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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

Fatherhood, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Father’s Day

June 18, 2021
poppa

By Shirley Dees

We’re going to visit James’ dad again. Before we leave I manage to squeeze a few moments alone in the bathroom of the duplex James and I rent and hang my head over the cheap, cushioned toilet seat, the kind that keeps your ass from hurting while you’re doing your business, and try not to puke while James stands outside the door. The timing of this year’s trip is a real bitch. He’s been dead for ten years, and every Father’s Day, James and I drive out to the cemetery to stand next to his headstone with James’ Poppa and talk about nothing. I never met him, but since I started dating James six years ago, I tag along.

“Leah, you about ready?” James is in a hurry. That’s what all of this is, really. A dreadful hurry.

“Can you give me a skinny minute?” I am surprised to find I can open my mouth without vomiting. Things are looking up.

“A small one. I hate to make Poppa wait.”

I stand up and move over to the sink. I study my face for obvious hints of morning sickness and add a touch of makeup. I don’t want his grandfather to be put out, either, so I try to hurry. “Is your Poppa feeling good enough to drive today?”

“Larry is taking him,” James says. His voice comes through the bathroom door like it’s worn down by hammers. I give myself one last scan, one last breath to steady this awkward and hurried day, and open the door.

“Okay, let’s go.” I walk by quickly without giving James the chance to get a real look at me. I am running out of time to tell him about the baby. I love him, which only makes all of this more complicated. He pulls the car keys off the hook hanging by the backdoor as I throw my purse over my shoulder. I feel him behind me, staring at the door, doing his yearly hesitation.

“James,” I begin, “we don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” He grabs the door handle to pull it open.

“It’s Father’s Day, Leah. You know I have to go.” Before I can ask again, he’s outside, feet crunching the gravel as he walks to his Ford Ranger. “Come on,” he says.

Every year, I try to cruise through this day with a level of indifference to make it all sort of just disappear, but every time I see the scars on the back of James’ head, that indifference melts into protective anger. I want him to know he is the one in control now. But I’ve learned not to push the issue. I offer to stay home in his seconds of hesitation by the backdoor, just to remind him the option is always on the table, but he always declines, stating it’s his duty to go. After all this time, I don’t really expect anything different anymore.

I climb into the steamy, black truck we share to get to and from work, each of us alternating with co-workers and carpooling when we can. We never drive it more than fifteen miles in a day so this is the truck’s longest journey every year at 60 miles, and I wonder how much longer it will last. James always says we’ll drive it until the wheels fall off, but I don’t think we can make it until then. This truck is twenty years old and suddenly too small. I crank the window and let the air hit my face, praying to God I don’t have to throw up on the way there.

Pretty soon we’re pulling out of town and the annual tour of my boyfriend’s childhood horrors begins. When he first told me about the abuse, it rolled off him the same way it does now. Ritualized. The Dairy Queen they met at for his dad’s public visits. The house where his dad used to live with Larry, an old friend and now Poppa’s neighbor, and the place James went when his dad was finally allowed overnight custody. This house was the one with the stairs whose pointy edges lead down to a wooden floor. The stairs and floor that birthed the scars on the back of my boyfriend’s head. He points them all out, every time. I’ve come to see them as his demons, evilness that must be excised regularly to keep them away, the reason for all this hurried dreadfulness. There must be a better way to heal, for everyone.

The heat-scorched Texas earth zips by as we cruise down the highway at the fastest speed the Ranger allows: sixty-three miles per hour, which means it will takes us an hour to make the trip. This is easy math that I keep in my mind to help make this day seem simpler, but one look out my window at the speeding ground and my head spins.

“We’ll stop in McKinney and get a bite to eat, that okay?” he asks like this isn’t what we always do. Normally, the stop in McKinney is the highlight of the day. They have this burger joint where the burgers are so juicy, they soak through the paper that lines those red, plastic baskets. The French fries are cooked in oil and bubbled until they’re perfectly golden and crispy, the ketchup salty and tangy on the lips. Food so good it makes you want to slap your granny. But today, just the thought of those greasy burgers makes me want to dry-heave, so I push it away and curl my legs underneath my hind-end.

James glances at me from the side. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know, maybe we can try some place else this time.”  I look straight ahead, keeping my sour face out of view. A car screams by us on the left, a red convertible of some type. I’ve never bothered much with learning car brands and models, but sometimes I’ll take a guess at what it is to impress James. He whistles as the car switches back into the right lane, ahead of us.

“Damn, must be nice,” he sighs. I give a little silent shout of praise to the owner of the sport car for pulling James’s attention off my lack of an appetite. I know we’ll probably stop there and eat anyway, because there is nothing else in McKinney. Maybe I can get away with scarfing a small quarter-pounder and puking in the restaurant’s commode before we get back on the road.

“Your Poppa still going out to the cemetery every day?” I ask.

“He doesn’t like driving much anymore so he only gets out there when Larry can take him.”

“I didn’t realize he wasn’t driving anymore,” I say, pausing a moment to let a passing thought linger. “What’s he going to do with that truck of his?”

“The man’s got to get to the grocery store and what not. He’s just not driving anywhere long distance.”

“I wouldn’t call fifteen miles to the cemetery long distance.” Immediately I recoil, guilt pinching at my insides.

“Yeah, but to get there he’s got to get on the highway.”   

“Oh, I didn’t think about that.” I realize I’m coming off like I’ve been waiting for Poppa to slide his big toe inside the old folks’ home to transfer the title to his vehicle into James’ name.

“You want to take his truck?”

“Well, no I just . . . I don’t know.”

“That’s Poppa’s vehicle, Leah.” James’ voice takes on that condescending tone that sends tethers of defensive coils up the back of my neck.

“I know.”

“Man ain’t quit driving more than a month and you’re already thinking him some kind of invalid.”

“No, James.”

“Claiming his property.” James shakes his head and disappointment spreads over him along with the crinkles that set into the corners of his eyes when his temper has run out of fuse.

“That’s not it at all.” I keep my voice calm in hopes to steer him back towards sanity.

“We have a truck, Leah.”

“I know.”

“We ain’t ever had a problem with it. But my Poppa gets old and you start seeing money bags.”

“I wasn’t thinking about taking your Poppa’s truck, James.” His knuckles tighten on the steering wheel and I know I need to get control. “You know me better than that. I just don’t want him giving it away without talking to you about it first. You know how some people will take advantage of Poppa.”

“Hmm,” he keeps his eyes on the road but I both hear and see his suspicion. He is trying to keep his temper in check and keep his demons tightly roped inside. “Okay, just sounded like you had other intentions.”

“Please don’t put words in my mouth.” Another car zooms past and there goes his focus, just like that. A little flame of frustration still flickers away in my mind but I swallow again to try and put it out. My temper is on a shortened leash today, too. I can’t handle the accusing tone he gives me all the time when stuff like this comes up. We fight about the most stupid things like any normal couple, but mostly we argue about the future. He believes he’s doomed to repeat the mistakes of his father. James ain’t ever hurt me. Not physically, anyway. We’ve had our bickering, and he’s gotten in my face a time or two, but it never goes any farther than that. It’s like a spark, something goes wrong and he snaps into anger, a few harsh words come flying out of his mouth without thinking and then his face fills with remorse. It’s what I point out to him all the time the minute I know he recognizes it.

“You see,” I say, never backing away. “That’s why you ain’t like your daddy, James. You have awareness.”

I think that’s why I haven’t left yet, because I can see past those crinkles of anger and deeper than the illness that’s cursed his genetic line. Awareness. It’s been like this since we first got together and I’ve just put up with it because I love him deeply. I’ve never asked for a ring, but I’m pregnant now and it ain’t just our future anymore.

The miles speed by in silence. Pretty soon, we’re pulling into McKinney and I see the burger joint up the road. My stomach is feeling okay, so this may not be so bad after all. In fact, as we walk in, I’m ravenous. I scarf my burger and inhale the fries. I want all the Coke that’s in the soda machine and then I order a chocolate milkshake to go. James wants to share, and I oblige, even though I don’t see why he can’t just order his own damn ice cream.

“You know, Dad used to buy us ice cream from here,” James says as we walk back to the truck.

I perk up. “Oh really?” James has never mentioned this before.

“It tastes the same now as it did then.” He reaches over and grabs the cup from my hands and pulls a mouthful of shake from the straw. “Then I got sick one time and threw up in his car and he beat me so bad I couldn’t sit down for a week.” He semi-slams the paper cup in the holder on the dash and angrily turns the key. Gravel shoots off from the Ranger’s tires as we pull out of the parking lot and are back on the highway again, heading towards complications. Maybe it’s my shortened temper, but for the first time in the six years of this annual trip, I get upset with James for this outburst and let out an irritated sigh.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, James.”

“What’s wrong with you?” he says, turning his entire head towards me.

“Nothing,” I say, crossing my arms.

“Don’t pull that.”

“I’m tired of this damn stuff every year,” I spit out. “We drive these terrible sixty miles and the entire time you talk about all the bullshit he pulled when you were growing up, and then by the time we get there, you’re all angry and pissy with me and Poppa and the whole thing just sucks.”

“Well, Christ, what do you want me to do about it? Not go? Poppa’d kill me if I didn’t come out here every year,” he keeps his eyes on the road and I can tell he’s trying to control his temper again.

“No, all I’m saying is, well, don’t you think you can at least try and think of something good? I know it couldn’t have been rainbows and peaches with the man, but there had to be something. Maybe if you think of something good instead of all the awful, you won’t be in such a foul mood by the time we get out to the cemetery, and then Poppa won’t get on you about being a grump, and I don’t know, we can finally spend Father’s Day in some peace.”

James doesn’t say anything for a hot minute. He passes a car on the left and then switches back over to the right lane.

“You’re not being fair,” he says.

“Ain’t I?”

“There ain’t nothing good I can talk about.”

“Bullshit.” I try to dig for a specific moment, but nothing is coming to mind under pressure, and I start to panic.

“I said there’s nothing,” his grip tightens on the wheel again. I cross my arms and start to run through holidays and moments that could spark a memory, any memory that was positive, but it was pointless. James hates Christmas for reasons I know stem from his dad. His family was poorer than mine so trips anywhere as a kid were a pipe dream, but I’m desperate. I have to keep the stack from wobbling too far off course into a dangerous area.

“James,” I start to say, my voice soft and flat. “Come on, tell me something good.” He says nothing, his eyes with that tempered glaze. I ignore the feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Come on.”

“No!” His wrist hits the steering wheel and the truck swerves, the car next to us honks, but I don’t think James hears him, or cares. “There isn’t any good stuff. There never was!” His voice bounces off the windshield and the passenger window. I pushed too far, but it was too late to try and reverse course. I might as well keep steering this messed-up ride on my own course.

“I don’t believe that,” I say.

James groans. “You’re being damn difficult.”

“You can’t blame me for wanting my boyfriend to remember decent things about his father.”

“I just don’t see why it’s so important to you.”

“I think it’s important for you, James.”

“I don’t.”

“So we disagree, but I still want you to try.”

“I have tried.” James says this with a touch less anger, and it saddens me because I know it’s true. But I push on.

“Try harder,” I say.

“You don’t understand.” He shakes his head.

“James, I can’t believe your father didn’t love you.”

He doesn’t say anything for a while, but I keep my eyes on him, studying the muscles in his face. I take his silence as him going to those depths, to find something he’d kept shoved at the bottom of his soul, buried in the darkness.

“He didn’t love me,” he says.

“How are you so sure?”

“Because. . . I didn’t love him.”

“James. . . .”

“You wanted the truth, Leah, so there it is. Though, I don’t know why you haven’t figured out any of this before. My dad broke something in me long ago. Love like that, it ain’t possible, alright? Not for me. There ain’t no good left.”

“But how can you say that when I’m sitting here right next to you? I mean, you love me, don’t’ you?”

“That’s different.”

“No it ain’t. Love is love, James.”

“Like shit it is.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, well…” he breaks off into a silence.

“What’re you trying to say?” My stomach rumbles. A wave of nausea hits me and the road swerves, but James’ hands are tight on the wheel. I grab the dashboard to keep the earth from flipping upside down. “You can’t love anyone else?”

No answer. His silence is like a scythe. Heat pulses across my body, a salty sickness creeping its way into my mouth. The Ranger jumps a slab of buckled asphalt and suddenly I have to vomit. No time to ask him to pull over, I slam my hand on the window crank and lower the glass just enough to poke my head through and unleash the juicy burger and fries on the side of the highway at 58 miles per hour.

“Leah!”

I pull my head back inside and roll the window up. I pop open the glove box and pull out one of the hundreds of restaurant napkins we keep stashed in there. “Sorry, must have gotten car sick.”

“Car sick? You ain’t ever gotten car sick before.”

I wipe my mouth and lean my head back against the seat, closing my eyes. My stomach feels lighter, calmer, but my heart is beating too hard, sadness spilling from its chambers and spreading through the inside of the Ranger. “Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

I consider a couple of options. I could cry and tell him I’m pregnant and everything else that is on my mind. Or I could ask him to pull over and let me out, find a way back home and pack up my stuff and leave. Problem is, neither of those options really solve the problem. There’s still a life growing inside me.

Fatigue falls on me like rain so I close my eyes, the sun on my face and shoulders failing to comfort me the way a blanket would a tired baby. I want to sleep and figure I can because James clearly isn’t in the mood to talk anymore, and to be honest, neither am I.

***

I didn’t notice when the truck stopped. I didn’t even realize I had fallen into such a deep sleep. James shakes me and I see his face as I open my eyes, close to mine, holding a cup of Sprite to my lips.

“You feeling alright?” He actually looks concerned, all of the glaze and crinkles gone from his eyes. Fatigue melts into affection as I stare into those honey irises and feel their devotion. I don’t know why he thinks he isn’t capable of love.

“I’m okay. We here already?”

“Yeah, but Poppa ain’t yet. Come on, take a sip of the soda.”

I grab the cup from him and place the straw between my teeth. I sit up and look out. The cemetery is empty, the grass a light brown, thin and withering into dust. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky and I feel the heat radiating off the marble and concrete headstones from inside the Ranger. I pull a sip of soda from the straw.

“You want to wait here for Poppa?” I ask.

“No, let’s just go on over. He should be here in a minute.” James pops open his door and steps out, so I follow. Caliche rocks poke the thin bottoms of my flip flops and I regret the decision to wear them. The sticker burrs in this dead grass are going to tear my feet to hell. We start walking to the gravesite, one of my hands firmly on the soda as I suck in more of the cold liquid. A pathetic excuse for a breeze tries to blow over the cemetery but it really only feels like God just opened a giant oven door. My brain is beating on the sides of my skull and I try to swallow the rest of the Sprite to get it to quit. I wonder if it’s disrespectful to puke on hallowed ground.

“I didn’t bring anything,” I say, realizing we don’t even have a single flower to place on the headstone. James just shrugs. I guess it doesn’t bother him that we’re the first ones to arrive and are walking up to his dad’s grave empty handed. Doesn’t seem right. Poppa’s usually the one who gets here first and typically has something to lay on the grave. Typically, we all stand around, James shuffling his feet in the dirt while Poppa talks, saying nothing more than “yeah,” and “uh huh,” which usually pisses Poppa off. Then we all get quiet for a while. Poppa takes out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and stares at it for a few minutes, then folds it back up and stuffs it into his wallet, never reading it aloud, never leaving it by the headstone. James has never asked what that was all about, and because he hasn’t, neither have I.

