepare nearly any food of my choosing. My budget allows for memberships to fitness facilities, at times even a personal trainer, and a few pieces of equipment for my home purchased during lockdown. I would never grace the pages of a magazine, but I have undoubtedly benefited from the pretty/thin privileges, especially given that I was raised with the social mores to finesse my dress for all occasions, including job interviews, and can usually find clothes in my size, without the added burden of plus-size pricing or needing a seamstress.

How dare I applaud beautiful fat women without having their body confidence to wear a crop top or remind my new-mom friend that no one cares she doesn’t fit into her pre-pregnancy jeans while I can’t wear my own without a hefty leg-day workout first or convince my carb-conscious friend to “order the pasta if you want it! Life is too short!” while knowing I would punish myself for the same order or even click like on the meme about how we’re not alive to lose weight and pay bills.

How dare I exist in this world as I am and be unable to enjoy neither the world nor myself?


I am one week into a two-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, floating down the Mekong River on a boat with my newfound (in their 20s) friends from England. Having crossed into Laos the day prior after several days in Thailand, I’ve generally adjusted to the local cuisine which for a vegetarian is quite accommodating—rice or noodles and tofu and veg in varying recipes that are, to use a Thai phrase, “same same but different.”

But. It’s been a week since I was at the gym, so I’m fighting off a bad body day. It is obviously humid, which, coupled with being surrounded by women who still have gorgeous skin courtesy of an ample, youthful supply of collagen, has left me feeling gross and ugly and full of sludge. We lounge around, pausing every so often from our reading or chatting to listen to our boat guide tell us about the importance of the Mekong or various sites. I scroll through pictures from my travels so far and must use self-talk coping strategies to not delete several shots of me giving an elderly elephant a bath at a sanctuary, because I am (of course) in a bathing suit. I get angry with myself for worrying about what I look like bathing an elephant in Thailand because it is a waste of emotional space to give a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I flashback to the memory of the picture being taken by a stranger and how I strategically added mud to my already muddy body as dysmorphic camouflage. I simultaneously chide myself for these thoughts and admonish myself for chiding myself since I can’t help them and wrestle for a few moments with the knowledge that I have nearly 50 more days of this trip: the Southeast Asia battle of this incessant war.

The wife of the Laotian couple leading the boat tour announces it is time for lunch and reveals a magnificent spread of (you guessed it) rice and noodles and tofu and veg, alongside chicken and other meat dishes and salad. I help myself to the buffet and stifle the internal monologue about the prevalence of carbs, reminding myself that the iPad I’ve toted along as an e-reader cost about three months this woman’s salary and just shut up and stop worrying about your Western mental struggles, you ungrateful colonizer. It helps a little.

Later that same trip, now on an island in Cambodia, those same girlfriends and I go night swimming in water full of bioluminescent algae. We hiked that day, so I’m feeling good-ish about skinny dipping, letting the trails of faint green light swish around the path created by my arms and legs. For just a moment, I am free and light and astounded by the natural world and my absolute privilege to be exactly where I am, and how.

Hilary Brewster

Hilary Brewster is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Marshall University. Previous publications have been with Palgrave Macmillan, Sense, Two Cities Review, Cargo Literary Magazine, and Bookbird journals. Her poem “Am I Allowed Here?” appears in the 2022 Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and her article about pregnant stand-up comedians is forthcoming in the Journal of American Popular Culture.


Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!


Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Anxiety, Self Care


November 16, 2023

For weeks I sat on the edge of the pool, dangling my feet in the overchlorinated water. I watched as screaming kids executed cannonballs and underwater handstands.  My body ached with envy, but I couldn’t bring myself to jump in.  At seven-years old, I felt it was already too late for me to learn to swim.  Seven-year-olds, at least the strong, brave, competent ones, had been swimming for years.  My shame kept me firmly cemented on the ledge.

Each day, during those weeks, Dad would spread out a towel on the hot concrete and sit down next to me.  He would drape his muscular arm around my bony shoulder and whisper, “Are you ready?” Every day I would shake my head no.  Until one, particularly humid day, for some reason, I reluctantly nodded my head, yes.  That is when dad scooped me up and walked us slowly down the wide steps with the long silver banister into the shallow end of the pool at the Dolphin Swim Club.  I wrapped my goose-pimpled arms tightly around his neck and tied my skinny legs to his torso.

“We are going to start by learning to float on your back,” he said with a gentle smile.  “If you ever get into trouble or you get too tired you can always just flip over and float.”

