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fiction friday

courage, Fiction, Guest Posts

The Arboretum

May 13, 2022
kids

If you saw it, you’d agree: It’s the gem of our town. Not as big as the one in Vellum Heights, but clean, well-designed, with paved walking paths, a pond full of vibrant, speckled koi, and a climbing apparatus built just for the kids. Its half-mile circumference holds five hundred trees – towering oaks and regal sycamores, luscious magnolias that flower in spring, beeches with smooth grey elephant skin, papery birches and prickly ash.

Some of us are old enough to remember those trees – not those trees of course, but ones like them, that grew in our yards and in the neighborhood park, a mute green watercolor backdrop to our lives. We remember the smells of fresh-cut grass, and rain, and mud, and the breeze on our face. Indescribable now, like the sky when it was blue.

Now we all wear the mask. For the sake of our kids, we pretend not to hate it as much as we do, but it makes no difference; our kids refuse to put it on. From the moment they exit their sleeping pods, after every meal and every bath, we are reduced to chasing them around the house like ogres out of some macabre fairy tale. We hold them down as they kick and scream, force the nozzle over their nose and mouth, tighten the straps at their temples and jaw. It’s not pretty. It’s not what we imagined for them. They claw at their heads and call us terrible names. They say they can’t breathe, which of course isn’t true.

We pine for what the big cities have: renovated, airtight, oxygenated schools and offices and condos, amenities we can’t afford. The arboretum, though – we lobbied for a year, went door to door, convinced the mayor to sign on. We spoke at town hall meetings to unanimous applause, though some high schoolers gave us a run for our money. Julia Meyers, sixteen at the time, stormed up to the podium, flanked by four of her friends. “People are dying and you want to build a park?” As if we’d asked those people to come to our town, with their makeshift tents and sprawling filth. Yes, we knew their children had died. Of course it was sad. And we’d let them stay. Occasionally we saw them roaming our streets, dirty rags tied around their noses and mouths. Some rattled cans, and we gave them change.

We told the youth, some problems are too big to fix.

From afar, the arboretum’s domed-glass roof resembles a snow-globe embedded in the ground, an alluring green planet in the center of our town. The earth’s bounty shrunk to a fraction of its size. We love it. Without it, we’d lose our minds.

Today we have come for the Live Butterflies, and the line extends around the block. Our kids fidget, shift from foot to foot, bounce on their toes as we wait to get in. Connor Watson pokes his little sister in the back, tugs the end of her sash, undoing the bow. “Stop it!” she wails, her hands grasping at the crimped, dangling ribbons of her dress. Her eyes narrow through the porthole lenses of her mask. She kicks him hard in the shin. He slaps her arm. “Cut it out,” their father says, “or we’re going straight home.” In our masks, we all look like giant anthropods with oversized black heads and elongated snouts. Bug-eyed creatures, an alien race. The line inches forward, in shuffling steps. We move as a herd, bovine with exhaustion, the kids like puppies straining their leashes.

From behind the entrance window, the security guard – Jeremy Knowles, the mayor’s son, slumped, unshaven, bored out of his mind, as if his mask-free job were not coveted by all – waves us through the first checkpoint. We pass into a wide vestibule, a large steel box with hydraulic doors. The floor vibrates through the soles of our shoes as the air is sucked out, hermetically sealing us in. Then through a smaller set of glass doors, into the crystal-cool chamber of the dome.

It’s like stepping into the great outdoors, a green so lush it hums in our teeth. The kids are now beside themselves. We fumble with the child-kidssafety locks on their masks, an impossible array of buckles and clasps. So close to freedom, they wriggle and whine. We try not to curse. “Would you just hold still?”

Their masks come off. We let them run – bare-faced and wild, ferocious with glee, torpedoing towards the center of the dome where the jungle gym looms like a skeleton god. Beams and bars and tunnels and slides, they lose themselves in its vertiginous maze. They move in a charged and zealous blur, and something inside us moves with them.

The relief, as we loosen the straps of our mask, breaking suction, peeling the rubber from our face. Our pores exhale, our sweat evaporates. We gulp the cool air. It’s a thirst, and we drink. The humid, heavenly scent of leaves and loamy earth and linden blooms. Sawdust and pine and soft damp moss. Each breath we take returns us to ourselves.

Here we are: sallow and prematurely grey, defying extinction for better or worse. We sit on the benches and watch our kids play. At least our kids still know how to play. They are making do, like the bonsai in its pot – stunted, pruned, inhabiting tiny truncated lives. We water them, we clip their leaves. We don’t tell them how many of us there once were.

Their screams and laughter echo through the dome. More families stream in – our neighbors, our friends – our din pulsating like the chambers of a heart. There are strollers everywhere. Our masks are scattered like empty chrysalides. Lina Hernandez, a mother of two, is squinting worriedly into the crowd.

The crowd, as if by magnetic force, is moving, rippling, parting to make way for a scarecrow of a man who is lurching down the path.

He reeks of sour, festering rot. His face is raw and stippled with a rash. His eyes are bloodshot, his hair a greasy pelt. He could be thirty or sixty-five. He weaves tipsily among the trees, approaching the teeming mob of our kids. They don’t see him, not until they hear our shouts.

“Izzy!”

“Jackson!”

“Get over here, Taij!”

They scatter in confusion, into our arms. Because we are frightened, so are they. We pull them close and give the man a wide berth. He lies down on a bench and closes his eyes. Our children stare, at the labored rise and fall of his thin chest, the dirty sweat on his brow. Two park staff approach – Ravi Price and Jeff Sanchez, young men, acned, visibly sheepish. “Sir?” The stranger opens one eye and mumbles, annoyed, like they’ve come to him in his private backyard, woken him up from his afternoon nap. When they try to help him up, he turns over on his side, his back to us, and wraps his arms around himself. Like Liza, our beloved childhood dog, when she crawled under a porch and wouldn’t come out. Refusing food, growling at whoever came near. We didn’t understand that she’d gone there to die.

Two security guards appear, masked, wearing protective gloves. We flinch as they pull the man to his feet. He splutters in protest, then begins to cough, a croupy bark that wracks his frame. They hold him up by the armpits as he spasms, retches, his vomit splashing at their feet. We hold our kids tighter, try to cover their eyes. Spellbound, they push our hands away. Pink spittle dangles like a worm from his mouth. His head lolls, feet dragging as they take him away.

Already, the kids are wriggling out of our grip. Jeff and Ravi start to clean up the mess, and the kids gather around to watch the spectacle. “Stand back,” we warn. They are like dogs, drawn to the most revolting things. We are glad when the job is finally done, our eyes watering from the sting of disinfectant in the air. Gladder still when Elsie Cho’s four-year-old daughter points down the path and shouts, “the butterflies are here!”

Another staffer – Julia Meyers, all grown up now, having abandoned her needling adolescent righteousness – has appeared with a small mesh cage full of them. They are Holly Blues, lab-hatched upstate. The kids surge around her like a bubbling tide. She releases the swarm, an azure whirlwind. The children shriek. The butterflies rise, a cloud of glitter dispersing in the air, the kids leaping, spinning, chasing after them.

At least we have managed to give them this. Pig-tailed Jenny Ames beatific on her father’s shoulders, the butterflies grazing her outstretched fingertips. Little Elroy Carter toddling about, flapping his arms and squealing with joy.

Within an hour, the butterflies carpet the ground like fallen leaves, having lived their entire lifespan before our eyes. The kids pick them up, study them in dismay – the paper-thin wings and half-crushed legs, the powdery dust coming off on their hands. “Next week,” we say, ushering them back to the benches, where our masks – and the inevitable tantrums – await.  “There’ll be more next week.” It is closing time. When we leave, wings stick to the bottom of our shoes.

Talia Weisz lives in Brooklyn, NY and is the author of two chapbooks: Sisters in Another Life (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and When Flying Over Water (Plan B Press, 2009). Her short fiction appears in Entropy and Call Me [Brackets]

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

death, Fiction, Guest Posts, Life, Pets

The Silo

April 29, 2022
Sequoia

By Kate Abbot

The snow began to fall on Tuesday around lunchtime.  Sequoia Williams barely noticed it as she sat in the lunchroom of the regional high school.  By the time she got off the bus, the snow was deep enough to reach her shins.   It squeaked as she walked up the half mile dirt driveway to the farmhouse.  It was mid-March and the days were getting longer.   The cows had been out to pasture for several weeks, rooting around in hopes of a sprig of spring growth.

Her older brother, Dale, was chopping wood.  Dale was a two time drop out, once from high school and then from the regional GED program.   Sequoia tried to stay clear of Dale; he had a hair-trigger temper and it was worse when he was drinking or popping the pills he thought she didn’t know about.

“Where’s Pa?”  Sequoia stomped the snow from her boots and shook the flakes out of her hair.   Ma was chopping carrots and potatoes.

“He went into town, to meet with the man from Wells Fargo.”

Sequoia wasn’t supposed to know that the bank was on the verge of taking the farm from them, the 600 acres that had been in her mother’s family for at least three generations.

“I’ll see to the milking, Ma.”

Sequoia shrugged her parka back on and trudged out to the barn.  The snow was falling harder now, wet and heavy.   She was out of breath by the time she had rounded up the eight milking cows.   The milking machines made a steady whooshing noise and the cows crunched on their feed.   Next, she checked the henhouse, made sure that it was locked tight against the marauding foxes and that there was plenty of fresh water.

Ma joined her, tossing the vegetable scraps and day old bread to the pigs in their pen.   Together, they mucked out the stall that contained two draft horses who were mostly pets but could still be counted on to pull the plow if the tractor was on the fritz or Pa couldn’t afford gas.

What little light that should have been in the western sky at five thirty in the evening was missing.  The snow was knee deep and still falling.  Dale barely acknowledged the two women at the supper table, slurping loudly at his beef stew and then belching as he guzzled a beer.   He disappeared into his basement room without even clearing his plate from the table.

“Like father, like son,” Sequoia thought to herself.   She said nothing of the sort to Ma, instead shooing her into the family room to fall asleep in front of the television.

Sequoia cleaned up the supper mess and then climbed the stairs to her room on the third floor of the farmhouse.   The sheepdog mix followed her, whining anxiously.

“What’s wrong, old girl?”

Patches put her paws up on the windowsill and peered out into the darkness.

“It’s just a late winter snow.  It’ll be melted by tomorrow afternoon.”

But the next morning, it was still snowing.  Three feet at least.   Sequoia slogged through the stuff on the way to help Ma with the morning milking.

“Let’s leave them in the barn, Sequoia.  Nothing for them to do outside today.”

“I’m going to bring the hens inside.  The coop is getting full of snow.”

Sequoia stood at the head of the driveway, contemplating the half mile walk to the bus stop.   The snow was pristine, which meant that Pa had not returned home.   That was certainly not unprecedented but she had hoped to walk in the snow pack created by his truck tires.   The day was yellow-grey, not sunlight but not darkness.    The snowfall was no longer wet and heavy.   The wind stung the fine powder against her cheeks.  She turned back to the farmhouse.   She heard a snow-mobile approaching.

Great, Henry.   He was just as much of a loser as her brother.   Sequoia stayed out of his way as much as she could.   He leered at her whenever he got the chance and once, in the kitchen, he had copped a feel.   He laughed uproariously when she slapped his face so hard that her palm stung for an hour.

“Phone’s out.”   Ma looked worried, hands on her hips as she surveyed the white landscape from the porch.   Together they watched as the snowmobiles disappeared into the whiteness.   Ma shook her head and went back inside to knead bread.

“Don’t worry, Ma.  The snow will stop soon and the phone’ll come back on.  I’m sure Pa is holed up in town, trying to call us.”

The words sounded hollow to Sequoia.  She wondered if her Ma felt the same strange despair that had begun to weigh upon the farmhouse.   She spend the morning studying for a history test and then the afternoon on her English term paper.    By evening milking the snow was up to her chest.  Ma had dug a path with the shovel and the snow blower from the house to the barn.   It was full dark when the chores were done.  The women had to use the rope that was strung from the house to the barn to feel their way back to the house.    Sequoia never recalled having used the rope before and she barely remembered her grandfather telling about how it had saved them getting lost going out to the barn to care for the animals in the blizzard of ’67.

The power went out sometime during the night.   Ma fired up the woodstove in the kitchen and started the fireplace in the living room.   Patches paced around, whining intermittently.    Sequoia tried to outpace the snow and keep the path to the barn relatively clear but the snow blower had given up the ghost.   There was no sign of Dale or Pa.

That night, Sequoia brought a basket of eggs in from the barn and restocked their vegetables from the root cellar.   Ma went to sleep on the couch in the family room right after dinner.    The snow completely blocked the front door and was past the second story windows.    From her third story bedroom, Sequoia could barely make out the outline of the full moon.   She awoke to Patches barking frantically and then, a terrible crashing noise.    The farmhouse roof was sloped enough to keep the snow from building up but the porch next to the family room was a different story.     The roof had collapsed from the weight of the snow, taking out the exterior wall.

Sobbing, Sequoia tried for several hours to dig through snow, shards of glass and bits of insulation to reach Ma, who was trapped beneath several thousand pounds of snow and building debris.   Her hands were bloody, her face raw and chapped, when she was finally able to grip one of Ma’s hands.  The fingers were waxy and stiff in hers.    The chimney had partially collapsed and snow was blowing into the family room.   Sequoia sank to her knees on the kitchen floor.   Patches licked anxiously at her cheeks.

Finally, with great effort, Sequoia hauled the contents of the refrigerator, the dog food and all the flashlight batteries she could find out to the barn.   On the last trip, she could barely get the barn door open.   The snow was well past the eaves.    She climbed up into the hayloft, exhausted.   Patches curled up beside her under some old horse blankets.   When the barn cats emerged, Patches only opened one eye and sighed as the felines nestled alongside Sequoia.

The lowing of the cows asking to be milked awoke her.   Halfway through the milking cycle, the back-up generator that had kept the milking machines going ground to a halt.   Sequoia finished the milking by hand.   The milking machine, like the milk and grain silos, were remnants of when the farm had been profitable.   The herd had once been over 100 and the harvest bountiful.

Sequoia went out through the door that led from the barn directly into the shed connected to the grain silo.   The shed roof groaned and Sequoia shuddered.    There was a faint daylight coming in through the top of the silo.   She stared upwards and then started the long climb up the ladder to the roof.   The silo was topped with a dome.  Fresh air came in through spaces in the cinderblock walls and under the dome.

She was about ten feet up the ladder that wound around the inside of the silo when she nearly tripped.   She put her hands out to grab the ladder and touched wood.   Cautiously, she crawled up onto what appeared to be a platform.  The platform, when she fished her flashlight out of her jacket pocket, held what could only be described as a fort.   Someone, it had to have been Dale, had hauled a couch and a table up onto a platform of rough boards.   Beer cans and cigar ashes were scattered about.   There was even a television and a small refrigerator, both of which were, of course, utterly useless in present conditions.

She continued her climb.   When she reached the top of the silo, some 100 feet off the ground, she could see outside.  It had been snowing for five days.  All she could see of the farmhouse was the third story.   She wondered briefly if she would ever set foot in her bedroom again.    The barn below was rapidly disappearing into the snow; only the loft area was still exposed but the snow was drifting quickly.

She looked east, towards town.   She thought she saw some smoke in the distance but she couldn’t be sure.   To the west, nothing but white.   It was so quiet, no birds, no engines, no tractors.  No planes in the sky.   She imagined that she was the last person on earth.   The sound of one of the horses neighing jolted her back to the present.

For the next few hours, Sequoia hauled whatever she could from the root cellar and the grain shed into the silo.   Each trip she took back into the barn she knew could be the last.   She was pretty sure that the air in the barn would soon be unhealthy.   Every crevice was blocked by tons of snow.

First she brought the horses into the silo.  They balked but Patches nipped at their heels.   The cows came next, more complacent.   She was worried that the pigs might go after the chickens so she brought several of the laying hens up onto her platform.    She was about to return to the barn one final time, to grab a few more feed buckets and tools, when the barn cats came racing through the shed, Patches barking wildly behind them.  Sequoia reached for the dog, worried that she might tangle with the cats and their sharp claws.  Her fingers brushed the nape of the sheepdog’s neck and then she heard a muffled explosion.   The shed had crumbled under the weight of the snow.

She shut the door, sealing herself and her charges into the silo.   When she looked out of the dome the next morning, the barn had disappeared.   She couldn’t tell how far up the side of the silo the snow reached.  It was all just so white.

And for the immediate future, if it were not for the cows asking to be milked, twice a day, at dawn and dusk, Sequoia would not have known day from night.   Years later, when she thought back on the time in the silo, she realized that keeping the animals alive had kept Sequoia from losing her mind.

There was milk and eggs and vegetables.    The animals had grain and feed.   There was bedding.   She rationed everything.   Water came from the snow she scooped out the back door where the shed had once been.  She was always cold, but not freezing.   She imagined that the warm air from the animals rose up to her perch where she huddled with Patches under horse blankets.    For the first few days, she cried herself to sleep.   She thought of Ma and her friends from school.   She wondered if Pa or Dale, or anyone, were alive.   After a while, she got tired of thinking.

And then came the morning when the light woke her before the cows.   She peered out from under the silo dome.   The sunlight was blinding and the sky was as blue as she’d ever seen it.   Below her, a rooster, one of the chicks that had hatched a few months earlier, began to crow.   She was afraid, when night came, that the snow and the dark would return but the sun was even brighter the next day.   Water dripped into the silo and moisture beaded on the concrete walls.  On the third day of sun, when she opened the door to retrieve snow for the water buckets, ice water gushed into the silo.  She closed the door quickly.   Water was leaking into the silo from the spaces between the concrete blocks.

As she sat on her perch, warm enough now to strip down to her t-shirt, a terrible thought occurred to her.   Had she and her charges survived the snow only to drown in the silo that had been their refuge?   Where would all the snow melt go?   The farmland that surrounded them was flat as far as the eye could see.   There were creeks but not nearly deep enough to carry away all the water.   Her grandfather had talked about a big flood many years before Sequoia was born, when the center of town was six feet under water.  Supposedly, a better drainage system had been put in place as a result.

With the sunlight and the change in temperature, the air inside the silo had become rank.   The animals were covered in their own filth.    Several of the pigs appeared sick and two of the chickens died.  Sequoia tried to clean up after the animals, painstakingly hauling bucket after bucket of manure up to the top of the silo and dumping it out.   The morning she threw the chickens out of the silo, she heard the shriek of a vulture.   Bits and pieces of the wreckage of the barn and the farmhouse began to emerge.   The oak trees that surrounded the house were battered but still standing.   It was hard to tell from the top of the silo how deep the snow was, or if there was standing water on top of the snow.

And then, it started to rain one afternoon.   At first, a pitter patter and then a deluge.   The next morning, the rain had stopped and the landscape had become an ocean.   Bits of wood and trees floated by, some thirty feet below her prison gable.   She saw three tractors and a car the first morning, as well as the bloated carcasses of several cows.  Later that afternoon, she saw something coming from the west.  She squinted into the setting sun.   As it got closer, she could see that it was a homemade raft, fashioned out of sheet metal and pieces of wood.

“Hey!”  She called out, voice crackling with tension.   The figure standing in the middle of the raft looked up at the silo.

“Is there someone up there?”   Sequoia couldn’t tell if the voice was male or female.

“Yes!”

Sequoia wanted to bite back her response.  The base of her spine tingled with nervousness.

The raft came closer to the silo.  It was a young man with a small dog at his side.   The dog began to bark and Patches responded from deep inside the silo.   The man on the raft laughed, or at least it sounded like a laugh.

The man paddled around the silo, making a full circle.  Sequoia thought he had disappeared, or maybe that he had been a mirage.

“Water’s up above the door by about five feet,” he called up to her.

One of the horses whinnied.

“What do you have in there with you?  Are you by yourself?”

Sequoia hesitated, perhaps he meant them ill.  He must have sensed her unease.

