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Fiction, Guest Posts

The Honest Clown

February 26, 2021
balloons against sky, joe

By Shirley O’Shea

Joe the Moper walked from the entrance to his apartment building across the parking lot to a narrow space between the Dumpster and the recycling bin and lit up a cigarette. This was where he smoked when he was at home. It was cozy.

It was a foggy September morning in upstate New York.  As Joe exhaled, the smoke drifted, dispersed and became part of the cloud that had settled all around the neighborhood, which sat on top of a hill which overlooked other round, sleepy hills that Joe could barely see.

Joe liked his morning smokes because few people were about. No one passed by him, looking away. Joe was tall and skinny, with a head of thick, wiry salt and pepper hair and skin that seemed to be stained a tint of grey by his years of enjoying tobacco. In the early evenings, after work, Joe would go to the Dumpster to smoke and sometimes people passing by pretended not to notice him. Occasionally someone would give him a small smile and mutter a greeting. Joe, however, would widen his mouth into a melancholy smile and say, “Hi, how are ya,” almost invitingly, even though he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to have any kind of conversation.

The thing was, Joe looked wretched.

His clothes were hanging on him, and they seemed to have the same grey patina as his skin. His cheeks were hollow, and his chest was caving in. He wore a jacket in all weather. His eyes were slightly sunken. It wasn’t good.

He’d moved to the apartment complex after the tire outlet, at which he worked in customer service, had cut his hours, making his mortgage payments unmanageable. His wife, Mary Jean, had been philosophical about the loss. “It’s always boom or bust in this country,” she’d said with a sigh. “At least we have a roof over our heads.” She’d then rolled over and fell asleep. Their daughter, Christina, fifteen, had immediately begun to think about how she would set up and decorate her new, smaller bedroom. She was creative, and welcomed challenges.

Although Joe was a conscientious and, despite his appearance, energetic worker, helping the residents of Blacksville and its surrounding rural villages choose the most suitable and economical tires for their vehicles, he considered the job an avocation, the means to support his real work, which was entertaining and enlightening people as a clown.

Now that fall had arrived, he would have fewer clown gigs. He thought about this as he flicked an ash to the ground. He had to find a way to get as many apple and pumpkin festival gigs as possible because 

The cloud-fog was lifting, and Joe looked up at the emerging patches of cerulean. In the northern sky he saw the waning gibbous moon, white-grey and bluish where the craters and valleys were, sensual like a pregnant belly and as full of secrets.

“Hey, moon, can you line up a few gigs for me? I really need them,” Joe said plaintively. His cigarette was smoked almost down to the filter. He threw it to the ground and let it fade out.

He reached into the pocket of his blue flannel shirt and drew out another smoke. He’d been a clown for almost twenty years. The best times were during the summer agricultural festivals, which took place every weekend all over the local counties. Dairy fests, garlic fests, blueberry fests – they always wanted a clown or two to make balloon animals and tell ridiculous, innocuous jokes as they did so. And to perform a few magic tricks. Now that it was autumn he’d get called for the festivals at the waning of the year. It seemed to Joe that the revelry at the autumn festivals was all the more intense because of the shortening of the days.

Despite his reputation for being somewhat unconventional, Joe the Moper got calls regularly to perform at these country family hootenannies. There was inevitably at every festival two or three people playing a guitar or fiddle, occasionally a banjo or mandolin, and singing songs that were playful, mournful, spiked with wisdom, because it is a musician’s duty to sing or strum or bow the truth in a way that compelled the wandering, meandering folk at the fair to stop and listen carefully, if only for a few moments. Even during the Dairy Princess crowning or the awarding of the blue ribbon to Best Rooster in Fair, every soul on the fair ground hungered for an uplifting moment of truth.

Joe figured it was for the best that he would not be getting too many more calls to play the clown. He was weakening in almost every way; even his jokes with customers at the tire outlet were deflated and rueful. The tumor that had begun in his right lung had grown upward, encircling his esophagus like a snake or a choking vine, and made it almost impossible for him to swallow solid food. Mary Jean had demanded that he go to the doctor, who knew Joe smoked and had ordered a CT scan which revealed the reason for all Joe’s physical suffering. He had told Mary Jean nothing, putting her off by saying that the doctor had ordered some tests but wasn’t very concerned, that he results were not available yet and it was probably something gastroenterological.

“Well, what tests? Why are they taking so long? You look like a scarecrow.”

Joe shrugged. “You know there’s not a lot of doctors around here. Everything’s slow.” Joe couldn’t bear to tell Mary Jean that he would begin radiation treatments in a week. Until then, he would smoke as he always had, slowly, thoughtfully, considering the great gift of tobacco that the Creator had made to humanity and its almost supernatural ability to calm the agitated and arouse the lethargic.

If Joe could have smoked when he did his clown gigs, he would have. After all, he’d seen a number of photos of artists with a cigarette balanced between their lips as they worked. He thought of Jackson Pollock smoking while he drizzled paint all over one of his canvases. And Joe’s favorite was an elegant portrait of Tennessee Williams seated before a typewriter, a nimbus of cigarette smoke swirling about him like a muse. There were more addicted artists than anyone could count, Joe often thought. It was an unfortunate but necessary pathology of the creative urge. It was probably why he smoked three cigarettes after he made love to Mary Jean and she drifted off to sleep.

When Joe did his clown jobs, he wore black, head to foot, What he believed was most impressive about his clown costume was the long black tunic he wore over black trousers, and the black bowler hat he’d purchased from an antique shop. He believed the get-up made him look like a Victorian clergyman. He painted his face white, of course, but he took special care when applying his mouth paint. It was a dull carnelian, with just a hint of an upturning at the corners. The great circles about his eyes were violet, and his dramatically arched eyebrows were a ponderous black. He looked like he was someone who was almost shocked, but not quite.

He placed a rubber rat beneath his bowler, and when he introduced himself as Joe the Moper, he bowed and removed the hat and feigned mild surprise that a rodent had hidden itself in his favorite topper and wanted to launch a career of his own as a comedian.

Joe wore black because he wanted to tell the truth, like a good priest in his black robe would while sitting with an anxious seeker. Joe knew that humor came from fear, desperation, isolation. Like a seasoned clergyman or a Buddha, one faced it all with a slight smile of equanimity, and Joe vowed to himself, and his audiences, that he would do the same.

“You can stay in here and mind your own business,” Joe the Moper said to the rubber rat as he slipped it into the pocket in the side of his tunic. “Or maybe I’ll enter you in the beauty contest! You’d make a great ambassador for locally made cheese.

“Oh, you wanna be a clown, huh? Well, you didn’t pay good money to go to clown school, like I did. I am a highly educated clown, like some of our most illustrated politicians – oh, I’m sorry, folks, I meant to say illustrious politicians. Although most of them seem to be cartoon characters. Oh, there I go again! Better get to the balloons.

Joe made nothing but birds with he balloons. “Why d’ya think owls have such large eyes?” he asked the small crowds gathered around him.

“Because they hunt at night!” someone, usually a child, would call out.

“Precisely! Very good!” Joe said, and pulling out a white balloon, he fashioned into something that looked very much like an owl. He twisted the head three hundred sixty degrees and then a wind always came, caught the owl out of Joe’s slightly trembling hands and bore it away. This happened with every owl, hawk, and woodpecker balloon Joe huffed and puffed and twisted into existence. The children and most of the adults strained to capture the balloons as they soared overhead.

“You can’t get them – no one ever does,” Joe called out. “I don’t know where the magic comes from. I just tell lame jokes. And I didn’t go to clown school. At least, not in the usual sense. But I think we all go to clown school. You all think about that. The balloons are always out of reach because the wind wants them. Have a wonderful day. Wow! Look at this sunshine!” Then Joe would walk with long, gangly strides to the back of the agricultural pavilion to smoke a couple of cigarettes.

Now, this morning, watching the uncanny amorousness of the swollen gibbous moon, which had remained in the morning sky while Joe smoked four cigarettes meditatively, he felt like the moon was his wife, and he was impatient for her to give birth. He thought of Mary Jean just over fifteen years ago, and the impossibly round protrusion of her belly, all amniotic fluid and placenta and baby. Mary Jean had begged him to give up smoking the moment she had found out she was pregnant, and he’d said he’d try, but he was less than sincere. He knew he’s smoke more than ever. Between the two of them, there were barely able to make their mortgage payments. The anxiety grew in him, and some mornings, before getting up to dress and have coffee followed by cigarettes, he curled up in a ball and prayed.

Growing up, he’d listened as his mother instructed him to pray everyday, throughout the day. He and his brother, who was now an insurance sales rep in the Midwest, and their parents has attended a fire-and-brimstone church which had only served to set Joe’s nerves on fire. How could the pastor say that God is Love and be so eager to send poor, foolish human beings to hell? When Joe, still in grade school,  had asked his mother, in desperation, why this was so, she’d shake her head and tell him there was nothing to worry about. And when he’d brought up his fears with his brother, his brother had shrugged and said, “That guy is crazy. Sneak a book into church and hide it in the Bible. I do it all the time. I think Mom and Dad know, but they’ve never said anything to me. They just pretend …”

But Joe continued to listen to what the pastor said, because there was some kind of terrifying logic to it. Then he went off to college and let the bond between himself and church dissolve. But the fear lived on in his body without abatement. He studied sociology and was a competent student – some of his professors even told him he had talent – and returned to upstate New York and ended up in retail.

Because Joe still had the demons, he liked to make jokes. They purified the air around him and drew people to him. He considered finding out what it took to do stand-up, but he knew he would get so nervous before performing that he would probably die. So he decided to be a clow. No birthday parties or school character education gigs, just the local seasonal festivals when he could be outside, twisting balloons into birds.

His first gig had been a spring festival with a medieval theme. A man in green velvet played a lute while a lady with a ring of artificial flowers in her hair and a purple gown sang songs with little ribald jokes, to celebrate fertility. Morris dancers stomped on the cold earth, to awaken it. The sun had shone brilliantly on that day, and the air was almost hot.

Joe had studied books on balloon animal shapes and practiced for dozens of hours before the full-length bedroom mirror, making cats and poodles and alligators. But now that he was here, in front of a curious audience, made all the more enthusiastic by this burst of light and warmth after an upstate winter, he froze. All he could think of was birds. He’d found some shattered robins’ eggs on the ground that morning, as he had brought his boxes of uninflated balloons to the car, and the pale blue of the fragments made him pause and he exhaled forcefully enough to ruffle the feathers of a hatchling that lay on the ground, forced out by its mother, Joe thought. Then he drove to the fair.

And as Joe drove, he began to feel light-headed. When he arrived at the fair and saw the Morris dancers pounding the sodden ground, he thought of the shattered eggs, the doomed hatchling, and the fact of the perpetual changing of the seasons caused his heart to race and his breath to quicken. If only his life could be one unchanging winter or summer, without the interruptions of the seasons of emergence and withdrawal, that disoriented him and filled him with such grief at their brevity and their blatant declaration of the impermanence of things. He thought that perhaps his entire performance should be blowing air into balloons and releasing it, slowly, so that the kids would laugh at the flatulence-like sound. But then he came to himself, realized all of this was stage fright, and drove on until he reached the Blumenfeld Vernal Fest on the top of a hill that overlooked other gently curving hills transforming into verdancy under the kindly sun. Spring was, perhaps, not quite so disorienting, Joe thought, as he parked his car and began to unload his boxes of balloons.

The parking area for vendors bordered on a stretch of woodlands, and Joe heard the calls from the cardinals and robins as he lifted the boxes from the hatch of his car. Then he stopped and pulled out a cigarette. He had been so deep in thought about how this gig was going to play itself out – how he would play himself out – that he hadn’t even thought to smoke. This was passing strange. It was as if he were keeping the air in his lungs pure and strong before forcing it into the balloon toys he was about to make.

Joe took one last drag on his cigarette, crushed it on the ground and then put it in an empty coffee cup in the car.

So, now he would find out if he could do it. He stacked the three boxes of balloons – much more than he would need, but best to be prepared – and walked to the information kiosk to find out where he should set himself up. The lady at the kiosk – round, grey-haired and amiable – told him he would be near the petting zoo, which was about one hundred fifty yards west. Joe looked up at the sun to determine where west was, and followed, glancing upwards every few seconds to keep his bearings. Some fair goers looked at him and grinned, others looked with slight consternation – a clown, in springtime, should not be wearing black. And his smile should be wider, freer. Joe had the feeling these people considered him a clown with an ungenerous spirit. And what was the point of that? A clown gives himself completely, divests himself of all dignity, and even self-respect in order to entertain. Joe didn’t feel a vocation to be quite that kind of clown.

The balloons and the wind – they stole the show. The creatures Joe intended to make resisted creation – dogs, giraffes, monkeys. They all twisted themselves into birds, and the moist spring breezes lifted them away. The children jumped up and tried to grab them, but they soared out of reach and the audience let out a groan. It seemed as if the wind grabbed the balloons out of this strange clown’s hands. But Joe pretended that was exactly what he’d wanted to happen. “Well, folks, thanks for stopping by. Remember, I’m Joe the Moper. Weird and inexplicable things happen whenever I’m around.”

So it went with all of Joe’s performances. But the people didn’t come to listen to his mordant humor, his absurd imitations of celebrities, and the few magic tricks he had learned to broaden his appeal. They came to see the bird balloons. And how impossible they were to hold. People in the audience believed that Joe the Moper and the wind colluded to let the bird balloons ascend into the heavens.

Joe looked at the moon again and thought of how his daughter was growing, so awkward and lovely, and he knew the Mary Jean would give her all the love she would need. That didn’t mean Joe the Moper didn’t intend to fight this serpentine tumor with all the strength, sarcasm and something like faith that he had in him. But he knew how these things went. The radiologist wanted to shrink the tumor, get him some time.

For much of his life, Joe, with his easily rattled nerves, had felt that time could not pass quickly enough, so that night would come and in the darkness he could feel unseen and uncalled upon to be anything but what he was – a confused and congenitally frightened man. All the sardonic jokes that he threw out into the air, to his wife, the guys at the tire shop, to his bemused audiences, did nothing to protect him from his terror. And now that he finally had something to be beside himself about, he felt gentle and quiet and somewhat remorseful about his jokes. And he felt gratitude for the balloons that had all taken flight and left his audiences in awe.