Flip over and float.  He made it sound so easy.  But, stubborn with fear, I refused to let go.

“It’s okay, today we are just floating,” he whispered in my ear as he carried me through the water.

I clung tighter.

Dad lumbered around the pool with me glued to the trunk of his body for a long while.  He bobbed up and down, back, and forth.  When I finally relaxed my shoulders and loosened my grip ever so slightly, he cupped the base of my head in one hand and gently lowered it into the cool water.  He placed his other hand firmly on the small of my back.

“Now, just lie back,” he said calmly. “That’s all you have to do. That’s it, there you go, you are floating.  That is all you have to do.”

Dad’s voice was faint but soothing through the water. I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my checks.  My thin wisps of brown hair fanned out around my face.

“Ahhhhh, what a macheyeh,” he said, repeating the Yiddish word for joy.

I could feel his smile through his words and instinctively knew its meaning.  He didn’t do that thing that many parents do– unexpectedly letting you go and making a big show of how you are doing it all by yourself. Instead, dad kept a feather touch on my lower back just enough pressure so I knew he was still with me if I needed him.

Just when I felt like I could float like that forever, a sudden splash of water smacked at my face.  I panicked and flailed my arms and legs at the same time. I felt my body slip away from dad’s hand and start to sink.   The water splashed over my mouth and nose.  Dad scooped me back up in an instant.    But those seconds left me sobbing and gasping for air.

“Shhh, shhh, shhhh,” Dad said caressing my head, “you are okay, Peanut. That little boy over there just jumped into the water and splashed you.”

He pointed to a boy with white, blond curls and a mischievous grin.   I glared at the boy still sniffling.

“Don’t worry about him,” Dad said, “all you have to do is keep floating and you will be safe.”

I buried my face in the crook of dad’s neck for a long while.  He didn’t take me out of the pool.  He didn’t suggest we try again.  He just kept bobbing along with me until I calmed down.  Then I said, “Okay, let’s try again.”

Dad smiled. He looked proud. “Okay. Remember, no matter what happens just keep floating –don’t worry about what is behind you or in front of you. Just float. I will be here the whole time.”

Within weeks I was doing freestyle, cannonballing and even working on my underwater handstand, while Dad watched from the edge of the pool—there if I needed him.

Most importantly, that summer I learned to float.


Thirty summers later after dad taught me to float, I was living a life I convinced myself was perfect.  I was married to a man with whom I was deeply in love.  I had a beautiful baby boy and a job as a lawyer in one of Philadelphia’s biggest law firms.  And then within the course of three months, I had stepped on a trifecta of landmines that left me flailing and gasping for air.  My marriage began to unravel.  I suffered a health crisis that I could have never seen coming.  And I experienced a professional failure that left me wondering whether I chose the right career path.

During those sticky months, I somehow managed to get through my workdays and complete the maternal checklist of dinner, bath, book, and bedtime.  Then I would collapse into grief—lying on my couch, scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, crying, and eating the most comforting food Grubhub had to offer.  I wasn’t sleeping, my eyes were perpetually swollen, and despite the Grubhub, I was somehow losing weight.  I felt myself being pulled into a place I had never been before.  The identity I had spent so much of my life erecting had crumbled in the span of three months.  I didn’t know who I would be without the perfect marriage, the perfect job, and a healthy functioning body.

I had always learned that Jews don’t kneel, but one sleepless night in August I got up and for some reason found myself on my knees at the edge of my bed with my hands cupped in front of me, the way I had seen little kids pray on television.

“Please,” I whispered to a God I had never spoken to before, “please take this all from me.  Please help me.”

I stayed there on my knees for a long while.  I was waiting for an answer, a sign, some instructions about how to move forward.  There was no answer, no sign, no instructions.  God said nothing.  Still, I felt calmer for having spoken the words, lighter somehow. I got back in bed and just kept whispering to myself, “you are ok, you are ok, you are ok.”

Kneeling before my bed and asking for God’s help became my ritual that summer. The words “you are ok” became my refrain.  I repeated them to myself each time my thoughts pulled me into regret, anger, shame or overwhelm.  I repeated them when I felt rage rise in my chest and when I felt terrified of what was to come.

By September, I was sleeping better, crying less, reading more.  I was singing to my baby boy again. And at some point, that fall, I realized I was floating.

*This essay was originally published online at Philadelphia Stories. 