“It’s all right.  I’m sure you haven’t seen anyone in a long time.   My name is Salvador.   I live in Omaha, at least I used to.”

Rather than answer his question, she asked if he was hungry.

She tossed down some carrots and a few potatoes.   Salvador shared them with his dog, which Sequoia thought was a positive sign.

With that the raft receded in the distance.   The hope that Sequoia had felt soon turned to despair.    Days passed.  She became convinced she’d imagined the man, that she was so starved from lack of human interaction that her mind had created another person.

One of the pigs died but it was too heavy to haul up the ladder.   Their water supply dwindled and she was afraid to open the door lest the silo be flooded.  She managed to get a small bucket on a rope under one of the narrow openings in the cinderblock to collect some water.

Some days after the man appeared on the raft she saw the water had gone down a bit more.   There was no more rain.   She could see patches of earth under the water.   It was mid-afternoon when she began to hear what sounded like hammering.   Then she saw Salvador towing several large pieces of wood.   Then some sheet metal.  He must have gotten it from the collapsed barn.   Her heart pounded in her chest.   She clutched a hayfork in her trembling hands.  At her feet, the dog whined nervously.

“Hello there!  I am going to see if we can get you out of there.”

The raft disappeared behind the silo.    Sequoia watched the water, which now seemed to be streaming around the silo, moving more rapidly than before towards the road and fields beyond where the farmhouse had stood.   As the summer, it must have been summer by then, light faded from the sky, a knock came upon the door to what had been the shed.

Sequoia opened the door very gingerly; the barn cats streaked past her.  She looked back into the silo.   The horses and cows were pushing towards her, frantic to get outside.   She stood to the side, behind the door.  The pigs and chickens were next.

Sequoia fought the urge to slam and lock the door.  She was seized with terror.  Was she afraid of Salvador or was she afraid of leaving all that remained of her past, the few traces of the farm that were left in the silo?  What if he stole her animals?

“Are you coming out?”

A fresh breeze wafted in the open door.  She stepped outside to the first fresh air she’d breathed in months.   The pitchfork was firm in her hands.

Kate Abbott has written three novels: Running Through the Wormhole (Black Rose Writing 2015), What She Knew (Black Rose Writing 2019) and Asana of Malevolence (Mascot Books 2016). Her work has also appeared in Mamalode, Screamin Mamas, Sammiches and Psych Meds, The Good Mother Project, the Ottawa House, Manifest Station, Persephone’s Daughters, and Kudzu House. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia and Fenwick Island, Delaware. Mom to three grown (almost) sons, she shares her life with rescue animals of all sorts.

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Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Alcoholism, Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Asylum

April 8, 2022
moira

The lanky ten-year-old runs full tilt toward Moira’s car as she turns sharply into her sister Bridget’s driveway, barely missing Conor’s BMW. Her son is beside the door before she can open it. “I got a triple, and a double too.” He’s breathless, a huge brown growth of a catcher’s mitt at the end of his skinny arm.

“That’s terrific, Michael.” She slides out of the car, hoping he won’t require too large a dose of admiration, because she’s late. Even her sister Kate, who prides herself on defying start times, is here already, her minivan parked across the street, next to Liam’s pick-up truck. Moira dreads going inside. She and her sisters and brothers are meeting here today to talk about their father, who’s about to be kicked out of his brother’s house in Boston.

She bends to kiss her son, smells the sweet sweat of his play. Perspiration darkens his auburn hair, and his jeans bear the fresh tracks of a slide. He’s big for his age, like Sean, her older boy, and it’s clear they’ll both be as tall as all the Donnegans. She prays that’s where the resemblance will end.

Michael shouts the news of her arrival to Sean, who approaches the low picket fence surrounding Bridget’s huge back yard, looking unimpressed. Moira’s brother Liam, close behind him, waves a greeting and Moira nods. Sean wears a smirk. The sullenness that set in when Moira and Ken broke up has hardened. He’s chosen sides. “I let him hit it,” Sean says, but he brings himself to full height, can’t fully conceal how important it is to show his mother that Michael is no threat.

“Now, don’t be like that,” says Liam, and Sean’s face flushes, reminding Moira how readily he responds when a man points something out. Even Bridget, who’s been watching the boys after school since Ken moved out, has trouble getting him to listen.

“You did not,” Michael insists, and steps up to his brother, who’s leaning over the fence, and tries to grab his baseball cap, but Sean swats him away.

From the yard, Bridget’s daughter Cathy calls them back to the game. “I’ll see you guys later,” Liam tells them, and Moira follows him into Bridget’s kitchen. He’s thin as ever, wearing the leather jacket he dons for occasions when he wants to be especially belligerent. Once inside, he heads for the living room without stopping to chat.

Bridget has water on for tea and she takes her time getting it ready. She seems to be in no hurry for what comes next. She’s wearing another long, loose skirt, but Moira notices she’s replaced her usual T-shirt with a pale blue sweater and her hair is brushed back. She pours the water with exaggerated care, adjusts the spoons on the saucers as if they must conform to code, and brings the cup to Moira, a peace offering. “They’re here. Inside,” she whispers, and motions toward the living room.

“All of them?”

“Peter doesn’t want to start without you.”

It was Peter who asked for the meeting, and Moira is still amazed that he managed to get all seven of them together and on such short notice. No doubt it was Maggie, their linchpin, who got it done. The words talk about Dad must have drawn them in like gawkers to a freak show. They haven’t exchanged more than ten words about their father in almost twenty-five years, not since their mother left him—a decision even Fr. Cashman, who’d baptized all of them and had known their father since he arrived from Derry, couldn’t find fault with.

Moira has seen her father only a handful of times in the past ten years—family occasions she couldn’t dodge. The last time, two years ago, she was attending her cousin’s wedding, in Boston, and her father was seated at the next table. They’d barely exchanged a greeting, but later in the evening he turned to her. The tables in the hall were close and her chair backed up to his. “If you can navigate us to the dance floor, I’d love to have this waltz.”

“It’s not a waltz,” she said, because she had no intention of getting up. What she wanted to say was How dare you? How dare you think we can dance together? But they did. She let him hold her and she put her arm across his shoulder. When he remarked at how tall she was, she had trouble catching her breath. When he asked if her hair was still red, she lost her footing, so she pretended it was because she rarely wore heels.

Later, out in the parking lot, she gave Aunt Mary her number. “In case he ever wants to reach me,” she said. But he never did.

Moira follows Bridget into the living room, where the others have settled in. Someone coughs, and Maggie, a heavy woman with vigilant eyes and the all-knowing look of a matriarch, says Moira’s name, but otherwise the room is stiff with silence. Moira feels as if she’s been called back to reprise a role in a play that closed years ago. The room smells of ugly memories and sweaty tension, like the waiting room of some therapist who can’t leave well enough alone.

Peter, the only one on his feet, leans against the covered keys of the piano Bridget never plays, cigarette in hand, his expensive tie undone. He reminds Moira of a crooner trying to warm up the crowd with one-liners that are falling flat. He’s the unspoken head of this disjointed band of siblings, a title he stepped into at first simply because he’s the oldest male but later his accomplishments gave him status. A decorated veteran of the Viet Nam War, a successful business owner, and the father of five boys, he acts as if he survived unscathed. Moira isn’t the only one who doesn’t buy that. The best you can hope for after a childhood like theirs is to get properly diagnosed.

Moira and Bridget place their tea on the coffee table and join Maggie and Liam on the couch, not far from the piano. Pressed shoulder to shoulder, they dutifully wait to hear what Peter has to say. He clears his throat to begin but doesn’t. The others seem to be taking care not to look at each other as he gives another false start. Then silence.

“For fuck’s sake,” Liam says, “what’s going on? Does the old bastard have cancer or something?” Moira sighs. Even sober, Liam can belittle any occasion. He is Peter’s Irish twin, born less than twelve months after him. Unhappy with second billing, he’s played the foil ever since, the one beyond redemption.

“Why don’t you just say what you have to say, Peter?” Maggie coaxes, focusing, as usual, on the here and now. Her stability has been one of the family’s few anchors. She refuses to dramatize, forces them to accept their options, such as they are. She’s approaching fifty now and has put on weight, but it suits her image: the truth-teller, the one who won’t pretend you can lament your way out of trouble.

“All right, then,” Peter begins. “Like I told Maggie, Dad needs a place to live.” He joins his hands in front of him, like an airline ticket agent looking for someone willing to give up his seat. “So I’m going to need some help with this.” He stops, reaches into his jacket for his cigarettes.

Help? Moira glances at the others. They all seem bewildered.

“What are you talking about?” Liam asks.

They don’t get an answer because Cathy slides open the door to the back yard, sparing no fingerprints on the glass. “Catheee,” Bridget whines, “I just cleaned that glass.” The girl begins wiping the spots with her baseball glove. “Catheee, you’re letting out the air-conditioning.”

The girl leaps into the room, ready to defend herself. “Sean says I can’t have four strikes,” she complains, seeking some greater justice than the rules of the game allow—anything that will get her on base.

Bridget chases her back outside and grabs the Windex she keeps at the ready. The others clearly aren’t ready to consider Peter’s request, because they begin chatting about their houses and their kids, swapping stories about home improvement projects and the cost of dance recital costumes. Moira watches the urgency with which Bridget attacks the glass, and remembers something she thought was gone. The spots were on the wall, and Bridget had gotten up early to try to wash them away. She didn’t want their mother to see them again and get upset. Most of the spots were tiny; from across the room you wouldn’t even know it was blood, because they were brown by then. They reminded Moira of dark freckles and how her father would make constellations from the ones on her arms, point out a baseball diamond, a wagon, a bear’s face. On the wall, she thought she could make out an angel’s wings, but she couldn’t be sure because Bridget was working too fast, and anyway, she knew already that angels had to be make-believe. People liked to pretend there were guardians, but nothing could really protect them.

Bridget puts away her Windex and returns to the couch, adjusting the pillow before taking her seat.

“So what are you saying, Peter?” says Maggie.

“I’m talking about Dad.”

“That much we got,” Liam says.

“Have you actually talked to him? Is that what you’re saying?” Kate prompts. She’s soft spoken, almost whimpering now, and Moira wishes she would stop acting as if she owes the world an apology for breathing. Still, she’s grateful for the question, eager for Peter to get this over with.

Peter flicks an ash into a nearby philodendron, and Moira hears Bridget exhale in annoyance. “Dad’s been in touch with me for more than a year,” he says. “I’ve been up to see him at Uncle Pearce’s.”

“Uncle Pearce is dead two months now,” says Moira, looking at the others, confused. Only Maggie returns her look.

“I guess we should have sent a Mass card,” says Liam, and Conor laughs, always ready to help keep the temperature from rising. He’s wearing a dark gray, conservative suit that makes him look incapable of deceit, his tie perfectly knotted. She can’t remember the last time she saw him in anything not designed to impress a jury.

“So how is he?” says Kate.

“Who gives a shit how he is?” says Maggie.

“Christ,” Liam mutters. “I never should have come here sober.” He lights a cigarette, and Moira clenches her teeth.

“He’s good. Yeah, he’s fine. I took John and Doug up with me last time. They got a kick out of him. And they’d never been to Boston, so it was good. But like I said, it looks like he’s going to have to move out.”

Moira has no trouble picturing that scene—her father joking and teasing, her nephews taken by his odd ways. Pete Donnegan is a larger-than-life transplant whose quirks and speech patterns are throwbacks now, mimicked and sentimentalized in movies. Still, this news bothers her, though she can’t understand why. She feels robbed, as if Peter has claimed for himself something that belongs to her too. She wants to tell him that, ask why he didn’t invite her to go, but she knows how absurd it would sound. Maybe keeping him at a distance was fine as long as he wasn’t close to any of the others.

Peter’s tone softens. “He’s getting old,” he says. “I think he’s a little scared.”

“Scared?” Kate says.

“He’s all alone; he’s got no one.”

“And whose fault is that?” Maggie says.

“I’m not defending him,” Peter insists, putting up his hands, as if to ward off an attack. “This isn’t anything like that. There’s just no one to look after him up there.”

“Like there was no one to look after us when Mom took that job as a receptionist,” Bridget says.

“The rest of us had to do his job for him,” says Maggie.

Liam checks his watch. “Are we gonna go through his venial sins too? I’ve only got four hours,” he says, and Conor lets out a sigh, bracing for the inevitable ruckus to come.

“I’m not here to talk about any of that.” Peter directs this to Maggie, stabbing a finger into his palm to mark the subject off limits. He clearly doesn’t want this to get out of control, which everyone knows is the only place it can go if she lets loose. “I’m just saying that one of us needs to take him in.”

Liam spits something out, a cross between a snort and a chuckle, but no one says anything.

“He’s an old man,” Peter prompts, clearly expecting a volunteer. “And he’s gone completely blind. He’s got barely any sight left at all now.” He’s practically pleading, hardly his usual ploy. He clears his throat as if to signal what’s coming. “He’s got to find a place by next week.”

Liam whistles softly, and Maggie shakes her head, eyes wide in amazement. “Are you serious?”

“Is he still drinking?” says Kate.

“Talk about stupid questions,” says Liam.

“What’s so stupid about it?” Conor says. “How do you know he’s still drinking?”

“Because Aunt Mary called me a year ago, wanting to know if I could come get him out of there.”

“I know all about that,” says Peter, raising both hands, palms out. He reminds Moira of the Pope, calming the crowd from his Vatican balcony. “Aunt Mary told me everything. But that’s not what this is about. She’d let him stay, but she needs to sell the house. She may have an offer.”

“Yeah, right,” says Liam. “That’ll all happen by next week.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Peter tells him.

“You really expect one of us to do this?” says Bridget, providing her own answer with a dismissive wave.

“I’m not going to see him in the street,” says Peter. “He’s my father.”

“So you’re volunteering to take him?” Conor says. Moira hears this as a challenge, inviting Peter to put up or shut up. She wonders if Conor senses it too, that Peter has claimed a kind of sole ownership of their father, the right to decide for him.

“I can’t,” Peter says. “Helen won’t do it.”

Maggie laughs hard. “But you expect us to?”

“For heaven’s sake, he’s old. He’s nothing like he used to be.”

“Oh, please,” she says, “spare us the violins.”

“Right,” says Liam, “we need bagpipes for this one.”

“Like you ever gave a rat’s ass about anybody,” Peter snaps.

“Ah, his lordship has spoken,” says Liam.

Moira squirms. It’s hard for her to be with them when they argue like this. Closing her eyes, she lets their voices merge, tries to disengage. She can’t help imagining how lost her father must feel to have nowhere to go. She remembers what that felt like, wedged on someone’s lap in a crowded car. How did they fit so many people into it? Bridget was crying. Conor was on Aunt Nora’s lap, wearing only one shoe. He’d thrown up, and the satin lapels of his tuxedo were stained. Peter and Helen’s wedding had ended in chaos, their father ringed by men to hold him back. Somebody had to stop him. That’s what everyone in the car was saying. They couldn’t let him go on like that. He would have hurt someone. Moira’s mother was already hurt by then, but that didn’t seem to count.

Aunt Nora was scolding her mother, insisting she couldn’t go home to him, not that night, not ever. They’d have to stay at Aunt Nora’s, and Moira’s stomach ached from it, remembering the last time they wound up there. She didn’t want to sleep in a strange place, didn’t want to be without her books and her dolls. And what would her father do when he realized they hadn’t come home? He’d come after them like the last time, wouldn’t he? He could hurt them.

She prayed her mother would tell them to turn the car around, head back to their apartment. But she didn’t. A panicky tingling down the back of her legs made Moira desperate to get out of the car, to run, find her way home. Her dad wasn’t always drunk, not really. Sometimes he told them stories. Just that morning he’d talked about being best man at his brother’s wedding, tying tin cans onto the back of his car. And sometimes he sang. He’d show them what to do with the song to make their voices blend, harmonizing he called it. Maybe if they talked to him, made him understand, he wouldn’t hurt anybody anymore. She looked at her mother, who’d turned away from the window. The other eye was visible now, badly swollen, making the lid close, and Moira saw why they had no choice.

By the time they returned to the apartment a week later, their father had stocked the fridge with ice cream and soda and found them a skinny terrier from somewhere, with one bad leg. Moira knew he was sorry. He didn’t have to say so.

Kate is listing the reasons she can’t ask Charlie to let him stay, as if this needs explaining. Charlie—her new husband, the fourth—is a wormy little tyrant she met on a discount cruise ship, who’s never done talking about gun rights and keeping America safe from immigrants. He’s never even met their father.

“Is he collecting Social Security? Does he have Medicare?” Kate asks, as if these are the issues that might be holding the others back.

“He’s got all that,” Peter says, “and I’ll take care of the rest.”

Moira’s not surprised at this, given Peter’s income, and doubts anyone else is.

“I could talk to Terry,” Conor says, but Maggie snaps at him.

“You will not talk to Terry. The last thing you need is a viper like that in your home.”

“If you’re ready to put money out, why don’t you just set up an apartment for him?” says Liam.

“He can’t see, for fuck’s sake,” Peter says.

“Then get him a live-in.”

“You can’t trust those people,” says Kate.

“I’m going to spend time with him,” says Peter. “He wants to go to ballgames, visit my office.”

Moira lets herself picture her father wearing a Yankees cap, sitting with her at one of Sean’s games as she describes his wind-up, the speed of the pitch. Her throat tightens. It’s too hard to think about, the years of wondering what it would feel like to have a father, a grandfather for the boys. Ken’s dad has never been much good at it. He spends half his time in meetings and the other half on planes. “I’ll just be a minute,” she tells the others, getting up from the couch. Liam whistles what sounds like “Eve of Destruction” as she leaves the room.

Bridget’s bathroom is immaculate, no hairs in the sink, no spots of toothpaste spit on the mirror, none of the little touches that would help Moira feel at home. She leans forward, both hands braced on the pink porcelain, staring into the mirror at her chin, afraid to look into her own eyes. She inspects the tiny mole below the corner of her mouth; her father’s is in the same exact spot. She wonders why Peter’s so convinced he wants to be back in their lives.

When her father still lived in their old neighborhood, in his sister Deirdre’s basement, Moira walked thirty blocks to see him, telling herself the whole way that it was the stationery store she really wanted to go to, the one that sold the carbon paper she liked. But when she reached the store, she crossed the street and rang the doorbell, her fists deep in her pockets, fighting the urge to turn around. She was graduating high school that Friday and she wasn’t sure he knew. She doubted her mother would have told him and the idea that he might want to be there plagued her, made her feel wrong not to tell him.

Her aunt didn’t recognize her at first. She put her hands to her mouth as if to keep herself quiet. Their embrace was awkward and over quickly, as if the woman found no purpose in it. “He’s downstairs,” she said. “I’ll tell him you’re here.”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll go down.”

The staircase descended into a narrow space that smelled of cigarette smoke and mildew. He’d just gotten a new seeing-eye dog, a shepherd, and almost immediately it began to bark. “Quiet down, McCool,” her father scolded, but the dog, determined to do his job, settled into a soft growl. “Who’s there?”

“It’s me. Moira.” She reached the foot of the stairs and he rose from the couch. The room was lit only by the light from the small, high window that carved a view of shoes stepping by.

“Moira. How are ya?” He began to say more but stopped and she wondered if he was upset, because he was rubbing his eyes and color had risen in his neck.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just—”

“Sorry? Don’t be silly.” His voice sounded as if someone were squeezing him. He rubbed his hands on the sides of his pants, at a loss, maybe, for what to do. He didn’t ask her to sit down. He just stood there. So she told him what she’d come to tell him, that her graduation would be at the school, in the auditorium.

He sat down, called the dog closer, lit a cigarette. She waited in the silence, saw the look the dog gave her, as if still not convinced she was allowed here. Finally, she said good-bye and her father said he’d be there. He wasn’t.

Moira runs cold water from the tap, wets her face a bit, steps out into the living room. They’re on their feet. She can see they’ve been waiting for her, want to tell her something.