That night, as Mary Jean slept fitfully beside him, Joe knew he had to tell her about the tests, the tumor, the treatment. He began to shake and feared he would have a sleepless night. Well, all right then. He remembered the angels that the pastor of his youth had described in more than one sermon. The angles in the Book of Revelation were monstrous – immense, with countless eyes and wings, wings, wings flapping and concealing and then revealing those eyes. There was no place one could hide from them, and that was why Joe wanted an angel to pay him a visit. He prayed, “God, let one of those hideous and holy angels come and look at me. I want – need – something now that’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. I’m not afraid of being afraid – at least not now, not of that.”

But as Joe lay awake, no angel came. Well, perhaps it’s invisible, Joe thought. Even without the angel’s help, he would tell Mary Jean that …

While he was in a deep sleep, a great golden balloon, as round as the sun, drifted down to Joe, as he sat in a meadow overlooking the round, verdant hills in upstate New York, someplace where he’d visited as a child and had been very happy. The gold balloon had one great eye that looked on him with mercy. It extended a wing and enfolded Joe, who was now in the realm beyond speech. He was in the air, the golden air and with the balloon floated higher and higher and he could see himself far below, where a crowd had gathered, and he could see himself at the center, as his black tunic fell off and he stood denuded before the audience laughing until they cried.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and full time mother living in upstate New York. She has worked as a paralegal, elementary school teacher and small town newspaper reporter.

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

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

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Little Buddy

February 12, 2021
creature

By W. T. Paterson

The chill in the air settled against the fading blue sky as Porter lugged an ancient wooden storm panel around the side of the house. The cold sand shifted under his boots turning each step into an arthritic nightmare for his knees. It felt like the end of an era. The summer house that once teemed with life now sat empty and cold leaving only the rat-a-tat knocking of a pesky woodpecker that wreaked yearly havoc on the panels. Buddy, his son, had always helped with the end-of-season board-up, specifically shooing away the bird, but the boy had moved to the big city for a fancy hospital job and Porter was lucky if he got a phone call every other month. Minnie, his wife, took over their Massachusetts house after her therapist suggested a trial separation now that Buddy had grown. Minnie agreed before Porter could weigh in and all but exiled him to his family’s seaside cottage in Maine for the winter. A quarter-century worth of marriage dissolved like a cruel magic trick. One moment things were fine, and the next the veil lifted to reveal the great absence of a used-to-be.

The wooden panel slid into the de-screened slot and hooked into place with rusted latches. Porter rested his sore shoulders and aching back and looked out across the empty beach. The calm ocean barely rippled, more lake than tidal beast roaring with surf. With the summer crowds gone, the small town barely stirred. A part of him believed that being holed up in the place for the winter would bring some clarity to the situation, that the isolation would do him good until the rat-a-tat started up again.

Porter wiped his brow and then slapped the boards. The thick panels shook, and the knocking ceased.

He stepped outside and around the house toward the bulkhead for the final panels, and that’s when he saw it; the creature hiding near the cement foundation of his neighbor’s place. A baby dinosaur, a dilophosaurus by the looks and no bigger than a housecat, watched with cautious curiosity. Its yellow skin with red-striped belly sniffed the air through a long, ridged snout. The creature gave Porter a weak warning growl to reveal a curved row of small, jagged teeth.

“Monsters,” Porter said under his breath, and shook his head at the wealthy summer goers like the Hartwells who loved to buy exotic pets in the spring only to decide they didn’t want them come fall. Instead of heading to proper shelters, they stuck the creatures outside to fend for themselves and left town without so much as a second thought. One year, animal control wrangled a Chupacabra after reports of missing cats piled up, and a few years later, the carcass of a tiger was found in the snowy dunes frozen and starved. Finding the small dinosaur was, unfortunately, par for the course.

Porter closed the rusty bulkhead and went inside even though he wasn’t finished. He held his fingers under warm water to melt the stiffness in the joints and considered phoning the town. From the kitchen window, he watched the dinosaur sniff around and make chirping noises, neck craned and eyes large as the shadows of the houses stretched over the dunes and onto the empty beach.

*

The dark autumn sky swallowed the day. No one at the town hall had answered when he called, so Porter left a voicemail requesting that someone collect the dino. Poor thing won’t survive the cold, he said. It’s their blood. They need the heat. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he knew it to be true. Leftover details from his childhood fascination with predators perhaps, or something pulled from Buddy’s picture book filled with sharks and crocodiles and yetis and wolves.

That book was still upstairs, he was almost certain. They read it together every summer until Minnie complained that Buddy should turn his interests toward more sophisticated prose and came home with books about the anatomy, and physiology, and medicine. She tucked the book out of reach where it collected dust and rendered the sturdy pages fragile.

What an odd thing to remember at a time like this, Porter thought as he sat on the well-worn and sun-beaten couch. The muted television glowed with his favorite trivia show as static crackled across the screen. He waited for the phone to ring. He watched in quiet until the contestants shouted with glee as a big-money gamble paid off huge. They danced and twirled and pumped their hands up and down like they had just gotten married, like they had a few glasses of fine wine and a belly full of prime rib and sauntered to the dancefloor still believing the person they married was who they believed they were, that an office job wasn’t built to turn a man inside out, that unconditional love could actually heal a person, that paying hand-over-fist for a future that benefited everyone but themselves was a noble path. “Dreamers,” Porter said, and tried to will himself into a nap. That type of happiness made him uncomfortable. It was exhausting, a game for the young. It was why those trivia shows never cast anyone over thirty, because anyone older knew the that the world was a limited path with nothing but forced naps that wouldn’t come in a cold and empty house inside of a town that only lived for a single season.

When the evening news came on and the weather forecasted only cold days ahead, Porter went into the kitchen to scrounge up some dinner. In a cupboard was an unopened box of Rainb-O’s cereal, buddy’s favorite. He purchased a new box every year in the hopes that his son would visit and they could both share a bowl like the old days. He didn’t want to open the box, just in case.

In the back of the freezer, he found two steaks so frozen and frostbitten that they could hammer a nail. He took one out and ran it under the faucet resigning to finish installing the panels in the morning. Over the hiss of the tap, he could faintly make out the lonely wail of the baby dinosaur somewhere outside.

“Poor thing,” Porter said, and against his better judgement, filled an unused bamboo salad bowl with water and walked outside. At the base of the front steps, he put the bowl on the ground and whistled for the creature. The long, gravel driveway wound around sleepy dune grass, cut through overgrown lawn grass, and intersected with a paved road lined with tall pines. The neighboring houses stood like vacated caverns. Crickets pulsed in the chilly air like the slow breath of a sleeping giant. A moment later at the edge of the shadow, the dilophosaurus poked it’s head out from a patch of cratered dunes and sniffed the air. Porter clicked his tongue and pointed at the water. The small creature took hesitant steps and growled a curious growl.

“Atta boy,” Porter said, and watched the creature approach. “Don’t get used to it, though. Done enough charity for this lifetime.”

The idea turned him sour. Why did he always have to do things for the benefit of others? Why was it his responsibility to fix things? There was that time at the restaurant where Minnie had a little too much and started in.

“We should call and check on Buddy,” she said.

“He’s an adult, Min, he’s fine,” Porter said, feeling the night balance on the edge of Minnie’s fragile mood.

“People can be adults and still drown in the bathtub, Porter,” Minnie said, cupping the wine glass with such ferocity that it was a miracle the thing didn’t shatter.

“Ok. We can go,” Porter whispered, and put on his winter coat. He tossed an extra-large cash tip onto the table in an unspoken attempt to smooth things over with their server – a college girl with large eyes and full lips.

“He thinks money will buy you,” Minnie said, stumbling through the slurred words as the server picked empty plates from the table. “But he’s not your type, is he?”

The server went flush and smiled politely, and something about the reaction made Minnie go ice age. She didn’t talk to him for the rest of the night.

In the morning, she knew she had done something, but couldn’t remember what.

“Jog my memory,” she pleaded, rubbing her head. “You’re upset, and I can’t change if I can’t remember.”

“Said some things is all,” Porter mumbled, and twisted the gold wedding band around his finger to let the feeling go extinct.

A chill ran Porter’s spine, so he turned suddenly to go back inside. It startled the dinosaur and the creature reared back on its small hind legs. A scaley umbrella-like mane shot out from the sides of its head. It rattled like a snake, an unmistakable warning.

“Oh please,” Porter laughed. “Been married for nearly three decades. Know what that does to a man? Teeth don’t scare me, pal.”

He chuckled his way up the cold and creaking steps and closed the door inside. As he turned the porch light off, he watched through the glass as the small dinosaur retracted its mane, approached the bowl with curious eyes, and gulped down the water.

That salad bowl was a wedding gift, Porter thought. What an odd thing to remember at a time like this.

*

Just past sunrise, the rat-a-tat returned—a crude wooden alarm to usher in the rising coastal sun. Porter pulled the thinning comforter over his eyes and tried to ignore piercing rap, but the tapping pushed awake-ness through his eyelids like the slow drip of a hangover. His bones ached, the fossilized remains of a great used-to-be. Once a man so sturdy he could board up the home by himself breaking a sweat, he now struggled to sit upright in bed. All those years in an office behind a desk staring into sheets and memos and computer screens left little behind, and what remained had eroded into sun damaged skin and liver spots.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter slid out of bed still in jeans from the day before and shoved his wool-socked feet into tired work boots.

“I’m up,” he grunted, and wiped the last bit of sleep from his eyes. He put on the same flannel as yesterday and walked downstairs. The bones of the quiet home creaked with every thumping step, the arthritic walls wailing and moaning too. With day old coffee sitting cold in the cloudy glass pot, Porter poured the thick mass into a mug and tossed it into the microwave. A single spotted banana stared at him from the fruit bowl and he considered the possibility, but instead watched the digital seconds count down until the ding produced a steaming cup of bitter jet-fuel. After one sip, he knew it had turned but he finished the mug as to not be wasteful before heading outside to finish the job.

A familiar dull pain pulled at the muscles between Porter’s shoulders as he lugged another wooden panel from the bulkhead to the side of the house. Two more, and then he could shelter without worry of those winter storms.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter shoved the panel into the sand below an open slot and huffed. He wanted to confront that damn bird, the constant pecking and relentless picking, but what good would that do anyone? No matter what he felt, the bird always came back and the rat-a-tat became a wooden, mocking laughter. At least with Buddy around, the boy could chase the bird through the cool and crunching dunes until he got tired, or bored, wanted to help with the panels. But Minnie always came outside demanding that Porter do something about the incessant, belligerent, ridiculous racket.

“It’s fine, Minnie,” Porter would say.

“Some people come here to relax. Some people need quiet reflection,” she’d say, and flap back inside chirping about how she married the only man in the world who couldn’t stand up to a bird. Buddy would watch from the dunes with large, confused eyes until Porter explained that it would have been Uncle Marius’s birthday.

“Oh,” the boy would say, and spend the rest of the afternoon quietly chasing birds, and bugs and while his father boarded.

Now, as Porter turned the corner of the boarded-up porch, he saw the small dinosaur crouched in the grass watching the gnawing woodpecker.

“Get!” Porter said and swiped at the bird. The dinosaur tilted its head. The woodpecker did a quick loop in the sky and swooped back onto the sill with an anarchic rat-a-tat. Porter’s blood boiled and his ears went hot.

“I said…” he shouted, and the bird took off again. This time, as it swooped over the dunes, the young dilophosaurus expanded its scaley mane and spit a dark glob of venomous, paralyzing phlegm, which wrapped the bird and brought it crashing out of mid-air. The woodpecker landed lifelessly in the nearby sand. The baby creature trotted over and ate the remains with big, proud bites and then looked at Porter with glistening, hopeful eyes.

“Not bad, little buddy,” he said, and though he couldn’t be sure, it looked like the creature smiled at the compliment.

For the rest of the morning, the dinosaur walked along the sand and dunes chasing away seagulls, butterflies, and crickets that came too close as Porter fixed the final wooden panels into place.

At lunch, Porter cooked the other remaining steak, but something chewed at his wandering thoughts. The spotted banana eyed him from the fruit bowl, and Porter knew that sometimes cooking for one was really cooking for two. He slapped the steak onto a Corelle plate and popped outside. The dino poked its head out from between long blades of dune grass.

“Eat up, you done good today” he said, and balanced the plate on the bottom step of the stoop. The creature sniffed the air, eyed Porter, and scampered out to devour the cooked meat. Porter peeled the yellow banana back and ate the sweet fruit—though he didn’t enjoy it—happy to be able to lend his talents to an appreciative crowd.

“If I let you in, you gonna be good?” Porter asked. The dinosaur looked up and continued chewing. “You gonna be good? If you come inside? You’ll be a good boy?” The creature pondered the question like it understood, and finally chirped as it stepped toward Porter’s knee. He gave it a gentle head-butt. Porter reached down and rubbed the top of the scaley head with his tired, heavy hands. “You’re a good boy.”

The baby dinosaur leaned back and sneezed. A tiny fleck of black, venomous phlegm landed on Porter’s knuckle and burned the skin with a terribly, fiery pain.

“Sweet mother of mercy,” he said, rubbing his fist on his jeans. The creature shrank with alarm when it realized what it had done, eyes wide with a different kind of hurt. “Ain’t your fault, boy,” Porter said. “It’s just how you are.” He stood to walk inside, and then whistled. The dilophosaurus perked up and followed, trotting next to Porter’s knees but never crossing in front.

*

Porter started to suspect that something was different that evening. Not wrong, but different. The dinosaur took a wheezing nap against the electric baseboard heater of the thin-walled coastal home. Upon awaking, he watched Porter as though trying to communicate something.

“You hungry?” Porter asked, and the sound of his voice seemed to put the creature at ease. The young dinosaur rolled to his feet and tip-toed over to the couch and placed his scaley and unusually heavy chin on the top of Porter’s thigh. Porter smiled and rubbed the creature’s rough and uneven head. He noted the retracted mane on the neck like wrinkled skin and wondered at nature’s design. The dilophosaurs relaxed into comfort, but the type of comfort that stems from concern and, he wasn’t sure how, but Porter could sense it like a light left on in a room he was no longer using.