We pass a few more rows of grave markers before we arrive at his dad’s. It is so hot I consider hiding out in one of the freshly opened plots, just so I can run my hands through the cold soil that’s been shielded from the heat by layers of earth. We stop a few feet from the stone, and both of us stare at the ground. I start picturing the memories James brought up in the truck and a feeling of anger ripples across my chest. I know it’s not the time or place but I can’t help it. Love spurns a protective desire, but what could I do? The son of a bitch was already in the dirt.

“Well. . .” the rest of my words die away. They all seem so pointless, even more so now. I want all of this to be over and I feel the hurried dreadfulness creep between the graves and lie at our feet. James puts his hands in his pockets and lets out a breath, but he doesn’t say anything, either.

Tires moving through the caliche make us turn our heads. “That’s Larry and Poppa,” James says as the truck parks a few rows back, but only Larry gets out of the vehicle. He’s wearing starched jeans and snakeskin boots with a collared shirt. He is dressed for another occasion separate from this disaster of a day.

“Poppa driving himself?” James asks.

Larry shook his head, his white hair bouncing. “Sorry, James. Your Grandfather wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t make it out, but he does want you to come by before you head back home.”

“Well, he could have called.”

“He figured if he called you this morning and said he wasn’t coming you wouldn’t show,” Larry says.

“Well, that’s not a lie.” James wiped the sweat from his brow.

“But he wanted you to have this and he asked if I could bring it to you.” Larry reaches in his pocket and pulls out the familiar, aging folded piece of paper and hands it to James.

“You serious?”

“Well, your grandfather sure was.”

“What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Keep it, I think.”

“Poppa don’t want it back?” I ask.

Larry looks back and forth between us, then opens only the corners of his mouth to answer like he’s trying to protect us from something. “I don’t think your Poppa’s going to come back out here much anymore.”

This isn’t a hard truth. Poppa is getting mighty old, and Larry is only in his late fifties and has a business to run and new grandkids of his own to visit on Sundays. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time to bring Poppa out here, though I’m sure he would keep doing it if Poppa didn’t step in and say something. I suspect it was all Poppa’s decision, seeing the stuff Larry had piling up on his plate. He didn’t want him missing out and knew he would keep coming unless he told him to get lost, so that’s what he must have done this morning. Very quickly I saw the Father’s Days in the years ahead and tried to imagine what it looked like at this graveside, and who was all standing here if one of them wasn’t Poppa.

“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll leave you two to your affairs. I’ve got a barbecue to get to. Just, go see your grandfather. I think he’d like to see you, James,” Larry says.

“Sure, thanks.” James sticks out his hand and shakes Larry’s before he turns and walks away.

“Have a happy Father’s Day!” I shout after him. He waves a backwards hand and gets in his vehicle and drives off. I turn back to James and eye the paper in his hand. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“The paper! Aren’t you wondering what it says?”

“It can’t be the same one, can it?”

“I’d recognize that folded paper anywhere. Your Poppa always brings it every year.”

James looks down at it, then at his dad’s grave, then shakes his head. “No, let’s just go.”

“James.” I try to let him know this decision is more ridiculous than this whole affair combined. “You stubborn asshole. Just read the thing.”

“Fine, but then we’re going straight home. We ain’t going to Poppa’s. I can’t stand this heat no more.” He unfolds the paper and takes a step closer to the grave and starts to read, rotating his back towards me.

I wait, reading his body language as I imagine his eyes running across the lines of writing and try to think what the paper has to say. Another boiling breeze moves across the air and a sickness stirs in my stomach again. That would be something, to throw up on this man’s grave. I look over at where we parked the Ranger and wonder if I’d even make it back, giving the cup in my hand a shake and almost weeping at its empty silence. After about another minute, James picks his head up and turns around, staring straight through me like hail cutting through trees. A hot redness creeps onto his cheeks, and I expect the glazed, crinkling look of his eyes to follow, but instead he allows the muscles in his face to fall flat. His shoulders droop and his lips curl south. His knees shake and bend, and then all at once, he falls to the ground.

“James!” I drop the cup and kneel down next to him, sticker burrs poking through the soft layers of the skin on my legs. I put my hands on his arms, his neck, and then his face, and pull it into mine, a river of tears streaming down and off his chin. The tremble of something buried deep in him rises to the surface. It is complicated. It is confusion. It is truth. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. I pull him into my shoulder and let him cry, the paper in the dirt half folded, only a few lines visible on the bottoms of the page. I hold James in my arms, and everything unspoken pours out of him and into the ground below us. Suddenly, the heat doesn’t seem to be such a bother anymore and if he needs me to, I’ll sit here for the rest of my life with him.

The cicadas pick up and that stirs James enough to lift his head. “Okay,” he says.

“Okay,” I reply. He stands up and shakes the dirt from his legs and then helps me to my feet.

“Let’s go see Poppa,” he says.

“Okay.” I fold the paper and place it in my pocket. I’ll ask James what he wants to do with it later.

He grabs my hand and stares at the grave. I don’t pull him along.

“I wanted to love him,” he says.

“I know.” I give his hand a little squeeze, and then we move back to the Ranger, opposite of how we arrived, hand-in-hand, neither of us wanting to let go.

We keep our hands together for the fifteen-mile drive to Poppa’s, and I turn the radio on, music filling the cab for the first time on this trip. As we pull into Poppa’s driveway, James turns off the engine and turns to me, still holding my hand.

“I know about the baby,” he says.

My heart leaps into my throat and tightens every muscle around my voice box. Something like a roar fills my ears. “James—”

He shakes his head. “It’s okay.” His voice is like cotton. The burn of tears builds in the corner of my eyes and in my heart.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” and a smile so big lands on him with such assurance, I let everything inside of me go and weep like a child.

Shirley Dees received an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional writing in Spring 2021. When not writing, Shirley is busy parenting, seeking sunshine rays, and sampling local craft brews. She lives in Southeast Alabama with her husband, daughter, and geriatric pet turtle.

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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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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

Remembrances Of The Sun, Of Shadows

June 4, 2021
Havana

by Bruce Crown

Everything had been hollowed out, especially the people, when I checked in. All sunny resorts are inherently the same. A consortium of young and old people sleeping in vomit, talking through cigar smoke, and swimming in low-range rum. I noticed it as soon as I entered. The Cuban peso was as strong as the American dollar. This amused me greatly. Not because Cuban money is worth more or less; I have no opinion on that. What amused me was that every time I needed money changed, the mob of tourists both in front and behind me would complain about this fact. They knew that their money was worth more, and they wanted to spend it here, to help Cuba by buying things to bring back home.

On the first day, the sun blazed as if to burn the darkness out of me, the abyss that had become a threading existence of booze and despair. The smoke trail of my Cohiba rose and misted towards that yellow star in the middle of the clear blue sky. I sipped what was left of my pineapple juice unable to quench the chasing shadows of my thirst. Just another drunk whose money can buy more booze here than back home.

“It’s too hot,” I puffed smoke to no one in particular.

“Yeah… the weather’s nicer in Havana. I’m from Trinidad myself but this sun feels… different. Hey! Where you goin’?”

“Thanks,” I turned back towards the bald and austere man who had a body that glistened with muscles under the infinitely clear sky.

Why, I thought later, did I immediately get up and accept the idea that the weather would be nicer in Havana than in Varadero? The place where I’d spent the last fortnight drinking and watching the waves wash more and more of the sand away hoping that one day it would wash it all away.

“Motorcycle,” I pointed around where the bikes sat around the lobby. “Havana. To rent.” I needed the cool breeze in my hair.

“Sir, have you been drinking?” it was a different concierge than usual. This one had green eyes and spoke perfect English.

I couldn’t help but wonder, whether from her perceptive, the transitive beings that come from ‘mainland nations’ are simply objects that move between shaded patches of sand while the background rattling of empty bottles ensures that they are all the same despite their faces and the flags on their backpacks changing every few days.

“It’s 10 A.M. amigo. Who drinks this early?” I slid my American Express card across the counter. “Give me something fast. 600CCs or more,” smiling like a sucker because I hadn’t been sober since I left Toronto and even then it was a toss-up.

“We don’t rent motorcycles here. You can rent a scooter if you like. But you can’t go to Havana with it.”

“A car then?” my disappointed grimace was hard to contain.

“That could work. We have a Volkswagen Passat available.”

“How’d you manage that? … A Passat? … You’re joking. I saw some classics on the way in. How about a 1951 Plymouth Convertible?” I watched her type faster than I could think; she picked up the phone and dialled some number and chattered something in Spanish.

“Si. Si…” she was saying as I watched another man approach hang up his cell phone.

They talked in Spanish while I leaned on the counter until she pointed to me.

“You want car?” The man asked.

“Yes but I don’t want a Renault or a Volkswagen. I want one of those nice old school convertibles.”

“You know we keep running ourselves. … We … fix ourselves,” he motioned to himself, “They are not original. I have a Mercedes engine in mine. Chevy rear axle. Plymouth gearbox.”

“What kind of car is it?”

“1950 Chevrolet Deluxe.”

“How much?” I asked.

“You’ve been here two weeks right? The writer from Canada? Very cool. We get many like you here. Always sitting by yourself. Smoking and drinking alone all along the beach. That is what Cooba is to you? … No matter. My friend Simon told me sometimes you take the boat too far and he has to come to you? The guy?” he smiled and nodded to the concierge.

“I need your license,” she said.

I spoke close to no Spanish but I could venture a guess what they were talking about. A moral quid-pro-quo. For you see, dear reader, despite the lavish luxury of five-star resorts, the workers themselves cannot partake of any food or drink. They cannot eat, sleep, or relax on resort property. And we, the wealthy, are hard-pressed not to gorge ourselves on the fine rum and cigars and pineapples and steaks and pasta and chicken. One of the maids told me this on the second day. I couldn’t eat for two days. At some point, coughing in cigar smoke, I decided I would take food out of the cafeteria or restaurant under the guise of eating it in my room and then split it amongst the workers. I’m not trying to make myself seem like some paragon of virtue or compassion; it was more for my own comfort than for theirs. You can’t really enjoy your food if the man serving you is himself hungry. By the fourth day most of the crew knew me. In fact, one gentleman named Joseph, which I later learned was pronounced Hoseph, had even gone so far as to bow his head slightly every time he saw me, and after repeatedly begging him not to, he just grinned whenever he saw me.

I slid my license across. “Which guy?”

“The compassionate man. The man with a soul.”

Clichés all over the place. “I don’t believe in the soul.”

“Oh but you should hermano. The soul believes in you! You take my car. I trust you bring it back in one piece.”

“You have my word.” A lie, of course; there was no way I could guarantee jackshit.

He tapped me on the shoulder and walked away, lighting a cigarette.

The concierge handed my cards back and smiled.

“Gracias,” I knocked on the counter.

De nada,” she handed me the keys. “It’s the last car. It is red. Staff parking. You have to go all the way around. Do you know how to get to Havana?”

“I’ll manage.”

She laughed and shook her head, “Drive down this main road…” she motioned with her hands, “And follow it until you merge onto Circuito and Puente Bascular. Then after a while you’ll get to a sharp left at the bus station and parking area. It’s almost like a U-turn. Then Central de Cuba. You got it? CEN-TRAAAL DEE CUUEEBBAA,” she stretched the last part out.

“I got it.”

“You’ll get to Matanzas. Stay on the coastline. The street is called La Habana. That will be 80 kilometres. Should be an hour perhaps. It’s a nice drive. There are small nice cafés. It’s safe to stop. Then you just… follow signs.”

“My specialty,” I helicoptered the keys in my hand and walked out. But not before buying another box of Cohiba Panetelas from the hotel boutique.

“You driving?” The cigar salesman asked.

“What gave me away?”

“Nothing.  You’re The Guy right?”

I was already tired of hearing that.

“… You’ll love Havana. I’m from Mexico myself. Moved here many years ago. My wife is Cuban.”

“Sounds good. We’ll talk later.” I left.

Walking around the side of the building, the sun reflected off the hoods of what could’ve been a history of the automobile arranged from classic American to the newest 2011 Peugeot hatchback. How’d they get those here, I wondered.

I’ll give it to Hector. He had a wonderfully restored red Chevy convertible with a white line going straight from the headlight to the bump of the back wheel. I polished the rims where the chrome met the duo-coloured wheels. The red leather interior still smelled fresh as if it hadn’t been eroded by the passage of time. With a turn of the key, I travelled straight into the 50s.

The concierge hadn’t lied; it was a wonderful landscape, especially when I turned off the highway and drove along the coast. Middle-aged Cubans worked while their strapping young people danced for the busloads of tourists who saw it fit to stop along the water. The only thing that diminished the surreality of continued existence was the constant shuttering sound of camera phones pining to immortalize moments they probably share with thousands of others. My panetela burned smoothly and I was driving against the sun so the darkness burned away with every kilometre I put behind me.

Some people don’t leave the resort the entire time. What’s the point of that?

I pulled over at a café and had something they called an American Destroyer, and when I told them I was Canadian they just laughed and said it would destroy me anyway. It was Havana Club mixed with a pineapple smoothie. I rested while smoking another panetela. Squinting as I watched the sun rays bounce off the red hood of the Chevy.

When it was time to hit the road again I pulled into a gas station to ask for directions because I was afraid I missed that U-turn at the bus station or wherever. I had a coffee. They only drink it black. There are no frappuccinos or foamy flavoured drinks. Things are simpler. The contempt with which the café owner looked at a young German man who asked for milk because the coffee was too strong kept me entertained for hours. I still had ways to go.

Approaching Havana I heard, whether real or hallucinating, the sounds of drums and street parties. I parked before I actually entered the city and rolled the top back up. In the city there was no need for the natives to frolic from store to store and buy things for the benefit of making the tourist feel safe and comfortable. They had, despite their globally morose situation, a deep elation, and though sometimes it was buried in their hearts, you could sense its presence. Most of them didn’t care which two celebrities were dating and at what bars they could be spotted. Seeing random people dance, sometimes couples, wasn’t something I saw every day in Toronto; I berated myself for appropriating their culture; it was unknown to me. New, rich, and full of wonder. I am pampered for even being in this situation and have this thought. They dance; we shop. It’s all the same feedback loop. Was I permitted to elevate their culture, romanticize it? I was sure that there were places here where conditions would be squalid; but then we had those in Toronto too….

It was majestic. There was a street market; tables full of items ranging from family photographs to war medals to car parts being sold for prices that to the capitalist feels like robbery. Little did I know, that despite Havana’s reputation in the west for being a sex-fuelled, boozed, and debauched city, in the corner of my eye hid one of the most profound interactions of my life.