“Listen,” Peter says, his voice low, almost melancholy, “we’re going to talk to Aunt Mary, see if we can figure out a way for him to stay there a bit longer.”

Moira tucks her hair behind her ears, senses the uncertainty in the room. They have no answers, and the sadness of it empties her like hunger. It’s not the way things should be. “No, don’t do that,” she says, as if she’s made up her mind, as if she’s certain. “He can come with me.”

Someone gasps, and there’s mumbling, sounds of disbelief.

“Moira, what are you saying?” says Maggie. Her grip on her pocketbook tightens and she looks ready to whack someone with it.

“Will you please leave her be?” says Peter.

Moira walks over to the glass doors to see the kids outside but no one joins her. Bridget and Maggie are whispering and Peter goes into the kitchen. She wonders if they’re afraid to break the spell, afraid she’ll change her mind. The kids must be playing hide-and-seek, because she sees Michael sneak into the shed and close the door, which surprises her because he’s afraid of the dark. So was she, for a long time. On summer nights her father sometimes sat alone in the living room without a light on. She would slip into the darkness with him, settle in a far corner of the room, watch the smoke from his Camels lift in the warm air. His straight-backed chair would be pulled up close to the window, as if he was expecting to see something. Always he sat the same way, one leg crossed over the other, one arm resting limply across his lap. The streetlight deepened the lines of his face, and every so often, ever so slowly, he brought the cigarette to his lips and sucked the smoke deep into himself. She never approached him, certain he wouldn’t want that. Instead she kept watch with him, listened to his calloused hand scratch against his whiskers. When he went to bed finally, she’d pretend he’d kissed her good night.

Someone puts a hand on her shoulder. It’s Conor, the reasonable one, the one who believes he can stay out of harm’s way. He’s told Moira he won’t have children, won’t let the cycle continue. “You don’t have to do this,” he says.

But she does.

Mary Ann McGuigan’s fiction has appeared in The Sun, Image, North American Review, Prime Number, and other journals. Her collection Pieces includes stories named for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Mary Ann’s young-adult novels, about teens trying to make sense of the chaos grown-ups leave in their wake, are ranked among the best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library. Her novel Where You Belong was a finalist for the National Book Award. For more about her fiction, visit www.maryannmcguigan.com, you can also follow her on Instagram.

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Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Attorney – Fiction

March 4, 2022
boat

Some Fourth of July, huh? I’m glad you called when you did. My timeshare is only a few houses down…get a towel, man. You’re still dripping.

So, to confirm, you have no recollection of what happened after you took the boat out with your niece?

I know, I know, slow down. Let me think. I need to work this out in my head so we—everyone—has their story straight. You told me over the phone that your wife doesn’t know anything. Not the whole thing, at least. That’s good. We don’t need anything else from her, so long as she doesn’t slip outside your alibi—if you need one, of course. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Did you say you often lend your boat out to family? Like your brother-in-law? Was he in town last night? Ah—I forgot—he’s in Bristol for the holiday. What about the others, do they sail too?

Hey, it’s not like we’re implicating anyone. That’s not what I do. I work with plausible deniability. We’re just seeding reasonable doubt, that’s all. It’s my job. Do you want to come out on the other end of this? If you do, you’ll listen to me.

Right now, if they suspected anything of you, all the evidence would be circumstantial. Anyone in your family could’ve taken that boat out last night. Son, cousin, sister. Your niece might have gone out there all by herself, came back, and took a bus to wherever she came from. She used to be so into sailing back in high school if I remember correctly. How many sets of keys do you have…four? Well, I only see three. Someone must’ve taken them, understand? You see where I’m going now?

When they ask about the boat, don’t even relinquish to the possibility of you going out on the lake. I mean, you were so drunk how could you know?

What was that? Fingerprints aren’t an issue, so put that out of your mind. Our real challenge is keeping it straight and keeping it quiet. We have no reason to be worried about anything yet. No body, no evidence of a struggle, no motive anyone’s aware of. Well, besides you and me. So, when the police arrive, don’t give them an inkling about what might have happened between you and her.

You don’t remember telling me, huh? You told me what went on between you two. That your niece seemed to forget all about it when she showed up for dinner out of the blue. That, before last night, you hadn’t seen her since she left for college. You seriously don’t remember telling me this? You need to watch your drinking from here on out. You told me enough about it anyway. Not like I wanted to hear it.

The sun is about to come up, and everyone will start wondering where she is, which even you don’t know. They’ll look around while you’re sleeping. When you finally come downstairs, be calm. Don’t be too sobby or too worried, alright? Call the police after you make your rounds. Check the shed, the guest house, pool house. Does she have any friends still in the area? Call your neighbors, even the bus depot. No one knows where she is. That’s the truth. That’s our truth. Last night could’ve been a dream, for all you know.

Back to the subject of the police—hey. Hey! I need you to focus. Look in the mirror. Look at yourself. You got this glassed-over look. It means you’re thinking about something and any two-bit cop, even around here, is going to figure out that you’re hiding something. I can tell you’re thinking about her right now. You’re replaying the situation—wait—is that her right there? The one with the little fish on the line. Huh, pretty. Hopefully, the press won’t catch wind, but if they do make sure they get this photo.

Okay, let me recap what you said over the phone. After dinner, you believe you two stayed up after everyone went to bed. She’d just turned 21, so there’s nothing wrong with having a nightcap with your niece. You all get to talking about everything. About what happened a few summers ago, how it wasn’t so bad. You two get to reminiscing, but then, all of a sudden, it was just like before: both of you, up later than everyone else, moon on the water, summer breeze. It wasn’t that bad, right? She was just a little younger, huh? I don’t care what you do behind closed doors, man, but you certainly had to think this would come back. I’m sure when she walked in, now in her twenties—a woman—it must’ve really sent you back. Having dinner, laughing, that rushing excitement of a shared secret with everyone around the table clueless to the truth. And then you two took the boat out—at least you think you did. Then it’s just…what? Black? Fuzzy? Well, that’s good. You don’t even know if you two had an argument. She was just gone. She just wasn’t on the boat anymore. But all you need to say is that you don’t definitively remember anything after your…let’s say second drink at the house.

Have you told your wife that those business trips were lies? That you’d come around here instead? Might be best if you did. I’m sure she’s wise to it anyway. I can imagine what she thought when she saw your face as your niece walked in to surprise you all. Like a shadow crawled into you. After your wife talks with the police, she should stay in her room, you know, bad lobster from last night. Keep her alone to keep her story together. The same goes for you too. Drill it into each other.

The sun’s coming up and I should go. Knowing your family, one of them is bound to be up for an early morning jog, and they shouldn’t see me yet. Get yourself together. Take a shower and snap yourself into the present. Got me?

When the police arrive, I’ll pop in like a concerned neighbor wondering about all the commotion. Stay calm. I’ll see you soon.

Matt Gillick is from Northern Virginia. He went to Providence College. He received his MFA from Emerson College in 2021. Find his other work in New Square, Sincerely Magazine, BOMBfire, and Newfound. He’s working on a novel about homelessness, domesticity, and September 11th.

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Antiracist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Lena’s Lessons

February 25, 2022
violin

Lena’s early years were dominated by minimal parental supervision and her weekly violin lessons. Because of that, her performance on the temperamental and difficult instrument far surpassed her performance on the stage of daily human interaction with teachers and classmates or casual encounters as she walked between her high-rise apartment and the world at large. She had always been willful, stubborn, if she was being honest, believing from a very early age that the world was on standby, if not created solely, to provide her with everything she wanted and felt she deserved. Her parents, both successful professionals, had wanted children and had chosen her name to reflect what they hoped their child would become: generous and kind. They’d had a name for a potential second child picked out but once Lena had arrived and they came to fully understand what parenthood meant, experiencing the demands on their time that raising a child required, they decided that an only child was all they could manage. Even then, their busy schedules left Lena to her own devices more often than not. They rationalized this to themselves and their friends by saying their parenting style fostered Lena’s independence. Lena accepted the lack of structure because she knew no other reality. As a younger child, she’d see her parents in the morning before school and at dinner, occasionally, if their work schedules permitted, and a half hour or more after her homework had been completed right before her bedtime. Weekends were filled with day trips and educational as well as “just for fun” activities, leaving her parents satisfied that they were doing a good job in raising her.

Her violin lessons had been a part of her life from the time she was six years old until now, as a sixteen year old, when she was beginning to feel the music in a different way. She felt it more vividly, more intensely and more emotionally than she had in prior years, as if blossoming into the early stages of adulthood had opened an unsuspected portal of endless musical possibilities.

As her musical accomplishments grew and made her parents beam in pride at her skill, her behavior in social situations brought knitted brows and frowns, frustrated shaking heads and, on more than one occasion, bewildered tears from her mother. Lena had developed a sharp, hurtful tongue and a nose for vulnerabilities. She never hesitated to unleash her venom on anyone unlucky enough to stand in the way of what she wanted. Her strikes were lightning swift and left the victim deeply wounded and reluctant to confront the innocent looking young woman again.

Lena took pride in this less than admirable quality, enjoying the power her reputation as the queen of biting sarcasm and insults, marking her as a person to be feared rather than liked or respected. Nevertheless, fear was such a strong motivator that she usually got what she wanted and ruled unchallenged over her classmates and acquaintances, not really able to consider any of them friends.

That was the pattern until “New Girl” arrived during the summer after Lena had turned sixteen. Lena always referred to her as “New Girl,” never deigning to call her by her name,  disparaging her by asking her loyal coterie “Did you get a look at what New Girl was wearing yesterday? Good Lord! You’d think her mother would at least buy her a copy of Elle or Cosmo so she’d stop looking like the before picture of a makeover.” Of course,  they all laughed and agreed, nervously wondering if their wardrobe choices measured up or if they, too, could be mocked, grateful they were safe, for the moment,  from Lena’s scorn.

“New Girl’s” name was Eileen, a fact that Lena hated because she felt, irrationally, that it infringed on her own name in some way and therefore cast an unwelcome shadow on her identity. Eileen was quietly attractive, polite, studious and introverted, spending her after school hours in a corner of the library, content in her solitude. During lunch hour, she sat alone, her books open as she ate an apple or a pear or an occasional orange, napkin in hand, not to mar the page she was reading or the assignment she was working on.

Lena wasn’t sure what bothered her more about Eileen, whether it was her serene complacency or the fact that she made no effort to seek inclusion in Lena’s circle, thereby depriving Lena of the pleasure of rejecting her and crushing her hopes of acceptance into the social hierarchy over which Lena reigned supreme. That Eileen seemed not to care a whit about Lena and her entourage was puzzling. Why wouldn’t a new girl be interested in making friends, even if Lena would insure that friendships would never form and Eileen would be forced to seek friends among the other girls Lena had already banished to the purgatory of the rejected.

Because Eileen was the new girl and such a solitary figure, no one knew very much about her. Where did she come from? Where did she live? Who were her parents? Was she an only child? No one had any answers to those questions, so, inevitably, speculation gave rise to outrageous stories, chronicling Eileen’s history, tales lacking only a fairy godmother and a wicked witch. She was the daughter of a Mafia informant and was in the witness protection program. She was the sole heiress to a massive family fortune and was being educated in their small town to escape fortune hunters and kidnappers. She was the sole survivor of a horrible fire in which she lost everything and was heroically struggling to make it on her own.  None of it was true but if Eileen had heard any of these theories,  she chose not to address or correct them. Instead, she continued to go quietly about the business of getting an education.

Lena’s frustration grew with every day that Eileen remained aloof, not reacting to Lena’s taunting label of “New Girl” that she couldn’t help overhearing. The final straw seemed to come when Lena walked into the orchestra room and discovered Eileen, violin tucked under her chin, drawing her bow across the strings to create a hauntingly beautiful sound. The notes were so true and effortless that they stopped Lena in her tracks, finding the place in her heart that recognized beauty and, against her will, she found herself closing her eyes and letting the music carry her to a place of joyful surrender. She recognized the piece immediately as one of her favorites. It was the aching beauty of “Meditation” from the opera Thaïs, a piece that never failed to move her. It was a demanding piece, written for a demanding instrument that had been the bane of many who tried to tame it, whose frustration grew when they were unable to coax the notes from the vibrating strings. Some few, however, like Lena herself and Eileen, could elicit the most beautiful clarity. Lena watched as Eileen positioned her fingers across the frets and angled the bow against the strings, moving her upper body in an elegant, intimate duet with the instrument nestled under her chin. When Eileen had let the last note fade and dropped her bow arm and removed the violin from under her chin, she noticed Lena. She gave Lena a timid smile and said, “Hi. I was just practicing. Do you play in the orchestra?”

“I do,” said Lena, “Violin, like you.”

Eileen’s smile brightened. “That’s great! Most people are intimidated by it but if you play,  it means you’re fearless.”  Extending her bow d violin toward Lena, she said “I’d love to hear you play. Would you?”

Lena was momentarily caught off balance, flattered by the invitation, but then she reverted to Lena vs New Girl mode. “Not today. I just came by to pick up the music for my solo and then I’m meeting some friends.”

Eileen’s smile dimmed as she nodded her understanding and opened her case to carefully lay the violin inside. “Maybe another time,” she said, without looking up as Lena scooped up the pages of her sheet music and turned to go. “Maybe,” she tossed over her shoulder as she left, although her tone made it clear that finding another time would be as likely as finding Leprechaun gold after the next storm. Still, as she left, she could hear the music that Eileen had created echo in her head and wondered which of the two emotions she was feeling was stronger: envy or admiration.

Normally, Lena would seek to crush any rival in any corner of her world; yet, the simple, pure openness of the girl who produced such a glorious sound from the violin left Lena at war with herself, not a position she had ever encountered before. Because of that, her mood was sour when she met up with her friends and she took little interest in their conversation, the haunting melody of Eileen’s violin swirling in her mind, a musical backdrop at odds with the insipid chattering of high pitched female voices. The result was a cacophonous dissonance that gave her a headache. And it didn’t stop there. As the weeks unfolded, she found herself less and less interested in spending time with the girls as more and more of her time was in the orchestra practice rooms, working on the Sibelius violin concerto. In fact, the only refuge from her emotional crisis was the time she spent with her violin. Her teacher noticed her more serious approach to her lessons.  Whereas before she had demonstrated skill, almost a natural affinity for the violin, now she was more focused and more disciplined, listening to corrections with earnestness instead of eye rolling, eager to replay a section with better phrasing and actually smiled when she knew she’d captured an elusive note perfectly.

“I’m really impressed by Lena’s attitude and progress,” her teacher told her mother after one of their sessions. “She’s taking her lessons much more seriously and she must be practicing more, no?”

“Oh, yes,” agreed Lena’s mother.  “Instead of watching TV or talking on her phone,  she takes out her violin and fills the house with music. I couldn’t be happier.  Not only for the music, which is really beautiful, but because it seems to make her happy and when she’s happy, she’s less, oh, you know.” Her mother gave what was recognizable as an embarrassing admission of Lena’s sharp edges.

“She’s definitely making a place in her life for her violin. It’s becoming part of her and I hear it in the notes and see it in the way she moves her body as she plays. She’s making her violin an extension of herself rather than a separate or foreign thing. That’s an encouraging sign.”

Over dinner that evening, Lena’s mother related the conversation to Lena’s father and Lena found herself happy to bask in her teacher’s praise and her parents’ approval as her father winked at her and said, “So we didn’t waste our money after all,” before raising his wine glass in a toast.

“Daddy,” she said “I’ve been thinking…about next year…and I know I said I wanted a gap year before making any life plans but…now…I’ve been thinking that I might want to do something now…with my music.”

Her parents exchanged a look that suggested that they weren’t quite sure what they were hearing since Lena had scowled and rolled her eyes and sighed with boredom every time they tried to bring up the subject of Lena making plans for the future. Her father nodded his head. “Sure. That’s something we can look into. Were you thinking a summer music camp or a music school for next year or”

Lena interrupted,  suddenly afraid that if she didn’t say what was on her mind immediately, she might never say it.

“Juilliard. I’m thinking Juilliard.”

And there it was, suddenly taking on shape as more than a random thought that was a possibility, but now a pathway, devoid of petty adolescent concerns and paved with soaring notes in major and minor keys joining together to lead her to the place she realized she belonged. Her father smiled. “Then let’s make it happen.”

That was the first of a series of surprises Lena’s family and friends experienced. At school,  instead of the Sibelius solo, the orchestra director told Lena he had something else planned. He’d decided to have Lena and Eileen, his two most talented students, perform a duet for NYSMA, he told them. He handed them the sheet music for Sonata in G minor, Opus 2, Number 8, First and Second Movements. “You’ve got the talent to pull this off, but you’re going to have to work really hard because,” he said peering at them over his glasses, “a duet is much harder than a solo. You have to be completely in tune with one another and that will mean lots and lots of practice. Are you up to it?” He ll looked from one girl to the other but they were looking only at one another. Eileen’s face held a hopeful question and Lena’s was a firm yes. Lena answered for both of them. “You bet we are. We can do it, right Eileen?”

Smiling in gratitude, Eileen turned to the director. “We sure can. When do we start?”

From that day on, Lena’s entire focus was on the duet. She and Eileen practiced as often as they could and spent whatever free time they had without their violins going over the sheet music or listening to other performers interpreting the piece. The more time they spent together, the more Lena came to appreciate the depth of the person she no longer thought of as New Girl but began to think of her as kindred spirit and friend. Eileen understood, as none of her previous friends had, the world that music opened for her. Eventually, Lena felt comfortable enough to finally share her plans to audition for Juilliard. Eileen clapped her hands excitedly, telling Lena she’d “most definitely” be accepted and asked which pieces she would play for her audition. “Definitely the Sibelius. I’ve been working on that for a while. Then I’m trying to decide between the Mozart Violin Sonata 18 in G Major and the Bach Sonata #2 in A Minor.”

Eileen’s judgment was swift. “You’ve got to play the Bach. It’s sophisticated enough to showcase your talent. Yes. I like the Bach.”

“Then Bach it is.”

The night of the Winter Concert was fast approaching and the pair would perform their NYSMA duet as a dry run for spring. Lena had sent off her audition tape and was waiting for a decision, maybe an invitation to perform in person. She asked Eileen what her plans for the following year were and whether she’d consider applying to Juilliard, too. Eileen managed a weak smile. “Oh, I don’t know about that. It would be wonderful but…I guess I’ll go wherever my family takes me. And wherever that turns out to be, I’m sure they’ll be opportunities but it’s just too soon to know. I’m just going to have to go with the flow, as they say.” Eileen tried to sound nonchalant but Lena could hear the sadness in her voice. As Lena began to speak,  wanting to ask questions, Eileen said “Please don’t ask. Let’s just live in the moment, enjoy performing and our chance to make the audience experience the beauty the music  creates, okay?”

Realizing that Eileen was trusting her to act like a real friend would, respecting her desire for privacy, Lena nodded. “Sure. We can do that.”  Years later, Lena would remember this conversation as a turning point in her life. She had put someone else’s wishes above her own.

The night of the Winter Concert was crisp and cold with the small town gilded with a layer of snow. Backstage was abuzz with excitement and then it was time for the orchestra to file on and take their seats. After each piece, the audience rewarded them with applause. Then it was time. Eileen and Lena stood and walked to the front of the stage as the orchestra director described the piece they would play. The director raised his baton, the friends looked at one another and drew their bows across the strings, unleashing the notes that soared in perfect unity.

When the last note left their instruments, climbing and lingering in the auditorium, Eileen and Lena smiled at one another, while the audience rewarded them with thunderous applause. The conductor beamed. They took their bows, then briefly hugged before resuming their seats to perform the final piece. Lena had never before felt so elated. Her world had shifted. She’d embraced the power of the music and the new girl with whom she had found friendship.

Kathleen Chamberlin is a retired educator living in Albany, New York with my husband and two rescue dogs. Her poetry has appeared in Lothlorien Poetry Journal, Open Door Magazine and The World of Myth magazine.

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

 

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

(P)ink

February 18, 2022
cemre

How much he liked separating the animal’s skin from its pink flesh! Neat work. In one pull, he needed to do it—in one pull and should not break the skin.