When he moved his leg, the creature stepped back and followed him into the kitchen where the man pan-fried a chicken breast and put it in a ceramic cereal bowl – the big one that Buddy always filled to the brim with colorful Rainb-O’s but could never finish, until the year that Minnie insisted he switch over to something more nutritious like sausage and hash browns.

“A growing boy needs protein,” she said. “You keep giving him this, he’ll stay small forever, and be fragile, and his bones will be weak.”

“Ok,” Porter said like a deflating balloon, because every fight with Minnie was an unwinnable task. She fought with the fury and guilt over her wheelchair-bound brother Marius who drowned in the tub as a teen while she took a brief nap. What could he say to curb venom like that? Nothing, and Porter absorbed every last bit until there was nothing left.

The creature chomped at the chicken breast and pulled it apart with a ravenous hunger until everything was gone.

“You’ve got some appetite, lil’ buddy,” Porter said, and opened the cupboards to try and find something else to feed it. All that remained was the unopened box of Rainb-O’s. He rattled the cardboard and the dinosaur tilted its head. Porter popped the top and poured into the ceramic bowl. The creature sniffed the sugary O’s, looked at Porter, and then slowly lapped up the bits with his dark tongue. It only made it halfway through before walking away from the bowl, back into the living room, and pushed himself against the heater.

“How about a bedtime story before the sun goes down?” Porter asked, watching the young dino give in to heavy eyelids and long, strained breath. He knew just the book, it had to be here still.

Upstairs in the closet tucked in the very back of a shelf was the picture book of predators, the thick and sticky pages the same as they ever were. He remembered nights going through the pictures watching his son’s wide-eyed wonder at sharks, and coyotes, and lycans, and felt the venomous sting of a used-to-be erode the sides of his heart.

Downstairs, he sat on the couch and whistled for the dinosaur. The creature lifted its head and walked with a sleepy limp over to Porter, who opened the picture book and read aloud the simple prose. With each picture he pointed to, the creature seemed to smile and drift further into the clutches of sleep, seemingly happy to hear the man’s voice.

*

Porter’s worry began to peak. The creature asleep at his feet sounded like it was having more trouble breathing, and it kept twitching with miniature seizures. He didn’t know if this was natural, or a cause for alarm, so he pulled the phone from his pocket and wondered if his son might take a call in the big city. Wondering things such things made him feel insignificant, burdensome, left behind.

“Hey Pops!” a voice answered, which startled Porter. He hadn’t been aware that he even dialed, and it sounded like his son was at a restaurant, or a bar, or out with friends being social.

“Hey Buddy, it’s your father,” Porter said.

“I know. Call ID. What’s up?”

Porter wasn’t sure where to start, or how to even ask. Stuttering through ideas, he blurted out the only thing that sounded plausible.

“What do you think about having a dinosaur as a pet?” he asked, and then held his breath for the reply.

“Nah, you don’t want a dino. They have to have their own feeding space because they need to eat live meals. Birds, goats, sheep. Lot’s of blood and entrails, pretty heavy cleanup. Only raw food. Their micro-gut biomes are so strong that cooked food doesn’t get transferred into nutrients and they’ll starve to death. No people food. It makes’em sick, like dogs and chocolate. A lot of work, too much work, Pops. Why? You, uh, you doing ok?”

“Oh yes, yes. Just daydreaming is all,” Porter said. Dread rose from his chest into his throat as the creature kicked out again, writhing in some sort of pain. Porter did what he could to mask the anxiety. “How did you get so smart, anyways?”

“Years of mom forcing me to read books about how bodies work. Go figure,” Buddy said. “Hey, can I call you back in the morning? The firm just got a grant and we’re out celebrating.”

“Of course, son. Sure thing,” Porter said, and wheezed out a half-hearted, lonely laugh.

He hung up the phone and bent over the creature. The skin didn’t feel right. He wasn’t sure what right should have felt like, but this wasn’t it. Dry, too dry, and far too warm in the head, while the yellow belly with red stripes felt too cool.

“Don’t do this to me,” Porter said. “Please, I’m doing the best I can.”

The creature opened its eyes and chirped, but it was a distant noise. The pupils irised like a dimming bulb.

“I didn’t know any better,” Porter said, taking the head into his arms and cradling. “I did the best I could with what I knew, with what I had! I’ll try harder, please!”

The dinosaur began to shake and froth. Porter couldn’t look away even though the sight physically pained him, this creature in so much helpless, needless pain. Had the little dinosaur been like this all summer? Slowly starving to death?

A rattle began in the creature’s chest, which forced the remaining air from its lungs like a tea kettle coming to boil. Porter physically felt the life inside the dinosaur diminish, and he broke down into tears.

“I could have done better, I wasn’t ready for you, but I’m thankful we had this. Know that I’m thankful we had this,” he said. A small spark of life came to the young dinosaur’s eye and for that brief moment, they saw each other in the cold room. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew that dinosaur loved him in their short time together.

And then, as the sun dipped over the horizon, the remaining light turned to darkness, and Porter was alone.

*

Porter barely slept, if he even slept at all. After carrying the creature into the basement and deciding to bury it in the woods later, he couldn’t shake the image of the dinosaur’s last moments and how this all could have been prevented with a little attentiveness and research.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter wasn’t in the mood. Of course another bird had come. Of course.

Then he realized it wasn’t a knocking, but a ringing. His cell phone vibrated against the wooden night table with an incoming call from the town offices.

“Heyo, Porter, it’s Len from City Hall. I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No,” Porter said, and sat up.

“Anywho, got a call from the Hartwells asking if we’d seen a small dinosaur. Said it escaped as they were packing up last month. I told’em you’d called with a sighting, and they said they’d swing by. Wanted to give warning.”

“Thanks Len,” Porter said.

“Ayuh,” Len said, and ended the call. The morning sun forced its way through the thin drapes with blinding reminders. It didn’t seem fair that days got to start and end.

Porter sat up and put on his flannel, the same as the day before, and noticed a few places where venomous phlegm has burned small holes through the fabric. He ran his thumb over them and felt the immediate, pressing absence of a used-to-be.

Work-boots on, he limped downstairs with cold and tired knees as a shining car with New York plates blasting loud, electronic music pulled up the drive. He saw a young man and woman in their early twenties in the front seat, dark sunglasses pulled over their eyes, hair styled like they had just come from a fashion magazine’s photo shoot.

“You the guy?” the woman asked as she stepped out of the car in high heels.

“Len said you’d seen our dinosaur. Tricky bugger snuck out while we loaded the car.”

“Over those dunes,” Porter said, pointing away from the house. “I was boarding up. Saw’em hiding near the beach.”

“Is he still there?”

Porter shrugged and shoved his aching hands into his pockets. The woman rolled her eyes and whispered to the guy that she couldn’t walk in the sand with heels, and that he should go, and that he better be quick because she wanted to get back to the city by nightfall.

“We have a buyer, you see,” the guy said. “Top dollar.”

Porter didn’t move as the Hartwell boy traipsed into the dunes and whistled, pushing aside long blades of grass to look for any sign of the creature. He walked near the beach, deep into the grass, and then back again before returning to the car.

“Anything?” Porter asked.

“It’s a baby, how far could it have gone?” the woman said, annoyed. She leaned against the car and scrolled through her phone.

“Maybe you should have kept a better eye on it,” Porter said. He took his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms.

“Excuse me?” the guy said and took off his sunglasses. He stepped into Porter’s personal bubble.

“You left this town two months ago. Never once came back looking. You can’t treat things that way, can’t abandon something just ‘cause you’re bored. You have to love it. You have to try at least and sometimes stand up for yourself, even when it’s hard, and you have to commit to working through tough times. Otherwise, anything that matters goes extinct and everyone ends up alone.”

“It’s just a dinosaur, dude,” the guy said. He held up his hands like he was trying to ward off a charging bull.

“Let’s just go,” the woman said. “We’ll tell Franco it was hit by a car or whatever.”

The woman opened the passenger door and sat down as the guy stomped around to the driver’s side cautiously eyeing Porter. At the end of the road, a familiar car turned into the drive. The car with New York plates turned around and sped out of the gravel drive as the other car—Buddy’s car—pulled in. Buddy parked and stepped out into the slowly warming day. He stood with large shoulders, a yellow and red striped sweater hugging his frame. Though he hadn’t been away in the city for too long, Porter couldn’t believe how much his boy had grown.

“Hey Pops,” Buddy said, holding an overnight bag. “What did those clowns want?”

“Something they shouldn’t have,” Porter said. “What’s the occasion?”

Buddy shrugged.

“Talking to you last night, I dunno, thought you might enjoy some company.”

Porter hugged his boy and welcomed him inside. With the wooden panels up along the porch wall, the inside felt cavernous and dark, but Buddy brought a certain light to the rooms that hadn’t existed in quite some time. They chatted in the kitchen about life in the city, about Porter’s move to the seasonal home, about the split with Minnie and how situations never stopped evolving.

“It’s good to see you, though,” Porter said after a while.

“No way, is that a box of Rainb-O’s? Haven’t had those in years. Don’t tell mum, but…” Buddy said.

“Say no more,” Porter said. He went into the cupboard and pulled out the recently-washed bamboo salad bowl.

“A growing boy needs his nutrition,” Porter said. Buddy sat at the kitchen table like a happy child while Porter popped the top of the cardboard cereal box. He poured the colorful O’s until the bowl had nearly filled and the box had all but emptied, and sat with his son in a warming house as daylight spilled through the cracks of the ancient wooden panels illuminating the presence of an always-will-be.

W. T. Paterson is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and is a graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 80 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Delhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink. A semi-finalist in the Aura Estra short story contest, his work has also received notable accolades from Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Lumberloft. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!”

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Song Looking for a Tune

January 8, 2021

By Travis Stephens

“What’s the matter?’ she asked for the third time in as many nights.

Tonight he was ready to say “nothing,” knowing it would sound half hearted. Low down half hearted, a song would say. Roman rolled those words around in his mind, probed them with his tongue. Can’t make it rhyme, can’t make it carry.

“I don’t know what’s the matter with you,” Susan said. “You’re in one of your moods.” They had moved into this place two years ago, glad for a house close to the city park. Now Susan could walk out with the dog and do a clockwise loop on the walking path. There were a lot of dogs in the neighborhood and Susan waked with a tight knot of Labs, spaniels and standard poodles. Roman’s dog, an otherwise proud Walker hound, had taken to whining and sometimes peeing in anticipation of the morning walk. Roman felt embarrassed for the dog.

That dog had been the impetus and star of his second best song, the one picked up by that handsome Nashville singer married to the Australian actress. Not that the singer needed a hit, but got one anyway. He put a little Oklahoma onto the song when Roman had wrote it with a Kentucky state of mind. A little moonshine and banjo around a hound who left him with his estranged wife. Nashville had run a fucking dobro over the best finger picking Roman ever tried. The royalty checks helped ease the pain, but goddamnit anyway.

His first hit, the song he was known for, was told through the eyes of a little boy whose father drove a truck “steering big wheels of sadness” for days at a time. A tear jerker in the best country tradition, with mandatory slide guitar wail. It ended with an uplifting final message.

“Where did that come from?” Susan asked, when he had played it for her.

“I dunno. Just did.”

“I don’t see how. Your Daddy teaches economics at Saginaw Valley.”

“It’s not about me, Sue.”

“It’s weird.”

Roman had been teaching composition at the two-year university and sending free verse poems out to literary magazines. He had shared the song with Debbie Garnet, a folk singer he had grown up with. Dated, briefly, too. Debbie knew someone who knew someone and when the publication contract arrived in the mail Roman thought it for one of his poems. The call from Jackie followed shortly after.

“Hey, bub,” Jackie said in her whiskey and Diet Coke voice, “you probably need a better agent. I got you covered right here.”

“I don’t have an agent?”

“You just book shows on your own? Oh, honey child, time to move out of your parents’ garage.”

“I don’t do shows. I’m not part of a band. I work teaching English and composition full time.”

“You’re just a Kris Kristofferson, ain’t you?”

“More like a John Moreland.”

“I don’t even know who that is.”

On Jackie’s advice he had rented a small studio and reduced his teaching to part-time.  He attended a songwriter’s workshop in Nashville, which Roman found to be exactly like any other writing workshop, full of snark and self congratulation. Jackie took him on a round of the smaller recording companies.

“Let me do the talking,” she said.

Roman paged through the press releases she was passing around.

“Wait, I’m not from Texas.”

“Hush. Everybody is from Texas. Just talk slower when anybody asks you something.”

“I’m not a trucker, either.”

“Don’t you worry about it. Nobody reads these things anyway.”

Afterward he was glad to go home. Nashville seemed  enamored with slight young singers with oversized guitars. These singers, usually attractive blond women, were guarded by a coterie of executives and makeup artists. Roman heard his songs when they emerged from a radio and sometimes struggled to recognize his writing. It was why they lived across the line, in the corner of Kentucky that abutted Arkansas. “Whooee,”Jackie, said, “why you want to live over in that cracker barrel?”

“I just like it, Jackie. We can afford a nice house there. Besides, it’s only a few hours away.”

“If you say so.”

Today Roman had taught class from eight to eight-fifty and had spent the rest of the day in his studio. The painter who had the adjoining studio had been spraying fixer on a series of abstract landscapes so Roman was forced to open his windows. Eventually he moved a stool onto the tiny galvanized steel fire escape and sat out there. It overlooked a lot of gravel, grass and the bones of a burnt out garage. As Roman watched a cat slunk along the cinder block wall. It moved with a sneaky furtiveness that spoke of having done some terrible wrong.

Roman strummed the guitar and mouthed a series of phrases that contained “cat”, “heartbreak”, and “night” which eventually tuned into a few good lines about tomcatting into the morning light. Not bad.

But that was it. No focus. A few words surrounded by daydream. These were full of jingles and carried by cliché. He was strumming when he heard movement behind him.