Tammi Markowitz Inscho is a reformed trial lawyer turned writer. Tammi’s personal essays have been featured here at The Manifest-Station and in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Tammi is currently hard at work on her first novel. She also leads creative writing workshops for youth and teens in the Philadelphia area. She lives in Center City Philadelphia with her husband and young son.


Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!


Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Grief

The Mourning Essay

November 13, 2023
Josh cemetery

Ghosts are supposed to be translucent, ephemeral. Mine are opaque, and permanent. Like the humidity on the Gulf Coast, ever present and palpable. If I could take a knife and cut a path through it, I would; I have tried. I’ve surgically removed myself, carving out limbs at a time until now, almost a decade removed, again, from living in Biloxi, I feel that mostly I am whole and present in the DC suburbs in which I live. It takes a long time, piecing oneself back together. After the traumatic death of a brother. After the rape and sexual assault from a friend. After heartbreak and disappointment and the wiping away of future plans. When I think of Mississippi, I think of pain and heartache. I think also of ignorance and backwardness and tremendous poverty. Of the final home of the first and last president of the confederacy. This monument to racism that stands and collects money, celebrating a history that is mistold, still. That flies not just one but hundreds of confederate flags, every day in 2022, and I am filled with dread. And yet for the sake of my children, and perhaps also for myself, this summer once again I find myself planning a trip back to the place where everything truly terrible in my life has happened. Because if I truly want to heal, I need to remember where I came from and how far I’ve come, and I want my kids to know more of the world than the haven their father and I have tried to create for them in suburbia. Because there is also beauty there, in Biloxi. Time moves slower and life is simpler. The Gulf beckons and pulls and reminds me of the possibilities in that murky water where the river meets the sound and the dolphins and stingrays play. And a day on the water in any kind of boat can heal almost anything. And so we go, every summer, and the ghosts and the mist envelope me and mine again.

But first, a memory.

The cool, dry air on my skin, driving my white mustang convertible, top down, through the hills and valleys of Northern California, the vineyards rolling past in waves of color, the smell of manure and compost and dreams permeating the air around me. The warmth of the sun and the endless possibilities in the open clean air of a California morning. That morning, so long ago, when California-me still believed it was possible to shake off my hometown.  It was 7:30 AM on January 12, 2006, and I was on my way to work at Napa High School when my friend Shelly Barq called from Biloxi. She was thousands of miles away and three hours ahead of me in time.  This morning in Napa, like every morning, the sky above was a brilliant blue punctuated with hot air balloons. The beauty of this adopted home astounded me daily. I loved that I needed a sweater in the mornings and could wear shorts in the afternoon. I loved the hills and valleys, the river and the endless cerulean sky. The gourmet coffee shops and grocery stores and boutiques I couldn’t afford.  In every possible way Napa was the opposite of where I had grown up in hurricane country. There was never even a cloud in the sky, not one.

“Is your brother ok?” Shelly asked.

I had no idea what she was talking about. My morning had consisted of an argument with my fiance, Jeff, and then a hasty exit to my car. He would be driving to Santa Rosa this morning to work at his mother’s office (supposedly) and then staying late afterward to play with his band—that part, at least, I could believe. That is all he did, really, pretend to be a rock star and smoke pot. The rockstar bit is part of what attracted me to him in the first place. There is nothing more romantic than sitting under the stars with someone who is playing the guitar and crooning a love song while staring into your eyes.

“Call your mom,” Shelly said, and I hung up with her and called home expecting my mother to tell me that my youngest brother Josh had perhaps broken his leg in a car accident.

“Pull over and park the car,” Mom said.

It was 9:30 AM her time, and 7:30 in Napa. Impatient and because I was almost to school, I told her I was parked even as I continued to drive.

“Your brother has been killed,” she said. “He passed away.” Stunned, I coasted into my parking space. I couldn’t understand what she was saying.

A memory.

Running laps at the park by our house. The oppressive heat and stings of mosquito bites. A desire to show off. Josh wanted to get into better shape for baseball, and he asked me to train him to run faster. I ran behind him and in front of him. I sang motivational songs, He was out of breath after 50 yards. His dark brown hair and little belly, the way he trudged rather than jogged. His body had never been the same after his surgery. When he was 10 he’d been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, and after a round of chemotherapy he’d had surgery to remove the tumor in his leg, and a surgeon had spliced the bones there together with another bone from his pelvis. He was a survivor; he was a fighter. That day at the running track though, he gave up after 2 laps, and I teased him endlessly.