Kemal was skilled in his art.

This calf’s meat would be delicious, he knew. It was from his uncle Salim’s herd. Salim Amca made his herd graze on the vast green of their small town Topaz in Kastamonu. The family in whose backyard he was performing, knew this too, and he felt they trusted the calf and him, though which one more it was questionable. One of the family members, however, showed a bigger interest in his work, the little daughter of the house, Cemre. Her light blue eyes were taking in every second his skillful hands were dancing on the pink flesh. She was nine. A girl of her age would normally be unable to look at the scene, but thought Kemal, this girl was different.

Twenty four was Kemal. Since his thirteenth birthday, he was in this job. How many of those calves he cut into pieces he could not even remember. Dark brown hair he had—hair falling onto his forehead which was half-covered with a cap the color brown. He was wearing a blue striped shirt, mintan, as called in his town, with sleeves rolled up. And under it, dark blue jeans and dark brown shoes. He had the habit of stepping on the soles of his shoes. On occasion of work, he would complete this look with usually a cream-colored apron which, at the moment, was covered with blood.

Today he was particularly enjoying his work, both thanks to and despite the little girl’s admiration and curiosity. The girl scared him a bit.

When Cemre was finished with scaring the butcher, she asked for a leave from her parents to go and play with Seda. After giving a fond stroke on her daughter’s auburn hair—hair that she had braided with utmost care in the morning and now was in a complete mess with unruly strands escaping through here and there, mother said, “Sure, you may, but don’t you dare to come back having oozed with sweat, all right? For dinner, we are expecting Nazife Teyzes, remember?”

“Nazife Teyze…” Cemre thought. Nazife Teyze, who always joked about making Cemre get married to his son Sinan. Sinan was the fattest boy Cemre would ever know of. His greasy body was covered with sweat all the time, and all the time he spoke as if he was choking on something. Looking at him disgusted Cemre. Sinan was five years older, and yet he didn’t excel in anything except for backgammon in which no one could compete with him. No one even dared to play against him. “Sure, he’s cheating,” Cemre often thought, and though Cemre insisted to learn his notorious tricks, he refused to admit even the existence of them and accused Cemre of not thinking accordingly.

“No, Cemre,” he said each time, “no! You just can’t think properly. Each time you are making the wrong move. You should always plan ahead. Always. You live in the moment, but backgammon—backgammon is about the future, not the present. Always remember, tamam mı?”

“Stinking liar! Dirty cheater!” Cemre would call him, her face red, “one day, one day I promise… I’ll prove it.”

“Ha-ha,” Sinan would laugh. “I’ll be looking forward to it, darling. And I hope you will turn out to be right.”

Hasanoğlu family’s door was knocked twice, at dusk, when starlings left their chores of bringing lovely tunes to the warm and lovely evening of that August day. Cemre was the one to answer the door. Inside, Cemre’s mother Kerime was busy stirring the kavurma on the cooker. Cemre’s father Hüseyin was forgotten in front of the TV, taking a nap with his reading glasses on his nose. But his glasses were not doing their jobs of reading the newspaper with the headline “637 terrorists neutralized in Operation Peace Spring,” which he was holding in his hands half an hour ago but now was on the carpet next to Hüseyin’s slippers. On TV, the 7 O’clock news was on. A rascal of noise was coming from it—sounds of a delirium. Last week, during one of Hüseyin’s such sleeping moments, Turkish forces had crossed into Syria, aiming to clear the region of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). On the screen, battle tanks were moving; rifles were fired. And behind what was shown, everywhere there were bare feet—in mud or blood. A little girl was crying in silence, only with her gestures, a woman was wailing into her scarf, a man with a grey beard and a dusty face was sobbing, having knelt down on dirt.

Cemre ran to the door.

And opened it.

Nazife Teyze, Sait Amca, and their son Sinan were lined in their habitual order, side by side, at the door, standing in their best clothes as the day was Kurban Bayramı. Sinan wore a yellow jacket that fit too tight for him anyway. “No one so fat should wear anything like this,” Cemre thought the moment she saw him. And as if this had not been enough, he had situated a purple bowtie on his fat neck which was almost spilling onto the collar of his white ironed shirt. By looking at the two taller faces who were standing before her, she put on her studied cordial smile and said in a cheerfully, “Hoş geldiniz!”

Turning her head down and looking at Sinan’s face, she glared at him. This little gesture didn’t go unnoticed by Nazife Teyze and Sait Amca, and the two exchanged looks of amusement, which made it clear that they were enjoying this playful tension between their son and Cemre. Cemre had become very dear to Nazife over the years. Kerime and Nazife were friends since high school, and they were always together since the day they met. So Nazife was like an aunt—much of a real one—to Cemre.

After she was done with glaring at Sinan, Cemre let in the warm and delicious August evening weather, and though she was not much interested in them, the guests too. The three found their ways into the living room, at whose door, a bell awakened Hüseyin was standing. He was in one of those days of him, when he could easily go to sleep and be awakened by the tiniest glimmer of human voice. With the still touchable remains of sleep on his face, he made an awkward gesture of rushing forward to welcome his guests. He cheered out his hoş geldiniz too and hugged Sait in the warmest way. Over the years, though they had not known each other before, thanks to their wives’ friendship, they became the pair who did every sort of activity together—such as watching football matches and playing cards with one or two of their common friends. After their hugging ceremony was finished, Hüseyin turned to Nazife, making a small kind nod, took her right hand into his, cupped it over with his other hand, and shook it longer than necessary. Then it was the turn to greet the little boy that came along their favorite couple. He patted the top of Sinan’s head and said, “Aslan parçası, maşallah!”

But a half-embarrassed, half inattentive Sinan freed his head from the patting hands and led his parents to the sofa. When all were sat in the exact order they had rung the doorbell, and after an uncomfortable minute of silence had passed, Hüseyin broke it, “Well, how goes it with you? Is everything all right?”

After heaving a sigh, the couple sang, “The same, işte!”

Then Nazife Teyze took the lead and added, “Just the same. You know… The boy is going to start high school this year, so we went shopping to buy the school uniform, but you know… You know our son.  He is not the size of a normal. We went through the whole marketplace today to find a jacket that would fit him. Finally… Finally, thank god, we found one, but this time it was bigger than his size. So we had to take it to the tailor’s.”

Nazife seemed to want to continue her report on Sinan’s unfitting uniform when she was interrupted by Kerime who oriented through the door with a half soaked apron on which she was struggling to wipe her wet hands frantically. At that moment one could tell that she had this air to herself, which told of an assured embarrassment caused by her being late to welcome the guests. With each demeanor of her arms’ movements, her three golden bracelets jingled in the stiff air stuffed within the living room. She wore a silk, soft pink shirt with sleeves rolled up, and underneath, a cream-colored pencil skirt covering her knees. After she was assured her hands were dried enough, Kerime ran to Nazife and hugged her friend who had stood up immediately when she heard Kerime’s jingling presence at the door. The women’s hug was even more ceremonious than the men’s: while hugging, Nazife and Kerime rolled from one side to the other and repeated their action till eternity. At least this was how it seemed to the eyes watching them—the eyes that did not know of the secrets those two women must have had shared at high school. After they finished their hugging ritual, Nazife sat down again, leaving an anxious Sinan on foot, waiting to be greeted by his elderly host in vain—in vain because Kerime moved directly to her next target Sait and shook his hand with a visibly forced smile and yet managing not to reveal any of her teeth. Though their eyes met for the shortest one second, their discomfort was tangible like a dead snake lying right at the center of the room. Only then and there Kerime seemed to remember, at the last minute, the boy down there, in front of the couch. She first cupped his cheeks and then her hands moved down to Sinan’s shoulder blades. Her hands did not stay there, though. She patted two times and then said, “Look at you! You have grown up to be a real gentleman. Maşallah kuzuma!”

She pulled a chair from the dinner table and sat at a nearly far and a closely distant place from her guests, though there was already one empty seat adjoined to the TV set. It was her way of self-assurance—of her role as the host and also of her separation—from them.

The room in which the group was sitting in a silent agony had one sofa, two winged chairs, a dining table, and a TV set.  Except for the TV itself, everything touchable had that essence of a soft pink, with here and there hints of purple shades. The carpet was the one to blame, all three guests were thinking, the carpet under their feet, with its shining aura and gleam of a million cut threads in soft pink. The chairs smirking from underneath the dining table and the little lilacs on them bred a creamy comfort. The table’s auburn feet were the only things that distrpted the room’s pink dreamy weather. After nestling her butt cheeks into the chair, Kerime repeated her husband’s earlier question, “Well… How goes it with you, then?”

The only difference in Kerime’s question was the addresser and the addressee. Hüseyin’s question had been asked right onto Sait’s face; this time, however, Kerime’s danced first in her eyes in glittering vigor, then in a muted shyness, faded into her best friend’s eyes.

Cemre was the last one to attend the crowd in the room. She immediately ran to the back of her mother’s chair and started caressing her mother’s neck, her one favorite place on her mother’s body since she was a baby. At this, Kerime seemed to be annoyed, as she complained, “Don’t, kızım!”

After the warning she got, she let go of Kerime’s neck. But this time she started to play with the edges of the chair and started to shake it as if in an attempt to dethrone her mother. A displeased Kerime turned back but managed, in her calmest and most sensible voice, played in slow motion, to utter, “I told you—to behave—didn’t I?”

Deprived of her toys to play with, Cemre ran to the window and wanted to stare outside, into the darkness that stood in the shape of a stranger man—a man of shadow, with corners and a flat cap, perhaps. She felt this stranger’s darkness was leaning each second, more and more, onto the realms of her parent’s house. “His hat would drop in a second,” she thought silently. And yelped. The crowd ignored her shriek, and she continued to ignore them too. Kerime got up two seconds later and put on the light right above the dining table, which illuminated the whole room and made Cemre see only her own reflection instead of the dark man through the window. Not much changed for Cemre, though, as she could still and again ignore the rest resting behind her. But if she had not seen stupid Sinan’s stupid eyes catching her own blue eyes on the reflection, everything would be better. She caught herself and caught that Sinan’s reflection behind hers drove her attention to the edges of his eyes, wondering what those edges might actually be wanting to tell her. She felt the two pairs of eyes were somehow merging into each other—slowly, silently. She then decided they were telling of more—more than she could decipher—at that age, but she knew that a time would come and would make her understand the real blue behind the blue—the blue of the days and the nights that the blue hid behind.

***

When she saw him, he was on foot, talking to one of his former school friends, in front of one of the three grocery stores in their town, which was run by a sixty-eight-year-old semi deaf Mustafa Amca. Cemre was there for the only reason she could be there: to buy some groceries—groceries ordered by Kerime. The two pair of eyes met or rather clashed when Sinan parted his eyes from his old friend’s young face and saw her, in the middle of the road, standing and looking directly at him.

This was Sinan’s first summer in his hometown in five years after he went off to college in İstanbul, the big city, to be a lawyer. Cemre was exactly where Sinan left her to be. She was continuing to a local high school.

“The same air to herself she still has,” he thought, “the same eyes, unafraid—to look and to see.”

His eyes traveled from her head to her toes and then way back up, under his frameless glasses situated perfectly on his perfectly shaped nose. A red t-shirt was on him and dark blue jeans on his long legs.

“Look at that groaning body,” thought Cemre. But unfortunately, Sinan was quick enough to end his line of thought about Cemre’s eyes and to turn, completely uninterested in Cemre, to his friend.   

“How dare him, how dare!” Cemre frowned.

Cemre walked towards Sinan and touched his right shoulder. At her touch, Sinan turned and found a giggling Cemre who said, “Hey, it’s been long. I mean… Since you ceased to be a fatty. You know what? I think you’re still that same dull, fat boy underneath this smug look. Who do you think you are? Everybody knows who you really are, except you!”

Both young men were looking at Cemre in a daze. When the daze disappeared or moved from his ears to his heart, Sinan grabbed Cemre’s arm and dragged her to the other side of the building—the side with no doors or windows. He said, in his simmering anger, “Who the hell do you think you are? Who? Huh? Who? Did you think you could humiliate me just like that in front of my friend? You need to remember— You— Little princess— Of the little town? No more darling… No more! I am that boy no more— You see? You see what I mean?”

His black eyes were penetrating Cemre’s, and Cemre thought, at that very moment, that she was left no room for her eyes to see on their own from then on. Cemre did not know what to say, but Sinan insisted. Shaking Cemre’s—now even more—tender shoulder roughly, he asked once more, “Do you?”

Cemre could only nod her head. She was shaking when Sinan turned away and disappeared from the corner. She wanted to cry but could not. She felt too angry to cry. Then she began running—running from that corner, from the grocery store, from the groceries she was expected to buy, from herself, from her life. Running away from any of these would not be possible or true, she knew—she knew it even before she found herself in front of her parents’ house. She felt she could breathe only if she kept running. She had run as if she had been running away from a lion—a lion with a groaning stomach. Unable to stop, she dived into the house from the main entrance and inside, ran till she could, till the farthest spot, till she threw herself onto the kitchen counter, right next to her mother whose hands were lost in the bubbles of the dish wash. While Cemre tried to catch her breath, Kerime, first with her ears, attended her daughter’s heavy breathing, then with her eyes that had been questioning, over the sink, of the ivy’s never-ending persistence to move up the neighbors’  sidewall and to cover all the rest around it.

“Cemre, don’t leave the groceries out. Put them right in the fridge,” ordered she.

When no hint of impulse came from her daughter, she repeated, “Cemre!”

And once more, “Cemre! Shh, do you hear me?”

“I’m sorry… Mom! I could not… I could not get… What you wanted.”

“What—but why?”

She then dried her hands on her beige apron, placed the back of her hand on Cemre’s forehead and checked Cemre’s fever.

Kızım?”

Cemre blushed then—from her fingertips to her toes, brushed her mother’s hand, and rushed out of the kitchen.   

***

All summers were stale for Cemre after she got a disappointing score from the university entrance exam. Cemre was sure her broken heart would not handle another defeat, so she did not even consider retaking the exam. Her heart was already shattered into millions of pieces—pieces she saw no use in bothering to collect.

On a dense April evening, a confident knock was heard on Hasanoğlu family’s door. This time Cemre was not the one who answered the door. It was Kerime who did. She welcomed the guests with a broad smile, trying to look as happy as she could manage to be. “Welcome, welcome!” she greeted each guest with the same big, heavy smile and the same big, heavy nod while her left arm was opened wide, down into the corridor, pointing the direction her guests should follow. Kerime was dressed in a two-piece black suit under which she wore a pale pink silk shirt. Hüseyin was standing right behind Kerime. The four guests Salim, his brother Sadık, Sadık’s wife Saniye, and Sadık’s and Saniye’s son Kemal got seated in the living room. Kemal was wearing a navy blue suit, a white shirt, and a grey tie with black and grey stripes on. He sat right between his parents on the couch while his uncle Salim found a spot for himself on the winged chair next to the TV set. After making sure everybody found a seat, Kerime pulled a chair for herself from the dining table. While sitting down, she asked the room, “Welcome, again. How are you all?”

With this, a blast of undecipherable noise started within the room, caused by the confidence one finds in small talk—till Cemre entered. Cemre entered the room, carrying a tray in her hands and on it six cups of Turkish coffee. Everyone had stopped talking and started to watch the ritual Cemre was serving. Cemre’s hair was done up in a neat bun, and she was wearing a long pale pink chiffon dress. Whether the dress was flattering her feminine figures or it was hiding them, one could not decide. She served the first cup to Salim and then to Sadık, then Saniye, then Hüseyin, then Kerime, and lastly to Kemal. Though while during the rest of her performed ceremony, she tried to keep her head bowed and to lock her eyes on the cups, when Kemal took the last cup on the tray, she lifted her head and looked Kemal in the eye. In that instance, Kemal thought how little she changed over the years. Her eyes, he meant. The same eyes that now paralyzed Kemal to utter a proper thank you but only a hum of a single syllable—a syllable that was never heard and that never needed to be, as his uncle Salim was the one who did the necessary talking—to ask for Cemre’s hand from her father as was the tradition.

That night, Cemre and Kemal got engaged—to be married for the rest of their lives.

Ayşe Tekşen is a research assistant at the Department of Foreign Language Education, Middle East Technical University, Turkey. Her poetry has been published widely, including in Ohio Edit, The Paragon Journal, Arcturus, Constellations, the Same, The Mystic Blue Review,  and others. Ayşe lives and writes in Ankara, Turkey.

***

Antiracist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

Can’t

July 16, 2021
christine

By Lauren Anton

You’re turning thirteen tomorrow. It’s time to act like it.

She looked around her pink and white bedroom. Pink: her favorite color. Her journal, also pink, with a picture of a pretty little girl on it, surrounded by flowers. She had gotten her period, as if on cue, the day before. When she went to tell her mother, she had handed a pad to her, unceremoniously. Her dad had hugged her for no reason that morning.

It was all pretty awkward. But still. She took the event and her upcoming birthday as a sign that things needed to change.

No more being loud. No more tomboy. You need to be quiet and pretty.

She thought back to the times when she would hang out with Natalie, prowling the mall for guys.

At least that’s what Natalie was doing.

“Did you see that guy?”

Never.

“He’s so cute! I think he was looking at me.”

According to Natalie, they always were.

They would then follow the guy (or guys) around, while she became increasingly more anxious, when she would eventually duck into a bookstore to read magazines, not books. She was trying to figure out how to be a pretty girl who attracts boys. She would stand there for an hour, waiting for Natalie to be done with her guy-hunting, reading magazines like Seventeen, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan not for enjoyment, but for the task of research.

It didn’t seem to sink in.

No matter how many quizzes she took, she didn’t naturally have the eye that Natalie – and all the pretty girls in her class – had.

Even if she did attract a boy, she didn’t know what to do. She liked her guy friends in class, but never seemed to like the guys that she was told were “looking” at her.

She felt that she had been left behind in fifth grade, when they had “Family Life” – sex ed in Catholic school. She had hidden behind her book when they learned about “intercourse,” lest she make eye contact with any other human being.

“Intercourse” was defined as “a man placing his penis in the woman’s vagina, with the hopeful outcome of conception of a new human life, within a loving marriage.” The book went on to say that it was a “precious gift from God” and was to be “held with the deepest respect.”

Meaning never done outside of marriage.

The daydreams, as she called them, started when the “Family Life” classes started. She would spend hours fantasizing about being a boy in a relationship with a girl, having sex with her, getting married, having a family. Her imagination was expansive, which was important, as she didn’t know that girls could masturbate.

She thought only boys could do that.

In fact, the book had been so centered on the penis and ejaculation (and other words that made her want to die when she heard them), she didn’t realize girls could have an orgasm and that there was something called a clitoris.

She had no clue about her own body.

And so the daydreams where she was a boy having sex with a girl continued for over two years.

The penis was all she knew.

Her pen hovered and then drove into the paper.

You need to stop these daydreams.

Her sexual fantasies that she called daydreams because she didn’t know what sexual fantasies were or that she could have them.

She didn’t know why she had the daydreams. She just knew she couldn’t stop and found her mind on them, not even realizing how long she had been thinking about it. She just knew they were bad and had to stop. She had to find a way.

She remembered what happened two years ago in her pink and white room on her frilly twin bed. Her cheeks burned with the shame.

They had just started “Family Life” and her friend Christine had come over to spend the night. It had been a normal visit, nothing noteworthy. Dinner, playing games up in her room, talking, until her mother had told her it was time to get ready for bed.

When the lights were off, they continued to talk, as ten-year-old girls do, in the dim light of the nightlight.

The topic of “Family Life” came up and how embarrassing it was.

But she wasn’t feeling embarrassed.

She was feeling…like she did in the daydream.

“We should practice.”

Christine was nervous about this so she offered that they could leave out the kissing. She was secretly bummed by this but realized that compromise was needed.

And so, she lived out her daydream in her pink bed, in her pink and white room. At ten years old.