Stuart was a self taught painter who, Roman suspected, lived illegally in his studio. That couch looked too slept in. It wasn’t like Stuart had a string of models he bed. The artist was a pear shaped man with a mean set of eyes. He’d stepped into Roman’s open door and was wearing a full face shield. Roman saw him peel it off.

“Must be nice,” Stuart said.

“What?”

“To work with nothing. No paints or canvas. Man, I got thousands of dollars tied up in oil paints and gesso. You can just sit with a guitar.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Sure it is.” Susan had framed one of his songs and it hung on the wall. Stuart tossed his thumb at it. “What is that, two chords?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“You’d think all country songs would already been done. All the possibilities run through. We have been painting for hundreds of years. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. Rembrandt. You could go back to the cave painters. Thousands of painters. It’s art that never ends.”

“Listen” Roman said, “How much longer you going to be spraying over there? You about give me a headache.”

“I just did the first coat,” Stuart said. “Two more coats to go.”

Roman fled to his car. Tossed the guitar in the back and drove the opposite direction of home. He wasn’t hungry. Before he went two miles he saw a ROAD WORK AHEAD, followed by WAIT FOR FLAGGER. He drove slowly past yellow behemoths grubbing in the dirt. Roman stopped when a flagger in a safety vest stepped in front of him. She held her palm toward him like she could fend off a songwriter in a half ton of steel.

She stood in the road a yard ahead of his radiator with a flag held lazily horizontal. The flagger wore scuffed work boots and jeans, a gray t-shirt. Her hair tried to lift the hardhat. County tomboy. Roman tried to imagine what someone like that would say when she came home after a day of standing on a road shoulder. How was your day? Exciting. Today I saw a red sports car. Kids on a bus waved to me. How was my day? Like any day just outside the grave.

Were there any songs about flaggers? He couldn’t think of one. Most country songs glorified the manly pursuits—ranching, trucking, building stuff or knocking it down. Roman tapped on the wheel, playing with a loose string of words that might be coaxed into a rhyme. Flag, nag, brag. Wave, crave and save. Maybe wave the flag and tie it to the US flag. Checkered flag.

Darlene, he decided. Dar—leen. Like darling. She lived in a trailer—no, she lived on a little place just big enough for a horse. Dreamed of carrying the flag on horseback like she used to do at the rodeo, flag over her shoulder, proud and tall with a Stetson instead of a hardhat, a pearl buttoned shirt with those western yokes. Big smile for the crowd. let’s give her a hand, folks, Miss Darlene of Abilene….

“Hey.” The flagger was at his driver’s side window. She was not smiling. She placed her hands on her hips. “What’s the matter with you? When I lower the flag it means you can go. Okay?” He heard her say “Dumbass” just under her breath.

Roman stepped on the gas a bit too hard. Spat gravel at the car behind him and toward the flagger. Damn. So long Darlene. So long. Nobody sings about flaggers and now he knew why.

Travis Stephens is a tugboat captain who resides with his family in California. An alumni of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, recent credits include: 2River, Sheila-Na-Gig, Hole in the Head Review, GRIFFEL, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Tangalooma Dreaming

January 1, 2021

By Nicole Adair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what?”

“Then we can go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Issa…”

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

“Of course I do, but…”

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

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

“You’re it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is what? What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Waiting For Flicker, Christmas 1963

December 18, 2020

By Byron Spooner

“The holidays are hard on everybody,” Mother says, stubbing out her half-smoked Kent in a chocolate-smeared dessert plate, as if that might head the conversation off at the pass. If Dad were here he’d be giving Mother his usual hyperbolic ration of shit about smoking, but he’s long gone so she can do pretty much anything she Goddamn well pleases. Plus, she only smokes about three or four a day. Five, tops. If I could get away with that I’d still be smoking.

Arranged around the table in roughly the same configuration as at that lunatic Christmas dinner forty-odd years before, the three of us are the only ones left and none of us remembers exactly. Not that it matters.

“And really, what was Dad thinking?” my brother Davey says.

Which is exactly the question Mother doesn’t want me or Davey asking, the start of a discussion she’s endured many times; another rehash of that evening we still tell stories about—obsessively, she would say—and embellish and laugh about, at our increasingly infrequent gatherings. She hopes she can still steer clear of it.

“Who knows?” I say.

“Who cares?” Mother says too late.

At the head of the table, the tinsel-shimmering tree in the bay window behind him, looming over us, was six-and-a-half feet of Dad. He was halfway into his third martini. At the other end, Mother, tiny and starting to put on weight, had a VO on the rocks within easy reach; who knew how many she’d had in the kitchen. The entire Northeast region, as the weatherman called it, may have been glazed stiff from three days of continual freezing rain, but inside the heat was on full, the food was steaming. The perfect way to bring the day to a fitting finish.

Granted, the morning’s gift exchange hadn’t gone as well as it could have. Davey and I had each gotten at least one thing we wanted and had managed to keep the whining to a minimum. Davey, at seven, had been, for weeks, nearly beside himself with anticipation; I played it cool, it was my tenth Christmas and I acted the unimpressed veteran. Dad’s asshole buddy Garnett and his glamorous wife Marge were with us and, as always, exchanged token gifts with Mother and Dad. But they’d been staying with us ‘for a couple of weeks’ since around April. Another thing for Mother to be chronically pissed off about.

Things got off on the wrong foot early when Dad gave Mother a flat white box with red wrapping paper and a gold ribbon. She unwrapped it carefully, putting the paper and ribbon aside intact, and slid the top off the box. She peeled away the tissue paper and slowly, with a puzzled smile on her face, held it up for view in front of us before she realized what exactly it was; the flimsiest, shortest, sheerest negligee legally offered for purchase within the borders of the contiguous United States. There were straps going every which way with seemingly no imaginable purpose, it looked as if the whole rig couldn’t modestly cover one of the cats. What there was of it was the thinnest black fabric with blacker vertical ribbing and a feathery—or maybe furry—scarlet trim. The second she realized what it was, her smile disintegrated and she flushed red as the trim, dropped it back into the box while trying simultaneously to refold the tissue paper around it, jam the top back on the box—if she could have rewrapped it she would have—and drop it on the floor next to her. She couldn’t look at anyone in the room, instead scowling at the box as though it were a Great Dane soiling her clean floor.

“Go ahead, try in on!” Dad said to her, leering slightly and elbowing Garnett.

“What was that?” Davey asked, “What’s it for?”

What was Dad thinking? Did he mistake the flush of embarrassment and anger on her cheeks for some rosy dawn of eroticism, a pinkening of the cadaver of desire afresh? Was he so out of it that he misinterpreted the obvious signals?

Mother was short-tempered the rest of the day and when I asked Dad why, he said, “Christ, who knows? It’s always something with her.”

Dad wore his suit to dinner nearly every day and there was no reason Christmas dinner should be any different. Expecting guests, especially wealthy guests like Aunt Doobie and Uncle Flicker, brought out the blade in him. Flicker had inherited money—“a shitpot full,” according to Dad— from his family. Money made from the manufacture and sale of a nationally-known constipation remedy. Which was what made “shitpot full” even funnier, again according to Dad.

When Flicker wasn’t around Dad referred to him as the “The Laxative King,” but on the rare occasions Flicker was around he sucked up to him unsubtly, calling him “My favorite brother-in-law” and stuff like that. It was Dad’s conviction, his only unshakeable tenet of belief, that the one and only reason Flicker existed on the earth, the reason he’d been born of woman and suckled and nurtured and expensively educated and raised to maturity and unleashed on an unsuspecting and undeserving world in all his slim, urbane, cigarette-holder-sporting, Thunderbird-driving, condescendingly-nasal-voiced glory, was to make Dad look bad.

Dad’s attitude was: You never knew when a rich person might be suddenly convulsed by the irresistible urge to begin handing out random cash. Stranger things had happened after all and there was no reason not to be close by should such a compulsion come over Flicker.

But Doobie and Flicker, never the most reliable of jetsetters, still had not shown. They were already a couple of hours late when Mother and Dad powwowed in the kitchen, hissing and whispering. Mother wanted to go ahead and serve; dinner was going to be too late for us kids if we waited much longer. Dad wanted to hold off for another hour or so. Mother’s winning point, the one that changed Dad’s mind, was ‘If we stall around any longer the roast’ll be ruined.” Overdone and tough. Hearing this, Dad, who liked his beef cooked ‘so it moos’ immediately relented and started herding everyone in sight to the table. He always said sophisticated people ate their meat rare.

With or without Doobie and Flicker, Dad had been looking forward to the Christmas roast since sometime around the Fourth of July. He loathed Christmas and all things associated with it but wasn’t about to let that spoil a good meal. Just because he’d been collecting Unemployment for the better part of nine months didn’t mean we couldn’t splurge a little for the holidays. The roast alone had set him back enough to feed the entire family the usual slop for a week. We’d be eating nothing but macaroni and cheese and store-brand canned crap into mid-January at least, but it would be worth it. Mashed potatoes, peas with pearl onions, Parker House rolls, real butter, Jell-O salad. Gravy. Garnett had said he’d kick a share into the pot but came up short, having been unemployed even longer than Dad.

Dad seemed to hover over the roast, a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, letting the anticipation build.

He peered into the gravy boat, the good one our grandmother had given us, silver and shaped vaguely along the lines of Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, from over his glasses. If you asked him—not that anybody ever did—there was never enough gravy; the woman never made enough. If it had been up to him he would never, ever, have to ladle out the gravy in carefully measured, niggardly portions as if we lived in the poorhouse or something. If it had been up to him, he’d have poured it. He’d have poured it on his meat, his potatoes, his vegetables, his salad, his goddamned ice cream, if he wanted to. He’d float the whole flipping meal in it.

And he always, at this point in the proceedings, asked the same question, “The gravy situation is MIK, I presume? More In Kitchen?”

“Just what’s there,” Mother said, her voice tense. To her, the most galling part of the whole performance was he always, no matter how many times he trotted out the same tired line, felt the need to translate the acronym for her. Did he think she hadn’t heard ‘More In Kitchen’ the last two hundred times he‘d said it? Did he not realize he was prodding a hornets’ nest with this MIK nonsense?

He shared a downcast look with us kids, and then with Garnett and Marge, as if to say, ‘See how much I have to suffer?’

He paused for another solemn moment.

“I must say that Christmas dinner is always extra special when I’m serving all these wonderful people. All these people who are so close to me and whom I love so dearly.”

Was he sincere or just bullshitting us? Probably a little of both if my ear could be trusted. It was hard to know.

“I know we’re all broke this year…”

“Just like last year…” Mother muttered.

“…but there are still some things…”

“…and the year before that…” she continued.

“…that are more important…”

He went on from there, blessing each of us several times including the roast and the gravy and the pearl onions, with the gravy ladle.

“A-men, a-men,” Marge said.

“God bless us one and all,” Garnett said. He was defrocked minister, so he still knew how to make stuff like that sound sincere and insincere at the same time..

“The food is getting cold,” Mother said.

Carefully and with all the high-seriousness befitting the occasion, Dad carved the roast and doled out the slices, a few at a time. His disappointment was obvious as each successive slice peeled away; the meat was gray, without even a trace of pink, through and through. The rest of us, hungry and not nearly as worldly as Dad, fell on the food like starved peccaries. All the while we kept one keen eye on the remaining food and plotted ways to get a little more than the others when the time came for seconds. Everyone talked at once: the gifts, the rain outside, the fire in the fireplace, Santa, Christmases past, Dickens, the Grinch, a week off from school.

No one mentioned Kennedy, who’d been shot and killed just over a month before.

“We’re not going to spoil our Christmas just because that sonofabitch is dead,” Dad had said, earlier in the day, making clear his position. As if there had ever been any doubt.

Garnett pulled a palmed marshmallow out of Davey’s ear. He kept a bag of them hidden in his coat pocket. Davey giggled.

“I love this time of year; the Christmas trees, the decorations, the store windows,” he said.

“Yes, it is lovely isn’t it? Why don’t we drive into the city tomorrow and see the decorations on the big stores one more time before they take them all down,” Marge suggested.

“Good idea,” Mother said, “We all get tired of being cooped up in the house after a couple of days. I know I do.” A glance at Dad.

Dad rolled his eyes ceilingward. Not his idea of a fun way to fill an afternoon.

“Did you see the guy owns the hardware store downtown?” Dad said, “He stuck a sign in his window says, ‘Give Your Husband a New Screw for Christmas!’ You might want to take the kids past that way. Good for a couple of laughs.” It was always hard to pinpoint who his intended audience was for this kind of thing. The rest of us could practically hear Mother simmering at the other end of the table. He was oblivious. At least it seemed so.

Garnett laughed, as would be expected, but Marge hid her mouth behind her napkin.

“Why would you say something like that at this table, with the children here, everyone in such a good mood?” she said.

“It’s a joke, m’dear, a joke. Best just to let it pass.” Garnett said, pulling another marshmallow from Davey’s ear. I monitored this pretty closely. Usually after another highball or two he’d switch from marshmallows to quarters. You wanted to be around for that.

“I hear Doobie and Flicker are headed for Aruba after the holidays,” Dad said.

“Yes, they are,” Mother said, perking up, momentarily encouraged that her husband had been paying attention to something other than his own needs for a change.

“Maybe they decided to head down there early,” Dad said.

“I understand it’s lovely this time of year,” Marge said.

“Me, too,” Garnett said, “No freezing rain, at least.”

“Art Plouts had a buddy went to Aruba,” Dad said, “He told me it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Art Plouts?” Mother said.

“I remember ole Art,” Garnett said, “Wasn’t he…”

“Art Plouts?” Mother said again, incredulous, wanting none of Art Plouts, a gin-soaked housepainter Dad had met in a barroom in Memphis who’d mooched room, board and booze off us for several months in exchange for a couple of shaky coats of exterior white.

Mother said, “If Aruba’s such a hellhole how come people are practically killing themselves to get there?”

“Just ‘cause you’re rich, doesn’t make you smart,” Dad said, directing this at me and Davey as if it were a valuable piece of advice.

Mother said, “I guess by that measure you’re about the smartest man in town.”