Not possible that he was killed, that he had “passed away.” Passing away implies some sort of gentle crossing, and there is nothing gentle about being crushed by an 18 wheel truck.  He and seven of his friends had been driving back from a party about an hour north from our hometown, and in the back country roads of Wiggins, Mississippi, in dense fog and after too many drinks, they had gotten lost. Chris Rutland, the driver, did a 3 point turn in the middle of the highway, and in the 3 AM fog, his truck had been struck by an 18-wheeler going probably 80 miles an hour. Josh and five of his friends had been killed instantly.

How could he be dead? Why him? Had I not also been to a million parties in remote locations and driven with a driver who’d also had too much to drink? I don’t think I’m alone in this, when we are young, we are stupid. Most of us are pretty lucky and survive those mistakes. Josh and his friends didn’t. But I had just seen Josh when I was there for Christmas break. We had last talked a few days before, when I called to see if he’d yet gotten over the cold he had while I was visiting. I was feeling sniffly and wondering if I should visit the doctor for some antibiotics, or if it was, in fact, just a cold. He had told me he was fine. He is fine. No other option was plausible. Because if my little brother was dead, what did that make me?


He was 6 and I was 11, and I was the only one he trusted to pull his loose tooth. I was his protector, his “Gigi” when he couldn’t yet say Angie properly.  His little arms around me when he’d had a nightmare and needed someone to hold him while he fell back asleep. The smell of Dove soap and toothpaste and the slight fear that he might pick his nose and put the boogers under the covers.

While home that Christmas, I had brought Jeff with me to meet my family. It had been a disaster. Jeff Fitzgerald did not in any way mesh with my southern Mississippi past and present. He had threatened at one point to walk to the airport and leave early because he couldn’t stand the… what exactly? I’m not sure. Now I think what he couldn’t fathom was the intimacy. This is what scares me too, now, at 42, when I think about visiting my parents and Bryan, my remaining brother, in Biloxi. I’ve successfully cocooned myself in suburbia, a thousand miles away, and I don’t want to open my heart back up to that place where it can be hurt again by those who knew me before. There used to be a closeness between my brothers, parents and me. There was no escaping it if I wanted to. Even as a 22 year old adult visiting with Jeff that winter, the strict curfews and rules were still in place because, according to my dad, “when you are under my roof you are under my rules.” I don’t think Jeff had any of this growing up; certainly there didn’t seem to be any structure in his life, any comprehension of the importance of honesty and even sobriety. That I came from a place where people couldn’t buy wine at the grocery store or liquor (or wine) on Sundays seemed unfathomable to him. That for one week only, he wouldn’t be able to begin his mornings with his customary glass of wine or token joint was unbearable to him. I see that now. I didn’t then. I was still enthralled by the easy orgasms that came when he was next to me and the sweet embrace of the ever flowing wine and sunshine in California. One night in Biloxi for Christmas break, we had played Trivial Pursuit. Jeff was impressed with Joshua’s ability to get every single question on the sports cards correct. I think that was the only real interaction between them. Jeff preferred my brother Bryan, I think, because he was closer to us in age, but also because Bryan shared Jeff’s love for cannabis.

So that morning in Napa, when I called Jeff to tell him he needed to turn back around and meet me at our apartment, the first question he asked after I screamed that my brother was dead was, “Which one?” This question maddened me. Did it matter? Of course it mattered, but to me at the time it seemed more proof that this man child I’d been dumb enough to saddle myself to seemed to think that question was relevant.

“It’s Josh,” I said. “Come home.”

Another night over Christmas vacation I had been sitting downstairs when, from upstairs, had come a burst of music. “I’m all out of love, I’m so lost without you, I know you were right believing for so long, I’m all out of love, what am I without you? I can’t be too late to say that I was so wrong.” Air Supply. Really? This was the song my brother was playing to pump himself up to go out for the evening? It tickled me. Who was the person he imagined when he listened to that song? I hollered up at him with the torment that comes from a big sister’s love, and the song was immediately changed. He must have loved someone, had someone who thought she might be the one, someone with whom he shared intimacies and kisses and dreams. Her dreams, like mine, were shattered that day. But my dreams were already cracked.

While in Biloxi for winter break I went with a friend to try on wedding dresses. I was standing in DeeDees Dress shop on the little stage reserved for brides, surrounded by mirrors. The lights were shining on me like spotlights and I was glorious. The dress was beautiful, with just the right amounts of lace, charmeuse, satin and chiffon. It was off the shoulder and in it, I was the princess bride I’d always dreamed of. But looking in the mirror in that dress I realized I was more excited about the dress than the man I’d be walking down the aisle to marry. In that moment, I knew I wouldn’t marry Jeff. But it took months before I was able to tell him that, compounded by the pain from Josh’s death and the desire to do anything but think of how I’d failed my family by continuing to exist when Josh was no longer here. It seemed I existed in the world so I could make my parents’ life better. I had to make it right, but how could I? There was no bringing him back. This was the first time I had ever encountered such a loss where there was truly nothing that could be done to fix it. There was just a hole, and nothing could fill it up. But I tried.