She didn’t know she could float, but she did.

When her eyes were woken by the sun shining through the split in the curtains, she looked over at her friend, still asleep. She shifted to her side to watch the ray of sun creep up Christine’s body under the covers, her blonde hair in wisps around her face, until at last the sun reached her eyes. She blinked herself awake.

“Morning.” She smiled.

“Hey.”

Christine immediately got up, taking her change of clothes in the bathroom. Her stomach had a tiny pang of fear which she quickly shoved away and instead got dressed, taking her cue from Christine.

When Christine came back in the room, she sat on the edge of the bed, her gaze on the floor. She sat beside her, a respectful three feet away. Her body sent off alarm bells.

“What we did last night was wrong. We should never do it again.”

There was a moment when she couldn’t really see and her stomach dropped to the floor. She thought she was going to faint.

Christine looked at her, expectantly. Waiting for her response.

The right response.

“Yeah…yeah…” She trailed off, her head nodding slowly.

“OK. Yeah. Let’s never do it again.”

You can’t do that. It’s disgusting.

Her pen dug into the paper of her journal, almost ripping it.

Turning thirteen would need to involve an entire personality overhaul.

And her sexuality would be the first order of business.

Lauren Anton is a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders by day and a writer by night. She is a mom to her beautiful 8-year-old son, who is a constant teacher of what it is to be in love with life, feeling everything so, so fully. She enjoys hiking, yoga, piano, and her little rescue poodle, Bernie.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction, Grief, Guest Posts

Emergency Cigarette

June 25, 2021
barb

By Ellen Wade Beals

Barb thinks she’ll call out, “Hello,” but when the front door key sticks in the lock, she has a moment to realize that Bernadette, her mother, is gone. To call out seems kind of maudlin, but Barb does it anyway. That’s how she’s feeling. What better place than an empty house to show those feelings? Her “hello” sounds feeble.

The house smells fusty, which would have driven Bernadette crazy. She’d be opening windows. “Let’s get some fresh air in here.”

It’s been three days since the funeral. Barb had needed a break. Now she plans to start the first rash of cleaning out her mother’s home. She’s been dreading the task. Sifting through all her mother’s possessions—it’s like paring down a life. And so final.

Today’s goal:  tackle the top layer, the trash that can be safely tossed without regrets. The hard stuff—whatever was too good to toss but of no use to her; her mother’s personal items; the things Barb would look at for fifteen minutes and still not know what to do with—is for another day. This is the preliminary trash day, she told herself and Alec and Aunt Rosemarie who had offered to help, and she can handle it. She’ll get as many trash bags done as she could and that will be that.

Barb drops the box of giant plastic bags in the hallway and looks around. She slips off her shoes. Though the lady herself is gone this is still her mother’s house. Neat and tidy. But chilly. She goes to the thermostat to turn up the heat and then to the closet to hang up her jacket.

First order of business: her mother’s winter coat, the green one she’d bought new for Barb’s graduation and that was over 25 years ago. She checks the pockets (nothing but lint) and notices the sleeves, so worn the coat couldn’t go to charity. On the front collar of the coat is the Christmas wreath brooch Bernadette had bought at Woolworth’s and wore every holiday season for as long as Barb could remember. She unpins it and tucks it in her jeans pocket.

Barb puts her nose to the wool blend and recalls the afternoon they met on the Evanston corner before going to the movies. The cold air was so clear that Barb could smell the coffee on Bernadette’s breath when she spoke: “Lead the way.” They were going to see Philomena, about an Irish woman who was forced to give up her baby. That they chose the  movie without first reading the reviews was a mistake, it turned out, because it brought up issues. Barb had to bite her tongue lest she sputter that the Catholic church could be evil. Bernadette’s reaction was “At least the child wasn’t denied life.” Barb sensed Bernadette held back too. Though she was adamant about the mortal sin of abortion, the son in the movies had been gay, and Bernadette did not exactly denounce homosexuality. Instead she shook her head and summed it up as something she could not understand. At least they both liked Judi Dench

She slides the coat off the hanger, notices the label and  laughs. In marker are written the initials “B. S.” Bernadette always said one reason she named her daughter Barbara was so they’d share a monogram. That way if she ever had a mink with her initials embroidered on the silk lining, she could leave it to Barb and the monogram would still be right. The uneven block letters on the tag make Barb a little sadder–one of Bernadette’s ideas that never came to pass. When she billows the garbage bag to open it, the noise is so harsh it makes her grimace. In it goes.

She moves into the bedroom and opens the big dresser drawer. Beige and white, the bras and panties have that funky rubbery smell of old elastic. All sorts of cotton and rayon, no lace, no silk. Lots of Platex. Or ordered from an ad in Parade Magazine. She grabs handfuls to add to the trash bag. Secondhand underwear. Nobody wants that.

Beneath the underwear are cards and letters, but she dares not start with them lest she get waylaid. Her mother saved all the cards she ever received. She can see the corner of a pink envelope, knows it was from her father, and doesn’t have to pull it out to picture her Father’s perfect Palmer method handwriting. Ephemera, that’s what it’s called, but just seeing the envelope evokes her father. What if he were still alive?  How might their lives have been different? Maybe he would have softened Bernadette because sometimes she was hard. Especially on herself. On the dresser top is their wedding photo, black and white, Buddy was in a dark suit and Bernadette wore a lace mantilla veil.

Since his death in 1982, Buddy has gone on to sainthood. Bernadette idolized him. Countless times throughout her childhood and even more-so when her mother had grown infirm. Bernadette would proclaim, “My one and only” or “the love of my life,” and hold the framed photo to her heart. A rare moment of weakness and heartfelt emotion that Bernadette let show.

As she pushes the drawer shut with her hip, Barb tries to think whether she’d describe Alec as the love of her life. Maybe. But not in the same way Bernadette meant it. They were partners.

Especially as she got older and dated and moved out, Barbara wondered whether companionship wasn’t something Bernadette lacked. There was no one. No other. But it was not a subject her mother cared to discuss. Bernadette worked as a receptionist for a dentist, Dr. Ken, since 1986. For a while when Barb was in her teens, she entertained the idea that maybe he was her mother’s love interest. But that was not the case. Bernadette was loyal to the dentist and even protective of him, but it was just old-fashioned respect. He was a doctor and he was her boss. That was that.

“My one and only,” Barb says to herself. Her voice sounds tinny. Suppose her father had not died –what then? No matter how she thinks about the question, there is really no answer.

Barb drops the bag by the bedroom door and heads to the kitchen. The only male who sparked anything in Bernadette was Bill O’Reilly. She watched him every day. If Barb called while The O’Reilly Factor was on, Bernadette asked her to call back, she wanted to watch. When Barb asked what was so special about him, Bernadette would say, “He’s just so no-nonsense,” and “He’s easy on the eyes.”

“Anderson Cooper is handsome,” Barb had countered once but Bernadette wasn’t hearing it

“Barbie, it’s not the same thing.”

Later when Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges and lost his show, Barbara didn’t want to bring it up. By then Bernadette was sick again.

Barb flicks on the kitchen light switch and the fluorescent fixture buzzes awake. If Barbara’s purging of the house goes okay, she’ll have to chalk that up to Bernadette. Her mother had a file folder “My Demise,” and it had all the necessary papers – the DNR and Living Will, the last Will and Testament, the contact info for the attorney, the numbers (and even PIN numbers) to Bernadette’s banking and credit accounts.

Barb hadn’t known how to go about selling the house but, on the refrigerator,  there was a magnet from a Realtor, Mike Toomey, who specialized in estate cases like this. Bernadette’s house will be listed in two weeks. It will sell pretty fast, he’s assured her. As is.

In the kitchen, the Formica is the same: boomerangs in grays and pink on an open field. The refrigerator’s been replaced over the years. It’s a bare bones side-by-side Kenmore, meticulously maintained by Bernadette. Just the other week Barb came across the wire brush contraption her mother used to dust the condensers.

A couple of weeks ago, when her mother was still in hospice, Barb gave the refrigerator a once-over, so today it does not contain much: a carton of creamer she doesn’t dare open, the green carboard can of Parmesan cheese, some other condiments, all of which she dumps. The freezer is more packed.

Barb pulls up a kitchen chair, slides the garbage can over to her side and sits in front of the open freezer compartment. There are two standard blue plastic ice cube trays. But typical Bernadette, there are also two of the old-fashioned aluminum kind that are louvered like window blinds. Bernadette never threw out anything that was still useful.

As Barb puts the trays in the sink for the ice to melt, she notices something stuck to the bottom of one of the aluminum trays. It’s a white envelope, labeled clearly: Emergency Cigarette. Barb stares at it. She touches the letters.

When Barbara was in fifth grade, she had her first health class and came home with handouts on the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. It was obvious to both of them that  her mother should quit smoking. Bernadette made a promise to Barbara. She remembers it clearly. They were at the kitchen table. Barbara rested her head on her crossed arms. The Formica felt cool. No more, Bernadette told her, only maybe this one exception. Barbara watched side eyed as her mother took the last Kent from its pack and wrapped it in waxed paper, which she carefully creased into a rectangle that she then tucked into a small envelope. With a black felt-tip marker, she wrote on a white business-sized envelope: Emergency Cigarette. She put the smaller envelope into this, sealed it.

“I’ll feel better knowing it’s there if I ever need it,” Bernadette told Barb. “What if there were an emergency and I needed something to calm my nerves? The last thing I’d want to do is run out to buy a pack.” Then Bernadette walked to the fridge and stashed the envelope.

“Of course, I’m hoping we’ve had all the emergencies we’re going to.” Bernadette raised her eyes to heaven.

Her father Buddy had been a big man in every way. He was an ex-Marine who worked as a building engineer at the Standard Oil Building. He took the earliest train there every morning. He had a clunker car, Old Bess, a Ford Maverick, banana yellow, that he drove to their station and back.

Bernadette and Barbara were stumped when it was still in the lot, even after the later train. He wasn’t in the tavern across from the station. He wasn’t anywhere they looked that Friday night. They came home exasperated and could hear the phone ringing as Bernadette put the key in the lock, but it stuck when she turned it until finally the bolt released and Bernadette shoved open the door, “It’s bad news Barbie I just know it.”

She ran to the phone, but it had stopped ringing. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.” The phone rang again. Buddy’d had a fatal heart attack on the 4:04. Her mother crumpled and then let out a cry that pierced Barb..

She feels the envelope; the cigarette’s still there but it seems different, shorter maybe. After that day so many years ago, Barb never saw her mother smoke again. She puts the envelope on the counter to deal with later and tries to resume her work, marveling at the thought Bernadette had kept that cigarette all these years.

Her mother’s ability to hang onto things seems impressive now. When she was a kid, Bernadette’s frugality only embarrassed her. She can still feel how the color rose in her cheeks. It was recess, sixth grade, always a fraught time, but she felt good, wearing the new sweater her mother had given her the night before–a Fair Isle pullover, off-white with forest green and purple accents; the label had a name she didn’t recognize.

AmberLee Donovan practically announced, “Oh my god, my sister had that sweater and my mother just donated it to rummage sale at church. Where did you get it?” Barbara knew then where Bernadette had gotten it, but she had no answer for AmberLee. That night Bernadette had not understood why there was a problem. If AmberLee wanted to make fun of Barbara because she wore a perfectly good sweater, well, that was AmberLee’s problem. Bernadette, always big on the Catholic notion of redemptive suffering, had admonished Barb, “Offer it up.”

Barb stands, shuts the freezer, walks to the counter, and picks up the white envelope to inspect it again. She presses it gently between her fingers. Had Bernadette smoked it, or had it shrunk from the cold?

Barb opens it carefully not wanting to rip her mother’s printing. A cigarette is there, but this one is wrapped in Saran.

She looks again at the envelope. This is a different Emergency Cigarette.

Sure enough, it’s a Marlboro Light, not a Kent. And the tip is gone. Bernadette must have had a drag or two and then put it out and snipped it with a scissors. But it’s been smoked because the filter is yellowed and there’s Bernadette’s lipstick, Tangerine Dream. Barb always urged her mother to change her lipstick color because it was far too orange for her rosy complexion. She even bought her a pink shade from Clinique but always Bernadette came back to Tangerine Dream.

She feels herself deflate. What? Did she expect her mother to never have smoked the Emergency Cigarette? Is she disappointed? Really? Get over yourself.

She’s not really mad at her mother for smoking. What hurts is that she didn’t know this about Bernadette. Maybe she would have seen her mother differently if she had known this vulnerability. Bernadette came across always so matter of fact, so certain.

When had her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette?

Maybe when she got sick. After all, she kept it to herself. At first, she waited to see if the lump would go away. Then she kept the diagnosis quiet for at least a week. It was only after she made her first appointment to determine the course of her treatment that she called Barbara, asked if she would accompany her. Bernadette explained it was good to have another set of ears to hear everything the doctor said. Always practical.

At the appointment, when the nurse called her name, Bernadette started on her way to the examining room and Barb followed, but Bernadette halted in her steps, said, “I’ll have the nurse call you in when it’s time for the consultation.” For some reason that nearly brought Barb to tears right there in the waiting room. How stupid. Here she was crying when her mother was so strong.

Had Bernadette bought a pack of cigarettes during that time? Maybe she’d wanted one last smoke to steady her nerves. What had she been thinking? Why hadn’t Barbara been at her side?

Barb always envied those close mothers and daughters who joked and teased. She and her mother had a strong connection, a reliance on one another– not a friendship. Now she had a sincere appreciation for Bernadette’s grit as a single mother. Growing up she hadn’t seen things so positively. She’d be the first to admit she’d been a haughty teenager who looked down on the life her mother wrought. Barb was going to accomplish something, not merely eke by. But after all those months of her mother’s being sick, of Barb coming up so often and sharing hours with her mother, they had come to a kind of ease with one another.

There was the circuit they did on Saturdays to the Greek diner and the grocery store and Dollar Tree, Bernadette’s favorite store. Some evenings they brought out the TV trays for dinner; Bernadette would say grace and they’d eat and watch the local news. Barb washed up and usually left when Wheel of Fortune was on. During the commercials Bernadette would switch to Special Report with Bret Bair.

How many times had her mother replaced the Emergency Cigarette? Barb shakes her head and takes her seat back at the open freezer.

Aside from a penchant for Fannie Mae candy, Bernadette didn’t have many bad habits. Butter was something she indulged in, stocked up on. And there it is: a one-pound brick, which hits the garbage bag solidly. Bernadette would kill her for throwing out good food, but there’s no going back.

Next in the trash is a bag of frozen peas, strictly used as an ice pack. Bernadette would drape a bag over her knee and settle into watch reruns of Law & Order, or NCIS, her favorite show, what with that Mark Harmon so handsome and so nice in real life—did Barb know he’d rescued someone from a burning car?

There are plastic containers (filled with what Barb doesn’t know, but suspects is cabbage soup). All of which she tosses without opening. She considers how she should really recycle them, but it’s garbage day tomorrow and everything must go. Clunk, clunk, clunk. A pint of Walgreen’s ice cream. Butter pecan. Clunk.

Between an olive green Tupperware and a butcher-wrapped chop, Barb finds another white envelope. This one is labeled “Emergency Cig, 2011,” so it has been in the freezer for seven years, for as long as Barb’s been married to Alec. Is that why her mother needed it? Bernadette and Alec never seemed to warm up to each other. “Your Alec is as smart as Alec Trebek,” Bernadette told Barb like it was a compliment, but Barb could decode it, knew it meant Bernadette felt intimidated. She didn’t correct her mother on the Jeopardy host’s first name.

Alec was raised a Catholic, so he had that going for him. His parents were from Cuba and he grew up in Miami. But like Barbara he was a lapsed Catholic. So, both of them disappointed their parents.  They managed to peeve everyone even more when they got married at the clerk’s office. Alec’s parents wanted to host a luncheon at their club to celebrate the nuptials. But Bernadette wouldn’t get on an airplane. So, to compensate Barb and Alec had a Chicago celebration; a brunch party at a nice restaurant. They invited their close friends along with Aunt Rosemarie, Bernadette’s priest friend Father Malec, and Dr. Ken and his wife. It hadn’t seemed stressful but maybe Bernadette had needed to light one up to get through it.

Barb puts this envelope on the counter next to the first one. She shuts the freezer, leans back in the chair, and closes her eyes.

How many cigarettes have there been? When had the first Kent been lit and when and how many Marlboros had she needed?

If her memory is correct and the first cigarette had been put away when she was in fifth grade, it was only a few years later that Barbara had changed, insisted on being called Barb or Barbara –she hated Barbie. The tweens. That was the start of when she could see only her mother’s shortcomings. Conformist. Boring. Barb had been such a handful, so strident, it was no wonder her mother hadn’t smoked carton after carton.

The heat comes on, and it makes a regular tick, once, twice, three times. Barb listens to the house; wonders if it will belong to someone loud after all these years of quiet.

She thought she might get teary when she cleaned out Bernadette’s dresser or smelled the White Shoulders perfume.  Instead, it’s here at the freezer where her feelings thaw.

Then it flashes to her, how egotistical she is to presume the reason her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette had anything to do with her. Didn’t her mother have a life of her own? Barb did not share with Bernadette, but maybe Bernadette didn’t share either. There could have been things she never mentioned. Worse even, it could be that something had upset her mother and she didn’t even know. And now would never know.

Or perhaps her mother, with her TV companions, poured herself a 7-Up and lit one up. She could picture it, maybe. Bernadette would take the time to arrange cheese and crackers on a plate and use cocktail napkins. She’d probably even used an ashtray, though it seemed the Emergency Cigarette was only smoked for a puff or two.

Barb would have known if her mother smoked then because she was around a lot; she came home to take care of her mother on those treatment days when the radiation and nausea sapped Bernadette’s strength. And most weekends. Barb had been a dutiful daughter, hadn’t she?

Come to think of it, with the world as crazy as it is, it could have been a news event that drove her mother to the white envelope in the freezer — 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? Surely the Emergency Cigarette was not from that long ago. Maybe it was when the classrooms of kindergartners were shot up?  Or something else. There were plenty of atrocities–there were many to choose from.

The freezer stands empty and the garbage bag sags like a heavy heart. Barb is ready to tie it up when she notices some items on the shelves of the door. Behind a sticky can of frozen orange juice concentrate, she finds another white envelope, this one with a plain face, no writing. How many emergency cigarettes had her mother needed?  And why did she save them? Had she lost count or forgotten them?  Was she further gone than Barb suspected?  Barb tosses the envelope on the counter.

Taking the full garbage bag to the can outside the kitchen door, Barb wonders how much she doesn’t know about her mother.

Back at the counter, the three cigarettes are lined up: a Marlboro Light, an Eve, and a Benson & Hedges, all partially smoked, each white filter ringed in faint tangerine. She gathers them all, brings them with her when she sits at the kitchen table.

Lately who hasn’t wanted to smoke and drink and tear their hair and jump off buildings?  Even Barb, Ms Health Consciousness, had been tempted to bum a smoke those weeks at the end of 2016, the situation so bleak with the election turning out as it did. And that was another thing that drove them apart. Really drove them apart.

“Even the Trib won’t endorse that woman,” Bernadette had told her when Barb brought up the election.

“But you’re going to vote for that man?”

“I’m voting for the Republican Party,” Bernadette said firmly. She never mentioned it again, but Barb thought about it a lot.

Such a disappointment. Barb could not come to terms with how Bernadette voted. It flabbergasted her. Of all the things she did not understand about her mother, this seemed the hardest for her to fathom. How could someone who valued decency vote for him? And now the cigarettes.

Her mother is dead and the man she voted for is the President and they are all left to deal with it. It’s a mess. The only mess Bernadette left behind.

They were getting to a good place with one another, she and her mother, where they understood and appreciated one another. But he ruined things between them just like he is ruining the nation. Everything tainted.

Here she is 46, the same age as Bernadette when she had her. She used to want a baby. But now she is glad she never conceived because the world is so screwed-up. When menopause started and the possibility of pregnancy diminished, Barb was relieved as well as disappointed, if that made any sense.