He gave her a look of wounded incomprehension.

“You should be a regular genius,” she said.

Garnett reached over and pulled a quarter out of my ear. I must have miscalculated his rate of consumption.

“You and Art and all your other deadbeat friends? You idiots think it’s smart to not work? You and your friends are too fucking smart to hold a steady job?”

The table went silent.

Garnett issued a barely audible burp.

Dad swore like a drill sergeant, we heard obscenity and profanity daily—hell, hourly—from him. It had only been only a year or two since I’d figured out ‘motherfucker’ wasn’t another word for ‘lawnmower.’ Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, exclamations, he swung the words the way Dizzy Gillespie swung high notes, the way Jackie Gleason delivered a punch line, with precision and artistry, yes, but also for the sake of pure entertainment. But that word—Fuck—coming from Mother, and not just the word but in that tone, in front of her children and Marge and Garnett, and on Christmas, was nothing but unalloyed rage. It sent a charge of fear through the room.

“See here,” Marge said.

“Shut up,” Mother said, “You’ve been on my last nerve all day with your holier-than-thou, high-and-mighty attitude, so right now, just for now, why don’t you shut up?”

After a minute and with deliberate and exaggerated patience Dad said, “If you’re referring to the alleged differences between me and the sainted Flicker, I would like to point out, A, he’s never had to lift finger one in his entire pointless goddamned existence. B, he inherited everything…”

“It wasn’t Flicker who gave you the idea for that…that…filthy…thing you tried to give me this morning. That idea had to come from Art or some other dirty-minded friend of yours.”

“I came up with that on my own…” he said, leering again at the memory.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Garnett said.

“And in front of these poor children…?”

“…and, getting back to my original point, don’t forget, C, everyone…” he said, going back to his list, his forefinger pointing to the ceiling, massively oblivious to what was coming.

“…and on Christmas…?” she said, wanting nothing more to do with his alphabet.

“… on the entire face of the planet…”

“And…in…front…of…all…these…people?”

  As she said this last, she jumped out of her chair, gripping the edge of the table, bringing her end up with her as she rose.

“…kisses his rich ass…”

Like all tragedies, this one happened in slow motion.

We all watched breathless, frozen in place, useless, as Mother tilted her end of the table upward and sent an avalanche into Dad’s lap; the tablecloth with our dinner, dishes, silverware, serving platters, water glasses, the cocktails, the roast, the Jell-O salad, the peas with pearl onions, the mashed potatoes, the gravy—the gravy! Dad tried to save the roast, grabbing it as it sailed by. At the same time, he tried to stand, to get out of the way of the rest of our dinner, but in his rush to throw himself clear his legs got tangled in his chair legs; his left shoe clomped onto the silver-plated gravy boat, half-flattening it. He slipped in the spreading slick of gravy and fell backwards, kicking out, shooting the gravy boat, which no longer resembled Aladdin’s Magic Lamp or anything recognizable, at a terrifying speed and sending it smack against the opposite wall. It ricocheted back at him, caroming off the ceiling on its way. There was still enough gravy in the ruined thing to spatter Dad’s face and clothes when it struck him square in the forehead and rattled to the floor, came to rest in nearly the exact spot it had taken off from. More stunned than wounded, he fell backwards into the tree, bringing it down with a great, sickening crash. The plugs on the Depression-era light strings sputtered and smoked under the strain and finally gave up the ghost, flickering once, twice, and dying. Dad sprawled on top of the ruined tree, the roast resting on his chest like some wet trophy.

“Shit,” Dad said.

An extended stunned silence ensued punctuated only by the miniature crash—Ding!—of a last glass ornament dropping to the floor. We all sat in our chairs feeling suddenly exposed, absent the table, napkins in our laps, knives and forks still in our hands

“God bless us one and all,” Garnett said and Dad, from where he lay moaning, his suit gravy-spattered and covered with pine needles, could only laugh. He always thought Garnett was a fucking riot.

“A few years ago,” I say, “It came to me that the world didn’t need me to point out all the already obvious hypocrisies of the season. Most people work out ways to live with them, reconcile with them, so they can still enjoy the season. And I’m not helping anything by acting like Dad; trying to convert everyone into an atheist or a Scrooge. So he hated Christmas? So what? What gave him license to go around spoiling everyone else’s holiday?”

“So if you don’t have anything nice to say I just dummy up? ” Davey says, “Doesn’t sound like you.”

“It’s the new me,” I say.

“How’s that working out for you?” Davey asked.

“So-so, I’d have to say, Dr. Phil,” I say, I’ve been the other way for so long it’s just habit to be that way.”

“Forty Christmases under our belts since that one,” Davey says, “I guess we’re the last of them.”

I ask Mother, “What happened to Garnett?”

  “After your father died, I lost touch with Marge and Garnett,” Mother says, “I assume they’re gone. It was no state secret I never really cared much for them.”

She always said that, “No state secret.” Some things never change. Actually, most things never change, if you think about it.

“No, it certainly wasn’t,” Davey says, laughing at her understatement.

Mother says, “The last we heard they’d gone up to Providence to live with Marge’s sister, ‘looking for work’—probably sponging.”

“Doobie and Flicker never did show up,” Davey says.

“The peripatetic Doobie and Flicker,” I say, jumping on the rare chance to insert ‘peripatetic’ into a conversation.

“Wow, nice word,” Davey says. In our family, sarcasm is the mother tongue.

“Yeah, and I remember how pissed off you were,” I say to Mother. Davey just laughs. Whatever happened to her sister Doobie and Doobie’s husband Flicker that night is lost in the mists—the freezing rain—of history; never satisfactorily explained, never resolved. Nobody ever asked, nobody ever explained. Like everything else, we all just acted as if nothing had happened and trudged on. It was a tradition that had been passed down through generations. They died a few years later off the coast of Mexico, marlin fishing. Apparently everyone on board was loaded—’knee-walking drunk’ was how Flicker’s ancient mother put it—when they capsized.

“They always lived like the rules didn’t apply to them. They were terribly reckless.” she says, “And, just to set the record straight, I wasn’t ’pissed off’ so much as disappointed.”

Davey laughs again, “‘Disappointed?’ Hell, you didn’t speak to them for a couple of years after that.” He is always brutally honest with her, the one who calls her on her bullshit, never giving her an inch, ever since he was little.

“Yes, I never got the chance to reconcile with her,” she says, “And I would’ve too.”

Davey and I exchange glances that say, ‘Yeah, right.’

“It was all so long ago,” she says, sighing “I don’t understand why we always have to come back to it. Every Christmas it’s the same Goddammed thing.” She lights her last Kent of the evening and shakes the match out.

Davey says, “You’re right, ‘the holidays are hard on everybody.’”

Byron Spooner has recently retired after twenty-one years as the Literary Director of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library where he produced literary events including a weekly poetry series with San Francisco Poet Laureate Emeritus Jack Hirschman. He founded and edited of The Readers Review, the Friends’ literary blog, where he wrote about books, music, film and bookselling. With his wife, writer Judith Ayn Bernhard, Byron co-edited Arcana: A Festschrift for Jack Hirschman (Andover Street Archives Press, 2014). His writing has been published in the San Francisco Examiner, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Autobiography and Isis. He has written introductions to several anthologies published by FSFPL. His short story, A Book for Christmas was published by Red Berry Editions in 2011. Byron has served on the San Francisco Poet Laureate Nominating Committee and the One City, One Book Selection Committee of the SFPL, on the Board of Litquake, and the Advisory Board of the Beat Museum.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Chinchillas

December 11, 2020

By Con Chapman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You talk to him.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s down there now.”

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

“Hey,” Duane answered.

“How’s it going?” his dad asked.

“Pretty good.  I’m up to 12.”

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

“I want to get up to 200.”

“And then what?”

“Sell ‘em and make a bunch of money.”

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

“I want to buy more.”

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

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

“We could do that, I guess.”

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

“How much is it gonna be?”

“I figger forty dollars.”

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

“Okay.”

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

“I understand.”

“Okay.”

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

“And he understands?” his mother said.

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

“Well take a whiff, would you?”

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

“I’ll talk to him,” he said.

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

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

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

“What’s the update?”

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

“Why do you do that?”

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

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

“I sent away for a list of places.”

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duane just sat there, taking it in.

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

“Dad I can sell them . . .”

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

“A what?” Duane asked.

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

“What promises?”

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

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

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

“I’ll get a job.”

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

Duane said nothing for a moment.

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

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

“None of your business,” he said.

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

“They’re not rats.”

“I told you so.”

“You didn’t tell me anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duane took the bag and held it in his hand.

“Drop it in.”

“Do I have to?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Vern.  Naw–something more exotic.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of ‘em?” Duane asked.

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

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

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Grief, Guest Posts, Young Voices

Peripheral

December 9, 2020

By J Steinman

I do not remember her. She’s gone now, in the past, in memory? I barely have her. She was a peripheral friend. Emily was a gymnast and a popular girl; she was funny and beautiful and smart. She would not talk to me, not out of distaste but there were 2,657 other people around, I was not the first on her mind. But now that she is gone, she is on my mind. Untimely ripped, they say. I wonder if maybe something was slightly different that day, the wind on the water or the tides, that maybe she would still be alive. She wasn’t significant to me until she was gone. Until her blood swam in the Sound. I would see her in the parking lot at the grocery store, a flash of blonde hair with big banana curls, and I would almost say her name- “Emily”. Before the wave would come crashing down and I would remember and retch out the saltwater that filled me to the brim. The saltwater that became one with her body as she was floating in the waves. I wasn’t here but I can hear the scream, the horrible screams they made when they saw what they had done. The boat floated easily atop the blue water, what a beautiful day, blue skies. They had been tubing, four girls, best friends. Two in the water and two on the boat. Emily fell off the tube and Jane saw and signaled to slow down and turn around. Jess lay on the tube while they brought around the boat to pick up Emily. They came in hot; boats don’t have brakes you know. The only way to slow down is to put the engine in reverse. And it must’ve been so quick. No time to fix what was done already. I can hear them scream as they saw her, what they had done. I remember, I imagine. I remember the horror. Jess swims to get Emily’s body back onto the boat. You cannot unsee what you’ve been told. She came back in two pieces. It’s amazing how the funeral home made her look so peaceful, just asleep in that casket. No bruises, no distress on her face. I even saw some family members lean in to kiss her forehead. And I still see her every now and then, in images, on her birthday, when people still post about her. She was 16, she feels like a child to me now. Immortalized in death. The photos stop and we can’t see her now, or what would’ve happened next. How she grew up, where she would go to college, who she would marry. Untimely ripped, she was. Bright blue was her favorite color. 2 Things I never would have known about her, a name no more or less important than the 600 other students in my year. But now she is imprinted, 16 in my memory.

J Steinman is a young professional living in the greater NYC area who works by day and submits their writing at night. They identify as bisexual and queer (they/them). J graduated from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2020 with a B.S. in Biology and minors in English and Psychology. J took a Hybrid Forms class under the direction of the incredible author Lidia Yuknavitch. J then took a poetry workshop with the professor and poet Kathryn Cowles and prepared to delve into the literary world. J’s writing does not shy away from directness and pain, they seek to write what we don’t have words for.

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Friendship, Grief, Guest Posts

Hogtied Heart

November 30, 2020

By Laura Zera

When I spun up a blues playlist this morning—T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters—I wondered why I’d let months go by since I’d last listened. I know better. If there’s ever a day where my feet aren’t planted or my heart is paining, which has been most days lately, the blues set me straight. Not by taking away the discomfort; by dropping me right into the middle of it.

The first time I heard blues played live I was 21 and too-soon worldly. But I was unprepared for how that particular genre of music could twist its way into soft tissue, seep into cells. I’d traveled from Vancouver, Canada to Phoenix to buy a secondhand Jeep CJ, a realistic hare-brained scheme back then. All it took was a brief meeting with a banker in his mid-20s (I think his name was Kai). “Yeah, I’m a student with a part-time job, but those jeeps are so rust-free. Can you throw in a bit extra to cover travel?”

With six-and-a-half thousand advanced for my mission, I rode Amtrak and stayed at the youth hostel. There I met Glen, an Australian goliath who had to step in for my singular 4×4 test drive when, inexperienced with manual transmissions, I couldn’t make it around the block, thanks to my shaking legs. The vehicle was a Toyota Land Cruiser because my price range turned up nary a Jeep. I switched my search to sports cars.

At the hostel, a German engineer with a beard (so weird for 1990) delighted in explaining Mazda’s rotary engine in extravagant detail and dissuaded me from buying an RX-7. Thorsten also left a note for me with the manager. I can still see myself reading it at the front desk, confused. “It says he’s fallen in love with me.” Her smirk told me that as camp counselor to the young and restless, she’d seen this trouble before.

My partiality was for Nick, a pensive Brit who later came up to Vancouver and explained he hadn’t been himself in Phoenix. In the last part of a spell in Mexico, he visited a river with two other English travelers. They wanted to swim at a waterfall, and, feeling apprehensive, he stayed further downstream. A day later, Mexican authorities called on him to identify their bodies. He got the hell out of there, and when I met him, he’d just called the boys’ parents.

I don’t remember any women from the hostel, which fits perfectly with my dear friend Jill’s one-time remark that I always noticed the men in the room. She was right, of course. It wasn’t until 2018, when I interviewed Jenny Valentish about her book Woman of Substances, that I connected this habit to earlier sexual assaults. Yes. I always notice the men in the room.

At the time, Jill, Welsh by origin, was working illegally as a caregiver to an old Iranian woman on a ranch near San Diego. She caught a Greyhound to Phoenix and together we road-tripped through America in the car I eventually bought: a hot little Datsun 280ZX. Aside from being conned out of fifty bucks in San Francisco by a hustler who promised tickets to a fictitious mega concert and then disappeared, the trip was a smash hit. I dropped Jill in Seattle because she couldn’t cross the border, for reasons different than the circumstances of today.

But back to the music. A group of us from the Phoenix hostel found ourselves at a tiny club called Char’s Has the Blues. I stood for eons in front of the stage, beer in hand, C-PTSD undiagnosed, and felt that music like it was pouring out of me, instead of into me.