Walking past a table full of handmade trinkets and then another filled with classic baseball cards I caught a glimpse in the corner of my eye. A flashing blur of aqua blue and yellow. When I looked it was only the tame prosaic colours of Cuban tapestry; the dark green army uniforms of the police and the generic grey or black of the merchants. It was too hot and I felt faint. The thirst returned and while I was enjoying a banana smoothie with dark rum I saw it again: the blue and yellow weaving between a few dark green uniforms checking a man’s ID because he was eyeing a collection of used family photos too attentively. I threw too much money on the table venturing to catch the sky but it was she that caught me when she marched up and sat across me. She did not disappoint.

Bonsoir,” I blurted out, following the sun-ray shining upon the golden waves that formed her hair and down her blue summer dress that rested on her snowy shoulders.

“I saw you drive in and then just now looking at the medals. I love it here.”

“There’s a lot of stuff here.” I saw a plane in front of the clear blue sky and followed it until it approached the sun.

“Not really. That’s why I like it. No stuff. It’s…” she inhaled, “Air. Just air. It’s nice to see you again.” her eyes flickered at my brogue boots. She and I had been more than classmates at the University of Toronto.

“You too. Did you ever go back home?” It was more than nice to see her again.

“Yep. To Oslo,” her smile made the sun blink, cooling the weather when clouds covered it.

“That’s a long way.”

She talked about Cuba as if she was a native and it was beguiling to hear her voice. Those hazel irises contracting and dilating talking about Che and Sartre’s visit and Fidelito—that was what she called him. She hated him but spoke of jingoism and illegal embargoes and unjust sanctions in subdued tones  lest we be overheard by a nosy soldier. Every time she pushed a strand of her golden hair out of the way the sun shined on her face for a second and lit her up even more. I was lost. She talked about the fact that the Hotel Nacional had opened on New Years Eve in 1930. I’d never had patience for people talking but she was…. That’s it, she simply was. Another cliché. I left the rest of my drink when she told me that’s where she was staying and invited me back to see the view.

She had a suite all to herself. It felt magical to see the graffitied walls of that Matanzas village, but then the view of the Havana Harbour, steps away from where Sartre, Sinatra, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had stayed, relegated that graffiti to historical shame. In fact, looking out the window, I could see the rich tourists across Cubans trying to sell them fake Cohibas with no discernible difference between them. They all looked so small, like ants trying desperately to understand what it was that kept them moving and circling themselves. A breeze caught my hair and I felt the cool air on my face.

“Beautiful isn’t it? I love Cooba,” she never quite pronounced it as we do: Queba. Rather, with that slender and sexy North European accent trying at the same time to pass for Spanish. It was Cooba. Habbana. Ron and Soeda. Falling in love with beauty is the easiest thing in the world. You can fall in love with someone’s beauty in the morning and cease to be in love by dusk. In that hotel, years after we’d parted ways as lovers, I began to love her not for her beauty but for her soul and her manifestation not as a being of beauty but as a being of meaning. No self-help book, entrepreneur keynote, designer boutique or Apple Store or reasonable rate of return could give me the gift that Cuba gave me. It felt so natural and so real and yet so transcendental that the city, so different from home, in which this feeling occurred would have profound meaning for the rest of my life.

She poured us drinks from the minibar and talked about the different kinds of rum cocktails they make there. It is a fallacy that only a native can understand and feel a culture and land. In other words, the claim that an expatriate or wanderer could never attempt but to scratch the surface of the beauty of a particular place in vain is simply not true. Contrary to earlier, I now thought that travellers always have a unique perspective at their disposal. They are free of bias if they take care that nothing first-worldly has happened to them to provoke a bias, such as losing their luggage or being delayed on a first-class ticket. Naturally, if the person is a frequent wanderer; a flâneur, their judgment may be amplified for they have an abundance of comparisons to rely upon. I wouldn’t know Cuban cigars were superior to Dominican ones unless I’d been to both places or tried them both. What a terrible example, but you understand what I mean. Critics will say there are preferences and the wanderer will have to agree. New York is better than Havana. Thus criteria are established to judge a place not by its own merit but by its comparison to other cities that fit those criteria. To curtail the argument that the notion of a beautiful city, like the notion of a beautiful man or woman, rests upon the objective, the wanderer must relinquish all previous moments except the moments that occur in the destination. In other words, to presume nothing but the experience itself. This is a posteriori.

Why was I trying to think so logically? To deduce some philosophical system out of rich people travel and spend money and romanticize the natives’ lives?Every book a white man writes about Africa is the same book with the same clichés. Now I was guilty of this.

“Isn’t it amazing?” she came up behind me and we stood side-by-side staring out into the harbour.

I looked at her up and down breathing the same air as her and for a moment, that insatiate thirst was quenched.

“Oh my god! I forgot you were a writer! I have to take you to Hemingway’s. Grab your shirt.”

“I’ve already been. There’s one in Helsinki.”

“Not like this one,” with that floaty step of hers; the dancer’s step, and that smile that lit up the sun, I had no choice but to follow. The clichés nearly broke me, I thought, but then I shrugged; you have nothing better to do, I told myself.

And in the abyss of Hemingway’s I drowned. She chattered with the owner in broken Spanish and pointed to me. I glanced around at all the pictures of Hemingway with various Cuban political and social figures and narrated the stories behind each picture to myself. She was telling him I was a writer or something and like a ritual, as if he’d done it thousands of times before for those western tourists interested in Jazz Age literature and the surfaces of their country, he began mixing a drink.

“No,” I interrupted, lighting a panetela, “Give me something else. I don’t want what Hemingway drank,” it was only sprite and white rum anyway. “Make me something distinctly Cuban. Distinctly yours.

A frightening smile washed across his face as he began mixing a cocktail like an old master coming out of retirement for one last job. “This,” he pointed to the glass, “La Generación Perdida.”

“What’s it mean?” I took the glass.

He smirked, “The Lost Generation.”

Every generation thinks they have it rough. But one financial meltdown after another, one corporate bailout after another at our expense, and you find yourself expecting the next one rather than hoping or looking for a saviour.

The next thing I remember is waking up in her hotel room and watching the water through the window.

“What was in that drink?” she yawned with the sun-rays reflecting from her hazel irises through the window and into my soul.

“I don’t know. But it lost me all right.”

“Now you know how they feel,” she turned away from the window and covered herself with the blanket.

To this day, whenever I play this conversation over and over again in my head in ardent nostalgia, I don’t know why I asked, “You want to come to Varadero with me? I’m heading to Europe after.”

“Where in Europe?”

“Paris, then catching the plane to Lisbon.”

She just laughed as she got dressed. “Maybe next time, my love.” She left the room to get breakfast and never returned. I waited three days. I wanted to stay indefinitely but my hotel called. They were worried and reality set into me like the darkness of those clear night airs so seldom felt in Canada but so plentiful on that “magical” island.

“Thanks Hector,” I shook his hand and handed him the keys, “I filled her up for you.”

“You look different. Believe in souls now, hermano?”

I didn’t answer as readily as last time, “Thanks Hector,” I repeated in an attempt to ignore him, “She really is wonderful,” I pointed to the car.

He laughed. “She is… I like you hermano. You’re cool.”

I bowed to Joseph and left that day. What was it about that place?

The same uncanny disquiet shook me when I saw her again. It was in Paris and I’d been thinking of her constantly. Like the second act of a bad film, I’d dreamt we’d moved to one of those coastline villas outside of Havana and we would wake and drink black coffee and stare out into the sea. I was writing her a poem about it while having my breakfast at the Plaza Athénée and she just… walked in front of me.

“This place is nice,” was how she greeted me after all that elapsed time, “But it’s no Cooba!” then she bent down, pecked me on the cheek, and walked towards the lobby. By the time I chased her outside she was gone again.

Bruce Crown is from Toronto. He has penned four novels. He has attained an HBA from the University of Toronto, and an M.Phil. from the University of Copenhagen. He splits his time between Copenhagen, and Toronto.

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.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story of  what it means to be human as an adoptee is important.

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Women Are Waiting

May 28, 2021
women

by Arya Samuelson

It always starts with a woman. Plunging into a clawfoot tub, burning her skin in waves. Or poised at the edge of her bed, head turned as if to pose for a portrait – only nobody else is there. What about the woman gazing at the rice fields, straw brim hat shielding her eyes from the feverish sun? She is not of this place and that’s why she has come. Because she feels freest in places where she has no history. (No history except colonialism, whispers a voice inside, which she swats away like the mosquitoes that form a curtain along the river.) A woman living inside a girl, furious and desperate because she can’t tie her shoes; the knot is slipping and she’s screaming inside, surrounded by a hovering crowd of her brother’s friends.

These women are waiting. Their story awaits. Hearts beat wildly, skin pulsing with the desire to be carried away on the boat of narrative that will give their lives, their pain, a purpose. The boats with engraved names like Plot or Character Development or Foil. Many will wait for a yacht to dock and hope for a big pay-off, others prefer a fishing boat (an ensemble drama,) while some settle for a sailboat: a self-published journey. It’s only the bravest and most foolish who dream of Transformation, the solitary ship that travails the rockiest, most violent waters. Capsizing is the deal you must strike. Body buckled beneath the current, black seaweed twisting your ankles. Heartbursting, striving for surface and a life beyond it. Survival is not a guarantee. Better to board the cruise boat that sails alongside and raise a cocktail glass to those morons. Sure, you only exist in glimpses – everyone’s attention fixed on Transformation, betting on the odds as if this were a horse race – but at least you’ll get to have some fun.

How to obtain passage on such a ship? Theories abound. Some say you need to cause a scene, shriek in the captain’s ear, and if it comes to this, grip your hands around his neck. Others whisper about underground bidding wars, where tickets are auctioned in exchange for unspeakable deeds. But another way is to climb inside an image – a woman plucking flowers, or lighting a house on fire, or climbing inside a bathtub and sing the words that resound at the core of your pelvis. Just stay there, resting inside the frame or moving your limbs when the impulse strikes, entirely and completely yourself, until someone walks by with a thousand questions. A passer-by so moved with wonder they’ll invite you onto their ship. Though you must wait for the right person, someone who won’t treat you like a circus monkey or glaze over your words. Wait for the person who will instead feed you fresh bread and crisp apples, who leaves a bowl of silence after each question, waiting to be filled with your voice.

Arya Samuelson is a writer currently based in Northampton, MA. She was awarded CutBank’s 2019 Montana Prize in Non-Fiction, which was judged by Cheryl Strayed. Her work has also been published in New Delta Review, Entropy, and The Millions. Arya is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at Mills College and is currently working on her first novel. She is proud to be part of Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal coven of writers.

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.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

Nobody Lives Here Anymore

May 7, 2021
rose

by Margaret MacDonald

When Rose dreams, she’s in the middle of a long street. It’s one of the streets that her and Cathy would make jokes about, would make up stories about the lives inside, would look at the house stiff and erect and lifeless and instantly know the type of person who owned it.

Surely nobody can live in there, Cathy would say. You would be scared to take your shoes off.

Rose’s sister goes missing on a Tuesday. On a Tuesday Rose’s sister leaves. Whichever one is true, either way she’s gone. Rose tells the police everything she knows.

She was at work late that night and her name is Cathy

She was wearing a grey raincoat and her name is Cathy

Her name is Cathy and her name is Cathy

After a week, the police come to the conclusion that Cathy left of her own volition. The evidence is stacked against Rose: Cathy took some cash out of their shared safe, some of her clothes are missing along with her rucksack, and she quit her job the night that she left.

Nothing survives her or loves her except for Rose. There’s nobody to argue with.

Rose leaves voicemails, texts, Facebook messages, Snapchat messages, emails. She calls and calls and calls until her voice is hoarse from repeating the same lines, always a variation of please just answer or please let me know you’re alright or please.

She worries so much that she gives herself a stomach ache. The worst of all is that she doesn’t know what she did wrong.

Rose finds a dead spider in the bath. She baulks to move it but manages to scoop it up with a cup. The noise that it makes as it flops against the side, solid and real, reminds her that it was alive once. She looks down at it, small inside the cup. What a terrible way to die, she thinks. Scrambling uselessly against the side of the bathtub, desperately trying to stay afloat inside the puddle left behind. The longer she looks, the longer she thinks that might not be true. Maybe its last moments were peaceful, and clean. She read somewhere that you shouldn’t kill spiders; that they’re signs of a clean home. An empty home.

In her dreams, Rose looks down the long row of houses that her and Cathy joked about. She starts to walk. There’s no lights on in any of the houses. They’re all identical, white-bricked and front-facing, all hollow dark windows and shadowed edges. There’s one at the end, though, that feels different. It feels alive.

Rose slows as she nears it. She watches for a moment.

Branches press their arms against the glass, pushing and curling and bending to fit inside the house until they sprout out the window to shoot tall and long and free. The roof is moving too, straining, hurting, before more branches push and shove themselves out. They bloom with leaves and flowers and create a canopy, like a silly little hat.

Rose smiles. It truly does look silly. Like a tree wearing a house, or maybe a house swallowed a tree.

She walks around the side to inspect it, comes to the back garden and feels her feet stop. It’s their back garden, the one they grew up in.

Rose takes a couple steps until she’s in the middle. She stands there for a moment until she feels something. She frowns.

It’s a voice, it’s underneath her feet somewhere below the ground, not a sound exactly but the sensation that a voice makes in the base of the throat. It’s in the soles of her feet, a vibration, a feeling.

Rose goes down on her hands and knees. She touches the mud with tentative fingertips and feels along the surface; it’s trying to escape. Rose doesn’t know why, doesn’t know how she knows, but then

She starts to dig, her fingers tearing at the soft earth like teeth into cake. The more she digs the more it unearths of the voice, the murmur. It’s shapeless and formless but it’s familiar, it’s her sister, she’s buried, she’s trapped.

A frantic sense of surety wells up in Rose, she’s down there, she knows Cathy is down there. Her hands are deep deep deep inside, elbow-high in the stomach of it, fingernails rooted and filled with mud. Rose puts her ear close to the ground and strains to hear, listens for help or I’m stuck or Rose, is that you? Get me out! but the murmuring is taking shape, is turning into words, a strange automated quality to them, robotic and unreal as,

Hye, you there? I’ve been back to the apartment

Rose spreads her palms across the ripped-up earth, the roots and the muck, presses the side of her face flat and listens to the whirring click of the voicemail,

Where are you? They said you quit your job two days ago. Seriously, Cathy? What the hell are –

The voice is small, it smells like moss and dirt, like piles and piles and piles of earth are on top of it.

Okay, I really don’t give a shit about the money, just call –

Rose closes her eyes, she could speak the words alongside herself, she could say,

Where exactly do you think you’re going to stay, Cathy? Do you not realise we’ve scraped by –

She lies down properly, on her side with her cheek in the mud, and mouths,

Are you ever going to answer? I know these are going through, so what? You won’t block me, won’t change your number, you’ll just keep ignoring me?

Are you there?

Hey, I’m home! You’d never guess what happened on my way over!

Anyone home! It’s me!

Just me!

Margaret McDonald (she/her) is a Scottish writer. She has a B.A (Hons) in Creative Writing with English Literature from The University of Strathclyde, and is currently studying for an MLitt in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. She was shortlisted in the Cranked Anvil Short Story Competition July 2020. She’s @margaret_pens on Twitter and @margaretmcdonald_ on Instagram

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

.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

aging, empty nest, Fiction, Guest Posts

Overexposed

April 30, 2021
new car overexposed

By Karen Mandell

Before she left us for North Carolina, Marie told us that the wife moving in was recovering from a stroke. Great, Dalia said after Marie went back inside to her packing, she’ll die here. We gasped, shocked, but I knew it was inevitable, especially when I met Cath some weeks later.