Back in Napa, in my townhouse on Silverado drive, I tried to fill it with every glass of wine I could afford. Drowning in alcohol and hoping for oblivion. When I was Josh’s age I had driven drunk or ridden drunk more times than I could count. How could I have survived when he didn’t? Not only him, but his five best friends also perished in that wreck. Why had I always been so lucky? There seemed to be two ways only to solve this problem: drink myself into oblivion or move back to Mississippi and be there for my parents.

A memory.

Plunging into a murky pond where an alligator lived on a dare. Swimming to the other side faster than I’d ever swam before or since because I’m not scared, I’m just as cool as the guys, my brothers will see that I am someone to look up to. Dreams of alligators chasing me and them, and always grabbing Joshua just in time to save him, or waking up in a cold sweat and never knowing if I made it in time. He was my responsibility, Mom always said. You are the oldest. Summer heat and play outside with your brothers, and I don’t care that Josh is 5 years younger than you, he needs to come too and you are in charge of keeping him safe. But I couldn’t keep him safe this time. I was in California, and he died. I didn’t protect him. I wasn’t the daughter or sister I was supposed to be.

The funeral and touching his skin. It was loose and cold and buoyant, even, like the cold bread roll sitting on the table with all the casseroles left by people who bring food to people who can’t eat. Eating means living, and I felt dead. The night before the funeral, Bryan and I were in Josh’s room, sifting through his things, and I found a letter to him from my mom. You are my favorite, she had written to him. Of my children, you are the strongest and the best and the closest to my heart. Another blow. Not only is my brother dead, but my mom loved him more than me, and I now had physical proof.  Flying back to California and back to Jeff. His arms around me and feeling sickened at the idea of fucking him now. Every touch reminded me of Joshua’s corpse. And so the only thing that really was keeping us together, ended too.

And when the school year was over, I pieced what was left of myself together. A burden had landed on my soul, and it would be years before I would be able to pull myself out from under it. Back in Biloxi, I sank even further into a depression that existed because of the death of my brother, yes, but also because I was trying to recreate a home for myself in a place that I had once promised myself that I’d never return to. For as early as I can remember, I always knew that I needed to leave Mississippi. The pressure of humidity in the air was a weight on my soul.

A memory.

July, 2006. Telling a new someone that my brother had just died, and the realization in his eyes when he discerned that my brother was one of those kids he read about in the paper. Warm arms around me and a soft, “I’m sorry.” That summer was heat and salt and sand and losing myself in everything and everyone so there would never be time to think. Trying coke for the first time just to feel alive. To remind myself that I was still alive even if Josh wasn’t. The weight of guilt and sadness and humidity.  Jumping on the trampoline at 3 in the morning, sleeping in someone else’s bed and waking up to salty air and more heat and the open breeze on the Silver Dollar or anyone’s boat who’d let me ride out to the barrier islands with them. Anywhere to pretend for a minute that I wasn’t landlocked in Mississippi, again.

I got a job teaching at a local high school, and tried to forget the dreams I’d had for myself. Tried to forget everything, really. My grief at losing my brother.  After a series of dead end hook ups and brief relationships centered around men with access to boats, I bought my own sailboat. Nevermind that I didn’t actually know how to sail. I’d spent years on boats, but always ones with motors and someone else in the captain’s seat. Still, I was taking charge of my life. If I was going to be stuck in my hometown, I was going to explore the best parts of it. I needed space from the oppressive love of my parents, from not knowing who I was anymore, and I looked everywhere but within, hoping that in the air off the coast my confined soul might fly free for a while. Later that year I met the man who would become my husband. Like me, he had called BIloxi home, but he also knew he was destined to settle elsewhere,which is what we eventually did, several years later.

Maybe that is it. I got out of Mississippi. And Josh never can. He died there, and they buried him a mile from where we grew up. He will forever be 21, stuck in the pictures my parents have posted all over the house. His face bloated from freshman 15, never able to grow into the man he might have become.

A memory.