I looked up Char’s online today, the first time in 30 years I’ve checked to see if it was still around. A month ago, it was put up for sale, a casualty of COVID.

Jill died from cancer in January.

A kid today with some miles to travel and living to do cannot in good conscience hang out, shopping for well-preserved Jeeps by day and finding their soul at night.

I was in Phoenix for all of five days.

Thank the Lord, we still have the blues.

Laura Zera’s essays have been published by the New York Times, the Washington Post, DAME, Full Grown People, Catapult, and others. She is a mental health advocate for The Stability Network, has completed a book titled Jump: A Memoir About Skating and Survival, and is working on a novel set in South Africa.

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Forgiveness, Grief, Guest Posts

Forgiving Mom…Finally

November 29, 2020
day

By Fredricka R. Maister

“Sorry, girls, but the car won’t start so I can’t drive you to the pool today,” Mrs. Gilbert told Joanne and me that hot summer morning. The date, forever rooted in my memory:  August 8th, 1961.

I may have been a clueless 12-year-old kid, but I instantly suspected Mrs. Gilbert was lying.  I didn’t believe for a second that her car had mechanical problems.  Besides, she could have used her husband’s car.  Dr. Gilbert was working in his home medical office, his car sitting unused in the driveway.

I don’t know why, but I could just feel that something catastrophic had happened or was about to happen, something unspeakable. Why else would Joanne and I have had to stay cooped up inside all day, cut off from the sunny outside world?

Strange as it may seem from today’s vantage point, my dread-filled focus and feelings that day centered on nuclear annihilation, World War III, the end of the world. As a baby boomer growing up during the Cold War, I could not forget the  “duck and cover” drills we regularly practiced during the school year. Crawling under my desk, my arms covering my head, I would silently wait,  contemplating what death would feel like in a nuclear blast while still hoping for the “All Clear” bell to sound.

Even though I never heard any news reports or air raid sirens warning us to seek refuge in a fallout shelter, that doomsday consciousness haunted me all day at Joanne’s.  Of course, I kept my thoughts to myself; Joanne would have laughed at me had I told her we were going to be blown to smithereens.

I had slept at Joanne’s house the night before, the latest in a succession of sleepovers at friends’ houses since my 54-year-old father had suffered his first heart attack three weeks before.  While my sister, who was four years younger than I, stayed at home with Mom, I was passed around “like a hot potato” from friend to friend.  I couldn’t remember when I last slept in my own bed; I sometimes wouldn’t see my mother and sister for days.

Physically ousted from my home, I was kept out of the loop on the latest medical updates about my dad’s condition. On the rare times I was there, I would eavesdrop on my mom talking on the phone with family and friends.  That’s how I found out my dad had suffered two heart attacks and was still in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.

I once cornered my mother in her bedroom, my need to know the truth about my dad trumping any upset I might cause her. “Is Daddy going to die?” I blurted to which she responded with an evasive “We hope not.”  I never asked again.

For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone and abandoned, but no one seemed to notice or care. I found myself pretending that my home life was normal, and that my dad would soon be discharged from the hospital.  No one ever sat me down and explained just how precarious his medical condition was.

I recall Leslie, another friend I stayed with during my father’s hospitalization, telling me one night before we went to bed, “Let’s pray for your dad.” I didn’t comprehend why we needed to pray when his condition didn’t seem life-threatening.  The possibility that he might die eluded me then and during my stay at Joanne’s house.

In retrospect, I don’t think I consciously connected the dots between Mrs. Gilbert’s “lie” and my father’s health status.  I was too obsessed with being obliterated by an atom bomb.

Joanne and I passed that endless day playing board games and Solitaire.  I kept watching the clock for the hours to pass, but time stood still as my anxiety spiked.  I needed to be with my mom and sister when the bomb was going to drop, but I had to wait until Joanne’s parents could drive me home that evening.

***

An ominous quiet filled the car.  Although I looked forward to seeing my family, the anxiety and dread that had surged inside me all day only intensified.  When Dr. Gilbert didn’t turn the car into the street leading to my house but proceeded to my uncle’s home where Mrs. Gilbert said the family had gathered, I felt my heart sink into the pit of my stomach.  Why was my family gathering anywhere?  Why weren’t my mom and sister at home?  I suddenly realized that the end of the world I had anticipated had been nothing but a figment of my imagination.  All my foreboding had related to an inexplicable inner knowing that my father had died.

By the time we arrived at my uncle’s home, I could no longer deny my new “fatherless” reality. As I raced up the steps to the door where my uncle was already waiting for me, Mrs. Gilbert called out, “ Honey, be strong.”

Finally, privy to the truth, I learned that my father had died at 8 o’clock that morning.  His nurse had just turned on the television. When she turned around to say something to him, he had already succumbed to a massive heart attack that ended his life.

And, just as I suspected, Mrs. Gilbert had lied about the car.  She and my mother had spoken after Dad passed that morning and decided I should be kept away from the pool to avoid running into someone who might say something about his death.

***

That fateful August day back in 1961 has left an indelible impression on my memory and my psyche, more so than my dad’s funeral the following day, which I barely remember.  A few days after his funeral, my mother sent me away, not to mourn but to have fun at the Jersey Shore where my cousins had a bungalow. I was never asked if I wanted to go; I know I would have preferred to stay at home. For over a week as I rode the ocean waves and biked the boardwalk, I, the expert at the “pretend” game, acted as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary had happened.

Unresolved feelings of anger and abandonment associated with the weeks before and after my dad’s abrupt passing followed me into adulthood with an emotional vengeance.  Even now, more than 50 years later, my emotions often feel raw and palpable and I can’t seem to let them go.  Whenever I hark back to those feelings in sessions with my therapist, she tells me that their grip on me keeps me stuck in the past, unable to embrace the present and move forward into the future.

She reminds me that the intentions of family members and friends like Mrs. Gilbert were all well meaning.  In the 1950s and 60s, the priority, as a society, was to shield children from the trauma of a loved one’s death.  There was little recognition that children were emotionally sturdier than they appeared and could handle the truth.

***

I recently had an honest talk with my family about that turbulent time and its emotional impact on my life.  As I expected, my sister justified my mother’s decisions.  “I was in day camp then.  Mom was at the hospital with Daddy all day.  She couldn’t leave you alone at home to fend for yourself. You were only 12-years-old.  As a mother, I would have done the same thing.”

I assumed my nephew, whom I call “my soul child” because our emotional temperaments are usually in sync, would be more sympathetic to my side in our family drama.  Instead, he told me that although it might be cathartic for me to tell the story from my “angry” perspective, I should put myself in “Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time.”

The need to empathize with my mother, who bore the brunt of my anger, has not been a new concept for me. I just never felt motivated to re-visit that part of my past without the resentments and bitterness I’ve been dragging around for decades.  However, since my heart-to-heart sharing with my family, not to mention the emotionally mellowing and wising up that seems to occur as one ages, I’ve felt a shift in attitude, a possible readiness to extricate myself from all that psychological baggage.  To that end, my nephew’s words “to put myself in Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time” resonated, flashing me back in time.

I see my 45-year-old mother, grappling with the reality of sudden widowhood, alone among her friends dealing with the death of her spouse and the father of her young children.  Unlike today, there were no how-to books, self-help articles or support groups; as a woman conditioned to hiding her innermost feelings, seeking professional help was never an option.

Unsupported by the 1950s-1960s culture bent on protecting children from parental illness and death, my mother was muddling through as best she could.  In fact, when I eventually confronted her decades later about her “hurtful” behavior, she apologized, explaining  “I was just doing what I thought was best for you.” I had no doubt that her remorse was sincere, but I still held onto my grievances, unable to cut her some slack.

Despite the blame and anger I have felt towards my mother, now deceased for over a decade, I have never ceased to stand in awe of her strength and resilience in surviving the death of my father.  His sudden passing not only left her a widow but a widow without money.  Our family’s financial status took a sharp downturn to the point of bankruptcy.  My mother sold our lovely house and we moved into a cramped rental apartment she could only describe as “indescribable” in another part of town where my sister and I had no friends. Mom had to go to work immediately.  She had nursing credentials, but the pay was low and the shifts long.

In a matter of a few months, I watched my mother morph from a dependent housewife into a struggling breadwinner who would single-handedly raise two daughters—no mean feat for a single mom.  I might add that those two daughters, despite the trauma of losing a father at a young age, matured into high-functioning, responsible and independent women.  For that, I credit my mother and am most grateful.

***

I have always been a firm believer that people, places and things appear in your life, when the desire to heal is greatest. Such was the case when I came across this quote in an inspirational book I read each morning:  “Forgiving is not about forgetting, it’s letting go of the hurt.”

I’d never encountered that quote nor heard of its author, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) who, according to the National Women’s History Museum, “…became one of the most important black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders and government officials of the twentieth century.”

The timing could not have been more appropriate as the quote matched up with my growing willingness to let go of the hurtful emotions of my past. Had Mary McLeod Bethune’s inspiring words caught my attention for a reason? After more than 50 years, could it be time to finally forgive Mom?

THE END

When I finally was ready and able—emotionally and creatively–to address my dad’s death in my writing some 15 years later, that fateful day back in August 1961 became the inspiration for my poem, “To My Father.”

TO MY FATHER

Bells of doom

rang in the day.

World War 3, I thought

being a child of the 50’s.

Something was out of tune

silencing all gay songs.

Even time trudged by

like dead weight falling

each plunge—

a dirge of doom.

Why a shroud

over the sun

this day—

until,

Grown-ups’ tears

later revealed the truth to bear:

The bells had tolled for you

at 8:00 am

while my eyes were just opening

to the prospect of a new day—

your doomsday.

Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly of New York, now based in Philadelphia, whose personal essays have been published in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, the Forward, Big Apple Parent, The Writer, OZY.  She has also appeared in the anthologies, ‘The Man, Who Ate His Book: The Best of ducts.org, Volume II and Wising Up Press’ View from the Bed/View from the Bedside.

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Family, Guest Posts, pandemic

I Could Have Run a Railroad

November 25, 2020

By Alisa Schindler

I have always loved the rain. The quiet of the sky. The soothing drone of a million hearts beating overhead. The deep grey seeps into my bones like a drug, slowly calming, and telling my brain to shhhh. There is nowhere to go; no bright and tempting sun guilting me with its happy warmth, pressing me forward to run, skip and laugh. No open, welcoming day beckoning me with possibilities. Now it is alright just to breathe and embrace that feeling where pressure simply evaporates. There is only a moody somberness, a gentle drum lulling me into peace.

When I was younger, my father used to chasten me about the bubble I surrounded myself in and accuse me of complacency. “Don’t be another boring housewife,” he’d say and gift me books by Ayn Rand hoping to inspire. “You’re a Dagny.”

I’d roll my eyes, but take the books, devouring them in private. Deep down I heard him, his message taking root in the brain I was busy ignoring, although I refused to give him the satisfaction of acknowledgment. It wasn’t like he had the right to judge, I thought. He had done nothing of substance. He was a man with huge romantic notions of the world and no follow through, all about the ‘big ideas’ and being one of the ‘beautiful people’.

To be fair, he was beautiful. Strong and masculine, with crystal green eyes that mirrored my own and thick wavy hair that had prematurely grayed. He was a legend on the ball field and the racquetball courts. With his charismatic smile, easy laugh, and love of a good party, both men and women gravitated towards him.

Even with erratic work habits, his charm, good looks and intelligence helped him survive and, at times, even thrive, in his vocation as a salesman. But that was in the 70’s and 80’s when no one looked too deeply. If they had they would have seen an addict who moved from one sad, dirty, cluttered place to another, often sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Someone who lived from paycheck to paycheck and visited his kids on the weekends at their new home with their new family out in the suburbs. Still, he always came bearing gifts and smile.

For a time.

By my twenties, his alcohol and recreational drug years were behind him, but his struggles were just beginning. I made the mistake of moving in with him after college after a failed back operation led to dependencies on pharmaceutical opiates. It didn’t take long to realize I was trapped. He needed me to shadow him as he staggered around on pain medications. He needed me as he seesawed between the lows of depression and manic bursts of energy and enthusiasm. Some days he couldn’t leave his bed, other days we played tennis. Some days I wrestled car keys from his hand; his glazed unconscious eyes in complete opposition to the strength of his anger and grasp. Other days, we sat side by side watching episodes of X-Files or Star Trek eating Tupperware bowls filled with cereal, finding moments of ridiculousness and laughing till milk came out our noses.

It was the inconsistencies of health, mental and physical, that kept me tied. The highs that reminded me of his sparkle and my childhood adoration and the lows that overwhelmed and obligated me. He had no one else. I was his sun, his moon, and his savior. But when he talked to me about stepping outside my bubble, I could see nothing but his need and my potential floating away.

Like a good first-born child, I took to my martyrdom like worker bee to queen. I dove in and let it define me; using it to separate myself, to hide, to solidify the bubble into armor, until there was only me and my struggle with his struggle.

As the years passed, I finally found a way to move out and leave him – I got married. Had babies, boy one, two and three. Created a life filled with privileges and pleasures. But through it all he was there, an umbilical rope of need and devotion connecting us.

As he aged and weakened, he softened his view of me and the world. Dagny Taggart wasn’t all that anymore. He excused my complacency and decided to extol my virtues instead. “You’re a great mom,” he’d say. “I understand why you like your bubble. The world is crazy. Your bubble is good.”    

My bubble was better than good – a wonderful husband, beautiful children, the house in the suburbs, endless books to read, writing to keep me satisfied and sane and good friends to laugh and cry – but with him attached I remained, as always, harnessed. Stuck to the ground, rooted, never taking flight. No longer sure I even wanted to.

And then, he died.

Something that was ‘a long time coming’ and should have happened decades before, took me by complete surprise. I was suddenly free from his tortuous, desperate need. I could float in the sunshine of my family, meander in and out of marshmallow clouds, drift through the lazy rainbow days of baseball, baking and boys. I could write. Or run a railroad.