George, the husband, said they’d come from California. Then why come to Massachusetts, I asked him, the early November day already dreary. I have three sons, he said, one in California, one in Missouri, and one here. I waited for him to go on. And my only grandkid is in Reading. A ten-year-old girl. Of course, I said. One town over. We were mostly like that in this complex—downsized middle-agers with young family nearby. They were a few single women here, five of them. One couple got divorced soon after they moved in, right before my time. The others had never married.

I met Cath once, though the signs of her presence were evident—a ramp from the garage to the back door, guys taking measurements for a ramp to the front door. When I met her, they’d just driven into the garage. No packages, so I supposed they’d come from a doctor’s appointment or a drive around the neighborhood. We were still at that stage—exploring the almost rural North Shore with its country roads and small ponds. Practically a different state from Boston and its suburban environs, its diverse restaurants and neighborhoods, its strip malls on Route 9 and Bloomindales-esque shopping centers.

I figured that since their garage door was still open, I’d run over and introduce myself. Cath, still unsteady after her illness, was arm and arm with her husband. Her hair was rough and her coat was half buttoned and studded with leaf bits. I felt sorry for her, a surging liquidy feeling, and more generally sorry for George. This hapless woman needed more care than her husband was able to give her. I walked to the back of the garage with them, almost to the ramp. “I need the ramp because of my eyes,” she said, and I looked at her gray eyes behind the smudged glasses.

“You need the ramp for more than that,” George said. I knew he wanted me to go, and I did. I did feel like voyeur.

It was a quiet complex, and it was a couple of weeks before I talked to his next-door neighbor, Gloria. I prodded her a little about the new neighbors. “She fell down a couple of times,” Gloria said. “She’s at a nursing home now.” She didn’t know when she’d be coming home. In the following days, I saw his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter pull into the driveway and go inside. After the next couple visits, they brought their new puppy, a French bulldog that looked stuffed into its fur. I liked the fact that they had a small periwinkle blue car, a little Datsun, which belied the image of suburban family so prevalent in Newton, our old town.

When our daughter Willow drove over (from Wakefield, the town next-door—the reason we’d moved thirty miles north) I told her about Cath and the nursing home. Seven-year-old Hailey was making snow angels on our little strip of lawn, and I didn’t think she was listening. Well, I hoped she wasn’t listening because I wanted to talk to Willow about our neighbors. But of course she was. “What’s a stroke,” she said. “Like a stroke of luck?” Hailey had a good vocabulary and was very nosy. I liked to think I was exactly like her as a child.

“It’s a sickness,” I said. She’s resting and getting better.” Hailey looked at me. I could tell she was assessing her own health. “Could I get it?” she said, fear scrunching up her nose.

 “Of course not,” Willow said. “It’s for old people.”       

“But then will Bubbie get it or Papi?”       

“No, no. They’re not that old and it’s not that common.”

 “Let’s go across the bridge to the wetlands,” I said. What a grandma I was. My mother would never talk about others’ illnesses in front of the kids. And cancer was never cancer but C. And then my own grandma said kaynahora, meaning keep the evil eye away. “Maybe we’ll see a coyote.” I said.

“Will they bite,” Hailey said, excited.    

“Only if they’re worried about their children,” I said. At least they were good mothers.

A few days later Gloria sat outside on her front step, enjoying the early winter sun. A good chance to ask her about Cath. “She died,” Gloria said, whispering though no one else was outside.

“I had no idea,” I said. “I haven’t seen George.” Not that I knew him well enough to ask him anything. A few of his activities were obvious just from looking out the dining room window: golf, food shopping of course, a walk through the complex, bringing back the mail from the mailboxes stacked at the front of the complex. He liked to wash his new car, having trading in his small Lexus for a larger NX. Insurance money, I decided. In fact, I’d said a few words to him the other day, you’ve got a new car. Yes, he answered, smiling.

 And then the workmen started coming, dragging large boxes out of their trucks. New appliances, fridge, stove, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer. Naturally all the condos had come with appliances, moderately priced, acceptable brands. But these new ones were high end, European, six burner stovetops, Viking and Bosch. I could tell by the cardboard containers, broken down and tied up on trash day. I talked to one of the workers. “He’s doing some work,” I said. Casual. A whole new kitchen, he told me. I was glad to get that much out of him. I would have loved to see inside, but that was impossible. I almost never saw him. It was cold, people were inside, socializing was practically nil.

Next to his driveway there was a patch of grass, then a two-car parking area meant for guests. A fairly new Subaru Forester began parking there, nicely washed, clean and spiffy inside. Sometimes the car was gone, but it always came back, though I never saw its driver. Someone’s guest. Not that that black car was the only outlier—adult children of the condo owners came and went with their children. No one under fifty-five was entitled to live here, but with jobs lost, rental prices high, parents took in their children and grandkids and dogs. Like the other condos, our dining room windows looked out onto the street, if you could call it that, more like a paved pathway. The developers hadn’t bothered to name the roads, so only our houses had names—or more accurately, numbers. No Mount Isabel or Clotworthy House here—just 43 (us) or 31 (George the widower across the street).

Sitting at the dining room table, reading The Globe, I figured out who owned what cars here. Because the mailboxes were at the front entrance of the development, I watched the residents walk down and back and take strolls with their visiting friends. Once when we were sitting down to Morty’s veal stew, he said, “You don’t have to get up every time someone walks by.” I hadn’t realized my behavior was so obvious, but there I was peering out between the slats of the closed blinds.

     “I was just checking the weather,” I lied. It wasn’t an outright lie because I do check the weather every time I look outside. When I was a teacher, one of my students told me I was a weather person. I thought that was a wonderful compliment, though I’d been mad at him earlier for playing with a koosh pencil topper in class. I’d taken it from him and put it in my desk. When he asked for it a few days later I said no. I liked it myself and wanted it. Some years later I heard he’d gotten engaged but committed suicide. I put the stringy ball on a top shelf and left it. I found it recently and briefly considered giving it to my granddaughter, but it had too many bad connotations. Did I prod him to committing suicide, like the last tiny breeze that makes the piggy’s straw house fall down? Like chaos theory, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Don’t act like I have nothing else to do,” I said. I opened my mouth to list them, all my activities, but Morty counted them off for me.

“Your reading, your newspapers, your piano playing.” He held up his hand so I wouldn’t stop him, “Poetry writing, your houseplants.”

“And I’m thinking of taking up painting.” Morty is a painter plus he does his leadership training from home. He nodded showing his potential interest.

“Actually,” I said, “it’s paint by numbers but it’s for adults. I saw it on Etsy. Lots of colors and tiny spaces to work on. Copies of the great masters.” As soon as I said this, I knew I couldn’t possibly do it. Thank goodness I hadn’t ordered anything yet. I need something to suck me in, a novel by Elisabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf, where nothing really happens and you don’t have to follow a plot. Although I do love mysteries where the bodies pile up but the gore quotient is low.

Morty cut a couple of pieces of the good sourdough you can only get in Brookline, thirty miles away. I know that because that’s how far we moved to get closer to the grandkids. After twenty years in the old house. “I wonder how George across the street is doing. Do you ever see him to talk to?”

“When he’s been out washing his car now and then. Not since it’s got cold.”

“Maybe he’s joined a church and has friends there,” I suggested.

“Churches aren’t open yet. Are they? He gets the paper. That must take some time. You have noticed that the paper’s getting skimpier and skimpier.”

“I don’t like being aware of that,” I said.

“Anyway, I’m sure he’ll be fine. As much as the rest of us. His granddaughter and the puppy must lift his spirits.”

When Willow called, I asked her if I was having a delayed reaction to Sapphie. She’d died at sixteen last summer. I didn’t cry—I’m not a crier unless there’s a strand of tenderness in a book or some heart-tugging in a movie—but I missed her and her constant padding after me.

“You’ll take care of our dog,” Willow reminded me. Their Tibetan terrier puppy would hopefully be born in the summer—if the mother got pregnant. The breeder had tried once. They didn’t know yet if it took. Nothing was easy.

I started using the computer in the dining room. The light was better than the loft upstairs, in my nook near the laundry room. It still got dark early, so I could watch the sunset up close—the windows down here faced southwest. Upstairs, they faced north, so the light didn’t change much all day. In the interludes between lines

We buck each other up, the morning and I.

I throw open the window and admire her fog twist…

And the next one:

Loading the dryer, I think chocolate,

Chocolate waiting in the heart shaped red box

 Luck winds around me like a static filled sheet, an electric kiss…

I realized that it was one o’clock, lunchtime. The Subaru was parked in the guest space across the street, and I put on my coat, hat, and scarf to go pick up the mail, a constitutional before lunch. A bunch of circulars, it turned out, and the Lynnfield weekly paper, read mostly for the prices of recent house sales. I glanced into the Forester on the way back, surreptitiously because it did make me feel like I was snooping around. Someone could be looking at me from their window, George being the first to come to mind. I had enough time to take in the lack of magazines and books and reusable bags on the back seat, the spotless floor mats, the unstained and empty cup holders. The owner was someone neat and tidy with a new car like George. Or maybe George had helped her do a through cleaning. Some people found cleaning cars relaxing—smaller than a house, smaller than a kitchen, manageable. Maybe George had a girlfriend, I thought wildly, who had a car as well cared for as his. This car.

A romance on our street. Why not? A middle-aged man, trim, energetic. How much time could golf take. A lot, obviously, when I considered the people my uncle played with when I visited the New Jersey branch of the family as a child. My father wouldn’t touch the sport, having determined it was the refuge of the overweight, tightly belted white pants wearing bourgeoise. Plus, he’d never seen golf growing up in Poland, where soccer was the only activity that mattered. Though Morty’s parents had both played, and neither one was overweight nor particularly bourgeoise.

By the time I walked up the five steps to my front door, the questions had piled up like vehicles in a traffic jam on 128. Where would George have met her? Not only was he new in town, but he’d been a widower for just a few months. Actually, when you’re new in town is when you do make friends, making the effort to replace the network left back home. And the company of his late wife. They’d come to Boston to watch their granddaughter grow, and her being the only grandchild among his three sons made it likely that he’d go to a bunch of her activities. Dance recitals, basketball games, maybe even puppy training classes. Endless opportunities.

Inside, I shoved aside the computer, my pad of paper, various pens and pencils to the other end of the dining room table. I assembled my usual lunch: sharp cheddar cubes, cut up apple and carrot (plus one for Morty, vegetable intake a priority now that our eyesight was sputtering somewhat). Leftover seafood salad from Big Y, fragments (many of them) of super dark chocolate from the bar that I whacked on the counter. From my place at the table, my back and right shoulder each facing a separate window, I was steeped in a sunshine bath. I felt like a dozing tabby, my usual mid-lunch mood of purring satisfaction. But the satisfaction did not hold—I was still puzzling out how George across the street met a companion so fast. There was the grieving, the hunt for a new car, new appliances, fresh furniture too, from the vans marked Boston Interiors and Room and Board recently parked in front of his house. An electrician’s truck (More Power to You!), the plumber’s van (Pipe Dreams). From sleek and purring I’d descended alarmingly to frumpy and lethargic. I was beholding the youthfulness and energy of a person in love and awash in shiny new things.

The old song from my childhood shimmied through my mind—baby, baby where did our love go? Not that I didn’t love Morty—absolutely, timelessly. But recreating that spark of new love; now that was something else. I saw in my mind’s eye how it happened. George and his son and daughter-in law were attending Skye’s school open house. It was going to be a low-key affair this year with only half the parents attending that night and the other half waiting until next week. George and family were in the first group. He wouldn’t have missed it for the world. When his son called him in the morning, he said that he and his wife were toggling back and forth on who had the worse stomach—that left over take-out deli most likely the culprit. In the end, neither of them felt up to going and George went by himself. He was nervous and apprehensive, not having been in an elementary school for years. He could barely remember his three sons’ open houses. But certainly Carol had been there jotting down notes.

He struggled a bit to ease himself into a student’s seat. But not struggling too hard because he was slight and fit. He didn’t need more than walks and golf and the sustenance of foods prepared in his newly applianced and furnished kitchen/dining room to stay in shape. That’s what he told himself, although Carol would have a different point of view. She usually did. You’ve got a dream kitchen, he could hear her saying, you’d better use it to cook up plenty of vegetables and not just heat up high-end take-out.

Ms. Reid leaned back against her desk in updated yoga pants and long belted cashmere sweater and described what she expected from her students. (George felt a little bad that she’d have to go through this again for next week’s parents.) Well-crafted three paragraph essays to begin with, moving on to decoding poetry and close reading of fiction. She moved closer to the window, the high intensity lights in the parking lot plus the fluorescent classroom lights burnishing her hair. After her presentation, she chatted with the parents for a few minutes before she commiserated briefly with George about the death of Skye’s grandmother (and his wife) before she had to move on to others practically jostling for their turn.

George told his daughter-in-law that he’d pick Skye up from school a few days a week. Sometimes Ms. Reid came out to the playground to help out with pickup, but not always. Other teachers would take their turns. He told Skye to look for him on Tuesdays and Fridays, which were Ms. Reid’s days. It hadn’t taken long for him to figure that out. They chatted and one day when there was no school (the second day of winter break) they went to an afternoon movie at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. It was having a week of art house movies. Plus it made a nice drive—fifty miles round trip from Lynnfield Elementary School, where Toni parked her car and got into George’s.

The relationship, I figured, was well-launched by now. When I picked up the papers in the morning (his almost always already taken in), her car was outside, sometimes dusted with snow, sometimes layered with it. I wondered why he didn’t put hers in the garage with his. He had some shelves and a couple pieces of furniture along the right-hand wall, but he could move them around. He must have read my mind, because the next few days, which were stormy, her car wasn’t there. So the garage it was! Still, I hadn’t seen her yet, no matter how many times I looked outside. Everyone glances out now and then, and maybe my looking was a bit excessive, but barely. It just got me that I never laid eyes on her. It was like a cat and mouse game that she didn’t even know she was playing. On days when the weather was better, the Subaru would spend the day sunning itself in the parking spot.

I needed to do more walking. It would be spring soon (eventually) and I wanted to get in shape for the halcyon days of summer, riding my bike, strolling along Crane Beach. I didn’t want to feel fragile and rusty. I was at that age where you could tip either way, into the pre-elderly or a robust middle age. I crept through the hedges near the mailboxes, across a backyard, and landed in a posh neighborhood of brick mansions, with stone lions at the front doors or giant urns which held mostly dead foliage, even in the summer. But the avenues were broad, with almost nobody outdoors except a very few children and dog walkers. After I’d had my fill of too-large houses, I decided to walk in our development, where at least I could nod at the people I knew or introduce myself to those I didn’t. In none of the apartments could you see inside, windows swathed in curtains or blinds (like mine, though I kept them open all day to bring in the natural light). I switched to walking in the backyards, though I felt a little self-conscious, a holdover from my days in Newton/Needham, where a backyard was part of a homeowner’s property. Here in the development, you didn’t own the land—the complex did jointly. Even so, I seemed the only one who walked through backyards. Old habits die hard for some of us.