Her eyes are watery as she touches the cigarettes. She’ll smoke them all, one by one, just to imagine she is taking in some breath of her mother. But she can’t get up from the chair and she doesn’t have a match. All that’s in her pocket is that stupid Christmas brooch. Somewhere far down the street a car alarm starts up and then seems to fade away.

When Barb looks down at her hands, she finds that without thinking, she has broken the three half-cigarettes, crumbled them until the filters and paper and tobacco are in a pile on the table. Tears come. When she is done crying, she picks up the three tangerine-tinged filters, lines them up in the smoothed-out Saran, and carefully wraps them. This she puts in the smallest envelope, which she then tucks into next envelope, and then the last. She looks once again at the indelible printing: Emergency Cigarette. She brings the packet to her lips. Then she shifts in the chair to put it in her back pocket.

Only tobacco and paper shreds are left on the table. She brushes all the mess into her palm. Because the garbage can is empty, she doesn’t want to use it. Instead she opens the kitchen door and blows her hand clean, all the little bits flying this way and that.

Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web here and in Ireland and the UK. Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words. Her website is: www.solaceinabook.com.

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

funny, Guest Posts, parenting

Drive Home, Leave Home, Wake Up

June 11, 2021
Johanna

By Dawn Urbont

My breast pump talks to me. Its mechanical sucking noise morphs into language inside my sleep-deprived brain. Vy-vo, vy-vo, vy-vo, drive home, drive home, drive home, it commands in two-four time. Drive home from where? I wonder. I’m already home.

“Did you say something?” Alex shuffles into our dining room turned pump station, where I sit hooked up and strapped in, eyes shut, head lolling to the side. He calls it the unamusement park ride.

“Did I?” the words barely make it past my too-tired-to-talk lips. I right my head and open my eyes halfway. He’s holding a bowl of grown-up cereal and a rolled-up New York Times tucked under his arm. He sports a thick layer of stubble, striped pajamas, a robe and slippers. He’s really going for the whole fatherhood thing. “What did I say?” I ask, unable to remember moments ago.

Alex shrugs and sets the cereal bowl and newspaper on our crummy thrift shop dining table. “Fuck,” he manages as he slumps into a chair and bows forward with exhaustion. The table tilts. Milk threatens to leave the bowl. “I’m tired.”

“You’re tired? Really?” I fix my gaze on him, and he glances at me. I am attached to plastic and valves and tubing and two collection bottles that grow heavy with every painful squeeze of my darkened areolas. Alex knows not to take my bait.

“No?” he replies. We sit at the table, quiet as a still-life. Porcelain Pitcher with Wilting Flowers. Somewhere in the house, our new baby lets out a tea-kettle cry.

Drive home, drive home, drive home…

“Good morning, Mommy,” Johanna, the live-in baby-nurse we hired for three weeks enters holding Mathilda in her thick, sturdy arms. The sight of M makes us smile. She looks fresh and alert with a clean diaper and a onesie that says Girl Boss. “I’m hungry, Mommy. Did you save any milk for me?” Johanna, in her breezy Trinidadian accent speaks for Mathilda as though she were a hand puppet, which I find utterly cloying. I cast a furtive glance at Alex, who remains expressionless. He inhales a spoonful of cereal, and I watch milk dribble down his chin, navigating his stubble like a plinko ball.

Hiring a baby nurse was my mother’s idea. In fifth grade I was cast as a flying monkey instead of Dorothy and reacted by drinking a bottle of rubbing alcohol. After the doctors pumped my stomach, I woke up and said, “Who cares? I’m fine.” And Mom said, “You know what fine means? Fucking In Need of Everything.” The seed of incompetence planted long ago, I ran the baby nurse idea by Alex.

“Hell no. You really want a stranger living with us? I won’t be able to fart in my own house.”

“That’s a pro, not a con.”

“Look,” Alex had said, “live-in’s are expensive. We can figure out our baby on our own like the fucking cavemen. Cavepeople. Whatever.”

“But what if we can’t? What if I can’t? What if you roll on top of M in your sleep? What if I drop her?”

Johanna turns off the pump. Its voice dies out like a short-circuiting robot. Time to feed my girl, but first I unequip. The collection bottles are attached to plastic shields held over my nipples by a garment that’s at once ludicrous and essential: the hands-free pump bra, a zip-up bandeau with two circular holes like cruise ship windows for nipples to—I want to say—look through. Picture the Madonna cone bra circa 1990, avant-garde, fashion forward, sexy. This is not like that. It’s the opposite and quite possibly the beginning of the end of my marriage, I’m thinking. How Alex can sit there and eat food while I pump is beyond me. Is he looking for a way out? Were the delivery room proceedings too much for him to handle? The blood, the excrement, the unshavenness of it all… If this is it, I won’t blame him.

I detach the bottles and fasten buttery yellow lids onto them. I unzip my pump bra and peel away the plastic shields from my damp skin. My breasts hang down like aged-out foster children, worse for wear but free. Three weeks ago, Johanna was a stranger in my house. Now she watches me in my most intimate of moments, all honest and raw. Some people find this act of motherhood beautiful, but I’m telling you, it’s disgusting. I should be embarrassed milking myself in front of a rando and the one person who’s supposed to find me attractive. But guess what? I’m not, and that’s what’s so crazy about motherhood! You just roll with humiliation, because you have to. Because if you don’t, either you won’t survive or your baby won’t survive and neither is okay. I mean, if you had told me I would be so constipated after giving birth that I’d be begging for a colostomy bag, because it hurt too much to crap with stitches in my taint, I very likely wouldn’t have gone through with the whole “having a baby” thing. There is no dignity in child-bearing and the weeks that follow.

“So. How did Bessie do this morning?” Johanna asks holding up a bottle of my “liquid gold” as she calls it. Bessie is not my name. It’s her idea of a joke. A lame one. Alex shoots me a side-ways glance. He knows I hate when she calls me a cow’s name. In my mind, I ask her how she would like it if I called her a genetically-modified-cud-chewing-ozone-destroying behemoth. In my mind, she laughs like I’m joking, and still in my mind, I ask her if it looks like I’m joking.

Then, somehow and without warning, the word cunt falls out of my mouth like a bite of rotten apple. My eyes go wide. Alex nearly chokes on his ancient grains.

“Excuse me?” Johanna says. My stomach tightens.

“My cunt—it still hurts from, you know, third-degree tears and everything.”

“I don’t like that word, Mommy,” Johanna/Mathilda says.

“Sorry,” I say as she transfers Mathilda into my arms.

My little TillyDillyChickenBug latches onto my right breast like a pro. Her sucking reflex is strong, but Johanna tells me that sucking doesn’t equal swallowing, and I worry that I’ve pumped out her entire breakfast.

“What if my funbags are empty?” I ask, my forehead creases deepening with anxiety. Alex explodes into laughter, and my head whips around in time to see bits of cereal splattering all over the newsprint. “What’s so funny?”

“Funbags.” He chuckles shaking his head side to side. My face hardens.

“You think they’re not fun anymore? You think I’m being ironic?”

“No, babe. If anything, they’re more fun now.”

“Then why were you laughing?”

“I don’t know. It’s a funny word.”

“It’s two words,” I snap. When I look it up later, I find out it’s one.

I’m about to cry. Anger, sadness, exhaustion, a body I don’t recognize, a helpless life that’s dependent on a mildly depressed person with a sleep deficit. This is nature’s plan? Is that smart?

“Don’t worry, Mommy. Those funbags are definitely not empty. Look,” Johanna motions toward Mathilda. I look down and see a tiny mammal suckling at my teat. I watch for signs of a swallow– the subtle up-down movement of her throat. Creamy straw-colored milk pools at the corners of her mouth, and my furrowed brow relaxes. “Ten minutes on each side,” Johanna picks up the bottles of milk along with my pump parts and carries them out of the room. In the mirror on the wall opposite me, I watch as she disappears into the kitchen. Alex and I turn to each other and break into huge grins, wide-mouthed and weighted with disbelief. We hear the opening and closing of the refrigerator followed by the rush of sink water.

“You called her a cunt,” he whispers.

“I know!”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know!”

The sink shuts off, and we quickly dummy up. Is this how parents behave?  I kiss my baby’s petal soft forehead and think to myself, We’re the absolute worst.

After the morning feed, I transfer Mathilda into her daddy’s arms so he can burp her; so he can be part of the process. “Don’t pat her back like you see on TV,” Johanna had instructed us during her first week. “Rub her back, soothe her, be gentle,” she had said. I watch Alex bounce around the dining room table, cradling Tils over his shoulder. He raps on her back like she’s a storefront window. Are you still open? Can I come in? I leap out of the chair ready to take her.

“That’s not—” I catch my reflection in the mirror. Who is that? My bottom lip droops, and I gaze at Her with the crazy bed head and squinting, tired eyes. Her with the deflated double D’s, the wrinkled belly fat and that hideous umbilical hernia. I want to burn my bikinis.

“What’s wrong?” Alex asks.

“I’m taking a shower,” I say and walk out.

I don’t make it to the shower. I can’t make it to the shower. My pits reek and my pussy smells like the monkey house at the zoo, but my need for sleep supersedes my need to wash away bacteria proliferating in the warm, damp nether regions of my flesh. Alex might see things differently, but Mathilda’s the one I’m trying to impress, and Mathilda could give two shits what I smell like. I am her warm body, and she loves me in my natural state. Half naked, wearing only pajama bottoms, I sink into my unmade bed and yank the comforter up over this hard to look at mother-thing I have become. As my head falls to the side, I suddenly remember what I couldn’t remember saying this morning: we have to pay Johanna. Tomorrow is her last day. Too tired to yell, I consider texting Alex a reminder, but the fog of sleep is rolling in, and I can hear those words. Drive home, drive home… My pump’s voice lingers in my head, lulls me to sleep. Machine and I, we are one.

At exactly 10AM, Johanna, her flip-flops slapping against the hardwood floor, enters my sunlit bedroom and hands me my baby. I arrange her in a football hold as I shimmy up wormlike against the upholstered headboard, shaking off my dream-drenched sliver of sleep. It doesn’t matter that I was in a sleep so deep I could have drowned peacefully and that my nipples are raw and fissured. This baby is on a schedule, and Johanna, for one thousand dollars a week, sees to it that she will eat, play and nap every three hours until her 7PM bedtime. While Johanna’s daily duties end there, I don’t get to clock out. Ten PM is my daughter’s dream feed, when I will prowl into her black-out shaded room, tip-toe my fingers around her swaddled little body and lift her to my chest ever-so-gently so as not to wake her. Then seated and slow-rocking in a toile-covered glider, I will insert my breast into her mouth as she sleeps. Once, during my freshman year of college, this frat guy, Brad McCarthy, tried to insert his dick into my mouth while I lay passed out in the basement of Psi U. Not exactly the same thing, but similar. After the dream feed, my brain will want to sleep until morning, but my breasts won’t let me. Should I test them, they will punish me with engorgement, hot, lumpy and hardened with milk. Instead, I will wake at 4AM and pump when the house is pin-drop quiet. In those pre-dawn hours when it’s just the two of us, my pump and me at the dining table, cast in the LED glow of my iPhone, and I’m holding my head in my hands, because my hands are free thanks to my hands-free pump bra, my pump speaks in window-wiper rhythm.

Leave home, leave home, leave home

There’s this optical illusion on the internet of a dancer spinning. Most people see her spinning counter-clockwise, something having to do with whether or not you’re left-brained or right-brained. For the life of me, I can only see her spin clockwise, and for the life of me, I can’t unhear my pump speak English. I try to listen from the other side of my brain, to hear machine noise, nonsense, onomatopoeia, but all I can make out is an electronic voice spitting out words. Drive home. Leave home. Last week it said Wake up.

Alex’s heavy footfalls grow louder until he’s hovering in the bedroom doorway. His wavy brown hair is wet from a shower, and he’s dressed in street clothes and sneakers.

“I’m going to the bank. Payday, babe. Johanna’s leaving tomorrow.” He pumps his fist triumphantly until he notices Johanna standing in the corner, where she waits while I nurse. He offers a closed-mouth smile, his hand falling loosely by his side. Johanna shakes her head and mutters a curse under her breath– not a curse word, but I’m pretty sure a curse she’s placing on Alex.

“Want anything from outside?” he asks.

“No,” I lie. I want everything from outside.

“Get a frying chicken for tonight. I’m cooking dinner,” says Johanna.

“A frying chicken?” Alex looks perplexed.

“It’s just a chicken,” I say.

“Make sure it’s organic,” Johanna instructs then turns to me. “Everything you eat, the baby eats.”

“Organic,” I tell Alex as if he didn’t hear. “Go to Whole Foods.”

Alex clasps his hands together tensely. Too many instructions. He can’t handle it. “Anything else?” He exhales audibly.

“Carrot and celery,” says Johanna.

“I should write this down,” Alex grabs a pen from his pocket. Clicking the end of it repeatedly, he scans for paper. The dresser is littered with old receipts, pieces of mail, ValPak coupons, and news clippings from my father-in-law, who thinks we won’t know what’s happening in the world unless he mails us a manila envelope stuffed with articles curated from a variety of print media he swipes from doctor office waiting rooms. Alex starts pawing at papers, sending articles, mail and receipts to the floor. Johanna and I watch as he begins to unravel, his breathing heavy and erratic.

“Babe, chill.”

“I’m very chill.”

“Here.” I find a wrinkled napkin on my night stand. He grabs it and tries to scrawl the shopping list on it, but the tip of his pen tears through it.

“Fuck!”

“Keep cool, Daddy,” JoTilda says.

“Forget it. I don’t need to write it down.” He walks out leaving me tethered to our baby, her caregiver sentinelling by my bedside.

I should be high now. Above-the-clouds high, legs outstretched behind me, airplane arms, head crooning crane-like and strung out on oxytocin, the feel-good hormone released naturally through breastfeeding to make mommies fall in love with their babies. Oxytocin, nature’s secret party favor, that love drug, that bonding glue, that country’s gone crazy glue. Instead, I feel pangs of something akin to road-rage. I’m not big on social media. I don’t put on blast that I ate a muffin, and I particularly loathe those “That moment” memes, but currently I’m having a “that moment” moment. I mentally update my status: That moment you realize you’re being held hostage by a baby.

“Alex!” I yell seconds before the front door bangs shut. I grab my cell phone, touch the facechat icon, and jab at Alex’s name. His oval head appears, moving against a blue sky backdrop.

“Alex—”

“What’s up?”

“You always get to do the errands,” I complain in a voice reserved more for a brother than a spouse. Alex looks at me with a blank stare and stops moving. “I haven’t left the house in weeks. I wear pajamas every day.”

“What are you saying, you don’t want me to go?”

“Go if you want to go.”

He starts to move again, and I erupt, “Why can’t I go to the bank and get a frying chicken?!”

“I’m coming back.”

We both hang up. Within minutes he’s in the bedroom doorway. “You’re in the middle of nursing!”

“I’ll be done in ten minutes!”

“Mommy, Daddy, calm down!” Johanna hollers without bothering to sound like a sing-songy puppet child. “Negative emotions poison my milk!”

“Shit!” I hurriedly slip my pinky between my breast and M’s little mouth. Unlatched, she starts to cry. “This is turning into a bloodbath,” I whimper, my eyeballs tightening as if being screwed deep into their sockets, saltwater tears rising.

“It’s not a bloodbath,” Alex assures me. “Take breathe deep ujjayi breaths.”

“I can’t breathe. There’s no air.” I grip my neck, panicked.

“There’s air all around us,” he says with a forced calm, then he turns to Johanna. “I think she’s having breakdown.”

“Let me take the baby.” Johanna plucks Matilda from my arms. She starts singing a strange little island song, cradling my daughter into a sea of serenity.

“Look at me,” Alex puts his hands on my shoulders.

“No. I’m gross,” I cry into my sweaty palms.

“You’re beautiful. You’re hot. Just, come on, babe, look at me.” I peek at him, certain my ugly-cry will to haunt him for years. “I’m sorry. I thought I was being helpful, but I was wrong. You do the errands.”

“I can’t.”

“It’ll be good for you to get out of the house.”

“You don’t understand, I’m on a schedule,” I sob. “There’s reading time and tummy time and music appreciation– we’re listening to Aaron Copeland today, then the one o’clock feed, and I need to drink thistle tea so my tits make milk, and what about my shower? I still haven’t had a shower, you took my shower!” I catch Alex and Johanna exchanging a look of grave concern. A pit forms in my stomach. What is wrong with me?

“Okay,” I sniffle. “I’ll go.”

As it turns out, anything you do alone by yourself after having a baby feels like a vacation. Taking a dump, sitting in traffic, waiting on line at the bank… these moments of solitude bring with them a sense of escapism for which I feel rescue-dog grateful. Who ever thought a trip to the bank could be exhilarating? I stroll back to my car with a thousand dollars cash for Johanna and a smile that feels involuntary. As I open the door and get into my Prius, I glimpse the words Lick Me etched in dust on the rear window. I look around. A sun-tanned, bleach-blonde homeless woman across the parking lot smiles at me. From a distance, her teeth look like rocks. Perhaps Lick Me was her little idea of a joke. I’ll never know, but as I drive past, I roll down my window and hand her a buck.

“That’s it?” she asks gruffly.

“Yup,” I roll up my window and drive away, delirious with freedom. Sky blue skies peek through the open moonroof, and sunlight warms the crown of my head. Thirty minutes later, there’s a four-pound organic chicken, a bushel of carrots and a bag of celery riding shotgun, and instead of driving home, I’m heading straight for the mall. Tilly’s next feed is in an hour, and I’m not ready to relinquish this intoxicating Me Time.

When we got pregnant, Alex became obsessed with the cost of college tuition in 2038 and started balking whenever I came home with items like re-usable ice cream cones or Gremlins on BluRay. He banned me from Target, where I could lose myself for hours and come home after dark toting bags of future Goodwill donations and a massive shopping hangover. When he found out how much Johanna would cost, a corkscrew-like vein in his forehead stuck out for days. He refused to fuck me for fear it would burst. If Alex knew I was mall-bound, he would have a coronary.

I step into the parking garage elevator cast in its moony glow, my excitement rising with every floor, and step off into a high-end department store, a perfume scented bistro of style and luxury. Drifting through a gallery of oddly-shaped statement shoes, floating up the spiral staircase, running my hands over iconic and classic and iconoclastic fashion stories, I feel electrified. I’ve come back to life. Old me is back, I can feel her, she’s here. I pluck a colorblocked asymmetric plissé dress off a rack, hold it up to my body, twist left then right, the ochre and berry skirt swishing side to side. Suddenly, my phone buzzes, a text from Alex. He wants to know when I’m coming home. Before I can text back, I hear a thin, buzzsaw-like voice behind me, “So, where are you going? What do you need it for?” I turn to find a waif-like salesperson, a genderless “they/them” dressed all cool in black and navy.

“Oh, I don’t need it,” I say.

“That’s the best time to buy, when there’s no occasion. Shopping under pressure gives me a silent migraine.”

“I’m just looking.”

“Oh,” they rub their lips together and part them with a popping noise. “Okay.”

“I just had a baby,” I add, suddenly feeling the need to offer an excuse. “I’ve been going stir crazy. I had to get out of the house.”

“I used to hate babies…”

I smile and wait for them to continue. “But now?”

“Now what?”

We look at each other, decades between us, only to be interrupted by another text from Alex, this time a picture of M with a pouty bottom lip followed by a picture of Alex, eyes closed, hand to forehead as if to indicate some kind of spiritual distress. Drive home. My pump’s voice echoes in my head. Drive home, a portent impressing upon me that wherever I go, I cannot be. Drive home.

“Can I get a dressing room?”