Yet, the relief everyone talked about didn’t come. I missed the burden. The insanity. The ridiculousness. I missed him. The man who dreamed I could be Dagny Taggart but whose everyday life careened off the rails. The man who laughed without limits but also cried without restraint. The man who opened my eyes to the joys and horrors of the world, but also made me turn inward and away. The man who was one of the ‘beautiful ones’ who became disabled and deformed.

Maybe it was always my nature. Maybe I gravitated toward a life heavy with a responsibility that allowed me to stay shielded, my purpose small but mighty. My world limited but loved. My heart soaring in words but my feet on the ground.

I’m okay with the bubble. The smallness. The calm. The nothing.

I always loved the rain.

Alisa Schindler is a freelance writer whose essays have been featured online in the NYT, Washington Post, Brain, Child, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and The Well at Northwell Health, among others. In her spare time, she writes sexy, suburban fiction. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.

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Guest Posts, Marriage, memories

Find My

November 23, 2020
phone

By Abby Frucht

I’m in bed under the covers, my phone in my hand, my eyeglasses on, locating you. The little bullseye thing twerking I invent a way to feel it in the palm of my hand, green throb with slow glow, the map of back roads and main drags so near to my face I might trace them with my tongue, disentangling them. In my hand your route stabilizes, agitates anew, then blurs to a stop at the dead end curb where that couple once parked to have sex in our yard. In a blend of moon and lamplight they stumbled out of their car and knelt on a spot of grass to fuck. It was three in the morning, just like now, so I sat naked at the window and cranked it open to watch them going right at it, their limbs paler than worms, half in and half out of Bermuda shorts. Undisturbed by their cries, you twitched in your sleep, dreaming of tennis. Later you were grateful I didn’t rouse you to join in spying on them, and so was I. It would have been like the two of us watching a movie, one I liked but you didn’t. It was way too predictable, you would say. It took forever to get there but you knew all along what was going to happen.

You’ll turn seventy three a week from this morning.

You like to joke about death, especially now, including me in the bargain.

“G’night,” I might say. “See you tomorrow.”

“Hope so,” you’ll say.

“Let me know what we should order for curbside pick-up.”

“Bones,” you’ll say.

The little cursor reconsiders and makes its way to your parking place in our driveway. To see it blinking there fills me with panicked rage. My own pulse climbs, as it did last night and the night before. My feet turn cold. I don’t like to be tricked. I don’t trust this app. There are all sorts of ways for someone smarter than me to make fools of the rubes on the opposite end of it. Even if I get up and prowl barefoot outside to see your truck where it belongs, I won’t believe what I’m seeing. I’ll feel cheated, let down, since you’re not out and about in the midst of this scourge, so I can’t stalk you any longer, follow you around. Instead I shut down the phone, then turn it back on and start the whole app up all over again, provoking myself, stoking my adrenaline in preparation for catching you clicking shut the truck door, backing out of the driveway, gliding away.

Locating… the phone confides.

It works more quickly this time, more confidently.

Oshkosh

Now

Careful not to make a sound, I snake my arm through the blankets to set my glasses and phone atop some books on the night table. My head still undercover I shimmy sideways until one of my feet meets yours. I jerk it away, then slide my whole leg nearer and sneak my toes between your ankles to get them warm.

You keep on snoring.

You in our bed.

Our bed in our room in our house on our street in this town in this world.

Now.

Abby Frucht is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and most recently, poetry. She has been published at Narrative, Virginia Quarterly and in Brevity. Her writing has received a Best of the Web citation as well as the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. She has published nine books, the most recent of which, Maids, is a collection of poetry.

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Guest Posts, pandemic, spirituality

Searching for Meaning in a Strange New Normal

November 1, 2020
condolences

By Robin Eileen Bernstein

I never thought an invisible cosmic force could pull our strings.
Then coronavirus came along.

On the last Wednesday of February, I awoke to an avalanche of condolences on the death of my mom.

Except my mom wasn’t dead. Not yet.

Surreal? Yes. But that morning in a pre-pandemic New York City, as I scrolled through my Twitter notifications, I didn’t know that surreal was about to become our new normal.

The tweets were mostly in Spanish. “Lo siento,” said one. For that I didn’t need Google Translate. But for the others I did, dozens that poured in that day and the next, all a variation of: Our deepest condolences to the distinguished ambassador Robin Bernstein and to her family for the death of her beloved mother…

Full disclosure: I’m not an ambassador, distinguished or otherwise. But I share a first and last name (and passing resemblance) with the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, so I’m often tagged by mistake. If that’s not enough, she’s a Trump-appointed Republican and I’m a lifelong Democrat who wants him booted from office. While this was a level of surreal I’d come to accept, the condolences were a bridge too far. Because my mom had been admitted to the hospital three days earlier and things didn’t look good.

It took but a minute to find the obituary in a Caribbean newspaper, which only deepened the eerie parallels. Both my doppelgänger’s mom, 93, and my mom, 91, had just celebrated birthdays in February, a week apart. The obit included an Alzheimer’s organization for donations; my mom had dementia.

I put down my phone and exhaled. Was this a sign? Even asking felt wrong, because it was acknowledgement that real condolences might soon come my way. I shook my head as if to reject what seemed preordained.

Three days later, my mom was dead, too.

~ ~ ~

I’m a skeptic at heart. When it comes to all things woo-woo, even one woo is too much for me. My philosophy on the supernatural and paranormal mirrors what doctors learn about making a diagnosis: when you hear hoofbeats, look for a horse, not a zebra, and definitely not a purple unicorn.

Yet if anything fell into purple unicorn territory, it was those condolence tweets. Was it synchronicity? That was the word Carl Jung, the 20th century psychoanalyst, used for weird and mysterious events that can’t otherwise be explained. The Police sang about it, twice.

I have a hard time believing that a cosmic force is pulling our strings. As someone who prefers the practical and predictable, I don’t leave much room for the mystical. But what if everyone from New York to New Zealand suddenly got sucked into an unforeseen vortex that marked the end of our old normal? Can something be freaky when nothing makes sense? “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” sang R.E.M., although unlike rest of the title, I don’t feel fine about it. So much happened in two weeks that by mid-March I could barely recognize my own life.

My mom’s passing, ironically, was my last brush with normalcy. Soon age-old customs would be kicked to the curb: sickness and death would be a solitary affair. Large funerals and rituals for the grieving? No more. I’ve read how some people are relieved their elderly parents had passed before this pandemic. It’s odd to be thankful for death. But like so much else previously unthinkable, it makes sense now.

“I’m dying,” my mom whispered to me her first night in the hospital. She knew before we did. “I want to go home,” she said. Five days later she went home to her own bed, where she smiled and blew kisses at me and the hospice nurse. She passed peacefully in her sleep the next morning.

What stops me cold is the what-if. What if she’d gotten sick two weeks later? I picture her in the hospital, allowed no visitors, her confusion and agitation mounting. She’d ask for me. And I wouldn’t be there. Yet this is exactly what so many have had to endure.

Is it normal to be grateful that she got sick sooner rather than later?

In our new normal, it is.

~ ~ ~

Everything was old normal on February 20, my mom’s 91st birthday. That afternoon I took a bus (like many New Yorkers, I don’t have a car) from Port Authority to her assisted living residence in New Jersey armed with cupcakes and a wrapped gift: a comfy nightgown. We sang Happy Birthday and she blew out a candle. Dementia was slowly robbing her mind and body, and I was determined to make it a good day.

Three days later, she spiked a fever and had trouble breathing. She ended up one step below the ICU with a wicked cough and pneumonia, symptoms that soon would scream Covid, except she tested positive for influenza. (She’d had a flu shot but I was told it may be less effective in the elderly.) I rented a car for the three-hour round trips to the hospital and back, and sometimes listened to all-news radio, where it seemed as if the only news was about the novel coronavirus. It was then that I felt the drumbeat of the approaching pandemic, faintly at first, then louder, the way the sky darkens before a storm.

I heard about towns in Italy on lock-down and a federal health official who said it’s not so much if it will spread, but when. On the day I got those bizarre condolences, I heard Trump’s bizarre prediction that our 15 U.S. cases would “within a couple of days…be down to close to zero.” The next day he said, “like a miracle, it will disappear.”

In the hospital, the drumbeat got louder, where lobby signs wanted to know if I’d recently traveled to China or had been in contact with anyone who’d been outside the U.S. A box of face masks and a shelf of latex gloves sat unattended near the nurses’ station; because she had the flu, anyone in her room had to wear them. “It’s upside down” said a nurse the first time I donned a blue surgical mask. The nose clip was by my chin. There was a nose clip? Yet soon I’d know all about masks—from N95s to handmade ones with a pocket for a filter. I’d wear one each time I left my apartment, not to mention buying them for my family, in tie-dye no less.

All those ominous warnings about coronavirus made me wonder, “Did mom have it?” But I never asked, and her doctors never raised it. It was possible; in one analysis, nearly nine percent of those who had respiratory illnesses also had Covid, and one in five who had Covid tested positive for viruses like influenza. Doctors now think some Covid deaths in February and early March were misidentified as flu or just pneumonia. Pneumonia was her official cause of death, along with cardiopulmonary arrest and multisystem organ failure. Far as I know, nobody in contact with her had Covid, unless we were asymptomatic. Regardless, I doubt she could’ve gotten a test back then. I may never have an answer. In our new normal, answers aren’t easy to come by.

Although eventually there’d be reports of a U.S. Covid fatality in early February, the first official reported U.S. death from coronavirus was on February 29—the same day my mom passed.

~ ~ ~

Within two weeks of those Twitter condolences, events in my life seemed to spin out of control so quickly I couldn’t catch my breath.

On Wednesday, March 11, after dinner with friends, I was on a train home trying to disinfect my seat with a Clorox wipe, which isn’t easy with your left arm in a cast and your fingers so bruised and swollen they barely move. What happened was that the previous Saturday, a week after my mom died, after I spent hours in her apartment boxing up photos inscribed with the handwriting of the dead, I tripped over a broken sidewalk and landed in the ER with a shattered wrist, and a week later in the OR to have it reassembled with a plate and screws.

The ER had not yet become pandemic central, although I recall positioning myself as far upwind as possible from a guy on a nearby stretcher whose cough was like a series of small explosions. One week I was a visitor. The next, a patient. Neither was an ideal time to be in a hospital. Might as well fly a kite in a thunderstorm.

Two days after I broke my wrist, which nobody saw and nobody reported, I took photos of the broken sidewalk, which was auspicious timing because the next morning, March 10, I woke up to the sound of jackhammers. That sidewalk, which I learned had been a hazard for years, was mysteriously being repaired three days after I tripped on it. I’d give that the same odds as getting condolences three days before my mom died.

The next day—when I met my friends for dinner—would be the last time I’d sit inside a crowded restaurant. Instead of hugging, we bumped elbows. Life felt crazy yet manageable, but by the time I left to catch my train home, the earth had teetered off its axis. There was a news alert on my phone about—what? A European travel ban? My daughter’s fiancé, a French citizen, was in France; his flight back to New York, where they shared an apartment a few blocks from me, was in three days.

Just like I did after reading those Twitter condolences, I put down my phone and exhaled. In a week’s time, I buried my mother and fractured my wrist. Now my future son-in-law might not be able to come home. I felt queasy, like I was standing on shifting sand.

The train was fairly empty, so I suspended my no-calls-on-mass-transit rule to check on my daughter, who was sobbing with gasps so wrenching she couldn’t speak. Clearly she’d heard the news. I overheard two passengers nearby; the words “Trump” and “Europe” came through loud and clear.

“Shh, it’ll be ok,” I whispered through her choked tears, as if she was still a little girl who skinned her knee. Except now I couldn’t stroke her hair and hold her close. I couldn’t promise that anything would be ok. I stared at my bloated purple fingers and a cold knot of fear lodged in the pit of my stomach. It dawned on me that I had absolutely no control over any of this, at all.

“I’m right here, sweetie,” I murmured into the phone. Soon I wouldn’t be allowed to get within six feet of her.

I went straight to her apartment and after an hour of frantic emails and texts and finally confirming that he’d be on a flight to New York, we sat silent and relieved. Finally, I asked the question we’d been dancing around for days.

“What do you want to do about your wedding?”

Her wedding was in May. In France.

She looked at me, one eyebrow arched, the answer obvious.

“What wedding?” she said dryly. As sad as a postponement would be, she now knew the date wasn’t what mattered. A crisis has a way of focusing you.

That Sunday, March 15, I was to attend another wedding, my cousin’s, in Brooklyn. Instead I and other would-be guests watched it via livestream, now de rigeur for pandemic celebrations. Then I went to New Jersey, where the assisted living residence had given me one hour to grab what I still wanted from my mom’s apartment before they went on lockdown. By then, it was virtually impossible to rent a car—everyone was getting the heck outta Dodge—so my boyfriend and I traveled there and back on a near empty bus. With my arm in a cast, I needed his help. I had wrist surgery the next day, and I’d recuperate and quarantine at home in Manhattan. He’d quarantine in Brooklyn, where he lived. When we finally saw each other again in person, ten weeks later, it was on what should have been my daughter’s wedding day.

There was one other event that weekend. On Saturday, March 14, my boyfriend and I celebrated my birthday in one of the few restaurants still open. There were very few diners besides us. I felt guilty, like we were doing something illicit. The waitress wore latex gloves and cheerfully placed four sugar-dusted chocolate cookies in front of me. I blew out a candle. As with my mom’s birthday three weeks earlier, we were determined to make it festive. I later learned that my birthday was the same day the governor of New York announced the state’s first Covid death.

~ ~ ~

We have no idea what our new normal will be like long-term. We’ve always been urged to “live in the moment” but what if that’s all there is? What if you can’t plan ahead because the future is just a flashing neon question mark?

Time has been warped. If you’re of a certain age or have a predilection for vinyl, imagine a 33 rpm record spinning at 78. Barry White sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Like a world on speed, stuff I never heard of in February erupted like weeds in March: Zooming, social distancing, 7 PM cheering. By April, the pandemic had generated record unemployment and one person who lost his job, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed in police custody in May, which sparked international protests in cities coast-to-coast, including mine. Yet while breaking news pelted us like hail, then and now, life feels lethargic. One day rolls into the next without the usual punctuation.