I expected that some would sit out on their patios during the afternoons when the late winter sun let loose its rays, sharp as swords. But no—people obviously had other things to do than expand their lungs and take in the beneficial microorganisms the earth began releasing this time of year. I know I could have called old friends and the new ones here and taken a more congenial walk. But this had been a winter of lethargy unless you summoned your forces to break out of it. For some time I hadn’t been a caller. But I was never sorry to have had a conversation. It lifted my spirts, reinforcing the fact that I had friends. Like everyone.

After lunch not long afterwards, I was about to bring my dish to the sink when I saw a couple moving from the block around the corner in the direction of the parked Subaru. Had George and his girlfriend taken a stroll and were now going for a drive? Did he usually wear a long loden coat? The woman had her hair tucked into the back of her coat, and now she pulled it out and loosened it around her shoulders. Like shaken silk, her light brown hair draped across her back. Even in a shampoo commercial, I’d never seen hair as shiny and all in a piece, no recalcitrant locks or gaps in its magnificent flow. That was my first thought. My second, as her companion thumbed his key and opened the door, was this man wasn’t George but neither was she George’s girlfriend. A young couple with a rental car visiting relatives in the complex, staying over. It had never occurred to me that there was a different angle to my story. Me, who always counted on both sets of fingers all the potentialities, mostly bad, in any situation, had been bushwhacked this time. I was sad the girlfriend for George hadn’t panned out. And for one twisted wretched moment I was also glad. Shouldn’t we all be suffering now? I want to say that that moment was truly just a moment.

I sat on the front stoop, letting the oblique sun warm my earlobes when George’s garage door opened and he came out. He placed his golf clubs in his trunk and walked around to the driver’s side. “Snow’s gone,” I said, standing up and moving toward the street. He smiled, a bright transforming smile like some people have. “You didn’t have a guest,” I added.

“A guest? You mean my son and his family.”

“Oh. Yeah,” I said. “They have a cute dog and what a sparky little girl.” I didn’t ask how the open house at school went. “I see the family coming up the steps sometimes, laden with shopping bags. Ten-year-old girls are a perfect age.”

“Nine, but she’s tall.”

“I’m sure she’s doing well in school.”

“She’s been home-schooled this year, but she’ll be going back after spring break.”

“Sure,” I said. “Things change.”

“Let’s hope so,” he said.

“I wanted to say how sorry I am about your wife.”

“Thank you.” He pursed his lips and nodded. His gray hair was thick and shaggy. Not in an unkempt way. Monty didn’t tell me when he was getting a haircut, just came back shorn and sheared. Maybe George had waited for his wife to tell him to go to the barber. “At least Carol got to be with Amy before she passed,” he said.

Amy? Of course. Not Skye. While we talked, I felt I was looking at a double-exposed photo from my parents’ time. Or hearing an echo coming back distorted.

My story about George superimposed upon his story made me dizzy. I felt the loss of Skye and Ms. Toni Reid. You’ve got an overactive imagination my parents would admonish me when I was worried about germs or friends that might abandon me or strep throat decades ago. But this moment I wasn’t dreading the obvious, just overlaying a scrim onto our harsh anodyne landscape.    

“I’d better go in,” I said. “I may try a recipe for Thai Stir-Fried Glass Noodles from The Globe. If it turns out, I’d be happy to bring some over. Can’t promise any miracles.”

At home I plucked the recipe from the dog-eared and tea-stained pile on a dining room chair. I had the cellophane noodles, but I hadn’t read farther down the ingredient list. Two tablespoons fish sauce… The recipe lost me right there, before the small head green cabbage, fresh cilantro, oyster sauce. I’d had a cabbage but left it in the garage (my “root cellar”) too long. Scratch glass noodle soup for any of us tonight. No, I couldn’t promise any miracles. Tomorrow I’d get what we needed.

Karen Mandell has taught writing at the high school and college levels and literature at community senior centers. She’s written Clicking, interconnected short stories, and Rose Has a New Walker, a book of poetry, both available on Amazon. She’s working on The Lulu Stories, speculative fiction that takes place in the near future.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts

The Haw Eaters

April 23, 2021
greg

by Bruce Meyer

My college roommate, Greg, kept a box of papers in the bottom drawer of his desk. He opened the box one night and told me his entire life was made of paper. There was an adoption record – no former names, Christian or surnames, stated – and a newspaper clipping from the Toronto Star where a sad-looking child, his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him was featured as ‘Today’s Child.” That was Greg.

He stared at the neatly snipped rectangle, yellowing and growing brittle with age, and said simply, “That’s the only picture I have of my childhood. You see? My white family took the trouble to scratch out my real name. They wanted me to be their Gregory. They wanted me to be someone else. And so, I obliged them. It was better than going back to the residential school.”

I wondered how he could go through life, at least to this point, a high achiever on both athletic and academic scholarships, someone with a big ‘He’s-going-to-be really- someone’ sign hanging around his neck, yet remain humble, fun to hang out with, considerate. He’d become the sort of guy who brings you chicken soup when you have the flu.

Yet for everything he is, he had no idea who he was.

I wanted to feel his pain, but I couldn’t fathom what that pain could be like. My grandparents and parents had gone to the same college at the university. I was simply falling in step, as was expected of me. I was not merely part of a lineage: I was white privilege.

“How did you…”

“Cope? Stay sane? I had to live with it. Hard as it is, I figured what is just is. I didn’t know a different life. I knew mine was mine no matter what they called me.

“Imagine,” he said, “if someone came into your house when you were four or five and ripped you from the arms of your mother or grandmother. How would you have felt? At night in St. Bartholomew’s School I’d lie awake in the dark and listen to the other children in the rows of white iron cots as they sobbed into their pillows. Sobbing was a good sign. It meant you still had something to miss, something to live for. Those who stopped sobbing would be found hanging in the basement of the school or frozen in the forests beyond the school’s grounds.”

“Do you have any idea where you’re from?” I asked him as he folded the clipping, set the papers in order, and put the lid on the box.

“Not a clue. I have memories, though. An old woman. I can’t even see her face clearly. She is standing beside a lake and she’s staring at an island across the waters. It isn’t a large lake, and the island in the middle of it isn’t all that big either. It could be anywhere. This whole frickin’ country is made of lakes and islands. I keep going back there in my dreams. I keep trying to talk to her, to ask her questions, but because we only meet in dreams, the sounds won’t come out of my mouth. She does speak to me sometimes, but it’s in a language I don’t understand, and that makes her seem farther away than she really is. I’d love to know who and where she is. She is old in the dream and has probably passed on by now.”

Everything in Greg’s dreams, he told me, happened by moonlight. He couldn’t see where the light was coming from. Then he’d get playful and ask, “Who the hell lights our dreams? I mean, is there a gaffer pulling cables and setting the blue flood just right so we can see where we’re going and not bump into the more solid illusions?” He’d laugh, but I could tell that the laugh was masking a very deep pain. It wasn’t a happy laugh.

Greg was my closest friend at university, my spirit double, if there is such a thing, someone for whom I’d be honored to be a shadow. We’d talk about anything, but mainly about how we know or don’t know who we are. Greg knew what he wanted to become. He was fascinated by the law. He’d ask me why it was legal to kidnap a child, and I’d tell him I had no idea, and that I thought all kidnapping was illegal. He’d agree. What was wrong was wrong, he’d insist, and he’d say that someday that wrong would have to be undone.

He got accepted into law school.

“I’m not as happy as my folks.”

He never called them his family, only his “folks.” He said he never felt completely a part of their lives but was more of a good deed they felt they were doing, a project that was coming to fruition like pulling the last thread and watching a ship pop up in an empty bottle, the way he described it.

“I’m going on to law school because it is another step on the road back to where I need to be.”

After graduation, we lost track of each other until I ran into him as I was going into one of our old lunch haunts near the campus and he was coming out. We talked for a few moments. When he said, “family law,” there was something emphatic about the word ‘family,’ as if he felt that the law was a means of turning back the clock to find what he had lost. In the chapters of parliamentary acts and statutes, there was a blood connection he was seeking.

He asked me if I had a week off this summer. I did. “We can do the buddy thing and drive north and look for the island.”

“Good luck in that,” I said.

“No, I mean it, man. Besides, I don’t have a license and you do. The Griffiths told me I had to earn a car, and I can either have wheels or I can pay my fees. There’s more future in my fees. Besides, I need you to be Tonto to my Lone Ranger. You can sense your way to the lake with the island. I trust your instincts.”

When I picked him up at his apartment in the stillness of the pre-dawn damp I told him we were going to start with the biggest island and then work down to the smallest. It seemed logical.

The biggest island on a lake is Manitoulin, a belt of limestone that rises out of the waters of Georgian Bay and defines the meeting point between the three Great Lakes of Superior, Huron, and Michigan. It is the Niagara Escarpment after it has drowned off Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula and risen to life again to the north.

I’d read a travel magazine in a dentist’s office where the writer said the island had been destroyed by an enormous forest fire around the time Shakespeare lived, and that after the War of 1812 it had been resettled by indigenous peoples who remained loyal to the British and got the raw end of a treaty. The writer described Manitoulin as a Chinese puzzle box of islands.

“Imagine,” said the traveler, “the largest island in the world on a freshwater lake, and one that island is the largest freshwater lake on an island, and in the middle of the lake is the largest island on the largest lake on the largest island on the largest lake in the world.” Once I sorted out the knot of that sentence I felt that the best place to search for an island in someone’s mind is to begin with an island of dream-like anomalies.

As we drove north following the shoreline of Georgian Bay where we stopped every twenty miles to look at islands only to have Greg shake his head and say, “Not that one,” we arrived in Rainbow Country. We didn’t see any rainbows. Greg shrugged and looked out the window. “Just a lot more rocks and trees,” he said. “I feel as if we’re trapped in a Group of Seven painting.”

But as we turned along the North Shore and headed west toward the Algoma Region, the hard, rugged terrain of marshes and mountains, the landscape became the dream-like terra incognito described by the magazine writer. Granite outcrops rose up from drowned pockets. Bulrushes and beaver lodges emerged from glistening rivers that snaked between sharp granite clefts. We passed through the White Fish Nation and Greg said he was feeling strange, as if something in the pit of his stomach was trying to make him ill. We pulled over and he threw up into a ditch or marsh marigolds that are commonly known as Urineworts because they bloom like lotuses in stagnant water.

“So what hit you?” I asked.

“I feel a lot better. I don’t think it was anything I ate because you ate the same coffee and doughnuts back in Parry Sound. I think it was something I feel I had to get rid of, something in my gut that wanted to come out. I’ve never had a feeling like that before.

“Up ahead,” Greg said, “just on the edge of the res, there are rocks. They are stranded on flats where the granite becomes a road of limestone.”

“That’s a good start,” I said. “More where they came from, I’ll bet. How do you know there are rocks?”

“I don’t know. In one of my dreams the rocks were singing. Weird, eh?”

“Yeah, weird. I’m driving you around to look for an island that could be any island in a country that boasts several million islands and you remember singing rocks. Remind me again that you never dropped acid.”

“Man, I know it’s crazy, but they’ll be there.”

Within a few miles the topography changed again to low, flat limestone, and on the exposed bedrock surface sat enormous blue stone boulders and nothing grew around them. They looked as if they had just dropped from outer space.

“That’s them!” He shouted. “Those are the rocks!”

And electric sign by the side of the road announced that the iron swing bridge to Little Current on Manitoulin Island would only remain open for another ten minutes. If the single-lane span swung open, it might remain open for an hour or more to let the sailboats of wealthy Americans pass from Manitouwaning Bay to the North Channel above the island. I explained this to Greg.

“Good you’ve done your homework.”

“Just read a map and a guidebook,” I said. “Do you want to stop at the rocks?”

He looked at me as if I was daft. “I don’t feel up for a sing-along.”

“You really are sure they sing, eh?”

“It was just a dream. You can’t get blood or a good tune out of a rock.”

It was ten a.m. when we arrived in Little Current, the biggest town on Manitoulin. A policeman waved us off the main road to a detour and as we turned he halted us and leaned in the car window.

“Parking’s over there for the festival.”

I pulled into the first empty space.

“Wanna go to a festival?” I asked.

Greg shrugged. He didn’t care one way or another and because we were driving nowhere in particular he got out and we walked back to the highway into town. A parade of floats pulled by red an orange tractors was inching its way toward a field at the end of their procession. Girls on the floats were waving and shouting to the crowd. A high school marching band, off-key, with a very noticeable glockenspiel, tramped by. On another float the local Junior B Hockey team was pointing to the crests on their jerseys and raising index fingers to tell everyone they were number one. The end of the parade was a cortege of Provincial Police cars, an ambulance, a firetruck, and the Mayor holding up a fluttering town flag as he sat on the back shelf of a red convertible.

“Canadiana at its finest,” I said.

An old man in a red and black bush shirt walked up to us and handed us each a palmful of red berries.

“Be a haw-eater!” he shouted.

There was a woman standing next to me. Her white hair was pulled back behind her head and fastened by a leather barrette with a stick through it. Her shirt was embroidered with a dreamcatcher – a stick bent into a circle and woven with gutting and beads on the threads to catch the sad and insane imaginings of a sleeper as they pass from the conscious world to the inside of a dreamer’s head. I’d seen dreamcatchers for sale in one of the occult shops near the campus and had thought of getting one for Greg but didn’t when I thought he might think I was joshing him about his nocturnal habits or his indigenous roots. I asked the woman what the berries were.

“Hawberries. They only grow on the island, and appear only during a July full moon, a time when the face of the old woman shines down on Turtle Island. Food of the Great Spirit,” she said and smiled.

The hawberries were about the size of Saskatoons which I’d tasted out west in a golf course parking lot in a coulee near Regina. But the hawberries were softer like blueberries and blood red. They were as sweet as blueberries but with the aftertaste of pomegranates. I was about to tell Greg we should buy some to eat in the car, but when I turned away from the woman to speak to him, he was staring into the berries in his hand.  His eyes were wide as if he had discovered a wound in his palm.

He picked up the first one, rolled it in his fingers, and set it in his mouth. He didn’t hear me when I said his name, but just stared at them as if looking into a clear lake and trying to see the rocks on the bottom through the ripples of the surface. Then he ate another, and another, before he sank to his knees, and began to weep and beat the ground with his other fist.

“I need more,” he said.

I found another lady who had been selling small baskets of them on a table by the road, and I bought her last pint. Greg was now bent over, grabbing at handfuls of dirt on the shoulder of the road and tossing them in the air. He was freaking me. People were standing around him, kneeling, asking him if he was all right. Someone wondered if he was having a seizure. He couldn’t reply. His shoulders were heaving as he sobbed.

“I need to find my grandmother,” he said, looking up, his eyes full of tears. “I need to find the old woman. These berries are the taste of her spirit.”

The woman who sold me the berries bent down and laid a hand gently on Greg’s shoulder.

“I think I know why you are here. You are one of the searchers, aren’t you. You are one of the lost who has come home. I know it. I see it in your face and in your eyes. I can see through your tears. The Truth and Reconciliation Report called to you. It awoke old dreams in you, dreams that you thought you had buried or had lost on your journey. You are coming home, though you are not all the way there yet.”

Greg looked up at her. I could see in his eyes the suffering pouring out, a terrible pain he had kept bottled up inside. This was not the Greg I knew, the Greg who always had a quick quip, a good story, or a ‘you gotta see this’ experience he found on the web. He was a dream caught in an invisible dream catcher, the prey of a tormenting spider into whose web he had stumbled. This Greg was someone else – the person I had heard talking in his sleep, the person who woke, weeping, and asking for his grandmother and trying to describe the island he had seen in the distance of those dreams.

The berry woman put her arms around Greg and began to rock him as if he was a child. Then she spoke. And what she said startled me. The words were those I had heard Greg speaking in his restless dreams, the words I wished I had recorded and played back to him the next morning.

She looked up at me and said, “Can you take him to Wiiki? I mean, Wiikwemkoong?”

She explained that part of Manitoulin had never been ceded in a treaty and remained an independent nation within Canada. I had no idea such a place existed, a place within the nation that was not part of the country.

“Go down the highway. When you get to Manitouwaning, turn off but don’t go all the way into the town. There’s a road that will take to you Wiikwemkoong.”

“What will we be a looking for there?” I asked.

“Someone who might be able to help him. I’ve been whispering Anishinabek to him and he understands what I am saying though he can’t reply in the language.”

The woman and I helped Greg down the road to the car.

“Are you sure you’re up for this, bud?” I questioned. Greg nodded though he fought in his throat for every word.

“Yes. I want to go there now. It isn’t far.”

I thanked the woman for her kindness. She said it was not kindness but what family does for its own. I asked if she was related to Greg, perhaps a cousin or an aunt, and she shook her head.

“We are all brothers and sisters,” she replied and turned back up the side street to the main road where she vanished..

As we drove past the outskirts of Little Current I asked Greg what the hawberries had done to him.

“It’s not what they did but what they said. When I was a little boy, before the scoop, the old woman fed them to me. I ate them from her hands and when her hands were empty I walked up to a bush and ate them fresh off the branch.”

Down the highway, we saw the sign and the turn off for the Unceded Independent Nation. The sign told us we were leaving Canada and that the nation had its own police force. It advised us to drive carefully.

“I know this place,” Greg said as we approached a small building with a shaded porch out front. In one corner, a woman listening to a radio was seated in front of a sign offering bannock for $2.00. An old woman sat at another table. When I approached the bannock seller, she pushed a pamphlet toward me that listed all the things we could do in Wiikwemkoong – the theatre, the ruins of an old residential school, selected places to fish if a license was obtained from the band office, and a map showing where the road became a dotted line and vanished into the bush. “Drive slowly,” she said.

Then she looked at Greg and put her hand over her mouth.

“You, you look like my grandfather. You stand like him. You have his eyes. My sister had a grandson who was taken. We all have known those who were taken. My sister and I were taken but we returned. She was old enough to remember who she was and where she was from and the first chance we had, we came back. Oh, if you are who I hope you are, you have come a great distance and learned great strength to be here. I can see it in your face. But do you know who are you or are you among those who only remain here in their dreams?”

Greg began to sob. I put my arm around him. The woman came around to the front of the table and opened her arms and embraced him as I stepped back.

“I don’t know who I am,” he said, fighting back the tears. “I only know that in a dream I am standing by a lake with an old woman. The moon is full. The light is breaking on the water, and she feeds me hawberries. I had forgotten how they tasted until an hour ago when a woman, her grey hair pulled back and a dreamcatcher on her shirt gave me some to taste, and the taste brought back the pain, the pain of leaving, of being torn away from my grandmother’s arms.”

“Are there any records?” she asked.

Greg said no. All he had was a clipping, and the name in the clipping from the newspaper had been scratched away because his new family wanted him to forget who he had been.

“I want you to be my guests for the night,” the bannock seller said. “I have a place just down the road. Not much of a place. If you have bedrolls you can spread your gear on my floor. I’ll have some friends over and you can talk about what you’re going through because they’ve been through it, too.”

We ate a huge dinner. I was hungry. After eating I thought I’d never have to eat again. Everyone brought something. Greg and I fell in love with cedar tea and we emptied several jugs of it. Fresh salmon from South Bay. Venison. Fiddlehead greens someone had frozen two months before when the ferns were tight. They’d been cooked in butter and wild sage.

I didn’t want to say much. I wanted the evening to be about Greg. He had so many questions, yet they had so few answers. I could feel their empathy for him. Empathy was something I’d never know in those proportions from my own family. I envied him. I marveled at the love they expressed for him. It had nothing to do with duty or traditions or keeping up the family name. They spoke of the spirit.

An old man turned to me and asked what I knew about ‘Indians.’ The gathering laughed and slapped their knees when he said the word ‘Indians.’

“You know, he said, the people. What do you know about the people? We’re not from India. We’re from these parts.”

“I’m just the driver,” I said. “I’m driving my friend to look for an island in a landscape of islands as he searches for his past. It’s the least I can do for him.” Greg grabbed my knee and shook it and smiled.

“But you must have had some experience with the people,” the old man said. “We’re here. We’re not invisible. We don’t just live in movies.”

“Well, this isn’t much of a story,” I said, “but when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a hockey player. I found out there are two types of hockey players: good ones and bad ones, and I was one of the awful ones. I got invited to a hockey college out west, just south of Regina in a little town called Wilcox. The college is Notre Dame. They produce guys who go to the NHL. The college gives them a solid education, but when I got on the ice with players who really were hockey players, who you could point to and name the team that would likely draft them, I was out of my depth. I didn’t get accepted and it was probably a good thing because my family kept telling me they weren’t going to buy me new teeth. Part of the experience, though, was when the coaches took a van load of us up to a bison ranch in the Blue Hills about ten kilometers south of the school. I looked at the hairy, fly-infested bison and they looked back at me, and I thought, ‘so what.’ Then I wandered off.”

“At the edge of the ranch, on a promontory of the hillside, the ground was covered in wild sage and fell away steeply on three sides. I could see, spread out before me, Estevan, Weyburn, Moose Jaw, and Regina way off in the north, and the small towns of Avonlea and Wilcox at the foot of the Blue Hills. It was breath-taking. I was amazed how far I could see, how the whole world, perhaps even the universe spread before me, and when I looked down, I realized I was standing in a medicine wheel.”

“The wheel had a center stone of domed white marble, a polestar, and round it was a ring of other white stones set in constellations – the Big Dipper, the Great Bear, Orion’s Belt – the whole the sky was laid out in stones. I was standing in the center of the universe, maybe in the heart of eternity, and I felt as if I existed yet didn’t exist because I was part of everything around me as far and maybe farther than I could see. The wheel was a map of forever. Then I thought, I’d better get out of this. I felt as if I was violating something sacred without realizing what I was doing.”

Everyone at the gathering nodded, especially the elders. The old man spoke up, “You ought to take your friend Greg here to Dreamer’s Rock tomorrow. If you came in by the Swing Bridge you probably drove right by it without realizing it. If you saw the Bell Rocks you went too far toward the island.”

“The Bell Rocks?” Greg asked. “Are those the singing rocks? I have recollections of them from my childhood.”

“If you tap one with a piece of hard stone all the others will ring. They are made of the same stone as that Stonehenge thing over in England. I saw that when I was stationed in England during the war. I wanted to tap the Stonehenge but a man there said I couldn’t.”

“I said, ‘why not,’ and the man said, ‘because you will break it.’”

“What is Dreamer’s Rock?” Greg asked eagerly. “I’ve come this far to find the old woman who lives in my dreams. Will I see her if I go there? Is it a place to dream?”

The old man was silent for a moment and folded his hands.

“Maybe you are just looking for the lake of the old woman, Mindemoya. Good haws grow there. But Dreamer’s Rock? To go there,” he said, “means a person has been called to find who they really are. It is a place of the spirit quest. You must climb as high as you can go, and then go higher, ascending the bleached white skull of the world, and then lie down in a hollow made in the shape of the people. Only you can go there,” he said, looking at me. “I mean, you can go along to make sure he doesn’t fall off the slope on his way up and land on his death, but the final height is something only he can attain.”

So the next day, I drove Greg to Dreamer’s Rock and made the long climb up with him. I went with Greg as far as a natural vestibule near the top where white rock formed natural benches. He took off his shoes and socks, removed his belt, and set his wallet and pocket belongings on the stone shelf. I saw him scramble up the side of the dome and for a moment stand at the top, teetering and looking as if he was dizzy. He called down to me that there was no perspective up there, nothing but clear blue sky above him while below he could see Lake Superior to the west, Lake Huron to the south, Georgian Bay to the east and the tip of Lake Michigan to the southwest. Then he lay down in the niche the old man had told him about and I could not see him.

When he came down, sliding on the rock face as if he had just been born out of the sky, he said everything had changed for him. He said he lay down in a hollow. The natural dip in the white stone was the length of a person’s body, a cradle. As he lay there, all he could see was the blue, cloudless sky – no treetops, no horizons – only the emptiness of eternity, the place a mind goes when it holds nothing. It was like being catapulted into forever. He told me he left this world as the sky embraced him and drew him up.

“I’d always known there had to be a better world somewhere, and the old woman from my dream was waiting there with her arms extended. The old woman had to ask a question, but the only one who could answer it was a spirit on the island in the lake. The Great Spirit lived there. She shouted and I couldn’t hear. So she whispered, and the Spirit answered her.

I was there. I was there with my grandmother. And I understood what she said.  She called me by the name I thought I had forgotten and I know who I am now and where I come from. I could see the faces of people I knew long ago, the elders, the loved ones, returning to me as if out of the moonlight breaking on the lake. And when I asked the old woman who she was she answered and took my hand and led me into the fire circle with the others who were waiting for me to join them. We watched the embers rise up and fill the night sky with stars. She took my hand and I felt her life flow into mine, and told me we’d always be one blood.”

Bruce Meyer is author of more than sixty books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and non-fiction. His stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international prizes. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.

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

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Autism, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Ordinary Lives

April 16, 2021
risa

by Marlene Olin

Margaret hears the sound of cabinet doors slamming. When she walks into the kitchen, her heart lurches. The walls are splattered, the floors crunchy.  But her daughter’s happy. Tomato sauce spackles Risa’s hair and her glasses. On top of a pot, steam billows.

“Dinner’s almost done,” says Risa.  A tornado of arms and legs, she whirls from the sink to the stove. “By my calculations, nine minutes tops.”

Once again Margaret glances at her kitchen. Risa has created a workspace like she’s been taught. The counter is covered with newspaper. The ingredients lined just so. Bay leaves. Garlic. Onion. Oregano. The measuring spoons and cups. The mixing bowls and slotted spoons. Not one dish will be cleaned until after dessert.  Order is everything.

“Looks great, sweetie. It’s such a help when you cook dinner.” Then Margaret mentally makes a note of the post-cleaning required long after her daughter has cleaned and gone to bed.

But there’s no denying that Risa’s happy. There’s a lift in her step and she hums while she works. When she’s finished, she walks up to Margaret. Most people would leave an ample amount of space between them. But space is subjective. Space is a loose and wobbly entity that one intuits. Instead Risa lines up toe to toe with her mother and waves a finger in Margaret’s face.

“One more step on the road to independence, Mom.”  Then she remembers her smile cards and creases the corners of her mouth.

***

Three hours later, they are lying down. Risa’s bedroom has looked the same for decades. The sheets are soft and flannel, the shelves lined with her collections. Stones. Crystals. Shells.

As always, Margaret picks a book of poems and reads. Dickinson tonight. Perhaps Browning tomorrow. Outside the window the moon waxes and wanes. Inside the words fall like waves. It’s the sound that matters, the lilt, the lull, the up and down. Meanwhile Margaret stifles yawn after yawn. Her day can’t end soon enough.

“Do you know that a giraffe just needs 1.9 hours of sleep?” says Risa.

While she turns the page, Margaret listens to the quiet of her house. A TV drones. A dryer rumbles. Somewhere her husband is lurching. Hunched, his hands clenched, his eyes darting.  A lost soul, her husband. A Victorian ghost. A daguerreotype, grayed and grim, save for the waistcoat and watch.

“Do you know that sharks have to keep moving?”  says Risa. “Do you know that sharks never sleep?”

“Never sleep?” says Margaret.

Despite herself, Margaret savors the moment. For she knows that moments like these will soon be come and gone.  This is the year that Risa’s turning forty. With the proper supervision and support, Risa will be getting her own apartment. Her bags will be packed. The house will be emptied. The shrinks, the social workers, the experts all say it’s time.

On the ceiling are Day-Glo constellations. As soon as the lamp’s turned off, they grab the light. Margaret closes her eyes. In seconds she’s transported to 1980’s. They had just moved to Miami for her husband’s new job.

  “Spring has sprung!” said the banner. Bunnies and egg-lined baskets.  A chain of pastel construction paper crisscrossed the room.

The teacher kept her voice to a whisper. “I have twenty children in my kindergarten. Twenty children and two aides. But Risa’s the one we watch. She runs with scissors. Walks into the seesaw. The other day she followed a stray dog out the school and down the block.”

What was her name?  Miss Susan or Miss Sarah. It was mythical the way she saw into the future. Like some sort of blind seer. Back then there were no catchphrases. No spectrums. No labels. Nothing to hang your hat on but despair.

“Her IQ is sky high. That’s obvious. And her knowledge of trivia endless. But she flinches at the slightest touch. She’s terrified of hugs.”

Instead of friends, Risa had pets. No dogs or cats. Margaret’s husband was allergic. To the hair. To the dander. To the pollen on their fur. Instead they adopted an ever-changing zoo. A guinea pig that kept them up all night. A savage hamster. A gerbil that found its way into the dryer duct. Saltwater fish. Freshwater fish. One morning they’d be fine. Then the next they’d be floating, a lifeless eye staring toward the light.

A fitful sleeper, Risa tosses and turns while Margaret inches closer to the edge. Of course, her daughter has no idea what awaits her. Noisy neighbors. Nosy landlords.  Butt crack plumbers. Pervs. But what Margaret fears most is the loneliness. She can see it now.  The hours of bone-crushing silence, the kind of quiet that screams.

Margaret’s dealt with pitfalls and potholes. And now an old familiar panic starts to grow.  Margaret’s learned to trust her instincts. Her instincts rarely fail her. But all she envisions are red lights and stop signs.  Risa’s own apartment? All she can hear is her voice shouting no!

Meanwhile Margaret’s bullied right and left.

From her son, the lawyer in Washington, the one who will one day bear the burden. Each rebuke is spewed with fear: “You’re not getting younger, you know.”

From the shrink. Good or bad, inspired or idiotic, the meter keeps running:  “What’s the worst that can happen?”

From the professionals in their air-conditioned offices, sweatered in smiles, gripping their coffee cups, glued to their screens: “It’s time to cut the cord, Mom.” Like Margaret’s a fucking stereotype. Like there’s an instruction manual she somehow missed.

Only her friends can she count on. In darkened rooms, she sobs while they sip Chablis. “She’s going where?” They say. “You’re doing what?”