This was dumb. A post-partum body under dressing room lighting in a three-way mirror is the rudest awakening. Cellulite and skin tags and melasma, oh my fucking God. I don’t belong here. All I wanted was to look around, feel like my old self again, but here I stand, staring at stretch marks and the bulge of a sanitary napkin in my panties, while a sumptuous dress on a shiny hanger taunts me. Put me on, bitchDon’t keep me hanging on. Pun intended. A dress with an attitude, I like it. I slide it off the hanger and hold it against my body. The silk feels soft against my skin, and for a moment I feel gratitude for little white worms spinning threads as fine as a baby hair. “I’ll be home soon,” I whisper to no one as I slip the dress over my head, the material parachuting down around me. In the time it takes for a camera to flash, I glimpse who I was before I split in two.

My cell phone rings. Alex’s name comes up.

“What?” I answer abruptly.

“Did you get my texts? M is losing her shit. I think she’s hungry. I don’t know what to do.”

“Where’s Johanna?”

“She’s packing. Should I give her a bottle?”

“Are you crazy? It’s not time yet. I’ll be home soon.”

There’s a knock on my dressing room door. “How’s it going?  Do you need a different size? Bigger?”

“Who’s that?” Alex asks. “Where are you?”

“I gotta go.” I hang up, but not before a glass-shattering wail pierces my phone and hooks me like a trout. My stomach lurches and fills with molten lava. Every cell in my body begins to weep. My baby needs me, and I’m at the mall trying on a criminally expensive dress I have no intention of buying.

“Is everything okay in there?”

Is anything okay in here? I want to fake nibble baby toes and breathe in corn starch air. I want to sing about twinkly little stars and blow raspberries on a teeny tiny tummy. Another knock. Reluctantly, I slide the door latch and show myself. My salesperson looks me up and down with a quizzical expression, mouth twisted to one side, perhaps slightly amused. What does this face mean?

“Someone’s buying a dress today,” they announce before I have a chance to look in the mirror. I shake my head no.

“I’m just trying it on for fun.”

“Well, now you kind of have to buy this dress.”

Have to? I look that good? Suddenly thoughts of my infant daughter turn into a fine mist and get sucked into the ceiling vent. That a piece of clothing without an elastic waistband could look good on me three weeks post-partum makes me think perhaps my stealth detour wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I feel lighter, taller. I turn this way and that, allowing the corners of my mouth to curve into an I-feel-pretty smile. I actually say, “Weee,” as I spin around. “This is such a…” and as I step toward the mirror, my smile fades, “…let down.” My breastmilk has let down. My breasts have let me down. Two wet circles of mother’s milk expand in the silk over my nipples.

The salesperson is sucking in their lips, which I take as their way of preventing their thoughts from reaching my ears. “I’ll be over by the register when you’re ready,” they say and walk off.

I speed change in the dressing room and pay for the dress with cash, the cash meant for Johanna. Alex can never know about this. I can just picture him, eyes bugging, the corkscrew vein popping. You went where? And spent how much? Is that even legal? He gets so crazy, he makes me crazy! With a pounding headache and a dress I now despise, I race down to the garage, jump in my Prius and floor it back to the bank, breasts engorged, nipples leaking and twenty minutes past my baby’s one o’clock feed. As I park, I spot Rock Teeth loitering in a new, more strategic location by the bank entrance.

“What happened to you?” she studies me as I brush past. “You look like horseshit.” I pause and glimpse my reflection in the bank’s tinted glass doors: it’s Her. Her, now an adrenalin-fueled, wide-eyed, wet-chested train wreck looks back at me with an unrecognizable grimace and a plastic hair-clip hanging limply from stringy tresses. When did I even put that in? I turn back to the homeless woman and feel slightly jealous. She can rock this look and get away with it.   

“Wait here.” I hasten back to my car.

“Like I have somewhere to be,” she calls after me.

Moments later I return with a sleek black shopping bag and hand it to her. She takes it without so much as a thank you and begins digging away at the white tissue paper to see what treasure lies beneath. I have no time to wait for a reaction. I don’t need the thanks. To give is thanks enough. I run inside the bank and withdraw five hundred dollars to make up for the cost of the dress, and as I’m rushing back outside, stuffing bills into my purse, I see the sidewalk littered with white tissue paper, the silk dress lying in a puddle of itself, Rock Teeth nowhere in sight. What the hell? Where did she go? Why would she leave this stuff in the street? The questions fly at me like a cauldron of bats, which is what a group of bats is called, and I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Something must have happened. Something awful, and I don’t have time for a mystery. I scan the lot, whipping my head left then right. I hear a car peel out and look toward the far end of the lot. That’s when I see her perched in her encampment transferring indecipherable belongings out of a tattered plastic grocery bag into the sleek department store shopping bag. That’s all she wants? Just the bag? I really don’t have time for this. I snatch the dress up off the ground.

“Hey!” I yell across the lot to get her attention. “Do you have any idea how much this dress cost me?!” I march toward her, my heart hammering inside my chest, my baby’s lunch seeping through my tank top. She doesn’t hear me or chooses not to, her eyes focused on inspecting each item as she transfers it. “Hey!” I call louder. “Woman!” She finally looks up, and I find myself waving the dress in the air like a lost hiker trying to flag down a rescue helicopter. “Not my style!” she yells back then resumes her affairs. This triggers me. I don’t know why. I toss the dress at her, but it’s so light, the mild September breeze carries it down to my feet. I try again, this time twisting it into a rope and lassoing it into the air. It unfurls in the wind. Stretched out like a sail, flapping, dancing, it collides with a moving Subaru, spreading across the windshield in shapeless abandon. The Subaru swerves and hits a parked SUV. A horn blares, a car alarm goes off.

Beep, beep, beep, beep, flee, flee, flee, flee…

People within earshot start to gather, and I can feel something like soapy bubbles rising up inside me, filling my mouth, oozing through my parted lips. Only it’s not soapy bubbles. It’s laughter, and it keeps coming and coming and coming.

Originally from New York City, Dawn Urbont has worked as a television writer of both sit-coms and dramas for over fifteen years. She holds a B.A. in English and Film Studies from Dartmouth College. When she’s not writing, she is an incredibly underpaid chef, chauffeur, teacher, doctor, personal shopper, and event planner for her kids. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two boys, and an Airedale Terrier named Acorn.

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You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Deus ex Machina

February 19, 2021
foggy road brenda

By Richard Weems

Steve and Brenda had come separately to the same conclusion: they both wanted out of their marriage, which they had honed over the last three years into a science of spending as little time alone together as possible. Steve had basketball at the Y, Brenda had spin classes. Never an argument when one stayed late at the office. Separate televisions. He kissed her on the temple when he climbed into bed. She squeezed his wrist. Movie nights always with friends. During sex, they focused only on their individual needs. No pets, not even fish. Nothing that couldn’t be easily designated as his or hers. When they planned poorly and were stuck having dinner together, she commented favorably on the bordeaux he’d researched and breathed properly; he hummed approval at every spoonful of her Grand Marnier souffle.

They had both decided to break the news during their annual drive north to her folks in South Greeley, the one place no one expected them to spend time together. She had her sisters and mother to giggle and drink mimosas with, her nephews and nieces to take out for ice cream. Steve discussed baseball with his father-in-law, who was a tiresome optimist about the Rockies, or volunteered for every errand so he could drive around Cheyenne and marvel at the ways it fell short of being a proper city.

But with a three and a half hour drive in front of them, each had to strategize the optimal approach to most effectively end their marriage. Brenda worried she’d back out once faced with Steve’s hushed anger, so she burned her boat, so to speak. As soon as they merged onto route 25, she asked Steve for the ETA. He pointed his chin at the GPS. “I’ll let them know,” she said, but instead she texted her sisters and mother, Big news, and refused to respond to their question marks and interrobangs, to force herself to blurt before they arrived: “Steve, I’ll stay in Greeley while you move out.” Maddy had long suggested, in less than subtle ways, that Brenda could do better (“So, Brenny, when you’re looking for your next man…”). Mom was a tougher read, but when Zabby, the oldest, once confided that she felt entrenched with Ken, her  know-it-all chiropractor who refused to go anywhere he couldn’t be the center of attention, Mom spoke into her glass:

“Not until Sid and Sylvia,” their twin teens, “start college, I hope.”

So Brenda wasn’t worried about her family’s reaction, but still, with every mile marker, she felt her resolve weaken, until she wondered what news she could drum up when Maddy reached through the car window and squeezed her wrist with expectation.

Steve played the audiobook of a spy thriller to pass the time, but they had barely passed Colorado Springs, a third of the way, when he could no longer stand the reader’s tiresome lilt during the so-called action sequences, where another smartmouthed operative with yet another weapon speciality showed up every twenty minutes on the dot. He had planned to start his speech when they’d reached the halfway mark (“Brenda, you know I love you and I’m glad we got married…”), to give them time to work through the emotional guff and have things arranged rationally when he dropped her off in front of her parents’ and headed back on his own. He hated when she cried. He always felt duty-bound to comfort her, and being the cause of her tears could be too much for him. Every minute of silence felt like they were back to dating–another moment of fear about taking the plunge and saying what he thought (five miles ago) he should have started saying by now. She was even on her phone, scrolling and grinning at someone else.

***

The first sign of trouble was the oncoming traffic with their headlights at full blast, their hoods and tops glistening, their wipers clearing bactrian humps on the windshields. The forecast had called for a forty percent chance of storms, but that was typical for July, especially in this humidity.

In the sun, the oncoming cars gleamed with relief.

“Something’s up ahead,” Steve muttered. Brenda looked up from her phone and squinted as though there was something to see beyond the next overpass.

And suddenly, there was.

It was the kind of storm that generated sudden exclamation points on the doppler–wind, hail, and was that a bump of rotation in the cloud?  That turned the sky green, pelted a path across the highway, and had timed its manifestation when there wasn’t another overpass in miles. Steve settled into a new kind of silence, that of survival, his focus their best hope against the wind that was already nudging their top-heavy jeep. A prefatory lightning bolt elicited a close-mouthed gasp from Brenda as she gripped the oh shit handle on the ceiling. Steve reverted to Driver’s Ed days and clasped the wheel at 10 and 2 as they plunged into the fierce weather.

At the smack of wind and fierce ice, Brenda expected to see a Brahma bull out her window. Their Wrangler leaned, but they will disagree to what extent by the time they get to South Greeley: one will say they were a hairsbreadth from permanent disfigurement, the other no worse than a Disney rollercoaster. They will hold hands as squish together in the living room chaise longue and tell her family their conflicting accounts. They will talk over each other, correct each other rudely, kiss and laugh while kissing. They will continue to argue the whole ride home with nary a silent gap and alternate who squeezes whose thigh.

When the cloud released them and the wall of hail ambled to the east, Steve watched it go, unable to unclench his fists, his fight/flight system dialed to eleven. Brenda released the ceiling handle so she could jackhammer her fist into the paltry padding above and scream,

“Again!”

Richard Weems is the author of three short fiction collections: Anything He Wants (finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize), Stark Raving Blue and From Now On, You’re Back. Recent appearances include North American Review, Aquifer, 3Elements Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and Tatterhood Review. Richard lives and teaches in New Jersey.

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Verge, by Lidia Yuknavitch, is out in paperback. These short stories will grip your heart and mind.  The writing is sharp and the empathetic portraits of broken people will stay with you long after you finish the collection.

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Tangalooma Dreaming

January 1, 2021

By Nicole Adair

Breeze, breeze, breezes. Lotti sat on a blue, plastic seat on the top level of the Tangalooma Flyer, as the cool morning air rushed past her. For a moment she closed her eyes and just breathed in the smell and salt of sea water, her shoulder-length brown hair whipping around her. She could hear the propellers underwater alongside the boat shooting out frothy bubbles of the churning ocean. They left two long strands of white, which floated on the surface behind the ferry before dissolving back into the ocean, as the blue and white aluminum catamaran bounded over Moreton Bay.

Lotti had missed the ferry with seating at the front. From where she sat facing backwards, she could still see the Sandgate mud flats on the mainland and the urban sprawl of greater Brisbane. The ferry terminal, where the river met the ocean in brown, brackish water, the muddy, beige beach extending out on either side, had already disappeared from view. Once out of the docks, the ferry had picked up speed over water that was already bluer. But it was nothing yet like Moreton would soon be, with its shimmering translucent turquoise and the bleach-blonde sands that ran around the entire shoreline of the island. Here it was wild and deep, and the ferry’s dramatic jumps over the surface made it clear that the ocean wasn’t flat like it seemed from above. Only from the moving boat could Lotti tell that the bay’s waves, though they would never break on the sandbank, were still monstrous. Once she got to the island, to Issa’s house in the Tangalooma hinterlands, she would look out at the water below, still and glimmering, like an open lake, and the island would be transformed into a lake of land itself, wrapped inside the calm and cool and meditative expanse of blue.

On the seat beside Lotti, two little girls, already dressed in their togs, with thick white stripes of sunblock painted on their cheeks and noses, scrambled over the empty plastic in a game that involved jumping to the ground in sync with the bounds of the Flyer. Lotti moved her small duffel bag onto her lap to free up space for the girls. The older one began the game, showing her sister, who was younger maybe by a year, how to jump. She landed with her hands and knees smacking the painted metal floor of the boat as the Flyer jumped upwards. From the ground, she grinned at her younger sister who prepared to follow suit.

Out of her peripheral vision Lotti could see their mother, a young women, possibly in her early-to-mid-twenties, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a tight-fitted white polo shirt, and cropped denim shorts. She inattentively read Cosmopolitan Australia, but kept one eye on the girls who jumped from the plastic seat one last time and then changed games, now running out toward the back of the boat to peer over the side. Lotti watched their small bodies collide energetically with the railing. They began to point knowingly out toward the now horizonless water, pointing to things that Lotti couldn’t see, things that were just for the two of them. Lotti felt the urge to glance back at their mother. But she resisted, realizing in the moment that she didn’t want to risk making eye contact with her; she felt that the girl might see through her, that she might somehow guess and then judge what Lotti had been doing for the past few months, how dangerously she had been playing with fire. Feeling a wash of anxiety–also for how quickly the seventy-five minute trip would take to Tangalooma and for what she would have to say to Issa once she got there–Lotti looked back out over the water.

The mid-morning sun was beating down on the water’s surface. At sunset, the rays would flicker and catch like fire on the waves. But with the sun now already high in the sky, the ocean looked like a giant pool of rolling crystals. Lotti adjusted the light jacket she wore over her long halter dress and thought of how the air would be hot on the island, especially up in Issa’s tin-roofed home that had no air-conditioning, that was thick and stifling in the dead of summer. Only when the wind was blowing inland would the breezes up there rush stronger, the draft through the house bringing with it the air that spun up from the crests of the waves on the rough side of the island. Tangalooma had a quiet, understated temper, but it was on the east coast that the Pacific Ocean was always raging.

She turned in her seat toward Kooringal, the most southern tip of Moreton Island and the meeting point of bay and wild ocean, where the island seemed to collide with the water that reached the shore from so many angles, where the sand bank ribboned out for kilometers, just barely contained beneath the water. She couldn’t see it yet, but she knew where it would be when the color of the evergreens came into view. She already imagined the light sands swirling with the aquamarine blues of the shallows, where you could lay, cooled by the water but warmed by the air, sunbathing both in the sea and out on the sand itself. But Lotti regretted the fact that she had no front view because it meant that she couldn’t watch for the iconic sand walls of the island’s west coast to appear on the horizon line, as the rest of it came into view, the tall dunes that marked the midpoint between the Tangalooma Island Resort and the Wrecks.

She thought about the Wrecks: fifteen rusted metal ships sunk decades before, now lying just off the coast, a strong swim away from the beach, an artificially natural habitat for fish and coral. They’d named the wrecked vessels after wildlife and small Australian towns: Groper, Morwong, Kookaburra, Platypus II, and Uki, Maryborough, Bermagui. For a second, Lotti couldn’t remember where she’d learned their names–or the very fact that they had names at all. But then she remembered and swallowed. It was Issa, of course. Issa always knew the history of artifacts and monuments, random sites and stories about South East Queensland, and she loved to tell Lotti stories each time she visited the island, somehow bringing each story back to Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa, as they would always say.

And then their adventures–Issa always had a new one. Lotti couldn’t help but let her mind remember how many experiences Issa had given her: Kooringal in the four-wheeler, Blue Lagoon on quad bikes, a hike up Mount Tempest the month after the wildfire stripped it bare, a run on the beach that continued on for miles in the middle of one of Moreton’s wild summer hailstorms, learning how to snorkel at the Wrecks, to swim out from the beach when the tides changed. Her memories of snorkeling she would treasure the most. She thought then of Issa checking her printable, salt-stained timetable of the tides, as they stood on the shore looking out at the ships, mask and fins in hand.

“Ten minutes,” Issa had said, sitting back down on the towels they’d laid out on the sand.

“Then what?”

“Then we can go.”

“Why ten minutes? Does it make that much of a difference?”

“When the tides change,” Issa told her, “the current is completely still for about five minutes. We won’t get swept out into the bay or, you know, down into the propeller of the Tanga ferry.” She held Lotti’s gaze for a moment, and then they both burst out laughing.

“Fine, you queen of tides,” Lotti replied playfully, “my life is in your hands for the next fifteen minutes.”

Issa kissed her on the cheek and said, “Yes, once we get out to the wrecks, you’re on your own.” And they laughed again.

When they finally geared up and headed into the water, Lotti got a thrill, as she did every time, not just from seeing the small, white fish that darted through the shallows, but from the sand bank’s drop off, which angled downward steeply for some time until it turned into dark blue and then almost to black, and Lotti couldn’t see a thing through her mask as she swam. Only the white specks, like snowflakes, of sea dust were visible, and the translucent bubbles that her arms made in front of her as they pulled the water back to push her body forward. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of Issa’s dark arms and neck and torso gliding through the water beside her. Often Issa tried to speak to her through the mask, pointing to fish that she had seen, exclaiming everything delightedly to Lotti in an incomprehensible gurgle. But Lotti’s eyes always missed them, as the fish darted from the surface. Concentrating on her breathing, she couldn’t turn her head fast enough to spot them against the ocean darkness.

When Lotti and Issa finally reached the ships, the metal walls and hulls and rusty pieces of cabins and chains and door frames came into sudden view sitting beneath the water. Even the ocean floor would inexplicably become visible, and Lotti would examine with joy the creamy sand color that was always covered in schools of brightly colored fish darting in and around the coral or floating with the rushes of waves, which came with every passing motor boat that spun up on the surface. On special days, they saw the sea swarming with packs of wobbegongs. Speckled with patterns of orange and yellow, the carpet sharks moved quickly but gently over the sea floor, and Lotti always felt lucky whenever she saw them.

A shriek from the Flyer pulled her back to the present. Hanging onto the railing, the little girls had begun a new game. The older sister pulled the younger’s hat down over her eyes so it covered half her face. Then, laughing, she cupped her hands to yell against the wind something into her sister’s ear. The younger immediately pulled up the hat, pointed out over the water, and laughed wildly, gleefully in return. Then the Flyer bounced over a particularly high wave, and the girls swung around, one hand still gripping the railing but their bodies smacking against the metal.

Lotti’s face flushed with maternal anxiety. The sun pricked her arms, and she looked around for the mother. She no longer felt self-conscious but rather indignant, a little self-righteous, about the mother who was mindlessly, it seemed, letting her daughters be thrown around by the boat. But when she saw her, the young mother, she was waving calmly at the two little girls, a relaxed, unfazed expression on her face. The girls were waving back, jumping up again with grins on their faces. They giggled to each other and turned back to the railing.

Lotti looked away over the water. She felt annoyed at the mother, at how unrealistically collected, how unworried, she seemed. But then her eyes focused, and she saw the green strip of island coming into view on the horizon. They were forty-five minutes away. Lotti knew that Issa would be standing on the jetty already, holding lilies and wearing sandals, her toenails painted royal blue, her legs long and brown and wrapped in a sarong at the hips. The blue bikini she wore would match the color of her nails, and she would have no shirt to cover the bikini triangles that held her breasts. Issa would wave and smile exaggeratedly as soon as she saw Lotti on the ferry, and the dimples on her cheek would deepen. Lotti could picture her long braids, which Issa often pulled back into a thick ponytail, and the half-moon birthmark tattooed by her eye.