September, 2005, just three months before Josh died. A flight from Sacramento into Jackson, Mississippi. Biloxi destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. All of the landmarks of my youth, wiped away in an instant. Watching events unfold from Napa was like listening to a friend tortured in the next room and not being able to do anything or even know what was happening. On CNN and every channel only New Orleans and levees and FEMA. I was at school the morning the storm hit, and Bryan had refused to evacuate. When you grow up around hurricanes, as long as you live on land above the flood zone and your walls are made of brick, you learn early that you don’t need to evacuate. And yet my parents who had never lived anywhere other than the Hurricane zone of the Gulf Coast, who had never in my lifetime left for a storm, had fled north. Josh was at college in north Mississippi, and so Bryan was the only one in my nuclear family in the danger zone. I was on the phone with him that morning and he was having a party with friends. Drinking and smoking and claiming his territory in his newly purchased home.

“Holy shit, my shed just flew by,” he said, and the phone lost service. I wasn’t able to reestablish service with him or anyone in my family for three days. All lines were down. But they were all ok, in the end. Until of course, they weren’t. So when Josh picked me up from the airport in Jackson, Mississippi, a week after the storm hit, as we drove down to the coast I marveled at how everything had changed. Landmarks I’d always known didn’t exist anymore.

“Shut up,” he said, “you can’t even see anything, it’s dark.” He was right, of course, but I wanted to make up for not being there when the storm hit. And the landscape had changed. Nothing would ever be the same. It had felt like a betrayal, watching from afar and then really only watching how the storm affected New Orleans. The media coverage skipped over Mississippi entirely, even though the eye of the storm had passed over the Mississipp Gulf Coast, not Louisiana. So I gathered tree limbs like crazy, sweeping and raking and busting my ass to help get my parents’ house and my grandmother’s house ready again for habitation, and I wheedeled my littlest brother, Josh, for not hustling enough to help. Working in my grandmother’s yard, he kept disappearing inside to do anything but manual labor, and I told him he needed to quit being lazy and get his hands dirty.“ He wasn’t the perfect person that my parents remember. He was just a boy. Sometimes lazy, sometimes stupid, sometimes selfish, just like anyone. He didn’t hustle enough. Or maybe I hustle too much. How can you be angry with a ghost? I guess I’m not angry with him but with my parents for loving that imperfect ghost more than me.

And here I am now, fifteen years later, fussing at my own son, Josh, for not hustling enough in the morning before school. For not picking up after himself. For not being the perfect version of a son I envisioned when I thought having him might somehow fill the hole that came to being when Josh died.

A memory.

A cemetery with a view of the Gulf of Mexico. Flat, sandy, ground filled with other brothers and sons, mothers and daughters, the bones and ashes of other dreams that died with the bodies buried in the earth. Sitting there on the massive stone bench on the meticulously maintained ground on the 5 plots my parents bought so we “could all be buried together,” surrounded by the stone angels and trinkets and his picture there, in the tombstone, staring at me. A promise to remember. To live a life worth living. To make up for his death, somehow.

“So you became a mother not because you wanted to, but because you felt you had to,” my therapist said many years later. I guess that’s true, and maybe why I clash so much with my now eleven-year-old son. Part of me thought that by bringing another Josh into this world I could somehow fill the hole created by the loss of my brother Josh. What a terrible burden to put on a small child, and now, years after that realization, I understand part of the anger I have for my parents. I left Napa to try to heal them. I made another Josh. And I’m still not good enough. My dead brother will always be better than me, because in their minds, he exists as the most perfect version of himself. The man he might have been is so much better than the person he was. In their minds, he will always be potential. I will never be good enough because I’m still alive. And I project that failure onto my sweet son, Josh. He is never good enough either because no one is. And maybe that is ok.

So I’ll take my children to visit their grandparents, and I’ll smile, because as hard as losing a brother is, losing a child must be a million times harder. Together we will wade into the Gulf, feeling the soft sand beneath our feet and between our toes and the warm water all around us.  We’ll climb onto Poppy’s boat and sit next to my mother and smile, and maybe this time the water will cleanse me of the guilt and the ghosts and the sorrow.  I’ll close my eyes and think of that other Josh who died long ago, and remember him singing Air Supply, in the bathroom. And when my son asks Poppy to put on some ridiculous pop song, I’ll smile again and tell Poppy to turn it up.

Angie Taggart is a high school English teacher who is more often grading papers than writing her own. She has been published in The Vanguard. We are thrilled to publish her work and look forward to reading more from Angie. She can be found on Twitter at @angtagwrites.


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