But her daughter is insistent. She’s like a dog with a bone. Pulling. Tugging. The whole world has narrowed to this one theme, this one topic, this one road.

Margaret lowers her voice, taps into some patience, and slips a mask of calmness on her face. It won’t be as easy as you think, Margaret reminds her. The words coil like an undercurrent, slipping into every conversation. You’re too kind-hearted. Not everyone is as trusting and as kind-hearted as you.

But no argument chips the concrete. Instead Risa rolls her eyes. Then she reminds her mother of her accomplishments. The 3.3 average in college. Her job at the library. Plus she’s cooked dinner for three nights straight!

***

They make apartment hunting more of a pastime than a project. Marilyn, their realtor, is a friend. Blonde, bronzed, roped with jewelry, she carves out time in her busy busy schedule. She has known Margaret and Risa since forever.

Every Sunday, it is now part of their routine.

Marilyn points out the window. Beyond the pool is Biscayne Bay. “The condo is vacated,” says Marilyn. “Its owners just fled. Tax problems. Immigration problems. Who knows?  A bedroom and two baths plus lots of light.”

Margaret struggles to find fault but finds herself tongue-tied, stumped.

“I like this place,” says Marilyn. “There’s a nice view. Incredible amenities. A party room plus a gym!”

While Margaret follows the swoop of her hand, Risa has disappeared.  They find her checking out a spider down the hall.  When she joins them, her face is vacant, her eyes glazed. Security deposits. Down payments. It’s all too much too absorb.

“Do you know that living rooms were once called parlors?” says Risa. “When you died, they laid out your body on a table. Then all your friends and relatives dropped by.”

“Really?” says Marilyn. She is listening and not listening. Punching her phone.

“Really,” says Risa. “Then one day death became a business. Morticians took the bodies, cleaned them up, and moved them to funeral parlors. Then people started calling their parlors living rooms. Get it? Living rooms.”

“Is that a fact?” says Marilyn.

“Do you know that after mating,” says Risa, “the male arachnid dies?”

It was eighth grade. All the kids in Risa’s private school were supposed to perform community service. The voices in Margaret’s head said no. The voices yelled and screamed, are you insane? But Risa pleaded, all the kids were doing it, here’s the list of places we can go.

The plan was to drop her off at the animal shelter every Saturday. Margaret insisted on her version of a hazmat suit. Long sleeves, long pants. Covered shoes. They gave Risa all the jobs no one else would do. Clean bird shit from cages. Clean dog shit from crates. Every afternoon Margaret would pick Risa up, drive her home, and direct her straight into the shower.

Still the first month went smoothly. No chore was too vile. Risa would rake her fingers through a dog’s fur and instantly decompress. She’d stroke a cat and shudder as it purred. It was the second month that proved a disaster.

A staff member named Timmy started hanging around. A scruffy beard to cover up the acne. Torn jeans and checkerboard teeth. He’d wash a dog and spray Risa with the hose until her clothes clung. Then he’d warble, look who’s got titties. He talked her into wearing white tee shirts, the more to gawk at when they clung.

Then one day he asked her along to pick up a litter. They took off in his truck, his hand slipping on and off the gear stick, digging in the space between her thighs.  You working out, Risa?  She sat up straighter, startled. You seem tense, he said. I can feel your muscles clench.

She took a shower for two hours that night. Then she plucked out all her eyelashes. Clean couldn’t get clean enough.

But Marilyn’s not on the program. While Margaret wants to press the pause button, Marilyn’s programmed to make a deal. It’s almost Thanksgiving when she finds the perfect apartment. Fully refurbished. Fort Knox Security. The place is only two miles from their house.

“I’m sending you a lease,” says Marilyn. “We’ve got to jump on this one fast.”

The three of them had just finished eating a quick dinner in the kitchen.  Margaret. Her husband. Risa. The family response is all too easy to predict.

The husband retreats to his den.

Margaret gulps an antacid followed by an Ativan chaser.

Risa puts her hands on her hips. Then she lectures her mother theatrically like she’s seen people do on TV. “Everyone has their own apartment. I’m the only person in the world without her own apartment. This is your problem, Mother. Not mine.”

“But Risa,” says Margaret scrambling for words.

Next her daughter lifts her chin toward the ceiling and starts bugling like an overgrown toad.  When she’s finished with her performance, she turns once more to Margaret.

“Do you know,” says Risa, “that a Panamanian gold frog has no outside ears? It can even ignore its own voice.”

The days slog by. Marilyn texts every hour on the hour while the three of them gnash their teeth. But the more Margaret vacillates, the more anxious Risa becomes. She gives up sleep altogether. She bites on her lips and chews on her hands, gnawing her nails to the quick.

If only there were a guidebook, thinks Margaret. A primer for extraordinary people who crave ordinary lives. The problem is so much more than geography. There’s a hole in Risa’s heart that she can’t identify let alone fill. Though Risa’s life is consumed with routine, it’s shockingly empty.  Sure she has contacts on social media. But they aren’t true connections. They aren’t real friends.

And while Risa stays stuck, the rest of the world has moved on. Her brother has married and has two children. Even her younger cousins have families, too.

Is this something you can imagine? Margaret once asked her. Is this something that you want? When you look into the future, is this something that you see?

No, says Risa. I really can’t.

It’s a reality that Margaret has difficulty accepting. At night, she dreams of happy endings.  She pictures satin wedding gowns. A handsome groom and a multi-tiered cake.

But there’s no cooing infant in this picture. There’s no strolling down an aisle festooned with baby’s breath and ferns. Instead, Risa envisions a menagerie, a home for the lost and the neglected. There are no playpens and Pampers. Instead there’s meowing and barking. Chirping and cheeping. Room after room of flying feathers.

Her husband hides. Her son yells. Her realtor nags. And like mercury in a thermometer, her daughter’s stress shoots up. Meanwhile Margaret walks on tiptoes and speaks in whispers. It’s like living with a volcano that’s bound to explode.

“I hate you, Mother,” says Risa.

“They want signatures,” says Marilyn.

But Margaret shakes them off. There are and will be other apartments. This is another roadblock they can overcome.

She spends hours on the computer. Then she locates a special organization in Wisconsin that sells trained dogs. They aren’t service dogs. Risa would have to wait years for a service dog. But they know forty commands right off the bat.

The family response is all too easy to predict.

Risa’s eyebrows nearly jump off her head. Then she bounces up and down like she’s on a trampoline, waving her hands and wiggling her fingers. “I’m getting a dog! I’m getting a dog!”

The husband starts sneezing.

The son whines. “I always wanted a dog. We never got a dog before. Now Risa gets a dog?”

By January, the two of them are in Madison. The temperature is below zero and everything’s white. The rental car passes frozen lake after lake, the air’s still, the sky crisp. A few crazies are ice-fishing. Convenient stores sell cheese balls, cheese curds, cheese soup. Churches scream, Save Your Soul! Their laps are littered with road maps while their phones prove useless. Heading into the woods, they drive clean off the grid.

After two hours, they locate the kennel. Ten acres, a barn, and a house. A lumberjack kind of guy opens the door. Six feet tall, he’s a Paul Bunyan look-alike.  Flannel shirt. Workman boots.  Jeans.

Soon their efforts are rewarded when twenty Labrador Retriever puppies greet them. Black. Yellow. Brown. Licking. Yapping. Pawing. Deciding is impossible. Ridiculous!  With tears in her eyes, Risa becomes enamored with each and every one.

Finally, as the sun sets, a gold-colored dog picks Risa. She is sitting on the floor when a two-month-old ball of fluff waddles over, lies in her lap, and falls asleep. Smiling, Risa gives her a name. She looks like a Milly, don’t you think? Then they say their goodbyes and leave the puppy in Wisconsin to be trained. After a five-month gestation period, they’ll fly back. Then they’ll pick up the newest member of the family.

In the meantime, they get ready. They sign a lease. Purchase furniture. And every few weeks they’re emailed photos of the dog. Risa forwards them to everyone she knows. Like any proud parent, she diligently records milestones. She carries a brag book. To strangers on the bus she says, Have you seen anything cuter? To her mother she says, You’re the best.

There are commands to learn and supplies to buy. Leashes. Crates. Rawhide toys. Could Risa register for gifts at a pet store, Margaret wonders? Can I send out an announcement when our latest addition arrives? Sure, she tells her friends. Getting a new dog doesn’t have to be this hard. But when is learning to love ever easy?

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, PANK, Catapult, and The Baltimore Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee twice for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.

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

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

death, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Bernoulli’s Heart

April 9, 2021
By Marco Etheridge

The coffin was in the ground and clods of earth had drummed on the hollow box. Retreating to the home of the newly departed, the mourners pour out liberal libations. Murmurs move through the sprawling house; quiet lamentation mixed with dashes of muffled laughter.

Some of the bereaved gather under the shaded cloister, chic in veils and tailored suits of black. Sunlight spills over the red earthen tiles of the courtyard. Four tables stand in the sunlight, four umbrellas furled. All of the wrought iron chairs are empty save for one.

The woman’s face is hidden under a wide-brimmed black hat. Her legs are bent to one side, ankles crossed, the black-stockinged calves of a woman younger than five decades. On the table beside her is an almost empty wine glass rimmed with ghost kisses from crimson lips.

A man appears from the shadow of the cloister. He strides across the courtyard, a full glass of wine in one hand, a tumbler of scotch in the other. The woman tilts back her head, watches his progress from beneath the brim of her hat.

The man stops beside her table, still holding the two glasses. He smiles at the woman with that singular smile that is reserved for old lovers. She returns his smile in kind while adding up the years since she last saw him in the flesh.

— John Staffen, as I live and breathe.

— Hello Yvette. Bit of a redundant expression, especially for a wake.

— What’s more redundant than a wake?

— Too true, in a sad sort of way. I saw your glass was empty. I had to guess on the wine.

— You always were a gentleman. If the wine is red, and in a glass, it’s perfect.

John Staffen flourishes the wine and places it on the table with a mock bow. Raising himself, he gestures to an empty seat. Yvette awards him a regal nod. He unbuttons his black suit coat and sits. He looks long over the rim of his whisky and Yvette Martin lets him look. Crystal scrapes the glass tabletop as he sets it down.

— My brain is telling me fifteen years, but my eyes don’t agree. You look damn good, Yvette.

— Thank you, John, it’s been sixteen, but who’s counting? You look good as well.

Staffen snorts, shakes his head.

— I look like death on a cracker and you know it. Not as bad as our dearly departed Harry, of course.

— Don’t be a drama queen, John. You’re not on stage right now. A little grey at the temples, some craggy lines; you’re a handsome middle-aged devil.

He waves a dismissive hand.

— Are you living here in the old alma mater?

— That’s right, still living at the scene of our crimes. I’ve got a cute condo with a view of the Charles, walking distance from my lab and the lecture hall. I’m all settled down like a real grownup. I assume you’re here just long enough to pay your last respects.

— I’m watching a friend’s place for a few weeks, then I’m off to Seattle for rehearsals and a six-week run of Uncle Vanya. I’m cast as the Old Professor, something that happens more often these days. Not that it matters.

— I’ll bet the script girls still swoon.

She gives him a long look but not without a smile. It is a look he remembers well. He thinks better of it and retreats.

— Do you mind if I smoke? It’s been a long morning.

— By all means. I look forward to the waves of disapproval.

Staffen glances to the figures in black strung along the shadowed borders of the courtyard.

— Piss on them. A murder of crows.

He removes a small cigar from a pocket, clips it, and flicks a lighter. The flame hovers beneath the tip of the cigar. He leans back in his chair as a cloud of smoke rises and swirls into the sunlight. A half smile breaks across his face as he speaks.

— Sixteen years gone and our paths cross here. I think Harry would get a chuckle out of that.

— I hope so. Were you two still close?

— No, not since he became the rich and famous Henry Grimes. We’d see each other now and again, whenever he felt like slumming with his old pals. I played Falstaff to his young prince, even though he had a decade on me. When was the last time you saw him?

— It’s been five years. We had a bit of a falling out. Bitter words, expectations not met, that sort of thing.

— Wait, were you two a thing? I had no idea.

— Why would you? Harry kept all his lives in separate compartments. Not the sort of man to spill his secrets while swilling drinks with you. What would he say? Oh, by the way John, I’ve bedded the former love of your life. Lovely Girl, I don’t know why you ever let her slip away. That was never Harry’s style and you know it.

Staffen smokes in silence, taking this in. Harry would have been right to say it. Why did he let her slip away? More of a push than a letting slip, truth be told.

— Anyway, it ended badly, as we both knew it would. But here I am, mourning the beloved dead.

Yvette takes a long drink of wine. She smiles at her former lover, the edges of her teeth stained bloody red.

— Don’t be shocked, John, and don’t pout. I always hated that. Harry was a charming man in his own way, until he wasn’t.

— I’m not shocked, just a bit surprised. You know it’s true, the part about you being the love of my life.

— I know.

— Do you mind if I change the subject?

— Please do.

Staffen contemplates his cigar before speaking.

— How many funerals have you been to this year?

— That’s a morbid question.

— Humor me, you used to be good at it.

— Don’t be catty, it doesn’t suit you. How many funerals this year? Three, if we’re counting today. Why?

He nods, as if having something confirmed.

— This makes four for me. There’s been a subtle shift in my social schedule. It happened sometime after I turned forty. I used to suffer through more weddings than funerals. Now it’s the opposite. The change is weighing on my mind, or rather on my heart.

— You’re being serious. That’s not like you. What do you mean, weighing on your heart?

— When I review the owner’s manual for my life, I can’t find a single chapter where it states that death will become a regular event. The bastards who wrote it lied to me, at least by omission.

— There’s an owner’s manual? I guess I never got my copy.

— Sure you did; we all did. It’s that compendium of expectations that we learned as kids. Childhood, school, meeting that special someone, children of our own, then a happy life into our dotage. But the balance tilts along the way. Not everyone gets their allotted four-score years. A car crash, an OD, a cancer diagnosis, and before you know it your heart is filled with dead people elbowing for space. My heart is getting crowded.

Yvette swirls the wine in her glass, thinks better of it, returns the glass to the table. She leans closer to John before she speaks.

— Your metaphorical heart is running out of space?

— Ever the scientific mind, Yvette.

— That’s one of the perils of being a scientist.

— Yes, I’m talking about the poet’s heart, not the muscle in my chest that races every time I see you.

— John Staffen, that is a very odd and sweet thing to say. Setting that weird compliment aside, my scientific mind tells me that you’re talking about accumulated grief. But on another level, I think I understand what you mean. I lost my mother, then my sister, both to breast cancer. Dead friends, people you don’t know, some younger than me. And now Harry, of course.

— There’s that as well, the quick assessment of my own mortality. When I read someone’s obit, the first thing I do is compare my age to theirs. Were they younger than me? The math gets less pretty as the years pass.

Yvette shakes her head, raises one hand as if to ward off the thought.

— No obituaries for me, thanks. I’m fifty years old, not some crazy old cat lady. A girl has limits. And no mortality discussions at a wake; We’re supposed to be celebrating Harry’s life, remember?

— Right, and now I have to make room for Harry. Except as I’m saying this out loud, I think it’s a question of weight rather than space. The dead weigh more than the living. Does that make any sense?

Staffen reaches for his whisky, eyes on Yvette over the rim of his tumbler. He is surprised to see her chuckle and responds with a questioning shrug which she answers.

— Sorry, science and grief colliding.

— Which one of them is funny?

— It’s the collision that’s funny, at least to me. Do you remember Bernoulli’s principal?

— You are the strangest woman I’ve ever met. You know that, right?

— Says the man who almost married me. Are you stalling for time?

— No, Bernoulli, I remember. That’s what allows planes to fly and shower curtains to be annoying, right?

— Yes, and more to my point, why straws collapse when you try to suck up that last bit of milkshake. Fluid dynamics; as the speed of flow increases, the pressure decreases. Less pressure inside the straw than outside it, so the milkshake squishes the straw.

— I’m being serious and you’re making fun.

— No, I’ve been struggling with this same sense of loss, more than just today. You talk about grief in terms of weight and space and my brain searches for a scientific principle to corroborate or deny. It’s how my mind works. You know that.

— Then would you care to explain how Bernoulli equates to the weight of grief?

— This is not an equation; it’s an analogy that banged into my head on top of, um, three glasses of wine. Which doesn’t make it untrue, just a little tangled. First, we need a baseline. Have you ever dated a widow?

— No widows, no orphans. Why?

— You always were a smart man. It’s very difficult to compete with a dead lover. Once they’re dead, they don’t make mistakes. The dead don’t forget birthdays, or anniversaries, and they are always there. Unlike the living, who tend to fuck things up and are often absent when they should be present.

— Is this from first-hand experience?

— Trust me, John, just say no. You can bitch about someone’s Ex, but you slander their dear departed at your own peril. Which is the opening to my hypothesis: the dead are immobile, hence denser. The living are different. We hold them in our hearts, but not like lumps of lead. They move around, sometimes they annoy the hell out of us. Their relative weight in our heart changes. What I’m saying is that their presence is not a constant.

Staffen shakes his head in wonder. Yvette talking a mile a minute, an idea clenched firmly between her teeth. And no subject was ever too weird for her. A woman unlike any other he had ever known.

— The living are annoying, so they weigh less in my heart? That’s your theory?

— It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and yes. Poor old Harry is dead and laid to rest. I can tell you about his less than charming traits, but I suspect that in a month all I will remember is the Harry that I loved, minus the annoying bits.

Staffen swirls the ice in his glass. Don’t say it; don’t be an idiot. Then the whisky does the talking.

— What about me? How much do I weigh in your heart?

He expects a thrown wineglass or a scowl. Instead, Yvette rewards him with a long loud laugh. The sound of it echoes across the courtyard and draws scowls from the margins. Her laughter fades from everything but her eyes as she gives him an appraising stare.

— You’ve still got balls, John. You always did. But you’re not dead yet, so how can I answer your question? I could give your ego a good stroke and say that I pine for you every day, but that’s not true. We had some amazing years, you and I, until you started indulging in script girls.

— Something I’ll always be sorry about.

She waves it away like a mosquito, somehow keeping the smile on her face.

— Water under the bridge, the bridge has fallen in the river, and always is too long for anyone.

— I’m a good swimmer; better now than I used to be.

Yvette says nothing, turns her head to scan the milling shadows at the edge of the courtyard. John sees Yvette in profile and his heart shakes off two decades as they have no weight or consequence. His brain struggles to keep up.

She turns her head and catches him staring, her eyes grey and serious.

— It’s a good turnout for Harry. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?

— Sure, a life measured by the column inches of his obit and how many mourners showed up for the free booze.

Staffen smokes, blows a small cloud above his head, watches it drift across the empty courtyard. He remembers when he and Harry were lean and poor and always dreaming up the next great idea. Old dead Henry Grimes might enjoy this memorial, but young Harry would’ve walked out of any party this boring.

C’mon, John, this place is deader than dead. Grab that good-looker and let’s get outta here. He hears the dead man’s voice in his head and laughs out loud. Yvette arches an eyebrow from under the shadow of her mourning hat.

— I was just thinking how Harry would have hated all of this empty ritual. It’s no wonder the dead want to clutter up my heart. Where the hell else would they go? Certainly not here, not with all this quiet, carefully modulated grief. It’s not even mourning, it’s grief-lite. Easier on the mascara and the neighbors don’t complain about the keening.

Then Yvette’s hand is on his and the rising tirade of his words falls to nothing. When she speaks, her voice is quiet.

— I remember walking through a graveyard in Greece. The tombstones had photographs set into them. They looked like old-fashioned cameos; black-and-white images printed on porcelain ovals. Harry was with me on that trip. He said the photos were ghoulish. I suppose they were, but I also thought they were a good idea. The dead person is fixed in place, bound to their grave by their own image. The loved ones go to visit, light the candles, tidy up, and then leave the dead behind when they go home.

— They leave the dead behind, but they don’t forget.

— I suppose that’s right. It’s as if we’ve lost the rituals that hold the dead in place. When I go to an old cemetery, I feel the presence of all those departed souls. Not very scientific, I know, but I do love an old cemetery.

— As if I could forget the two of us wandering around Père Lachaise in Paris.

— Yes, it was dismal and rainy and cold. You wanted to find Oscar Wilde and I was looking for Edith Piaf.

There was a stir and murmur amongst the black suits and dresses. Staffen turns to look over his shoulder.

— It looks like they’re closing the bar. Shall I fetch you another glass of wine?

— No thanks, three glasses of red on an empty stomach. If I stop now, I’ll remember what happens next.

He turns back and is trapped by her grey eyes. Fear and longing mix and swirl in his chest, pushing away the warmth of the whisky. Then his heart elbows aside the fear and makes room for the longing.

— What does happen next?

— I think we bid Harry a fond farewell and find a taxi.

Yvette rises from her chair and John is quick to do the same. She slides a black shawl across her shoulders, looks at him and smiles. He crooks an elbow. She slips her arm through his and speaks to the sun and sky.

Au Revoir, Harry. Bon voyage.

He feels the pressure of her hand on his wrist and finds his own words.

Adios, Harry. Vaya con Dios.

He looks into Yvette’s eyes and two decades fly past him and swirl away into the sunlight. A long moment passes before he is able to move.

Then Yvette and John are walking across the red earthen tiles of the courtyard, arm in arm as a couple. When they reach the shaded cloister, the murder of chic crows parts to allow them passage.

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, The UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available now. Learn more about Marco at https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

In the Flesh of an Apple

April 2, 2021
apple

By Mercury-Marvin Sunderland

Julius bit into a big red apple. He was groggy, and it was morning. He was lying around in his on-campus apartment at Portland State University, trying to ignore the cramping in his uterus yet again. He got them fairly often, and would try to medicate himself with weed occasionally. He tried not to do it because he didn’t want to be as addicted to it as he was in high school. Provided, he didn’t want to be addicted to weed in the first place, but cutting down on it was the first step.

It had been years since he’d last had his period. When he’d started testosterone it had thankfully stopped the bleeding, but he was still getting the cramps. For a lot of people, starting HRT meant that it took away both the bleeding and the cramps, but for others, it wasn’t so fortunate. However, Julius was doing his best to just be grateful for what he had, and he knew that there were many people who didn’t get the privilege to start testosterone in the first place. He was just starting to get stubble and that was exciting. His voice was just getting deep.

Just think positive, Julius, he reminded himself. Think positive.

When he was a freshman in high school he read online that eating an apple every morning had caffeinated qualities. That was probably bullshit but he’d gotten into a huge habit of eating apples every morning ever since. He liked to eat the entire fruit, core, and stem. It pissed off his friends but seeing their priceless reactions only encouraged him to do it even more. Besides, the cyanide in apple seeds isn’t really enough to kill anyone, anyway. They taste like almonds.

Ignoring the way that his pain was literally making him aware of where his ovaries were, he got to the kitchen and made his morning coffee. He grabbed a Nature Valley bar and some slices of disgusting bootleg Kraft Singles. If you thought Kraft Singles couldn’t get any worse, you’re wrong. You can find bootlegs at the dollar store that try to be Kraft Singles but somehow manage to taste even worse. Julius wasn’t much of a chef, and didn’t have much money to buy his own groceries. He just knew that he needed the starch and protein, and that he was going to take what he could get.

He noticed that these packages of bootleg Kraft Singles claimed to be swiss cheese, but it had absolutely no holes in it. That drove him bonkers but he ate it anyway. He hated to peel off the plastic but he never had the energy to cook.

He got dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a Legend of Zelda t-shirt. He hated morning classes but he had to get to his 9 AM computer programming class before it was too late. He grabbed his powder blue backpack and headed outside.

When he got outside there was melting snow on the ground. Portland doesn’t get much snow but it was well past the point where snow was exciting anymore. People thought it was weird that he didn’t wear a coat too often, but nobody really seemed to think much of it.

When he was a freshman in high school he once ate an apple that tasted exactly like water. He’d never eaten an apple like that again but somehow it managed to be one of the most unpleasant things he’d ever eaten. Which isn’t to say that water doesn’t taste good, or that there aren’t gross mushy apples which would taste worse.

The taste of water just doesn’t feel appropriate in the flesh of an apple. It needs that sweet sugar.

Mercury-Marvin Sunderland (he/him) is a transgender autistic gay man from Seattle with Borderline Personality Disorder. He currently attends the Evergreen State College and works for Headline Poetry & Press. He’s been published by University of Amsterdam’s Writer’s Block, UC Riverside’s Santa Ana River Review, UC Santa Barbara’s Spectrum, and The New School’s The Inquisitive Eater. His lifelong dream is to become the most banned author in human history. He’s @Romangodmercury on Instagram, Facebook, RedBubble, and Twitter.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy 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

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

The Sussman Service

March 26, 2021

by Roz Weisberg

At Rachel’s first funeral for her father’s Uncle Milton, her mother leaned over and whispered, “Promise me when I die you won’t put your father on top of me. I’ll come back to haunt you.” Rachel nodded yes. She was ten. Ten years later, Rachel arranged the open casket, lavish spray of roses and lilies, and the details to make her mother look like a version of her alive self for the open casket. A hundred and fifty people moved from the chapel to the graveside where her mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Standing at attention, Rachel waited for her mother to scream from below reminding her of the consequences of breaking her promise.

Ten years and three months later, a closed casket, a modest spray of roses, a condensed twenty-minute graveside service where Rachel’s friends who never met her parents attended the burial of her father. Two groundskeepers wore blue jumpsuits and stood at the head and foot of the casket guiding it into another box as if it were a part of a Russian nesting doll set. The park insisted on the extra concrete box to protect the earth and preserve the casket, but Rachel thought it made it easier to mow the lawn. A third groundskeeper plunged the shovel into the mound of dirt. The rabbi recited the Kaddish, but Rachel could only hear the ringing of her mother’s shrill voice, “I told you not to put your father on top of me, I get claustrophobic.”

The rabbi’s words morphed together as he stepped up to Rachel in his black fedora and tore the pinned black ribbon over her heart. He stepped aside. When Rachel didn’t react, he cleared his throat and spoke her name. She didn’t quite hear him, her ears had been plugged for days, but followed his gesture. Stepping toward the graveside, the crisp air and bright bleached sunlight reminded her that it would soon be daylight savings though she wasn’t sure when the clocks were supposed to be turned back. She peered into the grave at the white concrete slab before taking the shovel and scooping up a blade’s worth of dirt. Steadying the wooden handle, she guided it over the hole, and with a last inhale gave her mother one last beat to air her discontent. Nothing. She flipped the shovel over; the rocks of dirt exploded and scattered against the cement. She plunged the shovel back into the dirt and returned to the white plastic folding chair.

The rabbi squinted, transfixed by something moving through the thin gathering. A hunched over old man in gray slacks shuffled up to the grave. His blazer too big, the arms to long. His small bald head sat on his shoulders as if he had no neck. Without turning around, he grabbed the shovel and scooped up some dirt, but the weight made him unsteady. One of the groundskeepers stepped out from behind the mound as the man coughed up and swallowed phlegm in the back of his throat and hoisted the shovel. It slipped from his grip, toppling into the grave. Before the old man fell forward, the groundskeeper pulled him back. The old man fell backwards on the groundskeeper.

Everyone gasped, their bodies jolted, the flimsy chairs legs gave out, and the first row collapsed like a row of dominos. The rabbi watched, frozen at the lectern. Rachel landed on her side. The other groundskeeper spoke into a walkie-talkie while another moved to help people stand up, dust themselves off and reset their chairs. The rabbi found his voice. “Is everyone alright?”

Rachel looked at the old man as she stood up. “Excuse me? Who are you?”

“Excuse you. Who the hell are you?” The groundskeeper had helped the old man stand.

It sounded as if the old man were speaking underwater. Rachel closed her eyes and took an audible breath, “This is Bernie Sussman’s funeral. My mother was Shirley.” Her own voice sound muted.

At the base of the hill a golf cart pulled up between the mourner’s cars. The driver in his blue suit got out and trekked up the hill.

“This is Stanley Leven’s funeral. Stanley was my wife’s second cousin. She couldn’t come, this hill woulda killed her.”

The man from the golf cart stepped up and introduced himself as the director.

“I’m here for Stanley’s funeral. Where the hell is Stanley?” The old man noticed the groundskeeper for the first time.

“I’m not sure sir. Why don’t I give you a ride and we can let these people continue their service?” The groundskeeper passed the old man’s arm to the director.

“Now, wait a minute. Let me think.” He tilted his head downward “Sussman you say?” He shook his head back and forth as if reading through an imaginary rolodex. “No, I don’t think I knew any Sussmans.” He tried pulling his arm away. “Must be the wrong funeral.” The old man took a last look in the hole, “That doesn’t look good.” He grabbed the director’s arm as if it were the bar on a walker and they waddled down the hill.

Rachel stepped to where the old man had stood and looked down. A groundskeeper grabbed a rake and maneuvered its teeth to pull up the shovel. Somehow, the metal edge of the shovel had chipped and cracked the concrete slab. A groundskeeper mumbled into his radio. Another golf cart arrived, another director climbed the hill.

The rabbi suggested he finish the service and offered final condolences, thanking the attendees. The mourners lingered as the director and groundskeepers conferred in a huddle. Rachel joined, glancing into to pit. The director explained, he’d never seen concrete crack like that, but he’d called for a replacement. Rachel was free to wait, but they weren’t sure how long it might take.

Rachel crossed her arms, the ringing in her ears echoed, “You promised me!”

The director tried to usher Rachel along, but she stood her ground. “I’ll go on my way as if nothing ever happened if you could reverse them. Put him in first and her on top.” She couldn’t gage the volume of her own voice though there some heads turned her way.

Her request was met with blank stares. The director mumbled into his radio and conferred with the groundskeepers before agreeing to the accommodation. Rachel turned to leave. Taking in the view of the paved LA River bed, her ears popped, the shrill ringing in her ear stopped as the groundskeepers lowered the crane and raised her mother’s concrete box.

Roz Weisberg is a recovering movie producer who went back to school and received her MFA at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She currently teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension, is a private writing coach/development editor and a writing specialist at Antioch.

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

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

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

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Click here for all things Jen