Lotti’s face flushed again, but now for a different reason. She didn’t want any of this anymore. She didn’t want Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa. She didn’t want the “escape” from real life that was no longer working. She had felt it on her last visit, the claustrophobia of the perpetual holiday, the fear and guilt that came with her attempts to flee the real world. There was something tight and bitter about the idea of Lotti and Issa forever. The mantra that she had repeated so often in her head, as a way of getting through her other life, had begun to sound dull. As fun as her memories were, she could barely tolerate the thought of having to continue actually living them. The rhythm of Charlotte and Melissa, Lotti and Issa battered her mind, now an involuntary chorus inside her head.

This trip was the last time she would see Issa at Tangalooma, she had determined. It had to be. She had felt it on her previous visit and increasingly since then, the need to catalyze her life, the real one, in some way. She could no longer pretend that she had no other life at home in Brisbane. She had a family. Children of her own. The sun was suddenly burning Lotti’s arms, and she felt sick thinking about the affair that she’d carried out for so long, how all this time she’d been playing with fire. How she was risking it all for something that would only ever be an illusion.

But then, she thought, maybe Issa sensed this too. The last time Lotti had visited, Issa had pressed her about the time she spent away.

“I wanted to work on our canvas,” she said, “but you missed spring.” She had twisted around from where they sat on the floor of the living room, where Lotti had been mediating on the yoga mat. Issa lifted a wooden box from the couch.

The box was an old miniature desk for a toddler, the surface small and angled on a slant. Issa had decorated it a while back when the two first met. Eyes from photo magazines cut out and pasted all over its top and sides, then covered over with the clear paste used for paper-mâché. The box lid was coming loose from its hinges.

Lotti took the box from her, scooted backwards on the mat. Issa came beside her to watch her lift the lid. Inside, filled to the brim, just feathers and feathers and feathers. Tiny plumage, whites and blacks and blues. Many blues, some like the royal blues Issa always wore, others greying, others almost purple. They all came puffing out. Some were blowing with the breeze. Others just swayed gently, but stayed inside the box.

“There are so many.” Lotti said. “I can’t believe you remembered to collect them all while I was gone.”

“Of course I remembered.” Issa frowned. She paused. “I always remember.” Then she looked Lotti straight in the eye. “I am always going to remember.”

Lotti glanced up at her. “Well,” she started, trying to be chipper about it, “there are so many. We’ll have so many to work with.”

But Issa wouldn’t let it go. “I had a lot of time.” She shook her head. “I didn’t want to keep working on it without you.”

Lotti inhaled sharply, but before she could reply, Issa stood, her face barely expressing the unspoken words between them, and headed into the studio. Lotti followed her in and watched as Issa pulled back the giant sheet that covered their canvas that leaned against a set of chairs, a makeshift easel. It stood by the window on top of a thick plastic floor cover spattered in paint splotches.

“You really did keep it right where we left off, didn’t you?” Lotti said, trying to laugh good-naturedly and examining the canvas. It was their ocean masterwork, a thirds of the way covered already with the small feather puffs glued as close as possible, marked by the longer feathers, some white and some black, of cockatoos. Those were the shadows that dipped and rose with each wave on the ocean. But most of the feathers were so small, some even the size of half a finger, and even the tiny ones were always colored. Lotti and Issa would dot the small white keratin strips of each feather with a cue-tip of glue and then softly pressed the feathers into the canvas surface. The smaller feathers made the rough texture of the canvas even more noticeable.

“It’s all ready for us to jump right in,” Issa said, pulling up their two chairs in front of the canvas and setting the box of feathers on a small table beside the chairs.

“Shall we ease into it?” Lotti said, trying to laugh, to keep the mood light. “Maybe we can start tomorrow.”

Issa dropped her arms, her brow furrowed. She swallowed and turned to look at Lotti. “We have a lot of work to do.” Her voice was filled with anxiety, annoyance, desperation. “You were gone so long… if we want to get through all the feathers I collected, we need to start straight away.”

“Issa…”

“Don’t you want to continue the artwork?”

“Of course I do, but…”

Issa shook her head and, without another glance in Lotti’s direction, she grabbed an empty paint bucket from the floor of the room. “I’m going to gather the macadamias before they all start rotting.” And she left, the bucket swinging in her hands.

Lotti heard the screen of the front door squeak open and then clang shut.

“You’re it!”

Lotti looked around the on the ferry as the little girls ran past her.

“No, you’re it!” The older sister tagged the younger on the shoulder who squealed as they changed direction, running between the rows of plastic seats that lined the ferry balcony.

Then Lotti heard another voice. “Ava, Aria!” The young mother was standing up now. “We’re almost there. Come back up your things.”

Lotti looked back toward the island. It was true, she could see Tangalooma coming into view. She could make out the tall palms that stood at the edge of the sand and the townhouse villas that lined the beach behind them, though they were mostly just a wash of white and blue amidst the dark green trees. Behind the first row of residences was the taller resort complex, built partly into hillside. In ten minutes they’d be docking at the jetty, and Lotti would see Issa’s face appear, her black sunglasses blocking her eyes, her black braided hair bleaching ever so slightly in the sun, the light kissing her face.

It was almost time, and Lotti thought of everything she wanted to say. That their feather artwork was great, but that she needed to find a way to be creative more regularly, in her real life; that their adventures were thrilling, but that too, she needed to learn how to make a part of her who she was back in the real world.

She imagined Issa’s cold response. “This is real life, Lotti.”

And Lotti would pause because she wouldn’t know how much to tell Issa. In her momentary cowardice, she would concede a little. “You know what I mean.”

Issa’s suspicion would appear in the scrunch of her eyes. She would cross her arms and say, “Not really. No, I don’t know.”

In the imaginary conversation, Lotti was still searching for the words. “Come on, Issa. You know what I mean. This is…”

“This is what? What is it?”

“A holiday… a special time, outside of time… it’s an escape from the real.”

Issa’s face would get tighter and darker. “I’m not real?”

Lotti would try to laugh, but even then she knew it wouldn’t be convincing. She could say, “Of course you are.” But then she’d be thinking that, no, Issa wasn’t real. She wasn’t real enough. “Not anymore,” she would say instead, letting her arms fall limply at her sides. And then she would have to watch Issa’s face fall too in the confusion and the upset and the anger that would take a hold of her entire body.

And it wasn’t just that it wasn’t real, but that it was too risky. She was risking her own children, playing with fire. She needed to be there for them, no matter how unhappy she was.

The Flyer was pulling up to the jetty now. Beside Lotti on the boat, the two little girls had been calmed. At their mother’s command, they were threading their arms into the loops of their backpacks. The young mother was rubbing another layer of sunblock onto their toes, then slipping back on their thongs.

Lotti reached down to the blue plastic seat for one of their hats. “Don’t forget this.” She passed it to the young mother.

The girl took the hat, looked up at Lotti, and smiled. “Aw, thank you so much. You must be a mother too, eh?” She shook her head with a laugh. “They’re a wild bunch, aren’t they?”

Before Lotti could reply, the little girls ran off toward the front of the ferry, racing each other to be first in line, their mother following closely behind.

Lotti watched them step off the boat onto the docks. She wasn’t searching for Issa’s face in the crowd, but thinking for the first time ever that this place was still real. It had always been real and would always be. Suddenly she could picture herself out in the real world, here, coming back with her son, with her own two daughters. The four of them renewing this place together. She could already see it, each of them gripping each other’s hands as they stepped out onto the island.

Nicole Adair is an Australian-American author, composer, and game designer based in New York City. She received her MA in English-Creative Writing and her PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Adair has worked closely with authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Vikram Chandra on long- and short-form fiction that explores themes related to Australia, climate change, and the different mediums of art (image, text, video) as tools of storytelling. Her fiction appears in World Literature Today.

Recommended Reading:
 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Chinchillas

December 11, 2020

By Con Chapman

Ray was chief of police and Sue Ellen was his wife; Duane was their only son and Sandra their only daughter.  When he was younger Duane had learned how to keep himself company while his dad worked for long stretches of time.  He took up hobbies that didn’t require a playmate, such as coin collecting and building model cars, which he pursued while he waited for his dad’s day off.  When that day came, Duane hoped they could play catch or, better yet, that his dad would pitch to him.  If the latter was the case, they would drive over to Veterans Park and his dad, in his undershirt and smoking a cigar, would throw batting practice until his right shoulder was stiff.  Those were the best days, but there weren’t that many of them.

When Duane became a teenager, his mother worried that he wasn’t social enough and encouraged him to join a club at school or go out for a sport so that he’d meet new people and make some friends.  Duane said no, he was fine.

“You oughta get a job, you’re old enough,” his dad said, but Duane had a different idea.

“There’s an ad in Model Car Science where you can send away and learn how to raise chinchillas in your basement.  I’d like to try that.”

His mother didn’t like the idea of a bunch of rodents in the house, even if they were locked in cages.

“We never go down there anymore,” Ray said in support of the boy’s idea.

“Maybe you don’t.  I have to do laundry every day.”

“We could move the washer up into the room off the kitchen.”

It had been one of Sue Ellen’s hopes for a long time that they could eventually afford to move the laundry upstairs so she wouldn’t have to walk up and down the basement steps everyday, so she agreed that Duane could turn the basement into his chinchilla farm.

Duane sent off the money to the address in the ad, which read “RAISE CHINCHILLAS AS A HOBBY. Fabulous profits. Small space in your basement, garage, or extra room is all you need.”  Two weeks later he received a male and a female in a cardboard box with airholes in the sides, and put them in the pen he had built in the basement.

“I figure I can keep up with them,” Duane said when his dad would come down into the basement to see how he was doing with the cages.  “I can swing a hammer pretty good,” and his dad thought, yes he can, unlike some of the guys he had worked with when he was a line manager out at the recreational vehicle plant before he became chief of police.  He had to let a lot of them go after a week or two.

Sandra didn’t like the smell from the very first.  She complained to her mother that she couldn’t have friends over for cheerleaders’ practice or yearbook meetings.  “It stinks up the whole house,” she complained, and her mother had to agree, it certainly didn’t stop at the basement door.

“Maybe he could open up the windows down there,” Ray would say when his schedule gave him a chance to have dinner with Sue Ellen.

“They’re little basement windows.  I don’t think that’s going to get the smell out of there.”

“Then he just needs to clean the cages more often.”

“You talk to him.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s down there now.”

Ray went down the stairs and found Duane building cages.  “Hey there,” he said.

“Hey,” Duane answered.

“How’s it going?” his dad asked.

“Pretty good.  I’m up to 12.”

“Wow—that’s great.”  He didn’t know whether it was good, bad or indifferent.

“I want to get up to 200.”

“And then what?”

“Sell ‘em and make a bunch of money.”

“Sure—that’d be terrific.”  He paused, then asked “What are you saving up for?”

“I want to buy more.”

Ray considered this for a moment.  “I don’t know that we’ve got that much room down here.”

“I can put a wall of cages in the furnace room, too,” Duane said.

“We could do that, I guess.”

“I need some more plywood and screen wire.  Can I charge it down at Cash Hardware?”

“How much is it gonna be?”

“I figger forty dollars.”

“All right.  But let’s set that as your limit.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t want you getting in over your head.”

“I understand.”

“Okay.”

His dad walked back upstairs and said he’d talked to Duane.

“And he understands?” his mother said.

“Yep,” his dad said, and settled down to read the paper.

Two weeks later there were nine more “chins,” and the new cages that Duane had built were full.

“It smells worse,” Sandra said to her mother.

“I know.”

“Can’t you just go down and yell at him?  I want to have Cindy and Donna Lee over for a slumber party Friday.”

“That’s fine.  I’ll talk to your father.”

When Ray got home Sue Ellen lit into him before he even took his jacket off, asking him what his deal was with Duane.

“We set a limit.  He was gonna build some more cages then sell them off.”

“Well take a whiff, would you?”

Ray sniffed and admitted that the smell couldn’t be ignored.

“I’ll talk to him,” he said.

He picked through the mail, looked out the window over the sink, and headed down the basement steps.

“Hello there,” he announced when he was about halfway down and could see under the basement ceiling.

“Hi,” Duane called back as he continued hammering.

“What’s the update?”

“I’ve got 28, and I’m making a maternity cage to keep the males out after the babies are born.”

“Why do you do that?”

“Otherwise the males get the females pregnant again and wear ‘em out.”

“Oh.”  Your mother would appreciate that, he thought, but now wasn’t the time to tell her an amusing anecdote about the sex life of chinchillas.  “So who you gonna sell these things to?”

“I sent away for a list of places.”

Ray was silent; that didn’t sound too promising.  “Are they pet stores or what?”

“I don’t know—I don’t have the list yet.”

“Well, you’d better get busy on it.  The idea was you were gonna sell ‘em.”

“I know.”

Ray went back upstairs.  He knew he’d have to start pushing harder, but he felt guilty that the chinchillas were all Duane had.  Ray decided he’d do some research on his own.  The town library was only two blocks from the police station.  Maybe he’d walk over there on his lunch hour—the exercise would do him good.

The next day he went over to the Carnegie Library and asked the librarian for some materials on chinchillas.  She picked a few books out of the pets section, showed him the Index to Periodical Literature, then showed him how to do a search on the computer.  To get him started, she typed “chinchilla” into a little white slot on the screen, then clicked on a green “go” button, and a list popped up.  Ray said thanks to the woman, put his reading glasses on and went to work.

It didn’t take him long to figure out that Duane had been duped.  The first article he read was by a state agency in Minnesota that warned people about buying animals to raise for a profit.  The attorney general got a cease and desist against one company, and they had to pay a pretty big fine.

So Duane was never going to be able to sell his chinchillas, and Ray would have to come up with a way out of the mess Duane had got himself into.  He knew better than to try and press charges against the company that sold the animals; it wasn’t like a breaking and entering case, where the guy was in jail and all he had was a court-appointed lawyer for free.  He checked–the company was a long way away, and would have lawyers they paid for.  They would wear Ray down, and he didn’t need that at this point in his life.

When he got home that night Ray told Duane he needed to talk to him, upstairs in his room.  He sat down in Duane’s desk chair and Duane sat on his bed.

“I did a little research on chinchillas today, which you probably shoulda done before you got started.”

Duane just sat there, taking it in.

“You’re never going to be able to sell those things.  I checked into it today.”

“Dad I can sell them . . .”

“I went to the library and read up on ‘em.  It’s a scam.”

“A what?” Duane asked.

“They take your money but they don’t come through on their promises.”

“What promises?”

“You’re not going to be able to sell them for a lot of money.”

Duane was silent.  “I don’t need to sell them.  I’d just as soon keep them.”

“We can’t keep thirty critters in the basement.  They’ll eat us out of house and home.  Plus they’re breeding all the time.”

“I’ll get a job.”

“You should be saving your money for college, not to feed a bunch of rodents.”

Duane said nothing for a moment.

“I’ll work with you to get rid of ‘em,” Ray said.  “I don’t know how the hell we’re gonna do it, but we’ll figure out something.”  Ray got up and as he moved past Duane into the hall, patted him on the shoulder and said “Live and learn, son—live and learn.”

Ray didn’t see it but Duane started crying once he was gone.  Duane felt bad that he was crying—he was too old and his dad hadn’t yelled at him.  He didn’t do anything dramatic, like throwing himself on his pillow or slamming his door shut, but he couldn’t stop crying, and it showed on his face, so he couldn’t deny it when Sandra walked out of her room, stopped, and asked why he was crying.

“None of your business,” he said.

“Dad told you to get rid of those stupid rats, didn’t he?”

“They’re not rats.”

“I told you so.”

“You didn’t tell me anything.”

“I told you to get rid of them—same difference,” Sandra said as she walked off.

Duane got on his computer after he had calmed down and started searching for people who would buy chinchillas.  After ten minutes he gave up and began to write down the addresses of places that would adopt them.  He didn’t know what he was going to do if he had any left over; maybe he could sell them at school.

He decided to take a card table to school and set it up in the cafeteria at noon time for a week.  One girl was interested—she took the chin out of its portable cage and held it up close to her face—but the next day she told Duane her mother wouldn’t let her.  There was one kid dressed all in black who said he might be interested, but Duane didn’t want him to have one—he thought he’d kill it for fun.

By Friday the curiosity of Duane’s chinchilla enterprise had worn off and no one even stopped to talk to him.  When his dad got home he greeted Duane with a “Howdy, partner,” as if he was expecting to hear great news.  “How’d it go today?”

“Not so great.  Still didn’t sell any.”

Stay positive, his dad thought.  “Well, you might offer to give a few away, just to drum up some interest.  Lots of stores do that.”

“I don’t think it’s gonna help.  The kids go home and ask their parents and they say no.”

Ray had known for a while that it was going to end this way.  “Let’s go down in the cellar,” he said as he got up, and the boy went ahead of him.  Ray reached under the sink and took a trash bag out of the box and followed.

It would be a hard lesson to learn, but it was one he had to teach, he thought.

“We won’t do this all at once, but we’re gonna have to start getting rid of these little fellas,” he said.  “Empty out a couple of cages into this bag.”

Duane’s eyes misted up, but he did what he was told, lifting eight chins out of their cages one by one and dropping them into the bag.  When his dad said “That’s enough” they went upstairs and into the garage, where his dad took a spare brick, put it in the sack, tied the top in a knot and put it in the back of his pickup truck.

They drove in silence a few miles to a bridge over a man-made lake, out beyond where the houses ended.  Ray turned on his emergency flasher, stopped his truck, got out and walked around to Duane’s side.  “Get out,” he said as he pulled the trash bag over the side of the truck.

“Here—take this,” Ray said as he handed the bag to Duane.

Duane took the bag and held it in his hand.

“Drop it in.”

“Do I have to?”

“You brought ‘em into this world—you’re gonna have to put ‘em under.”

Duane took the bag and walked over to the rail.  He looked down into the brown-green water, felt the life within the bag, lifted it over the rail–and let it drop.

The bag hit the water with a softer sound than he expected, then sank out of sight as the brick pulled it down.  Duane watched it for a few seconds, then turned around and looked his dad in the eyes.

“Better get used to it,” his dad said.  “We got quite a few to go.”

They got in the car but before they could get started another truck pulled up beside them and the driver rolled down his passenger-side window.

“Hey Ray,” the driver yelled.  “Whatcha got there—a cat that needs an operation?”

“Hey Vern.  Naw–something more exotic.”

“What?”

“Chinchillas,” he replied, with an emphasis that made Duane sink down in his seat.

“Oh—can’t you make your wife a coat out of ‘em?”

“Naw—I’m no good at sewin’.  This here’s my boy, Duane.  He raised ‘em but we got too many now.”

“Oh—okay.  Well, I can’t use ‘em neither,” the driver said with a smile.  “See ya.”

“See ya,” Ray said as the man pulled away from them.

Ray turned the ignition, put the car in gear and, after checking his rear view mirror out of habit, drove off.

“We’ll come out here every night after I get off work until we’re rid of them,” Ray said.

“All of ‘em?” Duane asked.

“You can keep a couple of males if you want, but you better make sure ‘cause I don’t want no procreatin’ once we’re done.”

When they got home Ray went to the living room to watch the news and Duane went down into the basement.  He looked at the stacked cages, and counted the chins that remained—twenty of them.  He watched their little cheeks chewing away, and thought of them sinking into the water, which they never would have felt before.

He started at the top left-hand cage–unhooking the latch and opening the door.  He moved his hand to the right, undid the hook that secured the door, and continued until all of the cage doors were open.  He walked into the furnace room, banged the metal bolt of the bulkhead door to the right, and opened it up.  Some of the chins were out of their cages by now, scurrying around without any sense of which way to go.  He took them one by one and walked them up the steps to the back yard, where he put them down on the ground and watched as they ran off.

Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer, author most recently of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award from Hot Club de France. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and a number of literary magazines.

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