I’m thankful that I was able to hold my mom’s bare wrinkled hand in my latex-sheathed one and remind her what a wonderful mom she was and what a beautiful legacy she was leaving, and to see, not in pixels but in the flesh, her face soften with relief. I’m thankful for the comfort of those who came to pay condolences. Yet with each consoling unmasked hug, a deadly parasite may have been hitching a ride.

As a kid, I had a recurring nightmare in which I’d be watching our black-and-white Zenith with the rabbit ear antennae and I’d click the remote once to change the channel, but the channels wouldn’t stop changing. They’d flip by faster and faster, out of control, until smoke began pouring from the TV and I knew it would explode.

This spring when I’d hear the wail of ambulance sirens, my daily soundtrack, I might think for a moment it was coming from a TV show I was watching. But this was real, a mournful howl rising from a world changing faster and faster, out of control, spewing an acrid cloud of death. Unlike my childhood nightmare, there was no waking up from this.

It’s no surprise that a kid who dreams of exploding televisions grows into an adult who prioritizes control. But I no longer have the luxury, or delusion, of thinking I’m the puppeteer. On February 20 I had two intact hands, my daughter’s upcoming wedding, and my mother. Three weeks later: Bum hand. No wedding. No mom.

Adapting these days means accepting the inexplicable, embracing the unknowable and acknowledging that we have no clue what’s around the bend. Not surprisingly, more people are reporting paranormal activity; a New York Times article suggested that in uncertain times, there’s a motivation “to find meaning in chaos.” It’s the same impulse, by the way, that spurs the tinfoil-hat crowd to connect dots that ought not be connected, poisoning the air with viral conspiracies, taking the search for purple unicorns to frightening new dimensions.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find meaning—synchronicity, if you will—in chaos. I still don’t know what to make of absurdities that hit, bam-bam-bam, like falling dominoes: getting condolences three days too early, a broken sidewalk repaired three days too late, a travel ban three days before a loved one’s flight home. When life as we know it is suddenly and monumentally altered, it’s tempting to think that Hamlet had it right: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Maybe, but doubtful. I’m still a skeptic. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. When a very real pandemic can trip up an entire planet and bring it crashing to its knees, shattering norms as easily as the bones of a human wrist, well, that’s surreal enough for me, thank you. I suppose if you’re searching for synchronicity, or purple unicorns, or for an invisible force that’s controlling us in ways we can’t conceive, look no further than the brand new virus that upended the world.

Robin Eileen Bernstein is an essayist, feature writer and humorist with bylines in The New York Times, Salon, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Daily News, Newsday, Narratively, Ozy, Weekly Humorist, Next Avenue, Purple Clover and elsewhere. Her coming-of-age memoir-in-progress is about growing up in Far Rockaway, NY in the 1970s and her dream of being a drummer in a rock-n-roll band. More at robineileenbernstein.com.

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The Pull of My Own

August 26, 2020
pull

By Isa Nye

I craved a little being to nurture, to suckle. I dreamed of nursing a newborn – I felt the pull of the moon at night – procreate procreate procreate. But I waited. I waited and waited. Because the first time was wrong. I let the first baby go not knowing how I couldn’t, not knowing how I could, in a sweat, in a nightmare, in a dream, in a doctor’s office, in desperation. Metal medical equipment and cheap posters on the wall. I waited years then. I waited for everything to be right – to hold my baby in my arms, nurture it, give it my milk, and all my love.

The CIA says every five seconds 20 babies are born and 10 people die – all day, all night, over and over and over –so many humans come and go, and yet when it is my own baby my world re-aligns and spins around this tiny being, my own baby, even in the womb, my baby pulls at gravity and becomes the center of my very existence.

My third baby waited eighteen days past when he was due to be born. Each one of those eighteen days dragged past – each of those nights it seemed as if the sun would never set, the moon never rise, like the day would never come where I would meet my boy. But I did.

There were the cramps – they started low, below the belly, a tightening, like everything inside me was constricting inward to a point that it could not reach, straining and tensing. “I think this is it. I think I’m going into labor,” I said through gritted teeth, writhing on the hospital bed, monitors already attached to me. “Take the cords off. Take them off!,” I said, loudly, pulling at them, throwing them away from my body, and climbing from the stiff sheets, touching the cold floor with my bare feet, squatting down, standing up, grabbing at my belly, leaning over, breathing in. “This is it. I’m pretty sure this is it,” I said, sucking in air, breathing out loudly, squeezing my eyes closed tightly, and everything in the world reduced to the sensation in my body – the contraction of uterine muscles sending out shock waves in an earthquake all my own.

This was my third baby. On the maternity ward a lullaby played every time a baby was born, marking a new being’s arrival on earth. Several women were in labor at the same time as me, and nurses busily rushed from room to room, a night’s work for them.

He was born into water. I pushed him from me with a roar of strength I did not know I had and may never feel again. A lullaby must have rung out across the maternity ward, but I did not hear it. I only heard him. “My baby, my baby, my baby,” is what I said over and over as I cradled him to me, naked and wet, his skin against mine, as around us the nurses, midwives, and doctors hustled, as my husband cut the cord.

The second baby had not come so easily. Not like the third. She was born amid struggle, after hours of effort, hours of pain that took over everything and became everything and then subsided and returned and subsided and returned. I bore down so hard I though my intestines would come out. She drug her placenta behind her on a short cord and when at last I pushed her from me, she took a moment to catch her breath. “Say hello to her!” the midwife said, “She needs to hear your voice!” They had taken her to a table where they were working on her, getting fluid from her mouth and nose; her tiny hand clasped my husband’s finger. “Hi, baby. Hi. Hi, baby,” I said, my voice sounding foreign to me, disconnected. “Hi baby. C’mon, baby. Hi, baby.” A cry erupted from her and she sucked in her first breath of oxygen on earth. During my twelve hours of laboring her from me to the world, roughly 180,000 babies were born, statistically speaking, but only one of them was mine.

My first baby I never saw nor heard, but felt, yes. That baby’s exit from my body was not so monumental, miraculous, mythical. It was mechanical, methodical, medical. My breasts ached for that baby who I never knew was a boy or girl, or in between those. I didn’t know. The baby let me let it go, or so I told myself because everything was at stake. I was strong then too, on the operating table, waiting for the doctor. While she sucked the baby from my womb, I was strong. I did not cry or let out a cry. On the hour drive home I laid my head against the cool window of the passenger seat and did not talk, or cry. My boyfriend cried in the backseat. My friend drove us home, and for that I was grateful. During that hour long drive from the clinic to my bed, about 6,000 people died, statistically speaking, but none of them were mine. I might have been numb the but it was mine I knew I would mourn, and even if I knew I didn’t question my choice, I would feel the loss.

Isa Nye has written ever since she could. She was raised in Montana among cowboys and professors, and she turned to the written word to both escape and to make sense of that life. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two young children, and writing still brings her both solace and clarity.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, healing

Clay Glue

March 22, 2020
glue

By Ali J. Shaw

When the halls cleared out, I went into the art room and let my backpack slide off my shoulder onto the floor. Mr. Evans nodded quietly to acknowledge me, but he focused on whatever was on his computer screen. I turned the combo on my locker and glanced at the clock. Robbie would be here any minute, so I used both hands to heft the plastic-wrapped block of clay out of its cubby and onto the table. For my last assignment—vase making—I’d made one only half as tall as my classmates’ so I could conserve my clay.

“It’s for wildflowers,” I’d told them when they smirked.

Now I had a good-sized chunk left over to give to Robbie. “Hey!” Robbie yelled at top nine-year-old volume when he came into the room. I startled, and he laughed dramatically. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Okay, okay, come on over here.” I waved my hands. “New haircut?” He beamed. “Buzzzzz.”

Robbie and I had had a rough start. I’d signed up for the Buddy Program because I’d always wanted a younger sister. Visions of teaching jump-rope songs to a little girl had flooded my imagination. Then came time for the first Buddy Program session. The elementary school counselor who had facilitated the high-schooler and elementary-schooler pairings handed me a slip of paper, where I saw his name: Robbie. A boy. There was no time to brood on it, though—I could already hear kids’ shuffles and giggles coming toward us in the multipurpose room. While the other kids ran to their high school buddies, slapped high-fives, and laughed, Robbie slumped into a chair next to me.

“Hi, I’m Ali.” I was not good at making awkward situations more comfortable. Robbie’s eyes glassed over, and he whispered, “Hi.”Before long, I learned that his grandpa, who’d been living with him and his mom, had died the night before. I felt paralyzed. My “I’m sorry” sounded empty, and it seemed so unfair that we were sitting in a room full of raucous children and teens scribbling colorful answers on their Getting to Know You worksheets. Robbie and I spent that first hour-long meet-up mostly silent. I didn’t know if he’d show up the next week, but he did. And the week after that. I never figured out how to talk about his grief, but just being there with him seemed to help.

Before long, his teacher asked me to come by on Tuesday afternoons to help tutor Robbie on telling time and counting money. Two years later, we were still meeting weekly with the whole Buddy Program and an extra day one-on-one doing some other activity—tutoring if he needed it; art if he was caught up. I took a deep breath as I thought about the transition over the years but turned my focus to prepping the clay for him. The outer edges of the block had dried out a little, a result of the used and reused plastic bag that had accumulated tiny holes and let air seep in. With my finger and thumb, I pinched off the hard bits until a ball of soft clay remained.

“Hey,” I said to Robbie and held the ball in front of him, squeezing until it squished out through my fingers. “I’m strong, huh?”“Not as strong as me!” He reached for the clay and mimicked me.

Somewhere around the end of the first year, I gave Robbie a model house I’d built, and he gushed, “That’s so cool!” So we started building things together—mostly in the art room. At the end of each session, he’d take home his creation.

“You know that smiley face painting we did last time?” he asked me now as he dug one finger into the center of the clay wad. “Mmmhmmm,” I mumbled, rolling out coils from my less-pliable clay. “I used it for target practice with my mom’s boyfriend’s darts!” I laughed.

The first time he’d told me about his nearly immediate destruction of something we’d made together, I—as someone who had formed a sentimental bond with every object I’d ever owned, especially gifts—couldn’t hide my cringe. But for Robbie, things were no good collecting dust on a shelf. You had to make experiences with them! And so every week, we created, he destroyed, and then he told me the story. He grunted in frustration, and I stopped rolling coils to see why. He had formed a softball-sized glob and several smaller ones, one of which he was trying to press to the side of the big one.

“Oh, hey, there’s a trick for that.” I lay my coil down and held out my palm. “Can I show you?” When he handed me the small ball, I demonstrated scoring the soft clay with a sharp tool that left jagged cuts on one side of the little ball, then the big ball. “Then you have to make slip, which is a weird word, but it’s basically clay glue.” I tore off two inches of my coil and put it in a bowl with water. “Here, put your fingers in here and mush it around.”

Robbie’s cheeks tightened skeptically. I’d looked that way at my older brother nearly every day of my childhood, trying to gauge if he was tricking me. I’d never tricked Robbie, but obviously someone had.

“Really, come on.” I nodded and plunged my fingers in.“Ew, it’s slimy,” he yelled when he tried it. Mr. Evans looked up disapprovingly. “Shhhh. You know what else is slimy?” “What?” “Glue.” I winked as I dabbed some slip on my fingertip and then onto the scored clay and pressed the two balls together. “Tada!” I sang when they stuck. Robbie made what had become my favorite sound since I’d met him.

“Whooooooa!” From our first meeting, something had seemed familiar about Robbie. Did I see myself in him somehow? No, we were opposites in nearly every way. Rowdy/quiet, destructive/creative, easily bored/could sit in one activity for hours. But below those surface behaviors, there was something similar. Something broken. When I’d tutored Robbie, sometimes his body shook in tiny convulsions. “Are you okay?” I’d slide the flashcards to side of the desk and line my face up with his. Robbie would stare down, his eyes lost in the wood grains of the desktop, or someplace far beyond. But part of him was still with me. In a thin voice, he said, “Just cold.” I took off my fleece jacket and wrapped it around his shoulders.

“Should we take a little break and draw?” I used to say color instead of draw, but he finally informed me that only girls color—boys draw, and only in black. But maybe sometimes yellow or red. Before he answered, I pulled paper and a black marker out of my backpack. For about a year, Robbie drew only round yellow faces in a variety of expressions, shockingly similar to today’s emojis. Sometimes they smiled, but mostly they expressed pain or fear, and he laughed at his creations. I was sixteen, trained only in art and writing and basic math, never psychology. I never knew what it meant. I still don’t. But I knew that drawing stopped the trembles and brought his eyes up from the void, his smile back to his face.

So I gave him more paper, more pens, more time. Eventually trees and dogs with wagging tails and even flowers started to appear in his drawings too. And I knew that time with Robbie meant less time at home for me. I could delay getting into my rusty red pickup and shambling home to my father’s frigid trailer. Every moment with Robbie was a moment less with my father’s unpredictable rages or over-the-top professions of love and “Family is the most important thing. Don’t you ever forget that.” Robbie’s and my time together became a sort of glue that kept us both from fracturing.

We spent the rest of the hour gluing small clay shapes onto his clay softball. We left it in my locker to dry before he took it home the next week. The week after that, he told me it was the perfect size for launching from his catapult toy into the fields behind his house.

“I did it over and over until it broke into three pieces,” he said with a shrug.

“I guess we better make something else,” I said as I laid out Popsicle sticks, glue, and paint.

Robbie and I were buddies for three years, until I graduated high school and moved away. I have a single photo of us together. We’re at my graduation party, and he’s trying to stand up straight in my letterman’s jacket, weighed down by the running medals I sewed onto it. Our faces are round and red, laughing about something.I keep the photo in a pocket of the jacket, which collects dust in a closet, where I hope neither will ever be destroyed.

Ali J. Shaw has Rocky Mountain air in her blood, but she calls the Pacific Northwest home. Her nonfiction has been featured in r.k.v.r.y., Hippocampus Magazine, VoiceCatcher, and the Get Nervous reading series, and was a finalist for the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writer Prize. Ali is an editor who collects typewriters and rescue animals.

Upcoming events with Jen

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND