Hunger was secret—hump
on the back, the something else,
the body insisting that it was present.
Child head and child arm. Teeth
like rows of letters written
on colored cards. An assemblage
of girl—put together like a first
sentence. Remember when
shame was the time of day,
when the body spelled need with
her ugly limbs: half blue, half
skin. Shame to eat. Shame to pee.
Shame to enter in and exit out.
Grownups made a body. Made it
like a weed and sent it to school.
The bones grew. The skin stretched.
The body sat in the square of desk.
Hunger pulled. The alphabet lined
the board. The words That This Those
were tacked to the wall, strange suns
of literacy the body grew toward.
Jessica Cuello is the author of Pricking (Tiger Bark Press, 2016) and Hunt (The Word Works, 2017). She has been awarded The 2017 CNY Book Award (for Pricking), The 2016 Washington Prize (for Hunt), The New Letters Poetry Prize, a Saltonstall Fellowship, and most recently, The New Ohio Review Poetry Prize. Her newest poems are forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Cave Wall, Bat City Review, Pleiades, and Salamander.
I MET MY LONG LOST BROTHER FOR THE FIRST TIME LAST YEAR.
by Dyllan Moran
No kissing, though we both know that we want to.
You show up at my house wearing the exact same
thing as on your Grindr profile. Pink hat,
cheap diamond earrings, and then, too, a familiar look
that steadily steams underneath my grandmother’s eyes.
It’s the multiplicity of place as body—or how when you
close your eyes you can convince yourself that you’re
lying in a star-streaked field—that convinces me I love you.
You have a name like Atrophy, or maybe it is my cousin’s.
We each light a cigarette, and take turns passing back and forth
the first drag. We drink two cups of black coffee,
double brewed. In the kitchen, we make the same dinner twice,
consecutively, each one after the other, and because I finish first,
I take a shower, and patiently wait for you to come with me.
You finish second, twenty-five minutes later, and you follow.
I anoint your head in oil and leave.
I lay in bed, and I wait for you there, but pretend that I’m asleep.
You open the door, put on my clothes, and walk into the night.
Dyllan Moran graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with B. A.s in both Creative Writing and Japanese. His work has previously appeared in Gasher Magazine, Entropy Magazine, Journal 2020, and Walkabout Creative Arts Journal. He’s currently working in Nishi-Akashi, Japan as an English teacher and will be returning to America soon to continue his work in education. When he’s not writing poetry, he’s studying languages of both the living and dead and rambling about prophetic dreams. Email him here. IG: dyllanmoran.
THE ANT LIEUTENANT TELLS ME OF HIS RETURN
by David Callan
Black soil collapsing onto rock.
Beetles with shining blue backs humming over the water
chilled with rain. Pike angling in the chambers of the dank,
waiting for the naked in the rainfall, stripped clean, gutted, redrawn
from memory by a blind boy against the stiff legs of the herons. Mothers
huddled in stone kitchens, dropping fish, egging the molecules of the water
into frenzy from the pot’s hot walls. Skin, scratched through, dangling
into a snowflake of dolomite sinking slowly in the mossy brink.
My fingerprints are flying toward my eyes, too quick
for me to blink. My hand arcing over colorless glass, finger wet
against the rim: the cylinder caught in the motion of the fingertip, hum—
glass shifting into another pitch. Had been petals in a cut glass bowl,
what’s beautiful is dirt. I want oil, hands rough against my cheek,
Go. Leave me here dripping,
horse gnawing at the scarecrow’s glove. I feel his face
becoming lips. His eyes close. I kiss the lids. Rich boy
whizzing with his back against the car door, dribbling his Bermudas
as I shake it dry. My hand tugs at a button. Hush. Sunspots
make lenses jump. The old can’t see us, argue about what we should be doing
with our bodies, the broken barking in the damps. Moonlight on fungi, frightening the girl
with the dead child hidden in the tree. The nurseries of babies she will bake.
The kid who wanted the big popsicle. Could not have. The sea
beneath the night sky green with heat, claws
filling with the chilly water, with pods of kelp
and crabs the size of dimes—I stick my finger behind the buckle
of the drunk boy to forget. The wind is filled with turtle,
shadows getting longer as they pour across the stained wood from the light bulb.
Steelworkers shirking the pulleys to polish their fishing poles. The peepshow—
it’s a bird, a hawk, a beaked man with a book. Buck up, cubby!
Wipe your nose and take a number.
Cinder at the snuffed wick—thin lips pulling back from having blown.
Grit and flurry. I have only tropes to touch you with, it hurts
to stand or sit upright. I lie above this city (San Francisco)—did I come to die
in this imaginary life? Eyelids bleeding and weeping,
looking for me. Opened to vision. Closed.
David James Callan has published poems in Cimarron Review, Tampa Review, exquisite corpse, Scythe, Dislocate, Anemone Sidecar, North, Frisk, Delmar, Figdust Review, and other journals.
PASSAGES: An Installation in Progress by Cheryl Harper
I am one of those artists who thinks my work has to say something. I have nothing against paintings that bring together a disparate room décor or just make one feel good, but that’s not what I want to do. If you happen to like my work for any of those reasons, that’s fine, but if you are intrigued and compelled to think about bigger issues, that is my goal.
Since 2006 I’ve been making small statues of politicians, particularly of women in the national spotlight, in addition to works that address issues like anti-Semitism, terrorism, and gun violence. But in the last few years, I’ve been thinking about how I came to where I am now, a Jewish woman who lost extended family in the Holocaust and who married a direct descendant of a Southern plantation family that owned other people. I am a descendant of the oppressed who married into a family who oppressed.
I used to think of this in terms of predator/prey imagery but I’ve become more immersed in the complex history of both families, especially through the lens of today’s rising intolerance. We now live at a time to witness the last generation of Holocaust survivors, the rise of white nationalists, and the progeny of many generations of African slaves who are struggling with the past — and we see how these histories intersect. For example, American Jews were helping achieve civil rights legislation for African Americans in the 1960s, after half of the world population of Jewry was enslaved and mass murdered in Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, many whites in America are descendants of those who escaped persecution in Europe during the years of the Atlantic slave trade.
• • •
[click any image to enlarge]
Passages dress in progress, 2017, at James Oliver Gallery, Philadelphia
My current project, Passages, is a proposed traveling installation to American colleges. I am hoping to create dialog about who was privileged, who was enslaved, and how to approach a better understanding of our generational histories in order for all to move forward.
The point of view is female. There are original family wedding dresses overlaid with other clothing and accessories owned by mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers.
There are hangings and floor objects related to their standard of living and aspirations. Hand-printed wallpaper brings together imagery culled from family photographs and objects that refer to immigration, plantation life, and slavery.
My mother was a daughter of immigrants from the Pale, an area that straddles Poland and Russia. Her parents were first cousins, often the case in Europe, who scrabbled for a living in tiny villages, ironically similar to the practice of cousin marriage in royal families who sought to keep their families blue-blooded. My new-to-America grandparents were considered a match even in their teens, perhaps earlier; it was not a matter of love. My zayde (Yiddish for grandfather) had the responsibility of bringing over siblings to America. He was a man of very modest means, a cantor of Jewish Orthodox tradition, moving his family of four daughters and a housewife with poor English skills to a small town in New York State.
My European family in the 1930s
Here is a photograph of the other family members he was obligated to bring to America. The man in the oval, the father, was deceased. The two daughters died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In this photograph, the girls hold proof they are educated as one holds a book and the other a scroll. Had my zayde and bubbe not emigrated, this likely would have been the fate of their four daughters, including my mother. I always had a sense of being hunted and unsafe, probably because of family stories that in childhood I overheard between adults. Post-war was a very confusing time for Jewish children in America. We knew everyone was sad but we didn’t know anything specific. It was only as teenagers when we read the Diary of Anne Frank that we began to understand what was lost. That was the beginning of our awakening.
• • •
A slave auction advertisement placed by my husband’s ancestor
My husband’s family came to the Colonies in the late 17th century. Isaac Lesesne was Huguenot, one of the French Protestants who suffered severe persecution at the hands of the Catholic majority and who emigrated for religious freedom and opportunity. It didn’t take him long to establish a rice plantation, then an indigo plantation for dyestuff. He settled in the wetlands near Charleston, known as Daniel Island, eventually expanding to several plantations and a dry goods store in Charleston. Lesesne had many slaves, the majority of whom were likely from Sierra Leone and knew how to grow rice and indigo. We found evidence of his family ancestors, particularly the Laurens, who marketed slaves, and an early runaway slave advertisement by the Lesesnes in the main regional newspaper.
A branch of my husband’s Southern family in the late 1920s
My husband and I researched objects that came down through his family through the centuries, studied the permanent exhibit of an archaeological excavation of the Daniel Island Lesesne plantation at the Charleston Museum, and visited the 18th century Lesesne family cemetery. We know who married whom and how the Lesesne branch of our family migrated to New Jersey through family fortune based on slave labor.
In this project, I am taking inspiration from Lesesne family objects dating back to the plantation, never sold, as the family was still wealthy during the Depression. In fact, this branch of the family was still collecting sterling silver service, Chinese snuff bottles, and semi-precious necklaces well into the 20th century.
• • •
Detail of an 1878 mizrah paper cutting, still in the extended family
Family heirlooms, augmented, passed down from my husband’s family
My family had no trappings of wealth, only entering the middle class in the mid 20th century. Among the very few objects passed down in my mother’s family was a brass plate, brought over in 1913. My father’s family, one generation ahead in America, had a few more objects of value such as cut glass and a pair of English brass candlesticks dating back to the 19th century. By sheer chance, we discovered a wonderful paper cutting dating to 1878, made by my great-grandfather’s brother as a going-away gift. In fact, it turns out to be a very important example of an artistic tradition in Galicia, Poland. Called a mizrah (Hebrew for “east”), it was mounted in the Brooklyn family home in the direction of Jerusalem. I used elements from this image, still owned by a branch of my family, as a part of my installation’s wallpaper. The lions, gazelles, birds, and snakes all had spiritual meaning to the maker and the recipient.
Wallpaper patterns made for Passages using block prints, stencils, and woodcuts
I saw similarities between the photos in families, such as little girls wearing matching dresses. I also saw differences. In my family, the clothing was the product of my great-grandfather’s home sweatshop, probably sewn by him, his wife, and older daughters. In my husband’s family, the picture I used was of my mother-in-law and her sister, who lived in a charming mansion in Northern New Jersey; their dresses were certainly not homemade. I also looked to the industry of the plantation, where the product alternated between indigo, then rice, then back to indigo.
Studio study of ads for runaway slaves
In this installation, I plan to use Isaac Lesesne’s own words in an ad he placed for his runaway slaves, whom he considered lost property. As a culture, we need to acknowledge how black slaves were monetized, and the sorrow of Jewish slavery in recent history. If loss and misery can be shared and understood beyond our singular point of view, I think it will be helpful. The enslaved never leave this trauma behind completely.
I want to share these family histories through my art to create an experience and a vehicle for dialog. I envision a forest of dresses and collected objects and photos surrounded by wallpapers for an immersive experience. Beneath and above the dresses and perhaps in the floor spaces are collected objects that refer to the lopsided domesticity of the families, evidence that reflects privilege, hardship, ownership, and aspiration. Depending on the size of the space, the installation — as does history — can expand or contract.
Cheryl Harper is an artist and independent curator in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. She holds a BFA and an MFA in printmaking (Tyler School of Art and The University of Delaware) and an MA in art history (Temple University). Harper has received numerous awards and honors including a residency in 2018 at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Fleisher Challenge (2008) and first prize in sculpture in Pennsylvania Art of the State (2008). She has had two solo shows at the James Oliver Gallery in Philadelphia, was a juried artist in ArtShip Olympia (2016) and many other exhibitions. Her curatorial projects include the upcoming Seamless: Craft media and Performance (spring 2020) at Rutgers-Camden. Visit Cheryl’s website at www.cherylharper.com
The small space for god in me aches, so I turn from the one-way mirror through which I’ve been watching my twin seventeen-month-old boys bawl. Golden Graham pulp has stiffened their fine hair into sticky strings. I’m even messier, in stained yoga pants and a blue sweater marred by snags. I would have dressed in a clean shirt, something slipped from a hanger rather than scooped from the floor, but I didn’t plan to be here. It was only decided that I should leave the apartment when my husband started to spoon-feed yogurt to our three-year-old, who has a genetic syndrome that makes self-feeding a trial. “How’s he ever going to learn?” I said. He just pointed to the floor. The splat mat that usually protects the beige carpet was missing, and we don’t own the place. My husband and I faced each other as if on a narrow bridge, until I backed up. Backed up with the double stroller all the way out the door and down the hall and to the parking lot, where I waited for an idea.
Something burst from the empty space that once held the god my mother’s Catholicism prescribed for me. I searched on my phone for a liberal church that welcomes the godless and offers childcare. I found one fifteen minutes west.
Today is the thirty-third anniversary of my father’s death, and my mother, who hasn’t been dead a year, always dedicated mass on the Sunday closest to this date. This year the anniversary happens to fall right on Sunday. I break from the boys, shield my ears to their betrayed gasps, and hope the older couple in charge has grit.
At the back of the worship space is a table with an open notebook and several pens. A greeter hands me a program of service, then tells me the notebook is for sharing good news and bad, joy and sadness. I write that today is the thirty-third anniversary of my father’s death, and the first anniversary my mother is not alive to commemorate his death at church. Then I sit in the back row, behind a family: an older woman dressed head to toe in black, including a black scarf that embraces her steel-wool hair; a son, perhaps in his early twenties, whose familiar pendulum sway suggests to me that he has a disability; a daughter who looks about eighteen; the daughter’s newborn. No father. Seems a welcoming spot. I have babies, I have a son with a disability. I settle in.
The service opens with a reminder about respect. Congregants in unison pledge compassion and justice and transformation. They sing of truth, knowledge, and reverence. Of wisdom and love. The sermon is about Black Lives Matter, and the minister, with a gray circle beard, refutes those who argue that all lives matter. Obviously all lives matter, he says, but no one would attend a support group for breast-cancer patients and remind them that all cancer patients matter. The minister does not mention god. No one does.
I can’t remember if I ever believed in god, even though I attended mass every Sunday and proceeded through the first four sacraments and went to a Catholic high school and continued to sing in a Christian choir in college while taking lessons on the mammoth pipe organ. My mother believed in a benevolent being and carved a space for god in the lives of her daughters. But she also linked my father’s inability to survive a high-speed head-on crash to god’s deep and selfish love for the man. At that point, I only had two choices: believe in a god who stole my father or don’t believe. I’ve come around to the latter.
But still. I’m here on a Sunday. On the Sunday. I sing the songs. I keep both feet on the floor. I try to loosen up and let something in.
When we’re asked to share a word of peace, I rise, my hand extended toward the family in front of me. The woman in black brushes my fingers away. I’m surprised, and I must look surprised, because she whispers, “I heard you blowing your nose.” She glances at the newborn in her daughter’s arms. I recoil as if slapped, sit hard, and, before I can stop it, I begin to cry. I cry in a way that would look to others as if I am moved by the service. I am a little moved, but I’m not crying because of that. I took a risk on grasping the hand of a stranger and was shown, without mercy, that I have a cold coming on, something I didn’t even realize. But of course I have a cold coming on. I have three young children, two of them likely still crying in the nursery with their own snot streaming to their onesies. Thinking of my two babies down the hall and my son and husband at home and the angst that brought me to this place, I cry because this woman thinks I would have done her granddaughter harm.
I’m hunched and quiet as I slip out the back before the service is over, while the minister leads a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” I don’t go to the nursery. Instead, I return to my car, turn it on, and sit behind the wheel. I’m not going to leave my children here. But I’m going to leave them here a little while longer, while I figure out what to do with this space. Whatever burst from it this morning has now dissipated, and the space is still there. I can really feel it now that it’s emptied of its sole idea. It’s not aching anymore. Maybe it’s just there to breathe into and move through. Move through the way I move through a Sunday, any Sunday at all.
I turn the car off and step gingerly across the icy lot to collect my boys and bring them home.
Suzanne Farrell Smith is the author of two books, The Memory Sessions and The Writing Shop. Her work has appeared in numerous literary and academic journals, was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2014, and won a Pushcart in 2019. She teaches literacy education and writing and is creative advisor to Longridge Review. Suzanne lives in Connecticut with her husband and sons.
I wait for a train that circles the city like bats. At night in Berlin you can imagine anything you want. Can a train circle a city like bats? Carriages here are full of inviting people I never talk to and bicycles that require a ticket to get on board. Everyone wears black so hard you don’t notice after a while that there are differing shades. Sometimes, I see a chair being carried on board by a passenger and I wonder where the chairs go, whether they rest at tables. I think about the people invited to sit, what kind of meals they eat together or whether their furniture is flee-market vintage or discarded by the side of a road. Inside pinch close buildings smeared in graffiti are people, and they are talking to one another in languages; I don’t know.
I think of these things as I wait for a train. The Clash plays on repeat in my ears as a punk appears on the platform. There are a million surprises to be found in this world. The punk’s tights are ripped up the inner thigh, haircut edgy, looks that could draw blood. It’s winter, yet she glows as she moves across the platform chewing gum that matches the color of her hair. As she does this a toothless man allows drool to form at the edges of his peekaboo mouth. He wants her in ways he’ll never be able to realize. She lights a cigarette next to a sign that says smoking isn’t permitted, spits gum on the ground, it’s pink. A train arrives like a swooping bird through a tunnel. I consider if my similes are too abstract, too animalistic, step on to the train.
Time passes like clouds on a windless day, I step off the train at the same station as she does. This is neither planned nor coincidence, happens in a fashion that only commuters with little interest in one another can know. The punk looks over a shoulder, her eyes are green and brown like falling leaves, and I too am falling.
David Moran is a Scottish writer of fiction and poetry and is currently finishing up a novella set in Eastern Europe. He resides in Berlin and has previously lived on four continents. Previous fiction, poetry, and articles have appeared in The View From Here, Litro Magazine, Curbside Splendor, The Dundee Anthology, First Edition, Tefl England and the Argentina Independent.
Sam and Viet stand in his small blue kitchen. Viet has stopped stirring his chard lentil soup while Sam tries to figure out what to do: Three nights a week on the mountain, leading small groups up Whitney, or sleeping out in Alabama Hills, climbing.
I’m doing ok, she says. It’s just I think I should find a room or something, short term.
Viet says, I see what you mean.
Renewing my one-year lease, don’t you agree it’s financially a waste?
Viet says, Yes. It seems that way.
Unless I can be sure I can find a subletter.
Viet says, Move in here.
He keeps stirring, watching the chard shrink. He adds cayenne.
Sam can hear it before he says it: You have practically been living here for two years anyway. We spend nearly every hour together, when you aren’t guiding. Or when I’m not out there searching with my team.
But Viet just stirs the dark green leaves, making sure they get smothered by the hot liquid.
Viet, let’s not—
He smiles at her, charmed with his own logic and that he got her this time.
He says, Wasn’t that your New Year’s resolution?
Viet, I’m not moving in here.
She says it like it would be succumbing to disease.
Sam moves in close trying to smooth over the hurt and wraps her arms around his middle. She wishes she could take it back.
Sam, what are we doing here?
She nuzzles the back of his neck.
Five years of fun?
Viet, let’s not do this.
She steps forward. If they hug tight enough, they won’t have to talk about this again.
He pushes her away. Then snaps.
Fuck you, Samantha!
Viet picks up the heavy blue pot and moves to the kitchen table where his industrial sized dehydrator sits. He begins to scoop the soup onto the plastic liner of the top tray. He smooths the lumpy soup like he’s spreading pancake dough on a griddle.
Deep on the trail, Sam thinks about that moment. Replays it. Sees it. Hears it.
Fuck you, Samantha.
It’s been four days, and the words still roll around in Sam’s head. With each step up the mountain, her ears still hurt. It’s 9,000 feet up ridges and another 6,000 feet descending down trails. Long feathery pine needles underfoot the entire way.
Firmly, decisively, a warning of sorts, the way a parent tells a child not to do something that might hurt. Don’t go near the edge. Stop right there. Put that down.
Sam breathes out, Fuck you, Viet Tran. Fuck you. She says it out loud. Her words, even the ones in her head, are more sinister than Viet’s words ever could be. In her mind, she hisses, trying to hurt him.
She likes her nomad life.
But what she really wants is to erase Viet’s words from her mind.
Scattered needles crisp and crack under the tread of Sam’s boots. She finds a spot that is neither hidden nor exposed. Perfect. Sam always laughs whenever Viet calls digging a six inch hole into the ground, a cat hole, “the facilities.”
Sam squats all the way to the ground and digs. The underlayer pushes back against her bright orange trowel. Stumps get in the way. She knows the hole must be six inches deep, so she muscles each scoop of pine and gently places the under layer a few inches away from her. The deeper she gets the more hard earth she finds. Pebbles. Tree branches. Twigs. It’s all hard and clumpy.
When Sam pulls her pants down to her ankles, she can hear and then see a shape of a person in the shadows, between the rocks and trees. There’s a bend and a dip before the mound of rock, some fifty feet away on the ridge. Her eyes flutter up it, like a pilot tracing a line of attack, a path in the sky. Then she catches a flash of movement; she knows he or she probably can’t see her; she or he is probably just a weekend backpacker trying to find a spot of privacy.
That’s all Sam wants to find out here too. Privacy.
As soon as a client confirms their trip by making a payment in full, Sam sends an email with a two-page list of needed gear. Nothing is extra. She also sends all her clients one-sheets of the most important technical aspects of using or buying gear. Each sheet describes one important component: how to layer your clothes, how to pack your backpack, how to set up a tent, how to filter water, how to dig a cat hole, pack out your trash, use a wag bag, and the luxury and usefulness of a courtesy bag. When she meets up with the client, she goes through their gear and throws out everything that is unneeded as they bargain with her. All seasoned backpackers know that items worth carrying on the trail, anything worth the weight on your back, cutting into your skin, must have more than one use. You are allowed one luxury item.
Most of Sam’s clients are women, and she resents this. More women request Sam than her fellow senior guides, the male guides. Women like sharing the trail and the summit with other women. They are more comfortable. But they are also more inspired; they like seeing Sam’s superman strength. Sam is a tiny woman and she suspects men don’t like sharing the trail with her because they know she’s stronger than them. She can out-carry, out-climb, out-summit most everyone on the trail. And men, even the novices, the guys from places like San Diego and Burbank and San Jose, who fly in for their Mount Whitney excursions, these men who took days off for their adventure vacation don’t want to be surpassed, helped, encouraged by a woman. Viet likes this part of Sam. Why won’t he accept the rest?
At the bottom of last page of the gear list, marked with asterisks, Sam writes, Nothing on the trail should have only one function.
Sam fills the cat hole with pine needles, pats the ground with her trowel then places a slab of rock on top. She packs out her trash, the toilet paper, wrapping it onto itself and carefully dropping the bundle into a Ziploc, then uses a stick to push it down, making sure to not brush finger to paper. Then she drops the Ziploc into her odor proof NyloPro bag, just a fancy version of a turkey roasting bag, twisting its end, tying it. Even though the cold temperature makes this last step unnecessary, she double bags it. Then she buries the NyloPro deep inside a dark plastic shopping bag with handles, a bag she got from the liquor store in Lone Pine when she bought vodka to drink back home, alone.
Sam stops and listens, watching the sky go dark. She thinks maybe she can see some clouds forming wide sheets. She thinks maybe that storm is coming a little early.
Sam is pulled back and remembers she isn’t alone. Scanning the ridge above she sees the shadows move again and wraps her fingers tight around her black plastic bag. It crinkles loud. She hears needles breaking under her feet.
At camp Sam heats water to a boil and pours it into a Ziploc pouch that holds dinner, dehydrated chard and lemon lentil soup, Viet’s famous recipe. Fresh chard and garlic from Viet’s garden, lemons picked from a friend’s tree in Los Angeles, and organic brown lentils from the Lone Pine market. She remembers the night Viet made this particular batch. They laid in bed for hours, tangled, as a storm came through town.
She scans the sky for more clouds forming.
Sam makes a cup of green decaf tea then heads to bed. She bivvies it tonight, as she does most nights on the trail. She doesn’t like to carry the extra weight of a tent and brings the ultralight shapeless bag instead. She crawls into her cocoon like some animal burrowing into the ground, making a perfect depression into the hard earth. The sack presses onto her, not even six inches from her face. She can smell the nutty green tea aroma on her breath; it reminds her of straw. She falls quickly asleep imagining she is buried deep in blankets, like she did as a kid, under the forts she constructed in her living room.
The sounds of the night swallow her up; tree limbs cracking from marmots or birds or maybe squirrels and of course, the occasional backpacker looking for a spot to pee. She unzips the bivvy hood, keeping it slit open, pulling cold air in. Then she tucks the hood close, wrapping it around her head, snuggling tight, so only her mouth and nose and the very bottom of her cheek bones are exposed. She can feel the waterproof shell against her closed eyelids, scratching her cheeks, burying her chin.
She wakes to what she thinks is someone shining a flashlight on her. What are they doing? Then she thinks, Have the lights been turned on?
No, she opens her eyes and sees through the slit in the bivvy. Millions of stars have come out to brighten the Sierra sky. It’s brilliant. She squints. Then she hears the deep groans of a man snoring. Guttural gasps and grunts that start baritone and rhythmically escalate into a high wheeze, only to start over again in the lower register of grunts, a grumpy old man turning in his bed. Sam knows that sounds near a ridge can play tricks on you. What feels like someone, something, twenty feet away, can very well be over a hundred. She closes her eyes tight and just listens. The grunts are moving. It must be a bear. Snorting. Puffing. It sounds like a zombie making its way through and near her kitchen, the spot where she left her stove and bear canister. Most backpackers know this should be fifty feet away from your tent, so when a bear, like this one, traipses through your camp, it isn’t right where you sleep.
Sam sits up. If someone turned the lights on, for real this time, it would be a comical scene. A grown woman in her bivvy, strapped inside a bag. Helpless, peeking into the darkness, looking for a bear.
There it is. Batting her bear canister with its paws like it’s a soccer ball.
She calls out, politely at first. She doesn’t want to wake any sleeping backpackers that might be nearby.
Shoo. Get. Shoo.
The bear turns and looks at her. Its eyes pick up the light from the stars and sparkle. Two little lights shine back at her.
She yells. Go away Bear. Shoo. Shoo.
The bear makes a low grunt, deep like he’s clearing his lungs from smoking two packs a day. Then he rolls a bit on the sides of his paws, back and forth. He leans forward. Getting the momentum he needs. He finally moves.
Sam remembers the first bear she saw on the trail and how she felt so afraid. That seems so silly now.
Get out of here.
She’s firm. Like a parent to a child.
He takes two slow steps, defiantly. Then jaunts into the dark, forgetting himself. He’s graceful but clearly annoyed. The bear canister was a bust.
Sam sits listening to the cracking earth and tree branches, the far scrapes and grunts, until she imagines the bear settling into some other spot that is more hopeful. So she thinks.
Then there is the rustling of earth behind her, back up the ridge, just ten feet or so away. Her ears are hyper alert. Human steps. Sam twists around, still bundled, and sees two sparkles further from the ground than the bear’s eyes.
What the fuck does this guy want?
Sam is still. Her breathing has stopped and she sits for what feels like ten minutes, watching the eyes. Counting the steps she would need to take to get to her backpack. She imagines where her knife is, in the outer pocket at the top. Then the shiny spots disappear and Sam can see the back of a head moving away from her. She makes out a blue beanie. A green puffy jacket. Sam thinks, Just using the toilet.
Sam waits until she can’t see any more movement or hear any more steps, struggles to unzip the sack at the top, pulls her legs to her and scoots out. She stands, barefoot, wobbling, and takes the five steps to her backpack. She unzips, finds her Swiss Army knife, tucks it into the pocket of her sweater, and bundles back into her cocoon.
Fuck you, Samantha.
At 5:30 a.m., the sun shoots through the thin blue Gortex of her bivvy. Sam stirs for a few minutes. Once she is awake, she quickly pulls her legs out of her cocoon and automatically starts to pack. Everything has its place, and she is nothing if not efﬁcient. She’s packed her bag a thousand times, practicing as if it was a sport, in the dark, half asleep, with altitude sickness, with thick gloves.
She almost forgets about the bear until she gets to the center of her pack, the place for her canister. Sam scans the woods. The backpacker from last night is gone.
She starts thinking she will have to head back earlier than she had planned. She had hoped to spend ﬁve nights on the trail; that’s how long it takes for a fight with Viet to rub off.
She can picture her oatmeal at the bottom of the canister, the pita and dried fish Viet made for her last week. It will be a long day back to town without any breakfast or lunch or dinner.
She gives up looking and cinches up her pack, and heads down from where she came. Then, a hundred feet down the ridge, she sees blue tucked inside a brush like a sprouting ﬂower. She feels lucky she spotted it and annoyed with the bear for getting her off track with her day. Today was going to be twenty-five miles with 5,000 feet of gain. She climbs down the hill.
When she gets to the canister it’s slimy as if some alien swallowed it whole and spit it back out. It’s foul but there is food inside.
The mouth of a bear is like a garbage truck, with slime and rot inside his muzzle. It helps Sam that there are animals on the trail more wild than she ever could be. It’s good for her to remember that she’s more than a beast. Sam uses her bandanna and some water, to try to clean the smell away. Her hands are strong, calloused and weathered, and not easily distracted by pain or cold. She rubs harder, rinsing her bandanna between the scourings. She can see bits and pieces of evergreen and dark brown and grey on the transparent blue plastic. Bears put their snouts on everything.
Sam makes quick time to her first break. It’s one of her favorite spots; she calls it the Lazy Boy Junction. She’s a fast, strong hiker, and happily, today, she’s carrying only twenty-five pounds. When she guides she often carries three times this weight. Arriving at an open area overlooking Golden Bear Lake, she takes a seat on one large boulder and puts her feet up on another. She pulls out her stove and pours water into the pot; this time she brought her Jetboil, an all-in-one stove and pot. The sound of the flame is startling in the cold air, a scream in contrast to the silence, the lack of voices except for the one inside. Just as Sam starts to pour the water over the maté she got in Argentina, a head appears from below. It’s a young man, not more than twenty years old, smiling at her. Then another face, not smiling but looking hard.
They stand taking her in. Sam doesn’t move; instead she looks down at her frothy maté then sips long and full, through the silver straw. The young men don’t say anything.
Then the smiling one says, Hey there!
Sam sips once again, still not looking up. Then, deliberately, she meets the friendly man’s eyes and smiles. His face makes her feel more open than she’s felt in days.
Sam says, Hi.
She holds her smile, listens to the wind blow out of her lungs and waits.
The friendly one, he smiles big at her. She notices him look up and down her legs. She can’t tell if he’s checking her out or counting the bruises that pepper her browned skin. Either way, she can tell he’s impressed. When he realizes he’s staring, he politely looks away. She decides he probably assumed, correctly, she’s a climber. He seems to decide this will be a short break with packs. His buddy looks like he will lose steam if they settle in for too long of a break. The friendly one leans against one of the boulders.
The friendly one asks, Where you headed?
I’m not sure. What about you two?
Back over Kearsarge Pass. We’re from the Bay Area, at the end of a two-week trip.
Sam is just as enthusiastic as if he told her he climbed Everest. There is nothing Sam admires more than anyone doing anything in the wilderness.
He adds, You’re the first face we’ve seen in over a week. It’s been awesome.
Oh, no. I think we are both ready for some company. Right?
He gestures to his friend. His friend barely nods.
He asks, You out here alone?
Cool. I love solo trips.
Sam watches the less friendly one struggle to pull out a snack from a pocket on his hip strap. He pokes his fingers into the compartment, searching. He finds it, a Cliff Bar, then struggles to tear open the packaging. It’s cold and she can tell that his fingers are unresponsive.
The friendly one looks at his friend with irritation; Sam senses that they’ve been on the trail together longer than even the friendly one can tolerate.
Are you thinking of summiting Mount Keith?
She says, I don’t have a plan yet.
You might see our friend Muir up there.
Yeah, John Muir. He’s a bonafide Mountain Man. We met a few days ago. He’s an odd one. From LA.
She smiles at him, charmed.
Well, stay safe out there.
The less friendly one barely nods goodbye.
Sam listens to the crunching earth of their big boots ripping up the trail.
Then she hears the friendly one shout in her direction.
If you spot Muir, tell him Mike says hello and that he owes me a beer.
Sam says, How will I know it’s him?
The guy with a beard down to his ankles.
Sam watches as Mike and the less friendly one bop away, their heads becoming no more than dots on the horizon.
Sam gets to the summit before dark. Whitney feels like she can touch it. It’s a particularly windy afternoon, and colder than she had anticipated. The clouds are forming broad sheets in all directions. She wonders if it will snow tonight. She pulls out her puffy jacket, feeling glad she brought it, even though it was extra weight. Everything on this trip has been extra. The weight is all luxury items. The silver trimmed maté gourd cup and silver straw, the puffy jacket, the extra two meals, the sea salt chocolate, the red wine. She wants to eat her way up the mountains and feel good, comfortable. She feels desire for something more than what she needs.
She sits on the ground, pulls her legs in tight, wrapping her arms around herself like she’s a little kid, and watches the sunset this way, without moving a muscle. She contemplates staying here tonight. Otherwise she’ll have to scramble back in the dark, but she doesn’t mind. This sunset will make it worth it. She promises herself to make camp the minute it gets too tiring.
Just as she starts to fixate on the light turning pink, a head with a long greying beard comes up over the ridge.
The man’s in his late forties, tall, thin, sunken cheeks, carrying only a clean just-bought lumbar pack, clasped high on his hips. She is stunned; he looks just like John Muir but bright and brand new. His boots are lightweight trekkers. His jacket, shorts, all tell her that he recently got outfitted for this trip. He stands like a metal coat hanger, his gear and layers of clothing draped and hanging on his bones.
He stops, full frame. Center. He’s the first to smile.
She waits for the view to clear, sitting, still. But the man won’t move, he just blocks her view. She can’t tell if he’s catching his breath or waiting for her to be happy to meet him. She makes an effort to smile but wants to be alone.
Once he gets a smile from her he moves out of the way and takes a seat on another pile of rocks. They’ll share the summit and the sunset.
Finally he says quietly, You don’t get this for nothing; you have to work for it.
You sure do.
The spot of gold is getting lower, almost falling behind the highest peak.
You made fast time, didn’t you?
Well, I saw you back down, packing up this morning. I was probably no less than a hundred feet behind you. Yet, here I am, coming in what? From the look of your feast an hour or so after you? You, such a small thing.
He pulls out some snacks of his own.
He sees she’s got her bivvy out and her sleeping bag an arm’s length away.
You gonna crash here?
Um, I don’t know.
It’s a beautiful spot. If you don’t mind, I’ll join you.
Sam watches him pull out his store-bought dehydrated meal. Some remote form of a bean enchilada. He pours water from a Nalgene into his Jetboil. Turns the igniter. The flame roars into the cold air.
You’ve got a Jetboil too, huh? Thought someone like you would hunt along the way.
Sam doesn’t like all the talk.
He asks, Any chance you’ve got a bow and arrow in that tiny pack?
Sam smiles politely.
Then she closes her eyes, getting lost in the last rays of warmth that hit the skin of her cheeks. It’s going to be a cold night and this is the last bit of heat she’ll feel for ten hours. The best part of being on the trail is knowing that weather will always change. That you can count on.
When she opens her eyes the sun is at its most pink-blue-purple display. That’s why she is here. The sky is always more spectacular after the little gold blob of light passes through the mountains. Once gold is gone, she quickly starts to pack up. There is nothing more for her to see or feel. She wants to be alone.
Yeah, I don’t want to hike out in the dark.
I thought you wanted to camp at the summit. Why else would you arrive so late? Great minds—
I’m taking off.
With the sun gone, Muir bundles up in his fleece sweater, pulling it tighter to his chest.
Then he pulls out his beanie from his pocket.
As Sam throws her pack over her shoulder she says, Well, enjoy your night.
He says, Who knows, if the wind picks up, maybe I’ll see you later tonight, back down on the trail.
She just nods.
He says, I didn’t catch your name?
They call me Muir.
The light is dimming fast. She doesn’t look back at the grey figure of the man they call Muir. He’s still sitting on the rocks, where she left him, his legs crossed like a child sitting on the ground at school, watching a movie, the movie of the sunset. He uses an orange lightweight spork to shovel store bought, prepackaged dehydrated food into his mouth.
He calls out, Be careful of the bears out there; you’re headed to Bear Alley.
Then he adds, You know how curious they can be.
Sam is usually unafraid of darkness on the trail, but tonight, even as she leaves Muir further and further behind, Sam feels a little skittish. In her ten years of serious backpacking and mountaineering, she’s met some characters, but this Muir stands out. She can’t get the image of him standing on the summit, blocking the sun, out of her mind. She wishes Viet was here. They’d have a laugh. Make jokes about pre-fab food. Viet would know just what to say to take her mind off of today’s creepy John, John Muir.
Sam misses Viet with an ache so strong she thinks, Viet I love you. First she says it quietly in her head, then out loud. Then a yell. Who yells I Love You into the dark?
Without a moonrise, Sam struggles to see her feet on the ground and her hands at her face. She worries she’ll trip on a small boulder protruding from the earth, so she slows her pace to a crawl. Tired of waiting for the moon to rise, Sam bivvies it, nearly a hundred feet from the trail. If Muir decides to come down tonight, he’ll have to work to find her in the dark wood. She figures he’ll get bored and carry on.
Sam falls asleep listening for crunches, snaps, and pops.
In the morning, she wakes when a cloud covers the warmth of the sun. Sam opens her eyes and sees it isn’t a cloud at all but a wall, a tall wall standing above. It’s Muir, the bearded man from Los Angeles who likes to section-hike on the weekends.
Really? she thinks.
But instead of screaming, Sam calmly says, Hello.
Muir smiles big. Hey there, good morning.
Sam rolls away from him and pulls her legs out of her bivvy. She’s wearing neon-blue long-johns. Her torso peeks out, exposed. She peers up at him and tilts her head.
He holds his Jetboil in the air. It looks like a hot air balloon blocking out the sun.
Want some hot water? I made extra.
Her brain clicks on. She scoots away from him.
No, thanks. I’m good.
You were so far off from the trail, I had to really look to find you.
She begins to quickly pack up. She opens the top pocket of her backpack and feels for her knife. It’s right where it should be.
Getting an early start?
Yeah, should head out. Meet my friend. He’s expecting me midday. You know how boyfriends can get worried.
He watches her as she tightly shoves her soft belongings in the bottom of her pack.
He says, Don’t want to set you off track or anything.
Then he says, Ok then. Have a great day.
He starts to walk off, away from her. She feels a sense of relief.
Just as her insides relax, she turns to see the man reach into his pocket and pull out his blue beanie. An alarm goes off inside Sam’s gut. She remembers the blue beanie in the dark, the first night on the trail.
She doesn’t even finish packing. She gathers what she can in her hands and just shoves the rest in her pack and the pockets of her pants. Back on the trail, she travels in the opposite direction of Muir. Once she gets several hundred feet between her and him, she picks up her pace.
Sam moves swiftly, sucking in thin air fast.
Sam arrives at a clearing where she can see Golden Bear Lake further down. She thinks, This is far enough. He’ll never catch up now.
Aquamarine blue water lies below. Closer, it’s even more beautiful. A crater on another planet with gold and yellow rings of mineral deposits. For the first time, she pulls out her camera and snaps a few photos. She thinks about how she’ll show them to Viet. Muir is a fading image. So is the blue fleece beanie on his head.
It’s so calm. Peaceful in the Sierras. A red streak of embarrassment shoots through her. She thinks, Sam, you overreacted.
She marches on towards the alpine lake. The trail gets looser and looser, until it’s just scree. She starts to foot plunge down the side of the mountain, off trail, like she’s skiing on rocks.
Once down the mountain, Sam heads to the edge of the lake and follows the use trail for half a mile. Then she takes a sharp turn off trail and meanders deeper into the wilderness, into the thickness of the trees. Viet will have to wait. She’ll head home tomorrow.
At dusk Sam decidedly heads into the densest patch of forest. No one is around. No crackles. No pops. She makes camp, crawls into her bivvy, pocket knife in hand, open, just in case. She lies awake thinking about Viet in his kitchen saying, Fuck you, Samantha.
Her Swiss Army knife presses against her thigh as she drifts asleep feeling Viet’s arms wrapped around her middle, wishing she hadn’t said what she said. Wishing Viet hadn’t said what he said.
Suddenly she feels something scratchy on her cheek. Hair? Fur? Fuzz? Maybe this is a marmot? Or a bear? Or a squirrel? A fox? Something she’s never felt before yet familiar.
She doesn’t move. Or open her eyes. Just scratch. She says a prayer deep inside her head, a prayer that this will go away. A dream. A fantasy. The space between waking and sleeping. Then she feels warmth under the fuzz, then skin. She hears the breathing. Every exhale is more warmth. She starts to scream, but a hand covers her mouth. Even if she could, no one would hear her. She focuses on the warmth. She only sees black. Two darts of white pass next to her, out of focus and surreal. Why?
Weight on her. Ground pressing up. She can’t breathe. She scoots deeper into her bivvy. She’s protected, for now, by three layers: Gortex shell, fleece and wool.
Wet tongue licks. More scratchy fuzz.
Then, Sam feels the hard metal of her knife, pressing against her thigh. She remembers that she went to sleep clutching the thing, worried about any unwanted visitors.
She starts to writhe, involuntarily, but focuses her mind on the hard metal next to her. She is trying not to squirm. She doesn’t want to give it away. Big hands grope at her breasts. She focuses her full attention. This moment has become the most important activity of her thirty-five years of life. Why didn’t she practice this before now? His breath smells like whisky. She tastes salt. It’s his skin. She’s repulsed and then surprises herself. She bites. Down. Hard. Feels warmth. Tastes metal. This last step, she has practiced before. Sparring. And in the first self-defense class she took, as a teen. He flings his face away from her. Just far enough. She finds leverage. Hits with her arms from underneath the bivvy. Hard. She gets a good blow in with her elbow. Her hand grips tight on the knife. Plunges. Stabbing past the shell. Softness. An arm? His side?
Muir cradles his middle. She doesn’t know what happens next, but the two of them are rolling, fumbling, scratching. Contorting. She pulls her legs out of the bivvy, somehow, and gives him a good judo kick. How dare he. Then another, until he’s crawling away from her, like an animal. He makes a deep sound like a beast in a trap, moaning, trying not to spill his pain. She keeps kicking him, conscious of the edge of the hill with the loose ground.
Muir twists and she’s not sure if he is retreating or losing his footing. Then he slips and falls, almost off the side of the hill, and trips a few feet downwards but manages to hold on.
The scene erupts into stillness. She watches him. Shadows and movement crawling on the rocky ground, just a few feet below the edge, a hurt animal, pulling itself to the curb of the freeway as the car drives away. He is crawling his way back up to her. On all fours. Clutching his arm.
Sounds pierce through the low hissing wind, scratches, like a rat scraping on the insides of a cave.
Sam still feels warmth and tastes metal in her mouth.
Muir struggles to stand. The cliff is just behind him.
Fuck You, Bitch!
And then he slowly teeters, like a tree swaying in the wind. Falling. The man rolls away. Over the ridge. She watches in disbelief. She rushes to the edge and watches as his form is swallowed by the shadows. She hears the rustling of rocks and body hits against dirt and boulders.
It’s an easy incline, but still definitely the side of a mountain, and Muir is lost from her view. She finally hears what sounds like a mass toppling down far, far below. Slowly. Surely. She squints her eyes and sees a round figure that looks like a bag of laundry, slowly tumbling. Big chunks of rock dislodge. Small boulders. Dirt. The hillside shifts and moves, follows him down, like trains of a coaster. Then quiet except for the sound of his gurgled breathing, but sound travels far in the quiet Sierra night. It’s as if he is breathing in her ear. Then there is nothing at all but the low hiss of wind in the trees.
For the first time, she hears her own breath. It is fast. Shallow. As if she sprinted a 100 and left it all on the course.
The mass below starts to move again. Then stops. Sam’s chest expands. Contracts. Muscles in her middle get away from her. She can’t slow it down. She sucks in thin air as if through a straw. Is she hyperventilating?
Then Muir is quiet. She waits. Listening. Nausea shoots through her stomach into her throat. She might throw up.
Instead she runs. For how long, she’ll never know, but when she stops the air is suddenly cold. It’s too dark to see. She only can smell musty browns and greens, damp dark earth, listens to the owl in the redwood above her, feels a bed of pine needles prick and cut into her naked toes.
Geri Ulrey’s creative nonfiction has been published in Gulf Coast and The Carolina Quarterly. Her essay “13th & B” was a Notable in Best American Essays 2016. Geri is a writer, filmmaker, and educator living in Los Angeles and is currently at work on her first novel. Author photo by Thouly Dosios.
Clear, cool morning. The two of you are the first ones at the park. Your year-old daughter craved the red swings. You craved quiet. This morning had so much potential quiet.
The reality is the racket of a power washer. Groundskeepers from Parks and Rec are cleaning the patio by the bathrooms. The air compressor hammers, staccato, like the sound of a strobe light if a strobe light made a sound. The blade of pressurized water hisses a loud tssssssssss, sustained as only a machine can sustain a thing.
Though you are grateful for parks and for bathrooms and for patios—and for cities that maintain them—
For a helpless moment, all you can see of your cool spring morning is the electricity flowing to the damn power washer. In your mind, the electric grid reveals itself, an augmented reality overlay on the landscape. You trace it from the orange extension cord, to the wall outlet, back up through wire capillaries that widen into arteries, passing through transformers and substations. You trace transmission lines east, to the beating heart of the power plant on Lake Fayette in La Grange, where hundred-car freight trains deliver coal from Wyoming. In the boiler, pulverized coal dust fuels an inferno. Searing steam spins turbines. Smoke stacks puff greenhouse gases and fly ash, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, arsenic and mercury—far away from here (sort of) but smack in the middle of here if you live in La Grange.
For a despairing moment, all you can see of your cool spring morning is the precious potable water hissing onto the sidewalk. In your mind, you see the thick tubers of the water distribution system, branch lines intersecting cast iron water mains. You follow the mains back up to the water treatment plant, where massive pumps draw millions of gallons from the Lower Colorado River amid the deepening drought that seems only to lift when it floods. You imagine the energy-intensive filtration, the aeration and flocculation, the disinfection with chlorine—treatments that keep the water supply only sort of safe.
For a furious moment, all you can see of your cool spring morning is the likely-unlivable hourly wage of the three men working, uniformed in Dickies pants, one spraying, the other two watching. You guess they are being paid twelve dollars an hour to use coal power to spray potable water onto concrete in this drought-stricken boomtown where a one-bedroom apartment costs a thousand bucks a month.
Captivated, your daughter takes a few steps toward the power washer, the patio, the three men. She is wearing the first pair of shoes of her whole life. She drinks in the din. The morning sunlight pierces the branches of a two-hundred-year-old live oak, dispersing on white mist rising from the concrete. She takes a few more steps.
Chastened, you squat beside her, put your hands on each of her shoulders, to keep your sweet fool from rushing in.
Susan Scott Peterson writes intimate essays and memoir about culture and race; poverty and privilege; environmental degradation; and women, families, and parenthood. She draws material from her experiences as an environmentalist, an American working in West Africa, and, most recently, a new mother. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus. She lives with her partner, Sebastian, and her daughter, Stella, in Austin, Texas.
Hot, back in the corner of the coat closet you find it, right where you knew it would be. Pull it out with both hands, it’s a lot heavier than you expected. Dad said never to touch it, but who knows when he’s coming back this time, and what else are you supposed to do on a day like this? Show it to your sister, how it gleams in the light let in through the screen door. Stand it up, it comes up to her chin.
“Dad’s giant wrench. Can I hold it?”
Laugh at her. “It’s bigger than you are.”
“So are you, but I could still toss you.”
She’s been a brat all morning. So have you, kind of. The AC is out again and the heat makes everything a lot less bearable, even yourselves. Especially yourselves. She’s nine-and-a-half. You’re eleven. And two inches taller.
“Just get the door.”
Nellie gets the door and follows you out, barefoot. You’d think she would learn. Don’t remind her about the street.
It’s so heavy you have to stop on the porch to catch your breath, and to wipe the sweat off your forehead before it runs into your eyes. Out here there isn’t even a breeze. You look down the steps a second too long and Nellie doesn’t miss a beat.
“Having second thoughts, big guy?”
“Shut up. Help me down with it.”
Walk it down awkwardly together and across the front yard. Putting her first foot down onto the street, though, Nellie yelps and hops back to the sidewalk, dropping her end banging onto the ground.
“I told you get your flip flops.”
“You did not.”
And who is it walking up to you now but Barbara’s old, newsy self from two doors down. She’s wearing the same fuchsia swishy jumpsuit she always wears, whatever the weather. It could be snowing or it could be a hundred and two with the heat index, like they said it was today. Even so, not a bead of sweat is coming down from her hairline. How is that possible?
“And just what are youse thinking of doing with that?”
It’s Nellie who has an answer, of course it is.
“We’re thinking of minding our own business with this, thank you, Miss Barbara.”
“You little bad-behind kids. That’s a fire hazard, you know.”
“This whole day’s a fire hazard,” says Nellie.
“You know that’s how the house on Cedar burned down, don’t you? Youse kids need to take a walk to the pool.”
“You need a grownup for the pool,” says Nellie. “You want to take us, Miss Barbara? My brother doesn’t think you swim in that swishy suit, but I think you do.”
Yell at her now to go inside. “Get your flip flops.”
Nellie smiles wide at Miss Barbara and then runs back up the steps.
Miss Barbara waits till she’s gone to give you a long look. “And just where, now, is your mother? On a Saturday, too.”
Tell her your mom works Saturdays now. There’s another moment then, and inside of it she decides not to ask about your father. What does she know? More than you, probably. The sun is hitting you hard on the top of the head and the sweat is starting to drip into your eyes. It’s you that blinks first, then.
“Well here’s what I’ll say. I’m off to run a errand. But if youse are still out here with all that when I get back, I’m calling in a report. Your mother doesn’t need that, you know. That’s the last thing she needs, we both know that.”
That’s what makes up your mind, the threat in there, against your mother. That’s the thing that, once she’s gone and you’ve carried your father’s enormous wrench across the street and fitted it onto the nose of the hydrant, when Nellie says to wait a second, what if it really is a fire hazard like Miss Barbara says—that’s the thing that makes you say, “Fuck Miss Barbara.”
Nellie covers her mouth at the word.
Crank down on that thing with all your weight—it’s just enough, you can feel it when it gives, when the water rushes up and bursts out the nose and sends the wrench clanging across the street. Within ten minutes every kid from the neighborhood is out running through the spray, no way to put it back now.
And if the unthinkable happens? If later that night it’s your own house that catches fire, and the firemen can’t save a thing because the hydrant’s tapped dry? If Miss Barbara was right? If your mother comes home to the blaze and pulls out her hair and calls you the exact son of your father.
“He would burn down our home tomorrow to play hero for today.”
Swallow back the thing in your throat. Breathe, think. Could you even close the hydrant now, even if you wanted to? With all that water bursting out? With everyone out and playing in it now? A lot of the kids are older than you, and everyone’s laughing and all of a sudden it’s enough to make you want to cry, but you can’t do that. Watch the way it rainbows in the sunlight, feel the mist on your face. The way Nellie runs through it again, watch until she’s shivering in it, till her lips are blue, and breathe. There. Whatever comes next, at least there was this. There will always be this, how every time another kid shows up, Nellie makes it a point to brag to them through chattering teeth who it was that opened up the water.
“It was my brother.”
See her point?
“See him there, the one with the huge wrench? That boy is my brother.”
Patrick McNeil is the organizer of Philadelphia’s own Backyard Writers Workshop and the founder of the Writers Retreat in Tufo, Italy. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The Fourth River, Philadelphia Stories, The Head and The Hand’s Chapbook Series, and more.
I’ve decided to kill my son. This is not a new thought. It did not come to me overnight. I’ve nursed it for a long time like an actual thing, a child that was a seedling first and then a sprout, but the idea has taken hold.
I am filled with it. Asher. Gift. Precious boy. Three years on this planet and never a qualm or complaint, refusal or resistance. A child who does not even know how to fight. A miraculous boy who knows what his mother is thinking. Our eyes lock and words, ideas, flow between our silence. I know his heart. And he knows mine.
When he was born, I pushed and pushed, each push a relief for I knew I was giving birth to perfection. Fatherless, but still. I would be there. And fourteen hours later after arriving in the hospital, already three centimeters dilated, he was here. Healthy. His blue eyes, savage, pierced my soul.
My Asher. Healthy, they said. Every day I held him in my arms, dreamed on him. My handsome boy. Asher. Then, when he was one, his little legs swelled one day. He couldn’t breathe.
Allergies, they said. Masks, they suggested. Wait and see if it passes.
But it was not allergies. The masks didn’t help. And it did not pass.
I am single. One child. My world. I watched over him. Dedicated, I took my boy, my blue-eyed savage with his soft sweet smile, to hospital after hospital until I heard the truth.
Atrial Septal Defect.
A hole in his heart wall.
Too big. We cannot operate due to the size. But hold out hope. In time, the hole may close.
The hole in Asher’s heart did not close. It widened, even as money depleted, and hope withered and died. Some days, all I have are his blue eyes fixed on me, memorizing as I have memorized him.
Give him all the love in the world. Love heals, works miracles, is what they say now.
Do they not understand he came with all my love, fourteen hours like years. Do they not see my love in his eyes or his love in mine? Do they not know anything?
My son is tired all the time, so tired he cannot walk or speak. Sometimes a mask breathes for him. I hold his tiny cold feet and his limp hands until they are warm, until his eyes full of questions stop gazing at me and close and he sleeps.
They think that like a perfect mother, I will stay here day and night watching over him as he struggles to breathe, watching him gaze at me as shadows crimp my eyes and the unspeakable passes between us.
No more. It is easy. I press his sleeping body to my chest, press into me his entire being, back into my veins, my belly, my history, back until he is just beginning, a part of him separate, just as his father, a night jack of all trades, skips out the door pulling on his t-shirt, just as he drives away and I wait, an expectant mother, for seed to find seed, for something to flower after I open the door.
Arya F. Jenkins is a Colombian-American whose poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and zines such as Anti-Heroin Chic, Black Scat Review, Brilliant Corners, The Feminist Wire, Front Porch Review, The Matador Review, Metafore Literary Magazine, Mojave Literary Review, and Provincetown Arts Magazine. Her fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017 and garnered three nominations in 2018. Her poetry has also been nominated for the Pushcart. Her poetry chapbooks are: Jewel Fire (AllBook Books, 2011) and Silence Has A Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016). Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key was published by Fomite Press in November 2018 and is available at www.aryafjenkins.com.
We sat three abreast in hard white pews. At our backs, an open door laid rectangles of sun on the salt-smoothed pine floor. It was an old Puritan church—Built in 1772, read a small plaque by the door. You could tell: the ceiling was crossed with bare beams, the floor was hard and cold. As a boy, I’d been brought to the church from time to time for a service, usually the wedding or funeral of a summer neighbor. I recalled the starkness of it, the chilly severity. Across the street, at the base of a hill that sloped down to the ocean, my mother’s ashes lay beneath a weathered stone.
The pastor climbed to the pulpit. He was a short, round man whose redly perspiring face put me in mind of a carnival barker or the proprietor of an adult video store. I pictured him sweeping back a curtain of beads, beckoning me into a dimly lit room. We waited for him to speak. He labored over a sheath of papers; the pages stuck to his fingertips, caught and tore. From the chancel a portrait of my father, whom I hadn’t spoken to in years, regarded me with stern blue eyes and a curling grin.
“Well,” the pastor said finally, cupping the back of his neck with a fat red hand. “I don’t quite know what to say. I knew John, but not well. Frankly, I was shocked by the invitation to speak today—”
Here he paused and shuffled his papers. One page slipped from the lectern and floated to the floor.
“Like I said,” he said, adjusting his glasses, “I don’t really know what to say.” He trailed off.
The fifteen of us gathered before him—cousins, a brother and sister, a couple of my father’s summer friends—stared with open mouths. Into mine flew a mosquito, buzzing hysterically. Up front, my aunt stood in a rage, harrumphing into her program, the pew door swinging shut with a clack.
It was then that the first ghost appeared—my father’s older brother Steven, wearing a dentist’s white coat and a pair of polished loafers. He stood by the open door, shimmering slightly, his face vaguely drawn and lacking the ruddy flush he’d had in life. My aunt sat down.
Sneering, Steven strolled to the pulpit, shuffling the pastor aside.
“If no one else is going to say it, I will,” he began, his chin jutting, glasses low on the bridge of his narrow nose. “My brother John was a royal prick, as all of you know. Let’s not pretend he wasn’t now, just because he’s dead.” A brief moment of stunned silence gave way to assenting murmurs and a few vigorous nods.
“There wasn’t a kind bone in his body,” Steven went on. “When we were boys, he used to torment me in all sorts of different ways. One time, here at the shore, we were swimming out by the dock and he held me under until I thought I would drown. When I came up in a shower of spray, there he was, bobbing nearby like a seal, laughing his head off. I don’t think there was anyone in all the world who really liked him.”
As if to answer his claim, there came then a parade of ghosts, some familiar and others unknown to me, materializing with a kind of fizzy static, like an old TV turning on. One by one they ascended the chancel and took the pulpit. There was Chet, our old gardener, wearing coveralls and a work cap. John was the cheapest sonofabitch I ever met,” he said, shaking a trowel at us. “He used to tip me with handfuls of change. Change!” Jeffrey, my father’s longtime driver, said they’d never exchanged more than a couple of words in all their years together. “He’d just sit there in the backseat, reading the newspaper and grunting that low grunt of his. Occasionally I’d ask him a question, just to break the silence, but he’d peer at me over his glasses and shake his head.” A woman, who introduced herself as Mrs. Watson and claimed to have taught my father in the first grade, said he was the worst student she’d ever had. “His spitballs were monstrous. He picked on all the other kids and once peed in the broom closet.”
“He was a horrible boor,” said Cynthia Mix, a neighbor.
“A crook,” said Neil Coughlin, a customer at the bank.
“The worst kind of drunk, that man,” said Jimmy, who tended bar at a club in the city. Nobody knew his last name.
The ghost of the family dog trotted to the pulpit then, limping a bit on his left side. “He used to kick me,” the spaniel growled, gesturing with a hazy paw. A gasp went up from the crowd. “He’d shout and swat at me with the paper.”
I stood to offer my own take—a story had come to me in the pew, a long-ago memory of my father cursing at me on a sailboat—but just then a particularly lanky ghost glimmered into view by the open door. We all turned to look, and I was shocked to see my younger brother Tim, wearing khakis and a flannel shirt, a pencil behind his ear. He was tall and rangy, just as he’d been in life. He looked like a ballplayer, a shortstop with three-day stubble and a dirty uniform, a gaggle of bright-eyed gals waiting for him after the game. His shirt hung open at the neck, his shoes were loose at the sole. He’d been killed in a car accident at nineteen. Drunk, he’d missed a turn and crashed into a tree. My father had showed up soused to the funeral, his blazer wrinkled and his breath sweetly stinking.
“It’s strange,” Tim said in a sort of windy voice, faint and much lower than the one he’d had when he was alive. We leaned forward in our pews, straining to hear. “I’ve forgotten all the bad things. All of ‘em. It’s only the good stuff I can remember now.”
He walked toward us, palms hanging open at his sides. “Dad at Christmas, tinsel draped over his arms, the strands glittering like slivers of glass. His back to us, that broad, sloping back. He’s dwarfed by the tree, its boughs sagging under the weight of gold and silver balls. A drink in his hand, he sways, dances a little jig, laughs—a sound like pealing bells. That’s the kind of thing I see.”
He was looking at me now, his eyes soft. I fidgeted in the pew. The other ghosts grew quiet; the dog slunk toward the door.
“I see him in his workshop,” Tim went on, “bent over an elegant figurine—a fisherman in a pair of painted yellow waders, a toothpick rod at his side. A bare bulb casts the room in a copper glow. Dad’s canvas slacks are covered in shavings. Little curls of wood litter the concrete floor. You—” he raised a flickering hand in my direction—“are beneath him, playing by his feet. From time to time you sneak a shaving into your mouth, and, silently, without glancing up from his work, Dad reaches down and plucks the curl from where you’ve hidden it in your cheek.
“I see him on the boat, sunglasses hiding his eyes, a gust tugging his hair to the sky. I see him in the yard, at the hardware store, striding up our brick front walk. I see his work gloves hanging from a nail in the garage—the coarse leather, that close grassy smell that never seemed to wash off.”
“I can see him on the night I was born, Danny.” Tim was talking directly to me at this point, as if nobody else was in the room. “Isn’t that strange? I can see everything now. It was a cold night in October. You’re all at the hospital. Mom’s in bed. You’re in a chair outside the door. Dad’s pacing the hallway, his hands in his hair. His shirttail’s hanging out, there’s a dark oval of sweat across his back. He’d come straight from the office; Jeffrey ran three red lights and nearly wore out the horn on the way. Suddenly there’s a commotion in the hospital room. The doctor is hollering, a pack of nurses streams through the door. You can’t see anything from your chair, but you can hear the tinkle of medical instruments, the bark of raised voices. You press your ear to the door, straining to listen.
“After a time, the clamor dies down, replaced by cries of another sort. Then the door opens, and you feel a warm hand on your shoulder. ‘Danny,’ Dad says, ‘come meet your brother Tim.’ Dad’s hand trembles; his shirtfront is soaked with sweat. Inside, you creep to the bed, where Dad scoops me from Mom’s chest and hands the bundle to you. Our parents watch as carefully you rock me side to side and attempt a small kiss on my damp forehead. You grin, the nurses applaud, Mom’s doctor claps Dad on his huge back. He looks at us there and softly shakes his head. His eyes are wet with tears.”
Tim’s face flickered then, but still I could see his sad smile, his tender eyes. His words had torn loose something inside me; I felt it as a kind of jangling in my belly, a thawing of innards I’d let chill a long time. I leapt to my feet and ran to where he stood. I wanted to hold him, to clutch his stubbled neck, to shout that I remembered, I remembered, oh, I remembered it all!
The night Tim died, I was home from college on spring break. I’d come home the week before, and we’d spent most of our time together fighting over one thing or another: his clothes (shabby, unwashed), his hair (long), his cadre of shady friends. Mostly I chided him about his recent decision to drop out of the local community college he’d been attending for the past couple of years. Not once did he get angry with me; in that way he was the opposite of Dad. Instead, while I ranted and raved, carped and cajoled, he merely smiled that curling little smile of his and shrugged, eyes twinkling, and sidled toward the nearest door.
That night he’d fled an argument about laundry, of all things. He’d been throwing his clothes in with mine, and as I was the only one of us who actually knew how to run the machine, I’d grown sick of finding his ratty jeans tangled with my pressed khakis. I told him so by depositing a pile of still-wet clothes on his pillow, and then trailed him into the kitchen when that failed to elicit what I deemed a sufficiently contrite response. I harangued him all through dinner, and by the time our mother brought out the dessert—chocolate pudding, Tim’s favorite—I’d all but chased him out of the house. “Okay, okay,” he called finally, waving his napkin in surrender. “I give up. Uncle. No more laundry. I’ll do it myself, I promise.” Then he peered at me strangely, squinting at a spot on my chest. “Wait, Danny, I think you’ve got something on your shirt—” He pointed, and when I looked down, he catapulted a spoonful of pudding onto the collar of my cable knit sweater.
It was a footrace to the door. Always the faster runner, he beat me by an arms-length and disappeared laughing into the night. I heard the car start, and watched from the doorway as he pulled onto the road with a whoop. He idled at our yard’s edge, one arm slung out the window, a grin on his face. For a moment he simply sat there, smiling at me through the open window. A streetlight washed him in a silver glow. I said nothing, just crossed my arms and glared at the bright bar of his teeth. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then seemed to think better of it and instead leaned back and laughed—a buoyant, boyish sound. He threw a little wave, then he gunned the engine and roared off into the dark. I stood awhile in the doorway, wondering what he’d been about to say. When the streetlight clicked off, as it did each night at nine, I turned and stomped back into the house.
The knock came just after midnight. A young officer, his cheeks frosted with peach fuzz, blue cap in hand. In a splintering voice he told us. The car, the tree, the bottle of Wild Turkey found in the grass. His eyes, fringed with dark lashes, were aimed at the ground. My mother’s wails drew neighbors into the side yard, where they stood huddled in terrycloth bathrobes, slippers slick on the dew.
We slept that night on the floor of Tim’s bedroom. We dragged sleeping bags to the foot of his bed and tossed fitfully beneath posters of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac and Billie Holiday. My mother and I on either side of my father, his enormous arms hugging us close. At some point in the night I awoke to the sound of him weeping—great heaving sobs that caused his chest to tremble under my reclined head. I stayed absolutely still, listening. It was the first time I’d heard him cry. My own undershirt was wet with sweat and tears, but his sorrow—fierce, elemental—seemed another thing entirely.
Back in the churchly gloom, all at once I realized I too was crying. Tears soaked my necktie, chilled the bare skin at my collar. By the open door, Tim’s ghost stood quivering in the spilled daylight, his edges already beginning to melt away. I became frantic, desperate to keep him from leaving. I leapt for his hands, for his waist. I threw myself at his vanishing feet, shouted for him to wait, to stop, to stay, but my hands passed through his retreating body like vapor.
“Tim!” I screamed as he withdrew toward the doorway, his form now little more than a flickering disturbance in the heavy air. “Tim, what was it you were going to say that night in the car? Before you left, before you—before you drove away. You were about to say something. What was it?”
I’d wondered for so long; it haunted me, that pause, that wordless empty void. I had to know, I’d never stopped needing to know.
Tim turned, and his face fizzed back into focus for a moment. I could see his eyes, vivid and gray like new nickels. A kind of hush came over the church. Even the birds outside seemed to stop their chirping. Total silence descended. I implored the line of his mouth to fill it with sound.
And then, before I could take another breath, there it was: that slanted grin, that brightly curling smile. No noise, not a word. Simply the smile—the same one he’d beamed at me that night in the bedroom, at the dinner table, from the idling car. The same one I’d seen so many times on his face, on the face of my father. The same smile I wore now, kneeling on the hard church floor, grinning up at a ghost.
We stayed like that for an oddly frozen moment—it seemed timeless, eternal, but was probably only a couple of seconds—and then Tim turned and whistled for the spaniel, and it rose from its spot by the pulpit and trotted to his side. My brother waved and the dog gave a hollow bark, and then together they stepped through the doorway and were gone.
The other ghosts filed out then, in a cloudy curving line—Steven and Jeffrey and our cranky neighbor Cynthia Mix. At the doorway each vanished with a little fogburst and a sound like a pulled zipper, leaving a wake that smelled of woodsmoke and the sea. The rest of us stood and followed them out. The day was bright. Bells chimed from the steeple, gulls called to each other across the sky. It was a lovely afternoon.
Tom Lakin is a writer from Boston. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative, Pleiades, Ruminate, Pembroke Magazine, and Lunch Ticket, among others. He is the recipient of Pleiades’s 2018 G. B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction, and his work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Tom holds an MFA from Emerson College, where he was a full-tuition fellow.
There he was, as always, on the eve of her birthday.
She never expected him. Never dreamt of him, but there he was. As always, he was standing on the corner waiting for something—her perhaps—but she didn’t see him until she tripped, snagged her heel, rolled her ankle and fell slightly into him.
“Whoa! You okay!”
What’s the rush, buttercup?
Each time, his hands felt slightly different. Firm like a contractor. Gentle like a surgeon. Scarred from a fire. But with that first touch, all of their lives came flooding back to her. She remembered how he smelled of cinnamon on that morning in South Bend and how his nose crinkled when he laughed. She remembered the feeling of his fingers running through her wet hair on the shores of San Juan and the feeling of her knees buckling when the military police came to her door in the summer of ’42 to give her notification.
In this life, however, he was a piano player. After nearly rolling into an oncoming bus, he’d steadied her and offered to take her for a drink at a bar up the street. She stared into his eyes and saw their lives together. The last time they’d met, he was a newspaper editor with eyes the color of coffee mixed with cream. In that life she’d slipped her hand into his and they danced all night, his arms supporting the whole of her as she leaned in and smelled the familiarity of him.
In this life, she declined his offer for a drink.
Just one, he’d insisted, reminding her that he’d saved her life and the trauma was inevitable for them both. She laughed and agreed to just one. As he walked her towards the bar, she remembered their fourth life together. He’d written letter after letter from the frontline, until one day they stopped, becoming nothing more than yellowing pages tucked into some forgotten chest–memories of a distant time.
In one life he’d asked her to be his wife against her father’s wishes. She could still smell the gun smoke as her father took aim, and chased him from their front porch.
After losing him in New Orleans, she’d asked her mother if love always felt like inevitable loss. Her mother explained that the love within some souls is too powerful for this world and bringing them together can cause an explosion so forceful that these souls splinter off, leaving bits of themselves across time. These souls spend forever searching for their missing pieces—trying to make themselves and each other whole.
She followed him into the bar. It reminded her of the tavern in Northern Ireland where they’d drank whiskey until the sun rose over the southern border.
This piano player was the twelfth incarnation of him. Eleven lives that she remembered, all fighting to be recounted as she stared into his green eyes. He smiled at her and slipped behind the keyboard. Softly he began to play the song they’d danced to at their wedding—the one in the hills of Mississippi when her hair was twisted into braids and his eyes were as black as coal. She could almost taste their wedding cake as he tapped gently on those keys.
Do you believe in reincarnation? she’d asked one evening as they lay in their bed in Tehran. He smiled and said, Only if it means coming back to you each time.
And so they did. Each time they touched, she remembered. Eleven lives together. Eleven times loving him. Eleven times losing him. Not once did he remember her as that wide-eyed debutante, nor that rebellious poet. He didn’t see her as that jazz singer in Paris, nor that acclaimed scholar in East Berlin.
She swayed softly to their song, remembering the way his arms felt around her at their Junior Prom in Santa Cruz. She smiled at him. She had found him again. As she always had. Soon, she remembered, she would lose him. To war. To illness. To accident. Each time she would lose him.
She studied his face. The way his nose wrinkled and his lips curled back into a smile. She wasn’t sure if she could bear to lose him for the twelfth time. A long time ago, her mother had told her that when the soul is ready to heal, it finds a way. She wasn’t ready to let her soul be ripped from her again. She patted her pockets gently, searching for her keys—searching for her out.
The music lulled to a stop and he moved towards her, a flash of silver in his hands.
“You dropped these.”
She thanked him. Taking the keys from his hand, she excused herself—explaining that her friends were waiting for her at another bar. She would have to raincheck their drink.
“Of course,” he smiled and winked, “Maybe next lifetime.”
Tory Lord O’Neill is a Philadelphia-based writer. She is an alumnus of Temple University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She is currently pursuing a Certificate in Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. When she isn’t writing, Tory spends her time developing her blog (unheardheart.wordpress.com) and honing her witty rapport on Twitter (@1porcelaindoll).
Forty millennia, and more, originating worlds,
occasioning wines, wedges, plunder, and
( let’s guess, ) recovered and glassed, eyes around
taking in the cases, the cases seem too much,
the notes a reader takes, setting down the catalog,
seeing the slivers, flakes, flecks of stone,
imagining the sounds of stone already used to the inventing,
crying through the tools its need for preservation,
through the same rude calendars, imagine it, earlier,
ahead, as the snow begins another election cycle,
and a second round of it the wizard had not called for,
that delights to start, as an obscenity might, before
you notice where it’s going. But how, the first time
at the Diner, could we know, or say which desserts
would bring us back because they’d mattered, which
day-old paragraph or stanza might inspire, snow
to start, and words to re-set a calendar-specific tempo,
the snow continuing, despite the warmest winter
of the century, with the speaker’s unannounced, and
over-promised policies, whipped up by the robots
and the meaner-hearted grandpas, with notions of property,
sharpening a lingo to their uses, slices and flakes,
flickers an eye might be inclined to wager on—all
the more while this startling infancy takes over,
and this snow, that’s avoided Alliance half the winter,
as if this were only practicing, as conversations
turn to Gaza or Teheran, to Damascus then, or flying
out of Cairo, to the tools and tolls, the influences
peddled among presenters, delegates, as if perspective
were not enough, presumptions enough, or bargains
scaled to holidays, struck, or scaled back, and shared
among the closest intimates. Here, wider even
than conversation comes to be, the straw lidded basket,
situated for its colors, the inflatables, scaled back
admittedly, draw your eye from lights ahead, whatever
a home anticipates, and these low thirties families
know they’re getting up with, as Advent accumulates,
when an economy has its way, and, if not snow,
another Ohio Christmas anyway, sure of the frost
and air-borne messengers, of numbers set,
the mileage, the thermostats state-wide, deer-harvests
tallied finally, no less than the rumors, claiming
what’s to share or absent here, as the dreams extend,
beyond a lost third shift, and the GOP says
wait, pursuing its sad distractions and its saviors
into the new year, even
as the season, everywhere around them,
gives and must.
Robert Lietz’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Agni Review, Antioch Review, Carolina Quarterly, Colorado Review, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Poetry, and Shenandoah. Eight collections have been published, including Running in Place, At Park and East Division, The Lindbergh Half-century (L’Epervier Press), Storm Service, and After Business in the West (Basal Books). His poems have appeared in several webzines. Additionally, Lietz spends a good deal of time taking, post-processing, and printing photographs, examining the relationship between the image-making and the poems he is exploring.
DELTA 29: EVERY LEVEL A LINE, EVERY LINE A FISHERMAN’S NET BAG OF NO LONGERS.
by David Koehn
Wild blackberry bramble all along the edge. Himalaya? Or Cutleaf? Or Pacific? Thimbleberry?
Let me try again, what net?
We keep eating the fruit because the poison sweetens with age.
Another fuckin suicide.
Let me try again, I want a jar of fireflies stowed away in my chest
But the light resists secrecy, insists on the opposite of the private property
Sign on the gate we trespass on our walk to water. The light draws from out there
How time-tentacled arms tugged us towards tangled bramble. Slashed denim.
Blue t-shirt, ripped. Skin, torn. We ignore requests,
“What am I?” and “Do you not understand?” and “I have brought you here.” and “I offer my fruit so consider me in full…”
Five ragged leaves pentacle off each stem. Not a California blackberry but a Himalayan.
Because Luther Burbank brought the tangle here, we visit his Gold Ridge Farm in Sebastopol.
The Blue Heron floats the log, wading time as passers-by pass by.
Look away, look back, and John is gone. Fear feeling excited about anything that hasn’t happened yet.
All the time? Colonized wasteland, we green when we red.
How many fortune cookies have no fortune inside?
How did the Himalayan get to the Werner Dredge Cut?
Let me try again, after John’s suicide, Kitty wrote, “If love was enough, John would have lived forever.”
Why weave the crown of thorns from blackberry brambles?
Let me try again, “Moonlight is sunlight” said Bay. Meaning, I don’t know.
The John Show: a revenge crystal that holds the robot together.
The John Show: a series of nets woven together with invisible lines.
What we love is the drupelets mesocarp. As only a rose not a rose might fruit:
The detailed study of how to stem a thicket. When picked the torus stays with the fruit.
Let me try again, October is Praying Mantis season.
[Shake your head left and right.]
Let me try again, October is Walking Stick season.
In November, John commits suicide.
Or as I want to believe, as some conspiracy against his honesty, the demons offed him.
The error treats the past as the present
And the present like the past; the last like the pheasant, and the last like plastic,
And the fast like resentment.
“Seeds, grains, and grasses,” said Rebecca.
Seeds, grains and grasses. I should be picking the fourth movement in a quartet of erasures for Rebecca.
Wild burros in the Mojave ask how long will this take?
Seven minutes and seventeen seconds. Ericka changed me.
The sun has set. Bay, my son, has pending darkness on his mind “Why don’t moths fly toward the moon?”
I ask, why is every story a love story.
“There’ll be lots of time and wine
Red yellow honey, sassafras, and moonshine.”
Remember that time we all lived in the woods together?
We never left. We argue one thing, said coherency,
Not yet said another form, as if a
critical eye isn’t a blind spot. The more you know, the larger the blind spot.
Burbank married twice, divorced his first wife, no heart survives.
When his teeth clenched
The aggregate and the blood-colored flavor stained his lips and trickled down the inside of his bottom lip
And under his tongue. Let me try again,
What are the chances five people will shed a tear five years after your death?
What lit up in him? Berry sweetness marked by a dandelion-savory tinge to the nectar.
A few of John’s drawings lined up on the shelf,
I walk to the bookcase to look at them again:
Bobo Dylan; an animation of a translation of Catullus’s Odi et Amo; a naked woman composed of a single line.
The story of Reynir Örn Leósson, Beyond Strength, contains all the similes.
People? A distracted consciousness on a keyword search.
No narrative will tell a story you care about.
Listen to the parse
For the cricket that occupies soot. John’s pocket. No solid you.
One of the frustrations. What we had. You can’t swim, if the shore, grab the cane or drown?
If you haven’t noticed, people think they are a lot smarter than they think they are.
My job? To make the irresistible revolutionary. Hey let’s put on some Elvis,
How about “A Little Less Conversation” so we can shake our hips and sing
Wrap ourselves in tinfoil, tuck our balls behind our taint.
Let me try again,
“Come on baby I’m tired of talking, grab your coat and let’s start walking…”
Please order me an Andreas Englund print “Sitting” and “Tripping” in particular.
All the conjunctions.
Ask the next person you see, “ask the next person you see ‘what has changed’?”
Every level a line, every line a fisherman’s net bag of no longers.
The love of Sol Lewitt’s life? These are your instructions,
Write a set of instructions for a set of instructions again.
Drawings of helmets with 6 words underneath, look underneath, there is worth in a life lived without love —
Emptiness in one lived full of it.
What did Bruce Lee say? This cup is useful because it is empty. I used his dream to write this.
I used to dream these lines and now I am writing them. The hands went missing.
Every flavor, like all kinds of music,
Tells your lovers, the rules are the rules, stop looking in the dark, turn the lights on.
A daughter’s obsession with serial killers. I was raised in mental health institutions.
We reached into the thicket, late in the season, the edible blackberries buried deep in the maws of the ragged canes.
What damaged John damaged me but why do I get to live?
But I could say the same about you. Let me try again,
We have concluded the worst thing we can do is sleep with each other.
What does this tell me about our sense of injustice?
I do not stand opposed to your idea, I stand in favor of mine.
I can’t be good all the time …
Who new uncontrolled hiccups can cause heart failure and death?
And all the painters singing “you, you, you, you.” Don’t mistake prickles for thorns.
When asked, look. When seen, listen. Anthony Bourdain is making his rounds.
According to Wikipedia, Burbank’s fruit varietals included
113 plums and prunes, 35 fruiting cactus, 16 blackberries — including our Himalayan varietal
13 raspberries, — 11 quinces, — 11 plumcots, — 10 cherries, — 10 strawberries, —10 apples,
8 peaches, — 6 chestnuts, — 5 nectarines, — 4 grapes, — 4 pears, — 3 walnuts, — 2 figs
On the drive across death valley, the wild burros face into the wind, as if the wash of sand
Across their face into their nose was nothing but pleasure.
Let me try again, after the first attempt, brain dead for five days, he left something
Elsewhere as with everything lost can only be found by returning to where it was lost.
Let me try again, the pluck of the blackberry eaten from the bramble that poisons the landscape. Not the eating.
Let me try again, in Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” off of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession
The piano leaps to the words in her voice but can’t reach them. What bird?
David Koehn’s first full-length manuscript, Twine, available from Bauhan Publishing, won the 2013 May Sarton Poetry Prize. In 2017 he released Compendium (Omnidawn Publishing), a collection of Donald Justice’s notes on prosody. David’s second full-length collection, Scatterplot, is due out from Omnidawn Publishing in 2020. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Rhino, Volt, Carolina Quarterly, Diagram, McSweeney’s, The Greensboro Review, North American Review, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, and other places.
The patient is nervous. He should be. His renal allograft is new, he has an infection and his immune system is compromised. It’s a bad combination. But I’m going to be positive. I’ll emphasize that he is getting better, his white blood cell count is in decline, he seems to be eating and he isn’t coughing. I intend to be reassuring, cautiously optimistic. He’ll be looking for optimism.
His room is in the new hospital tower overlooking Mt. Talbert, which is basically a small hill covered in Douglas Firs. It’s painted an off colored beige, not what I would have chosen, but it wasn’t my decision. There’s a nice window with a decent view of the Douglas Firs. Nothing fancy—this isn’t a hotel—but it’s pleasant enough if you’re sick. I enter the room. We exchange pleasantries. I listen to his heart and lungs, feel the squishiness of his new kidney and ask him some meaningless questions. It’s all a warm up. I’m really here to have the talk. “Your condition is bad, but it will probably get better… Probably.” I try and discuss cautiously-optimistic hard truths, which is pretty much as muddled up as it sounds, but I can tell he’s clinging to the positive parts and failing to hear any of the caution.
Then I see it. It’s sitting on the window ledge outside the room. Big carrion beak, bright red head and flesh-tearing talons. Right there. Ten feet away. Beautiful in the way only natural things can be beautiful.
For a couple seconds I stare. I realize the patient hasn’t seen it. He’s looking at me, not the window. It dawns on me that if he sees a buzzard sitting on his window sill, our conversation won’t be inspiring the kind of cautious optimism I’m trying to relay. I immediately revert my gaze to the patient and make direct eye contact. People don’t look away when you are looking directly at them.
In my peripheral vision I can see the big bird standing on the window sill. I won’t look at it, lest the patient follow my gaze. It’s hard. This is a National Geographic moment. The bird is just standing there, not moving. I try and focus on the conversation and make some big hand gestures to get the bird to fly away. It remains unfazed.
Voltaire said, “The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient until nature cures the disease.” He was a little harsh, but basically correct. I’m an entertainer. A ringmaster in a white coat. The “art” in medicine is learning to accept the futility of it. Death and disease come for all, doctors be damned. Sick or well, there is always a vulture waiting, just outside the window.
Micah L. Thorp is a physician and writer in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Operation Honeybee and Handbook of Common Problems in Clinical Nephrology. He works as a clinical nephrologist, as VP of Business Affairs for Northwest Permanente and as a researcher in predictive analytics. His hardest (and best) job is raising three teenage boys.
ON THE MYSTERIOUS NOISE OUT OF VIEW OF THE BEDROOM WINDOW
by Anne Price
I’ve decided it’s pigeons, not squirrels or worse,
responsible for the ruckus—
pigeons and some kind of metal fencing,
chain link, jangling under what must be
a half dozen of them every morning doing
who knows what. Rabid copulation?
Is some perverse neighbor dangling feed
just out of their reach? Whatever it is, it finishes
for all of them at once. On turkey hunts,
my father liked to point out dust bowls,
having me kneel to see, his hand just
skimming the bowl’s lip, where a tom had rolled itself
clean, where the stiff-spined wing feathers
and hooked spurs had brushed and scored the dirt
as if needing to mark the place
red earth stops being earth.
He never wanted to disturb what they’d done.
He loved how he could see and not see
the bird in abandon, like the painting of Bacchus
that looks more like an imprint
of revelry than actual sex: broad blue
and grey brushstrokes implying the pile of naked bodies
and the god they prop up,
drunk and potbellied, proud to the point
of glee at what he’s made.
That’s the story. But all I could see in the museum
was a figure contorted to wrench himself
from all that flesh, the groin
twisting into the distended gut, the hands
bearing down from tensed shoulders;
and on top, where the paintbrushes
must have been the most furious,
the whitened head
like something scratched at, frenzied
as a fistful of birds, birds in all their racket—
Lord knows where I’m from, we’d march out back
in the name of mercy and shoot them.
Anne Price was born and raised in southern Louisiana but now lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she enjoys hiking. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Poet Lore, SWWIM Every Day, and The Pinch. She has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
A CHAMELEON IS A LIZARD IS A CONSTELLATION IS AN INCONSTANT PERSON
by Lauren Jacquish
slathered on eyes damned eyes,
to sit across from this man
praised for handling his bossy woman so well− myshe-ro, my sister. I see Tammy Wynette.
We’re slamming wine. We’re laughing.
I’m globbing it on thick. Blurring memory: his hands
robotic extensions groping me awake shudder
his stupid face his stupid easy chair−
When I woke to it that night, all I said was, You need to go to bed.
I may have rubbed forgiveness on too soon.
Manic let me make this easy on you all
martyring thanksgiving forgiveness-turkey,
aching and incomplete
I spread forgiveness on toast.
Mother’s Day, I pet his child’s head and lie, Yes, it is fun that we’re all together.
I keep my head down, butter the knife.
This is an art you see, never looking him in the eye.
Can he hear me thinking we’d all be better off if he just−
This is my forgiveness-shield. It deflects
arrows. They ricochet like flukes like pardon me.
It becomes like nothing
to hold up my arms turn this way and that
to forgive and forgive.
Forgiving makes me a contortionist:
Pay two bucks to see my shoulders turn inward
hip-points turn inward. The Human Clam
guards the heart breasts sex-power-root of the spine.
I’ve become something of a forgiveness-cave world wonder.
Don’t touch anything
don’t even breathe
lest fungus take hold damage the delicate forgiveness-façade.
In fact stay out spelunkers walk out backwards
seal the openings and don’t tell anyone what you’ve found.
I want to say forgive me as women often do
for asking you to leave, for being inhospitable, for being silent.
Lauren Jacquish is an editor, writer, and musician based in High Bridge, New Jersey. She works in early childhood education, is an English/Women’s and Gender Studies/Creative Writing graduate of Douglass at Rutgers University and holds an MFA from Arcadia University. She enjoys singing, dancing, and making terrariums with her kid. She is never going to die.
DEAR ZUCK, I THINK WE ARE GOING TO MAKE IT THROUGH THIS
by Graham Oliver
death of a pet
coping with death of pet
where to take pet body
where to take pet corpse
can i bury my pet in a public park
affordable pet cremation
what to do with pet ashes
what to do with pet ashes
planting a tree at a public park
rivers near me
big lebowski ashes scene
what to do with pet ashes
are cremation ashes edible
are pet ashes edible
whole wheat bread recipes
Graham Oliver lives and teaches near Austin, Texas. His book reviews, interviews, and essays have previously appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Ploughshares‘ blog, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Fiction and an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from Texas State University. You can find him on Twitter @grahammoliver.
Because of the D.C. sniper, I get my first cell phone. A Nokia with impossibly small buttons. When I look up, my parents’ smiles are even faker than the ones in family photos. I’m twelve. Old enough to know they want me to be able to call for help. Last year was 9/11. We live sixteen miles from the Pentagon, and the CIA is around the corner. Since 9/11 we hold our breaths when we drive past Langley. Everyone’s afraid that’s next. But we’re wrong. This year some guy is shooting kids for sport.
My middle school changes its protocol. We’re not allowed outside. We play board games inside for recess. P.E. is in the gym. We get on buses to leave, but once they drop us off, we have to find somewhere indoors if no one’s arrived yet. The woman organizing my carpool tells us to hide out in Popeyes if she’s late. The other adults agree. We’re like chicks being herded, peeping, one wrong move away from the fryer.
We get used to it: staying indoors, looking over our shoulders, avoiding white box vans and listening for the sound of a car backfiring. We don’t huddle together. It’d only make us a bigger target. We stay home and watch TV. Call each other and make plans for when this is all over. The radio in Mom’s car says it hasn’t even been a full month, but it feels like forever.
Then one day they catch the guys. They weren’t in a white box van, after all. I don’t listen to the news. There’s no sense in killing people pumping gas. Nothing to be learned. I play Snake on my phone. We go back to soccer practice. Wait at the bus stop for our parents. We don’t get murdered. We’re lucky.
My mother says she needs to pick up something and parks at the edge of a Home Depot lot. There’s a hardware store down the street from our house. I don’t know why we’re all the way out here. It’s late afternoon, but it’s winter so it’s dark already. She tells me the sniper shot someone here, that she died on her way in. The shadows created by the overhang become sharper. I can just picture an ordinary woman running an errand and disappearing from the world in a pool of her own blood. This is what the sniper gave me.
My mother hasn’t moved. She takes a breath, a moment, and sits still. Her face is impassive. I can’t see fear or excitement or anything beyond an unfamiliar blankness. I reach out and feel her frozen fingers like individual icicles. Each colder than the last. The windows fog until the outside world is obscured, immense and unknowable. We can only see what’s right in front of us.
Chelsea Stickle writes flash fiction that appears in Jellyfish Review, Five on the Fifth, Crack the Spine, formercactus, Hypnopomp, and Occulum. She’s a reader for Cease, Cows and lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George. Find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.
“Country life has its advantages,” he used to say. “You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good. . . and there are gooseberries.”
― Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries
1. A barn owl croons across these drunken hills and every song inebriates. The world stumbles, sinks in sleep at a magic spell, strewn, until the sun-god again snaps its burnished tendrils and wakes the earth with shine. Just as literature is language charged with meaning (Ezra Pound), rural is expanse charged with life.
2. There’s black ice on this road, so-called because of its ability to blend in; we can’t see it. My vehicle slides sideways, is going slow enough, no harm done. Two cars behind me inch along after watching my shenanigans; they can’t be far from home this far from anywhere else. Curiosity is our greatest gift, and mystery our greatest frustration. Maybe it’s time for a horse. Something needs to curtail this unquenchable desire to drive through every construction site and quarry, every snowy field, road and ditch, alongside every river. When God made Jeeps, it forced the hand of the trespasser in all of us.
3. A flicker jabs the suet block between glances toward the sky and behind itself. I have it easy, but it’s the stress that kills. A life of hard work with little stress is preferred over an easy one with trouble and worry. Granny worked every day of her life beginning at age eleven in the cottonfields of Arkansas, moved constantly, but seemed to worry little about world problems or the state of the economy. She lived to ninety-five and died in stark oblivion.
4. Ships’ captains knew how to read the heavens. Sunstones filtered sunlight on cloudy days and provided solar direction. The Vikings may have first used crystals to navigate. On any given Sunday, these Episcopals talk about spiritual formation. Fraction anthems. Sanctus. New terms which force me to think, which is a good thing for people in general. I make a note to bring a dictionary next time. A ringing bell, the sign of the cross, more new words, give and take a robe or two. They know what they’re doing, but I get lost in a place where finding is key.
5. Cattle hail, a valley firms, the stream flows thin, this view is thick. Fields and farms and forms of fields and farms of fields and forming farms. Tangerine sunset, fuchsia glow rimmed in blue and snow. I know. I always know. There is no sky I haven’t seen, no brush-stroked lid atop earth’s vault. This isn’t no, this yes on yes.
6. A rattling sound emanates from the base of the lilac bush near the back door. Fearing the worst, I call my farmer over along with the neighbor he’s talking to. “Jesus Christ!” the neighbor says, seeing the snake and hearing the rattle. “I really don’t think that’s Jesus in there,” my farmer replies phlegmatically.
In 1999 in southeastern Missouri, the fields grew rocks suitable for raising mangy cattle, and in the flooded lowlands, rice. Near St. Francis, a retirement home had been built, spacious grounds and a swimming pool. Sometime after, the surrounding land was sold, and rice paddies put in. The irrigation began, and the snakes, especially cottonmouths, but copperheads and rattlers too, were drawn to the water. The owners stepped out of their house one morning to snakes on their driveway, in their yard, and in their pool, and the snakes were there to stay.
7. The electricity has gone out. Like some kind of Amish keeper of the home, I light three hurricane lamps purchased for nights like this, and crack the windows an inch or so. Woodswoman Anne LaBastille would often sleep naked in the woods next to a nearby lake. Her cabin, the place she loved best, was an example of minimalism: no phone, electricity, or heat except from wood she chopped herself. I may be a kind of hero for trying something new.
8. “You remember that you love me,” I tell my farmer. “Is it what you wanted?” he asks. Love is common, I say, but hate is where we think. I tell him I hate an absent sunrise and a forgotten sunset. I hate an abusive imprint on a natural world. I hate lying, liars, libel, and belittling. I hate absolutely nothing about this day, for every second is precious. And to those who care too much: we can only hope. He smiles and invites me in.
9. Something strange is happening. There’s that orange wall. And it’s hard to trust someone who smiles after being punched in the face. It’s the middle of the night, the world’s anger feels ridiculous, life’s stresses gasp for air, and a Big Sky Kahuna seems to lay behind it all. But I could be wrong; I’m writing in the dark.
10. The sheep cry for attention, and the sky for a viewing. I give and give, worn to the frayed end of my rope, yet wonder if it’s ever enough. Sometimes we think we’re one big light in the darkness. We think our words are saving the world. But a dim bulb at dawn or dusk does little to dispel the indifference and fear we’ve dragged along our journey, and words from a broken keyboard are always missing something. No matter that the universe beyond our itsy bitsy sphere feels shy and indifferent. No matter at all. Every single caring act we give or receive, every word that lifts up, defines a miracle.
German-born Chila Woychik has lived in the American Midwest most of her life. She has been published by Passages North, Cimarron, Portland Review, and other journals. She’s the recipient of writing awards from Emrys Foundation and Red Savina Review. She’s also the founding editor at Eastern Iowa Review and is seeking a home for her first hybrid essay collection. Her most impressive role thus far has been as Grandma. www.chilawoychik.com.
Leaning like a chiaroscuro,
a man outside a bodega says, You only get one mother.
I want my skin to be better.
Eileen Myles says: That’s so gay, and I fantasize
about plant tattoos,
consider the best body
for a dandelion. Nothing
compares to pain.
………..But Lluvia, at a wedding in Vermont—
She tells her mother she can be patient,
getting her diapers changed. Paciencia, she chatters, paciencia.
My hair is blue, and outside
everyone thinks I am competent.
Emily, I don’t want a child.
Sophie Herron received an MFA in poetry from NYU, where they were a Goldwater Fellow. They work at the 92nd Street Y’s Poetry Center and live in Brooklyn with their cat. Their poetry can be found in Bodega.
Every night, we listen
to his favorite songs.
The kind of music you
want to hear when your country
is at peace, but you’re told to dig
a grave in the desert sand
anyway. The kind of music
that might come from a parked
car whose window you are told
to shatter with the butt
of a black flashlight.
No flashlight. No north star.
I paint myself black and wait for him
with the lights off.
He enters with a girl dressed
in red lace.
In the darkest corner of my shadow
he undresses her with the tip
of an admiral’s sword.
She makes a noise like a flute
caught in a typhoon.
As he comes, he begs to see her
in the moonlight, so I open my eyes—
The earth makes no mistakes.
Caught in the headlights, a deer’s shadow
bolts for the woods.
He says our bodies must be
malleable, like water.
……….I was foolish then.
When he swam through it late at night, the surface of the Pacific was like hundreds
of silk blankets. ………………………He stripped them away …………frantically.
……………………Looking for what?
I filled my lungs with water.
I sang songs I did not understand.
I bathed in the low tide, hoping
he would find me.
This is not the life I was given.
One night, he walks into his house
carrying three portraits, all men.
On the stereo, a woman begs
a man’s forgiveness to a beat
that makes the floors tremble.
In the pitch black, he lays the photos
on the floor next to each other
scratches each man’s eyes out
with a knife and each time
they reappear—the whites of their eyes
growing brighter and brighter. Furious
he puts his knife through the stereo
but the woman’s voice only grows
louder, more desperate.
I don’t know what becomes of a slave
when he falls asleep
under his master’s gaze.
There is the fear
that he will talk in his sleep,
that he will dream of escape.
In the backseat of his car, I wrapped the fingers of my left hand around my right thumb as if I knew I would leave him.
Dream of being hunted, they say, and your feet will twitch.
He told me I whispered in my sleep an indecipherable language.
Dream of freedom, they say, and you will wake gasping for air
clutching a wingless falcon to your chest.
Simon Shieh is a poet and educator. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Spittoon Literary Magazine, which translates and publishes the best new Chinese writers into English. Simon’s work appears or is forthcoming in Spillway, Grist, The Journal, Passages North, BOOTH, Moon City Review, and Rivet, among other publications.
In the summer of 2016, the cicadas returned. More accurately, a new brood of seventeen-year cicadas, conceived and hatched in 1999, during the previous cicada summer, emerged. Underground, they’d slept undisturbed through the new millennium, the September 11th terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and our first Black president’s inauguration. The cicadas were suspended in time as if cryogenically frozen, but I grew—eight years old when the cicadas had last cried, and almost twenty-six when they reemerged. The cicadas had been unchanged by time, but I’d menstruated at thirteen, fell in love three or four times (I could never decide), graduated from college and graduate school, moved to West Virginia, and settled into what probably appeared to be a stable relationship with Jeremy, a kind, home-owning man who bored me to death.
That summer—like the cicadas—I, too, longed to burst from the earth.
In late May, my friend Emily and I visited our other friend Claire in Athens, a college town in southeastern Ohio. The cicadas had just surfaced. We’d met in graduate school several years before. Emily and I had moved away, but Claire remained, finishing her PhD and living in her bungalow nestled in the Athens hills. She rented the bungalow from a grizzled old man named Wolfie. He owned the Smiling Skull Saloon on West Union Street. The Skull had a reputation for being a rough biker bar, but Wolfie was a caring, attentive landlord. He gave Claire a jar of spiced peaches he’d canned himself. We ate them over buckwheat pancakes with honeyed goat cheese. He told her that if she ever found pot still growing in the garden, she could smoke whatever she picked. Wolfie had even offered Claire discounted rent if she agreed to be a barmaid at the Skull. She told me she was still considering taking the job.
Summers in Athens had always been sticky and slow, and this one was no exception. Although students graduated each spring and new wide-eyed, round-faced freshmen arrived to replace them, the town seemed largely unchanged since I’d moved away. O’Bettys was still the best place in town to eat a chili dog at 2:00 a.m. The same townies filled the bars I’d frequented, nodding at me when we locked eyes in passing. It was comforting—to be remembered even after I was gone.
For the past year and a half, I’d feigned enthusiasm with Jeremy, but now I began to recoil at his touch. He had no idea what he was doing in bed—how to make me shiver with pleasure. And I’d grown weary of trying to teach him. The last time, as I’d ridden him joylessly (for exactly five minutes), I knew I could never let him touch me again. And I’d begun to feel restless, enjoying the attention when I noticed men in the Athens bars staring at me. I knew I needed to break things off with Jeremy before he asked me to marry him and I said yes, simply because I didn’t know what else to do.
On Claire’s front porch, I swatted mosquitos and swigged from a bottle of cheap prosecco. A large tree across the street appeared to be dancing, its branches were so thick with throngs of red-eyed cicadas. I stared at the tree, mesmerized by the thousands of bodies, stunned by their raucous song. My own body seemed to buzz along with them; I felt their music in my bones.
“They’re so gross!” Emily whined.
“I kind of like them,” I said, shrugging.
“Why?” Claire asked. “I can’t think with all their noise.”
I joked that I admired cicadas because they struck me as the ultimate misanthropes, hiding underground to escape the world’s cruelty and noise. Clearly, Emily and Claire disagreed. “Well, they’re not here for very long, so I’m just trying to enjoy them,” I said, fixing my eyes on the cicada-ravaged tree once more. “They’re like magic.”
Emily shot me a look of disgust.
But cicadas were magical; their scientific name even confirms it: Magicicada. For a few glorious weeks, these cicadas would finally feel the sun’s warmth, alighting in the sky, and mating with hundreds of partners. And then they would die—some by bird, some crushed beneath an indifferent human’s shoe. The lucky ones would simply mate until they were spent from the great effort.
The tree across the street from Claire’s bungalow still swarmed with cicadas. In seventeen years, I knew I wouldn’t stand on this porch in Athens. Some other university student likely would, cheap beer in hand, and if the tree was still standing, perhaps they’d take in the spectacle as I had. I hoped Claire, Emily, and I would all still be in each other’s lives, even if we were divided by long stretches of highway.
On Claire’s front porch, I knew the cicadas would soon stop their singing, and I’d sweep their corpses by the dozens from my back steps in West Virginia. But beneath the ground, the next magic cicadas would slumber. This new brood will surface, as nymphs, in 2033. Emily, Claire, and I will all be in our early forties then. What will be the shape of our lives? Will we be professors, writers, wives, mothers? Will we be happy? Would I find the courage to break things off with Jeremy? The prospect of passing seventeen dull years with him chilled me. Under the merciless sun, my cotton dress clinging to my sweaty body, I felt properly alive for the first time in a while, as though I had just stirred—awakened red-eyed—from a seventeen-year-long sleep.
Kat Saunders lives in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, where she works as an assistant editor at the Kent State University Press. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from West Virginia University in 2018. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Harpur Palate, Into the Void, Belt Magazine, and other publications.
Children always follow the mother. That’s what my mother always used to say. And it was true for my sister Kelly and me. Every time our worlds fell apart, we would end up in our mother’s kitchen, washing the dishes and sitting at her pockmarked table until light returned to the world, sometimes just at its edges. Even after so many years, what my mother said was still true. How else could I explain why I visited my mother every day once she moved into a nursing home? How else could I explain why my oldest daughter, April, followed me there too, coming every day after her twelve-hour shift ended and refilling my mother’s cup with water and thickener so she wouldn’t choke? We took turns, the two of us, stirring the pureed food the underpaid dining staff delivered on plates, adjusting my mother’s legs on the pillow we propped under them, and righting her head that, lately, seemed too heavy for her neck.
What my mother’s adage didn’t explain, however, was why my youngest daughter, Caitlin, had decided to move three states away to go back to school and really invest in her work as an artist. Caitlin would say that she moved away because her therapist, Rebecca, said she needed to start making decisions for herself for a change, but who knows. What Rebecca said to my daughter in the privacy of her vanilla and cinnamon scented office was doctor-patient privilege, so I don’t know if any of that was true.
“Do you think I should call Caitlin?” I asked April. She was spooning pureed turkey into my mother’s mouth, opening her mouth wide as if to demonstrate. “She looks worse today, don’t you think?”
“She looks fine,” April said, scraping a spill from my mother’s chin and bringing it back for a second try.
Before the nursing home, I barely saw my mother. She was always out of town or busy running errands or hiking in the woods or, toward the end, letting the phone ring and ring forever without picking up. But all it took to finally convince me that she needed help was one surprise visit and a hole burned through the door of her microwave. When I asked her what had happened, she said she didn’t know, that she lost a few days in there somewhere.
The decision was easy after that. It was easier having her here where I knew she was being taken care of. Plus I could see her whenever I wanted, which very quickly became every day, partly out of guilt and partly because I liked making her room feel like home, lugging bins of seasonal decorations into the nursing home every few months and sitting with her during craft time so she wasn’t so alone.
Craft time was my favorite time. After a few years in the nursing home, my mother had stopped participating, but I would still cut out the orange leaves and pink hearts and blue eggs and spread the backs of whatever holiday-themed shapes we were making with glue so that all my mother had to do was hold them in her hand and stick them just about anywhere. Most of the residents left their art projects on the table when they were done, but I took each of the things my mother made home. I lined them up in every room, until, eventually, my house was full of snowmen made from painted tomato cans and turkey headbands cut into the shape of my mother’s hands.
I didn’t know why April couldn’t see what I saw—how my mother’s physical state was getting worse every day—but it was the thing we fought about the most. Some days I asked April more than once if she thought today was the day, if I should call Caitlin and tell her to come home, because it was really happening this time, wasn’t it? My mother was really dying.
“She’s still eating,” April said. “People who are dying don’t eat three meals a day.”
“She’s barely eating,” I said, which was partly true, because she had been losing weight consistently ever since she moved into the home, even though she sometimes devoured an entire plate of dessert without ever seeming to chew. The other day April brought a chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s that my mother sucked down without stopping to breathe.
But the next day the nurse handed me my mother’s weekly report and it said she had lost 2.7 pounds.
“That’s almost half a pound a day,” I said to April when she arrived, holding the paper out like some sort of proof. “I’m calling your sister.”
“Fine,” April said, tossing the report on the radiator. “But she’s not going to come.”
“Why wouldn’t she come?”
“It’s mid-terms,” April said. “She’s busy.”
April didn’t have to remind me how busy Caitlin was. Every night I scrolled through the column of unanswered text messages on my phone that I had sent her in the weeks since we last spoke. Some nights I would calculate the time in between timestamps like a checkbook that wouldn’t balance.
“She’ll come,” I said, lifting a forkful of mashed peas to my mother’s mouth. She kept her mouth firmly shut.
“Here,” April said, bringing a spoonful of cherry pie to my mother’s mouth, and my mother’s blue eyes widened when she wrapped her lips around it.
It had been fewer than twenty-four hours since I called Caitlin and left a message telling her that this was it, that she needed to come, and then there she was, standing in the doorway to my mother’s room while April changed her sheets, looking too afraid to come in.
“Mom?” she said. It wasn’t that long ago that Caitlin called me “Mommy,” but when she started seeing Rebecca every Tuesday at 1 p.m. that all changed.
I rushed over to her and wrapped my arms around her full waist. “You still smell the same,” I said, burying my nose in her neck. Caitlin always smelled like line-dried laundry and a specific kind of fabric softener that I never could find. One Saturday I spent an entire afternoon in the detergent aisle, unscrewing caps and trying to find the one that smelled exactly like her.
Caitlin pulled away.
“Mom,” she said. “Please.”
I stepped back.
“How’s grandma?” she asked.
I gestured toward my mother who was sitting in her chair, more shriveled and frail, I thought, than ever before. Last week they determined she was a fall risk, which meant now there was a cord clipped to her shirt that sounded an alarm every time she tried to stand. “Doesn’t she look terrible?”
Caitlin didn’t say anything. She took a step into the room.
“Hi, Grandma,” she said.
“She can’t hear you from there,” April said, waving Caitlin over to stand by her side.
It was rare to see April and Caitlin together. How long had it been? Four months? Five years? That was probably my fault. Wasn’t everything the mother’s fault? I imagine that’s what Rebecca said in her sessions with Caitlin, even though she didn’t know that it was really because of the age difference—seven years—that they were so distant. That and the fact that they had spent so much of their lives living apart. They were never close like my sister and I had been. Until the day she died, Kelly and I were inseparable, inextricable.
I didn’t know what was worse: thinking about how much better my sister would have been at caring for my mother if she were still alive, or thinking about how much my mother would have preferred to be cared for by my sister. It was true, I was sure of it, because on the rare days that my mother spoke, she always called me by my sister’s name.
“I’m not Kelly,” I’d say loudly in her ear. “I’m Laura. Kelly died, remember?”
One time, when I was running late, I found April and my mother in the reading room, talking up a storm.
“Remember that time we drove to Syracuse in that snowstorm?” I heard my mother say. Except it hadn’t been April she had driven with, it had been Kelly.
“I do,” April said, putting her face close to my mother’s.
“What was that play you were in?” My mother squinted her eyes and tried to remember.
I walked over to them quickly and put an end to it.
“April, stop it,” I said. “She thinks you’re Kelly.”
“So?” April said.
“So you’re confusing her.”
“What does it matter as long as she’s talking?”
Caitlin had always reminded me of Kelly in so many ways, which was why it confused me to see her like that, still standing in the doorway to my mother’s bedroom, still refusing to come any closer.
“Don’t be such a baby,” April said, pushing Caitlin toward my mother. “It’s just Grandma.”
Caitlin arrived just before arts and crafts time, which was perfect, because almost every day I told Rhonda, the woman who ran afternoon activities, that my daughter was a painter and that she probably got it from my mother, because would you look—just look—at the amazing work she did today.
It amazed me, really, how talent could be passed down like that: the smallest inkling of artistic ability in my mother making its way down through Kelly, who became an actress, and then into Caitlin, whose work I hadn’t seen in person lately but always liked when she posted a picture of it on Instagram. Artistic talent must be some sort of recessive gene, because instead of blue eyes and blonde hair, Caitlin inherited the ability to make sense of the world in a way that April and I never had. Sometimes it seemed like Caitlin was living a version of my mother’s life—or maybe Kelly’s—that she couldn’t anymore: traveling to France and Florence and some place in Germany—or was it Holland?—to study the thing that she loved. At least that’s what I told myself every time I felt that sick feeling, picturing Caitlin’s body so far away from mine or suspended over an ocean for eight hours at a time.
Rhonda was standing in the middle of the room, the tables arranged in a large square around her so that all of the residents could hear and see as she explained the day’s project.
“Rhonda,” I said, waving her over as April wheeled my mother into the room. “This is my daughter, Caitlin. The one I’ve been telling you about.”
“Oh, the painter!” she said, leaning across the table to shake Caitlin’s hand.
“Actually,” Caitlin said, “I’m a printmaker.”
“It’s sort of like a painter,” I said quickly. “She paints things, but just on plates.”
“Like dinner plates?” Rhonda asked.
April was pushing my mother over to the far side of the table where there was space for us to sit.
“No,” Caitlin said. “Not like that at all.”
I didn’t know why Caitlin was being so difficult, but sometimes she got like that, defensive of her art and her decision to go back to school and the specifics of how she spent her time as an artist. I blamed her father, really, who was always talking to her about her work as if it were a hobby.
“Are you really still doing that art stuff?” he apparently asked the last time she visited him in Boston. After that, she told me later, she couldn’t see him anymore.
“You know how dad is. If it isn’t something that contributes to a capitalist society, it isn’t real work. Until he can respect how I choose to live my life, I can’t respect him.”
If you asked me, that sounded like something Rebecca would have said, not Caitlin, but when she reported the conversation back to me, I did my best to be supportive, nodding my head and telling her of course she was right.
“That’s just like your father,” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder and rubbing the curve of her collarbone.
Rhonda was back in the center of the tables, holding up a carton of hardboiled eggs. “Today,” she paused for effect, “we’re going to have an Easter egg hunt!” She brought the egg carton close to each of the residents. “But first we need to paint our eggs.”
“Did you hear that, Caitlin?” I asked. “Painting Easter eggs.”
“Mom,” she said. “We’re Jewish.” She pulled one of the chairs back from the table so that she was sitting outside of the circle.
“It’s still painting,” I said. “Come closer. Come sit next to Grandma.”
Caitlin shook her head and stayed where she was. She was watching Darlene then, the woman who always refused to sit still during craft time and would wheel herself around the room aimlessly with her feet. That day she had gotten herself stuck in the corner and was calling out, over and over again, “Help, help, help, help, help.”
April was on the other side of my mother, holding an egg close to her face and speaking softly into her ear. “What color should we paint these, Grandma?”
“Green,” my mother said, the word catching in her throat so that it sounded more like a groan.
“That’s Darlene,” I said comfortingly to Caitlin. “If you try to help her, she’ll just wind up back in the corner in a matter of minutes.”
Caitlin kept staring.
“First things first!” Rhonda called. “We have to get our brushes wet!” She demonstrated dipping the brush in a Dixie cup.
“Here, Mom,” I said, bringing the cup of water to her brush so that she wouldn’t miss. April had already wet it, though, the oval of green watercolor paint already a puddle. April was always jumping ahead during activity hour, letting my mother start before all the other residents had their supplies or not following the directions so that she ended up with an Easter bandana instead of a bonnet.
“Let Caitlin help,” I said, pushing April’s hand away. I leaned toward my mother and raised my voice. “Caitlin is a PAIN-TER, Mom. A PAIN-TER. Can you believe that? Another artist in the FAM-I-LY.”
“Why are you talking to her like that?” Caitlin asked from behind me.
“Honey, she can’t hear,” I said.
“No, I know she can’t hear,” she said. “But she’s not stupid.”
I stared at her for a second and then turned back around so fast, I spilled the green water across the table.
“I’ll get it,” April said, getting up for paper towels, but Rhonda was already there with a rag.
She picked up the cup and wiped the table beneath it. “You know what I always say,” she singsonged. “There’s no use crying over spilled paint!”
“Want to come over for dinner?” I asked April in the parking lot. “It will be fun,” I said. “Like old times.” I was smiling at my two daughters, but April was looking down and searching for her keys. I offered the eggs my mother had painted to Caitlin, but she waved them away.
“Grandma made these,” I reminded her. “You should keep them.”
“She didn’t really, Mom,” she said and slid her leather coat over her shoulders.
Before we had left, I wrapped a sweater around my mother’s shoulders and put a knit hat on her head. From the doorway she looked so small, like Kelly when she used to sneak into my room at night or Caitlin when she’d beg me to sit at the foot of her bed until she fell asleep.
Caitlin wouldn’t demand anything of me now, because when I asked her at dinner that night how she thought grandma looked, she took a sip of her wine and looked at April.
“What?” I said.
“Nothing,” April said.
“Have you two been talking? Tell me.”
Caitlin put her wine glass down and folded her arms across her chest.
“It’s just—“ April said. She stopped. She looked at Caitlin.
What was it with those two?
“We want to say this in a way that respects your emotional perspective,“ Caitlin said, and I felt it instantly: that feeling that felt as if we were being watched, as if Rebecca was in the room with us, taking notes on our every move, her tortoiseshell glasses low on her nose. I pictured her straight bob swaying as she turned her head to hear each of us completely. I hear you, Laura, she would probably say, but are you hearing each other?
“You can say it, sweetie,” I said, keeping my voice low.
“It’s just that,” she tried, “Grandma doesn’t look any different than she did the last time I saw her.”
“Caitlin,” I said, trying to stay steady. “Grandma is dying. You may not be emotionally prepared to accept that fact,” I said, using language I thought Rebecca would be proud of, “but it’s true.”
“I know she’s dying,” Caitlin said. “But not anytime soon. She looks the same as she did in September.”
I placed my hands flat on the table. “Maybe you can’t see it. You don’t see her every day like I do. You don’t see her losing weight. You don’t see her not eating. You don’t see her wasting away.” I took a long sip of my wine. “Maybe if you were here more,” I said gently, “you would see it.”
“April’s here,” Caitlin said, pointing in April’s direction. “Do you see it, April?”
April didn’t move. We both stared at her.
“Well, she’s not getting better,” April said cautiously.
“Oh, don’t be so diplomatic,” I said. “Pick a side.”
“See?” Caitlin said, turning to April, and I knew it then: they had been talking.
There was a minute where no one spoke, and I could feel that feeling that I sometimes felt when I was all by myself. It came out of nowhere most of the time, and most of the time I thought it was just me missing Caitlin. I’d be driving to Costco on a Sunday or sorting the mail on a Monday, and I would feel it, that sort of disbelief, yawning open beneath me, that something I loved that much could be gone.
But Caitlin was right there, which meant it couldn’t be her.
“Maybe you’re the one who can’t see it,” Caitlin said. “It’s difficult to see beyond the stories we’ve grown emotionally attached to.”
“What does that even mean?” My voice was getting higher.
“She’s your mother,” Caitlin said. “You love her. And you’ve made taking care of her your entire life.” She pointed to April. “But April tells me. She says you go there every day. She says you spend every free minute taking care of her.”
“That’s what good daughters do,” I said.
Caitlin waved her wine glass across the room, gesturing to the things my mother had made. “Oh, come on, Mom,” she said. “Look at this place. You’re treating her like she’s your child. You don’t think it’s a problem that you’re infantilizing your own mother?”
“Is that what your therapist says?”
“Mom,” April said like a warning.
“I’m trying to help,” Caitlin said, steadying her voice, trying to stay calm. “I know it must be hard without Aunt Kelly. All of the emotional labor of caring for an older parent has fallen on you. But I just—I don’t get it. We barely saw her when she was well, and we lived in the same town. Wasn’t she a terrible mother to you guys?”
It stunned me for a second, like the arc of electricity that shot through my body that time not long after April was born when I touched a still-live wire. Did that just happen? I thought. Am I still alive?
No one had ever said that before—I had never said that before. My mother was not perfect, but she was not terrible. Besides, what did Caitlin know about taking care of anyone but herself? She had never been a mother. She had never been alone with two girls who seemed to always need something from her that she never had to give. She only knew what her therapist told her a mother should be: selfless, free of judgment, a port in the storm. But Caitlin didn’t know about trying to be those things when it felt like the entire world was the storm. If she had asked me, I would have told her: all you can do when times get terrible is batten down the hatches and save whatever is closest to you.
“Your grandmother did the best she could,” I said, my voice shaking, and then Caitlin was the old Caitlin, the soft Caitlin, and she was trying to take it back.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She stood up and came over to my side of the table. “Of course she did.” She squeezed in next to me on my chair and rested her head on my shoulder. She knew exactly what I needed. She always did. She was so sensitive like that. So sweet and selfless and good. I could feel her entire torso against mine then, and I thought, Please. I thought it, but I didn’t say it: Please don’t leave. Please stay here forever.
Later that night, after the girls thought I had gone to sleep, I heard them in the kitchen. April was washing the dishes while Caitlin dried, but it was Caitlin who was talking. She was telling April all about something called a monotype, how you cover a glass plate with paint and press it onto paper, and even though most printmakers use the first print because it’s the most vivid, she found it to be too illustrative. I listened to her put the emphasis on the second syllable, not the third, and it took me a second to realize what she was saying.
“Honestly,” she said, “I prefer the second print or third. Plenty of artists consider them to be inferior, but I like them more. The edges are softer. The colors are more muted.”
April didn’t say anything. It was quiet for a minute except for the sound of the water moving across the back of the bowl April was washing.
“Mom is nuts, isn’t she?” Caitlin said then, and I drew in my breath and tried not to move.
April didn’t say anything for a while, and I watched Caitlin watching her sister. She always did that, even when she was young. See me, her eyes always seemed to say when she looked at April. Love me. Never leave me.
“She’s not nuts,” April said then, shutting off the water. “She’s just Mom.”
I stood there for a second and tried to remember how long it had been since we had all lived under the same roof. Ten years? Fifteen? I was losing track. Even in this moment, I didn’t know who was who and which decade I was in and where everyone was. Was this my house or my mother’s? Was that April and Caitlin washing the dishes or Kelly and me? Those were my children, weren’t they, moving on without me? Or, if they weren’t, then it must be me. I was the child, wasn’t I, still trying my best to move on.
Emily Lackey’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, The Rumpus, and Longreads, among others. She lives and writes in Western Massachusetts.
Shhhk. The knife blade flicked up. Shhhk. The knife blade flicked down. I can’t remember who gave me the knife but I’m pretty sure it was my brother. He certainly had a knack for knowing what I liked, having later picked my favorite husband of three. I kept both sides of the blade razor sharp. For a time, I loved it, unduly.
In those days, I carried the knife everywhere but mostly to work at Satyricon, legendarily the oldest punk bar on the West Coast, where I sat in the raised booth to the right of the door, collecting IDs and money, flicking the knife up and down, rolling and chain-smoking cigs. On an average night at Satyricon, Everclear, The Wipers, Floater or some other 90’s PDX band blared into me for hours, music becoming a wall of sound and me a vibrating sheetrock screw. But shhhk. I could still hear my knife.
In the 80s, when George Touhouliotis bought Satyricon, and into the 90s, when I worked there, Old Town Portland was a dangerous area. Dealers walked by with excellent side eye whispering their code words, “Chiva. Soda.” Luckily, I never got busted for my chiva street buys. Back on the East Coast friends had told me, “No white drugs, the rest is ok.” So when I moved to the West Coast and heroin was black, I figured, no big deal.
A couple of decades later, Old Town has been rebuilt shiny and clean and people have to find their drugs elsewhere. Satyricon is gone and chiva probably just means goat instead of sticky little black balls of heroin looking like goat shit, wrapped in colorful balloon skins.
Before I got my gig as a doorgirl, but after I realized shooting up heroin was not so great, my friend Laura and I would go to Satyricon to watch shows and buy coke from the former weekend doorgirl, Kiki. I saw Floater way too many times and Dead Moon not enough. At the time, I was crushing hard on the weeknight doorgirl, Cynthia, so we’d go on those days too. I thought we were lucky, getting into the bar with no ID, but later I heard George say, with his magnificent bellow, “IF SHE GOTS A PUSSY SHE GETS IN.” Then Cynthia got another job, and improbably, the week I turned 21, George hired me as Satyricon’s new doorgirl. George looked at the manager, Dan, with his thumb stuck back at me. “She gotta ID yet?” Apparently, it took more than a pussy to work there. But the knife was fine.
Any character flaws I had at twenty-one were roundly celebrated at Satyricon—my shady, unformed ethics were saluted; my dips into mental illness and drug-enhanced mania were collectively regarded as adorable. Not being a chicken shit was more important than staying alive, and everyone cool had the same code in this dark, comforting world.
Out of the blur, a few moments stand out. Shhhk. I would flip up my knife while asking people for their IDs. If they flinched, I would call them pussies. If people were super drunk, I’d ask if I could draw something on them. If they said yes, I’d write, “FUCK ME IN THE ASS IM WASTED” on their forehead. In Sharpie. Shhhk.
Once, I flicked up the blade and the short white dude in front of me looked approving and poured a bunch of (seriously good) coke behind the edge of my doorgirl booth. Later that night, his taller friend asked if I could help them with an errand. The junky girl bartender fluttered her eyelashes and asked to join. I was a little nervous but thought, who wouldn’t want to be helpful?
I followed the little guy in my car to a big house in SW Portland, not far from downtown. When we got there, the tall guy offered me and the bartender some heroin.
“No thanks,” said I. Even then, it was not lost on me that addiction had nothing to do with intelligence or willpower. It’s just a cruel and simple lottery that I had managed not to win.
“For smoking then,” he said.
“Eh, no,” I said. The bartender looked relieved and tucked in for two.
The two men loaded some bags into a crappy little car in front of the house and asked if I would drive. I got in the driver’s seat, fastened my seatbelt, turned on the ignition and the two men sat in the back, giving directions like people do in mob movies before the driver is garroted.
“Right! Right, here! Get in the other lane.” I flipped on my turn signal.
“Wow, that so good. She use her turn signal,” the big guy said to the little guy. Pretty sure that’s the only compliment I’ve ever had on my driving to this day.
We pulled up to an apartment building and the tall guy ran in while we waited in the car. A short muscly guy came out of the building, saying nothing but taking all the bags. All four of us drove back to the house and the bartender asked if there was any more heroin.
“You know how to get that, puta,” the tall man said, laughing.
“I gotta go,” I said.
“OK! Excellent job tonight! Thanks for driving! Sorry you don’t like heroin! Want some pills?” the short man was enthusiastic.
“Sure,” I said, tucking them in my pocket. Got back in my car and drove home to Ben, my husband. It didn’t in any way occur to me that I just participated in a major drug deal. It was just another night after work.
The next week at work, shhhk. Napalm Beach, wall of sound. I flicked the knife open while asking a scary-looking dude for his ID. “You like knives?” he said. “How about this?” He pulled a handgun out of his pocket and held it to my head. I laughed. “Nice,” I said. “It’s 10 bucks to get in tonight.” When I was twenty-one, I was never gonna get two for flinching.
Sometimes I spoke in a French accent all night. Everyone counted their change twice. When I spoke in a southern accent everyone spoke slowly and used simple words. “I’mmmm Savaaaanna,” I told them. “Hi Savanna!” Shhhk.
The best nights were when Jake came in. Being married at twenty was weird. Being married was the sum total of life when I was home, and I forgot about it when I wasn’t. Ben and I were friends, and I loved him, it just never occurred to me not to be looking for someone I loved better, and I’d been situationally in love with Jake since we were both 18, when I met him at my friend Adeline’s house. He was one of those super cute boys who didn’t talk, which made him seem extra interesting. I fell in love easily and unregretfully for the first 30 years of my life.
Jake worked around town at various restaurants and, at some point, started working at Genoa. Arguably, Genoa played a significant role in me getting pregnant. Genoa is still legend in the Portland restaurant scene. Genoa started the Portland restaurant scene. Their food was like eating heaven if heaven was made of meat. And sauce. And lovely bits of stardust I couldn’t identify. Every time someone walked in the door to Satyricon, my pulse would speed up for a second: was it Jake? Was there food?
I don’t remember the first part of that Friday in early November, 1996 at Satyricon. Probably The Mentors or Poison Idea playing. I remember wanting to love the music, but it always hurt my ears too much. Likely I was stealing a fair amount of money out of the till, out of which I paid off the side door guy, the sound guy and the bouncer. I had nailed Peter Pan, why not be Robin Hood, too?
Forty-five minutes before last call, Jake walked in with something wrapped in foil. I salivated before even knowing what it was, because I knew it was from Genoa. Lamb chops. I can still reconstruct the mouthfeel of the crisp fat on the sides of my tongue, the juices salty, the meat yielding to my teeth.
Dan opened the till to pay me. “You want cash tonight or…?”
“Not cash,” I said. “$15 of not cash.” Which meant, pay me partly in coke. “The rest in cash.”
Jake rolled his eyes in the most subtle of ways. I could only tell how he was feeling by paying complete attention to him all of the time. He was subtly miserable a lot and I tried to distract him by convincing him to be entirely, obsessively in love with me. This was not particularly successful, but he continued to come to see me at Satyricon while continuing to be miserable, so it wasn’t a zero-sum game.
“Want a shot of whiskey?”
“Sure,” he said. I finished the lamb chop.
Last call came and I took my cash and did a couple lines. I asked Jake if he had a ride. “Want me to drive you home?” I staggered when I stood up.
“Sure,” he said.
At Satyricon, as in many bars, we got a free post-shift drink after the lights came on when everyone looked weird and blotchy and we’d kicked out anyone who wasn’t working or playing. I also got a pre-shift drink, and most times (usually) a few during-shift drinks. I was very proud of my hard-won tolerance for whiskey, my toughness, my knife. Start heroin, quit heroin, get married, fall in love, never get two for flinching again. I had been the sensitive kid my whole life. Who says you can’t just decide to be different? It’s easy if you find the right world to live in.
We drunk-walked to my 70s Thunderbird, both still holding our beer cans. It started to pour. I crossed the river from Old Town to Southeast and stopped at the Plaid Pantry for cigarettes. Pulling out, I went the wrong way in traffic. I went through a signal and the cop behind me turned on her lights. As I turned onto the shoulder, we pushed the beers as far under the seat as possible.
“Do you know you went the wrong way on a main road and ran two lights?” the cop asked. I half closed my eyes tragically.
“It’s raining so hard, I got turned around and flustered, ma’am.”
“Yeah, it sure is raining hard. I can see how that would happen. I do need to give you a ticket, though.”
“I understand, ma’am. I will be very careful on my way home.” I worked hard at not slurring. Or using a French accent. Or kicking over my beer.
“You do that,” she said, ripping the traffic ticket off the pad and handing it to me.
She walked back to her car and Jake whispered, “Don’t drive till she’s passed! How can she not tell you’re wasted?”
I fiddled with my keys, waited till she passed to turn the ignition, and looked at him. “What the fuck was that?”
“No idea,” he said. “You’re lucky.”
We started kissing like kids do, then, like you want to consume something, like desperation. Like it’s the last chance ever again to eat a lamb chop from Genoa. At every stop light on the way back to his house we smashed our faces and chests together but it wasn’t nearly close enough and when we finally parked outside of his parents’ house, it took about 10 seconds to wriggle out of our clothes, fulfill our bright consuming of each other and be done, pulling clothes back up and around ourselves, lighting a cigarette, chucking the two cans of beer out the window. He got out and walked into his parents’ house and I drove back home and got into bed with my husband. I told him about the cop and Jake and the beer in the car. I didn’t tell him that I screwed Jake. But he knew. It was the 90s.
A couple weeks after that, I drove Ben’s truck to work. Not sure why I didn’t drive my Thunderbird, maybe Ben was using it. Maybe it broke. We went through a lot of old cars. The huge ‘65 Ford was hard to drive without power steering and the brakes weren’t that reliable. My brother borrowed it once and the brakes went out on a hill and he crashed it. “You’re supposed to pump them when you go down a hill,” said Ben.
I didn’t drink much that night. I felt like any store of luck I might have had was annihilated when the cop let me go while I was driving wasted the wrong way up a street. And running lights. And screwing cute boys. And chucking beer cans.
And playing with knives.
At the end of the night, I took only cash from Dan. Shhhk, I flipped the knife back into its sheath and shoved it in my back pocket for the last time. I walked out into the three a.m. autumn air, my shoulders pushed as far back as my childish bravado would let them.
The ride home could be broken up into several stages: first out of Old Town to the Burnside bridge, than over the Willamette River to the south side, then as far south as Portland goes until you get to the somewhat rural suburb of Milwaukie, then up River Road past the first old folks home and just past the second one. I drove pretty slowly as I got close to my street. Both of the windows were rolled down because I was smoking while I was driving. I put the blinker on, and it did its slow old man tick, tick, tick and… SMACK. Something hit me in the head.
I yelped as I turned left onto my street and pulled into my driveway. I turned off the car and rubbed my head. I had what felt like a little scratch on my cheek. I patted the wide aqua bench seat next to me to see what it was. Feathers. A body. A warm body. A bird. An owl. It had flown through the passenger side window and hit me in the head. I picked it up carefully and brought it inside in case it was just stunned rather than dead.
I woke up Ben and he agreed. The owl’s neck was broken. “What the actual fuck,” he said, and went back to bed.
I sat with the little owl for a moment longer, not sure what to do. What did an owl mean? Death. Wisdom. A message. What did it mean for wisdom and death and a message to break their neck against my face? I pulled my knife and my wallet out of my back pockets with my keys and set them on the kitchen counter next to the little owl.
In the morning, I went to the pharmacy and bought a pregnancy test. My pee made a plus sign. There was to be an addition.
A premonition folded in over me. This is the end and this the beginning. The dark, comfortable world I had found was no longer mine and it was time to invent a new one. I tucked my knife onto the top shelf of the kitchen closet and closed the door.
I told Ben. I told Jake.
I put the owl in the freezer.
Jessie Glenn’s essay exposé about ‘MasterChef’ was ‘Best of 2018’ in Salon Magazine. They’ve also had essays in NYT Modern Love, Washington Post, Toronto Star, and elsewhere. They are currently writing a memoir. Glenn teaches book publicity at Portland State University in the Masters of Publishing Program. Jessie and spouse have a blended family with five children.
Dip and paddle, bloom.
A dragonfly barrels and darts.
Hot afternoon balm rolls
across the pond.
The pending night
wicks off the sweat
drawn out from the shoulders’ beat.
Brownish water folds into itself,
turtles bubble to the spread,
snap toward the dragonfly,
see me, and dive.
I break the pond
with a short stroke
kind of code.
Kathryn V. Jacopi, a part-time English professor for Fairfield University, received her MFA in creating writing from Fairfield University. Her writing has appeared in Pudding Magazine, Statorec, Fjord, Manzano Mountain Review, and Drunk Monkeys. Kathryn’s poem received first place for the 2016 Hysteria Writing Competition. When she’s not reading, writing, and lesson planning, Kathryn’s either kayaking or enjoying her partner’s fantastic cooking.
Daisy has this boy that none of us like. She says they aren’t boyfriend-girlfriend but he sure acts like it’s more than a hookup when he texts her things like, where are you? and i miss you much right now baby.
Daisy tells me she likes the way he takes control. Like on their first date, he put his hand on her chest and she pushed it away cause she’s “not that kind of girl,” but then after a few more minutes he tried again and she let him.
“I wouldn’t like that,” I tell Daisy.
Daisy spends the party in the bathroom and she’s not even drunk.
Phoebe and I try to get Daisy to come out, but she won’t and she’s locked herself in the stall with her feet pressed flat against the door so it won’t even budge when Phoebe tries to kick it open.
“What did he do to you?” Phoebe asks.
Phoebe calls me and asks if I know where Daisy is and I say no I haven’t seen her since they broke up. She says that Meg told her she saw them together at Commons and we decide to run there and see for ourselves.
Daisy looks like a puppy caught chewing up the couch and he doesn’t even look at us. We make up some excuse of why she needs to come home, but she looks at him when she says she’s not leaving.
Daisy asks me if my boy ever pressures me to have sex. She’s also wondering if it’s normal to start crying after.
I tell her a half truth, because I don’t want her to feel so alone like she does, so I tell her, “It’s normal to start crying cause it’s an emotional thing, ya know? But I don’t think it’s right.”
She asks if my boy ever does things that I say I didn’t wanna do, and I say, “No, cause he’s not a rapist.”
I know I shouldn’t have said that, cause she gets all quiet.
“I was just wondering if it was normal.”
Daisy says his heater’s broken so he’s gotta live with us for a while. Phoebe tells me that being around him makes her want to throw up, so she’s gonna be spending a lot more time in coffee shops.
Meg asks us why we’re letting him live with us if we hate him so much, and we just shrug our shoulders.
“We aren’t the ones who would deal with him if we say no.”
Daisy tells me, “This is it. This is really the end,” cause she spent all night looking after him cause he tried coke and thought he was gonna die.
She calls her mom crying, and her mom gets all worked up and says, “What did you expect, Daisy, you let him treat you like shit. I told you, Daisy, I told you.” Daisy keeps saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Meg tells Phoebe that his roommate told her that the heater was fixed weeks ago. Phoebe and I decide not to bring this up with Daisy at first, but when we get back to the apartment and he’s there, and she’s got her head on his shoulder, I look him straight in the eyes when I say, “You can’t live here anymore.”
I don’t wanna look at Daisy, her arms hugging her waist, curled up and folded until she is small enough to get lost between the couch cushions.
Daisy’s boy opens the door to the apartment, which makes all of us jump. Daisy says she’s sorry a million times, and tells us not to pause the movie, cause she’ll be right back. I tell Meg to pause it anyway once they’re in Daisy’s room, cause I wanna hear what he’s gonna say.
But all I can hear is Daisy’s boy crying, which I find strange cause I’ve never heard a boy cry so hard before, and all she keeps saying is, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Meg says it’s her fault cause she told Daisy to stop texting during the movie, and I kind of agree cause Meg should have known what would happen if Daisy stopped, but Phoebe says, “No it’s not,” and Meg doesn’t say anything more. We sit there doing nothing for a while but then we play the movie cause Meg says she doesn’t wanna listen to him scream anymore.
The next morning I must have shown the disapproval on my face, cause Daisy gets all defensive and says, “You know I can’t leave him.”
“That’s not true.”
“I’ve tried to. I can’t do it.”
“You could leave him,” I say.
“No matter what I do I’ll go back to him. I always do.”
“It’s cause he loves me,” she says, “You think I’m crazy. Do you think I’m crazy?”
“I would,” she says.
“You’re not crazy.”
“Remember when I locked myself in the bathroom?”
I nod. “If he hit you,” I say, “you’d break up with him, right?”
But Daisy doesn’t answer.
Allison Dreier is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying the Biological Basis of Behavior with a minor in creative writing and chemistry. She is the recipient of a Gold Medal and two Gold keys in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in short fiction.
Two black dogs are playing on a hill / in front
of my grandmother’s church.
Majestic bulls / thick and statuesque / tongues
lolling beside the opaque miasma / of summertime.
Isn’t that sad / she says / styrofoam cup in hand /
I know who they belong to / that man up the street
needs to patch up that fence / They’re gonna hurt
somebody one of these days.
Two black dogs on a hill spells trouble.
Once / she asked me why people in the projects /
always have Pit Bulls / They’re so “aggressive” /
She doesn’t know / that they aren’t Pit Bulls /
They’re Cane Corsos / Latin for “protector”
Like her / to think that aggression and protection /
are the same thing.
Two black kings are majestic and vocal on a hill.
Ears cropped / heads as large as any moon / Cerberus /
ancestor of the Cane Corso / keeps the dead steady /
Father / half snake / like mine.
The most docile of creatures / until threatened /
the Cane Corso only rips the throats/ of those who
threaten / anything it loves/
That’s similar / but not equivalent to / what it owns /
or what it controls
You’d think she’d respect that / She loves the comfort /
of being loved / and also regulated
Two black gods on a hill frighten her.
Any Poem can be a Love Poem if You Reference Juliet
Tell me it was less for the horizon.
For anger is to take a hunger from someone else
I press my palm to you like holy palmer’s touch.
I give myself over to your will.
No amount of prayer will reach anyone who can forgive you.
I’m here on earth.
I wasted two eyelash wishes on you.
Don’t say marriage.
Say the woods are filled with foxglove and gold.
The sky is a transcendent azure cut with white—
My virginity escaping.
Bruises bloom on my skin like fat from chocolate.
If I were a king it wouldn’t matter.
My body would yield trumpets and wine.
Hands are roaming freely, not belonging to anyone.
Michelle Dominique Burk is originally from Northern Virginia and received her MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in various publications including Cooper Street, Contrary Magazine, Boston Review, Narrative, LitHub, and Bat City Review. She currently lives in Houston, Texas where she is a fourth year PhD Fellow in the University of Houston’s Literature and Creative Writing Program.
We saw two barefoot boys walking down the double yellow lines, both holding their crotches in a two-hand grip, playing chicken with the Cape Canaveral traffic. I wanted badly to kiss her, in the way that romantic men are always saying they will do to me. It was too nice a day to offend her or face the consequence of yes. She asked why I dressed so conservatively for someone who knew so much about music. The barefoot boys were in her poem the next day but not the men we also saw on the beach, the naked men riding bicycles and walking near us with bellies and cocks exposed. We swam away from them.
Rose was always in trouble, sort of. Uh-oh. She slept a lot and didn’t like to be liked. Her nerves were perfectly authentic. We drove north a few weeks later in her car, the upholstery scattered with ashes of sage. I woke on the first northern morning, naked and thirsty. From the doorway, holding coffee, I saw her waking. She pulled the comforter to her neck; the soles of her feet were black.
Anne Garwig holds degrees from the NEOMFA consortium and the Ohio State University. Her poetry has appeared in the Mojave River Review, Broad! and TIMBER, among other journals and anthologies. Anne was a runner-up for the 2016 Into the Void Poetry Prize and an associate artist in residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she teaches in Rutgers University-Newark’s international program in Changchun, China, and serves remotely on the board of Lit Youngstown, a literary arts non-profit.
“Now you are, after all, basically a charitable and kindhearted person . . .
but not every child has the endurance and fearlessness to go on searching
until it comes to the kindliness that lies beneath the surface.”
—“Letter to My Father” by Franz Kafka
Human skulls leered from a shelf in my father’s basement den. Sets of false teeth lay on his desk like paper weights. Before the age of ten, I’d bring my younger brother into the den with me, more than a little uneasy to go it alone. I’d occasionally take a skull from the shelf, surprised it was light as an apple, and cradle its smooth dome in my hands, poking my fingers in the nostrils and running my finger along the teeth, which remained sturdy in spite of yellowing enamel. Teeth endure.
A nineteenth-century dental chair with a plush velvet seat also decorated the room. I liked climbing into it, but could never recline comfortably because of the torn head cushion. I have no recollection of my father in the den with me. When he went to work in there, he closed the door and we knew better than to bother him.
I dreaded my father most of childhood. I think my older sisters and brother feared him, too, his dress shoes cracking against the floor when he came home from work. He ruled with a booming voice and the threat of The Belt. No memory remains of him using it as more than a threat, but I figure he must have used it at least once, since those two words—The Belt—and the sight of the wide brown leather strap in his hands evoked a terror that made me want to disappear instead of search for the kindliness that lies beneath the surface. So I did disappear, in a sense. I was an incredibly shy child, crying at my mother’s side when she tried to drop me off for nursery school.
In some early childhood pictures I look like I’m scowling. In others, trying to force a smile. As a boy, I sometimes wondered if I’d caused the underbite, especially since my mom had read me a children’s story about a freckled boy like me that both scared me and made me laugh. “If the wind changes,” the big adults warned the little freckled boy when he made a funny face, “it’ll stay like that forever!” I never fully believed the big adults in the story, but I couldn’t make my teeth return to normal. In second grade, while I learned to read, multiply, and memorize the names of my teacher’s favorite birds, my orthodontist fitted me with a plastic mouthpiece. At first, I liked when people asked about it. And it could’ve been worse—both my older sisters had to wear the headgear with the blue strap, which my mom would remind them to take in the morning as if a school supply. I wasn’t free much longer, though. Before the end of second grade, my dentist had branded me with silver brackets, thick and shiny number signs on my two front teeth, and I started monthly visits to Eastman Dental Center. Like eyeglasses for some, braces became my identity.
I wore them ten years, until the summer right before senior pictures for high school.
“Were your teeth that bad?” people ask.
They might envision a child with crooked tombstones in his gums.
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“Why’d you have them so long?”
“I don’t know,” I say and shrug. “My father’s a dentist.”
They laugh. I tell them I’m serious.
“Well, you do have a great smile,” they say.
Dr. Graser is beloved by colleagues. He was chair of his department at Eastman Dental Center in Rochester, NY, and president of the National Academy of Prosthodontics, lecturing throughout the U.S. and internationally. I’ve heard dentists talk about him in reverent tones I associate with Lombardi, DiMaggio and Ali.
Eastman, where I went for braces and where my father worked, is an impressive brick building that’s a philanthropic legacy of George Eastman, who founded Kodak in Rochester. Especially compared to the neighboring box-shaped hospital where I was born, the dental center—with its seven-story triangular tower, angled windows and asymmetrical ledges—has the feel of a cutting-edge modern art museum. My father hung a framed picture of it in his den.
My father was never my dentist. As a prosthodontist, his patients were the ones who needed dentures, not braces. He chose prosthodontics because giving patients new teeth would make them happy, even smile, he’s said. It beat pulling children’s teeth for a living. My father had considered med school before dentistry, but after shadowing doctors he decided against a career with such long, unpredictable hours. He wanted a family.
Even though my father worked in prosthodontics on the second floor (our orthodontist appointments were on the first), if anybody knew the answer to why I had braces so long, it was him. Yet for years, well until adulthood, I didn’t dare ask my father this question. It’s hard to admit shrinking from someone three inches shorter than me who wears glasses and a comb-over, but as a boy, I’d learned not to question him.
When waiting for an appointment at Eastman, I’d sit in a long, dimly lit room, hoping to find a spot where daylight sliced through a narrow window. My dentist always seemed to run late, so I’d pick up Sports Illustrated, my favorite magazine. I found it difficult to focus, though, and I’d watch moms and their children with fierce curiosity. At least once a visit, a baby wailed inconsolably. It wasn’t until returning to Rochester in my late twenties that I learned Eastman is where people on public assistance go to the dentist, and, now, I presume I also went for financial reasons. Before putting us through college, my father had four children to put through braces, so an employee discount must have eased the financial strain.
My father took time from his work day to come downstairs periodically and check my progress. One word could best describe the progress: slow. A visit from him at least broke up the monotony of appointments usually lasting more than an hour. I liked my father’s attention in this setting. I silently observed this gentler, patient side of him without any chance of drawing his ire—or The Belt. With my mouth stretched and the back of the cold metal mirror pressed on my tongue, he muted me while issuing foreign observations like “mal-occlusion” and “bicuspid” in a measured voice. While I had no idea what he was saying, and it didn’t sound all that positive, I still felt special because all my dentists knew I was “Dr. Graser’s son.”
I say all my dentists because I had a new one every year. They were dental school interns practicing their future profession the year before graduation. I felt their inexperience. They’d catch my lip when making a snip or stab my gums when twisting a wire. Many times I’d later ask my father at home to clip a wire because its unruly end dug into my cheek.
Surprisingly, I never feared going to the dentist. The large circular office lent itself to the imagination of a boy obsessed with Star Wars. As I entered from the waiting room, I treated the five-foot wall encircling the dentists as the outside of the Millennium Falcon. I embarked through the narrow entryway. Once inside, I saw more than a dozen chairs with beaming lamps surrounded by fascinating cords and buttons. The dentist pushed the tray against my chest to lock me in, lowered the back of the chair with a mechanical buzz, and the countdown to blast off began. During some of those hour-long appointments, it would’ve been nice to pee right there like an astronaut, but I prided myself on being a willing and obedient patient who didn’t interrupt my dentist’s work. I knew my performance as a patient was information well within my father’s reach. I was “Dr. Graser’s son.” I should know what I was doing. I sat there quietly. My appointments did feel endless, though, in part because the dentists often needed approval from an elusive Obi-Wan character with white hair, thick glasses and dangly ear lobes. And when he did finally appear, with a slightly croaky but firm voice, this Ortho-Jedi often told my dentists to undo their young-Skywalkerish handiwork and start over. I’d watch another 45 minutes tick by on the clock.
In addition to the lower cost of dentistry performed by students, I’d guess we went to Eastman because my father liked having a say in our treatment. In this way, he was an admirable, vigilant parent with deep loyalty to the institution where he worked his entire career. Still, I wonder how long I would’ve worn braces if I’d gone to an experienced professional? Having one apprentice dentist pick up where another left off is like asking a dozen eager creative writing students to each pen a chapter in a novel.
My sisters had talked about the monkeys that lived on the fifth floor of Eastman. They’d even seen them. I wanted to see the monkeys, too, so one day my father rode the elevator with me. It felt like a field trip. A handful of monkeys crawled behind glass windows. They lived without an artificial jungle or ropes to climb, but otherwise looked exactly like the ones at the zoo. As a child, I had no clue they used these monkeys for experiments. It simply thrilled me I’d gone somewhere off limits, where only Dr. Graser could take me.
As I approached my teens, though, I found it harder to shrug off the frustration triggered by classmates who’d wear braces only two or three years and then gleefully bare coconut-white smiles. Not surprisingly, my emotional discomfort in braces coincided with the time I started watching girls nearly as much as I watched sports. Braces made me ugly. Add this deformity to my already shy nature, and it’s little surprise the only kiss during my time in braces was sometime in middle school, a peck during a game of Truth or Dare. The girl I kissed wore braces, too, so we kept our mouths shut to prevent locking together forever.
My sister Joanna said having braces on so long was a mistake. She believes our parents put them on too soon. She also thought she was the family record-holder at seven years until I reminded her of my ten-year sentence.
“Ten years?” asked my younger brother John incredulously. Somehow he got away with less than three years, but still remembers the impressions and headaches after the tightening appointments.
“They were experimenting,” said Suzanne, my oldest sister and perhaps most practical sibling. She asked if I thought it was worth having straight teeth. When I hesitated, she suggested the affirmative.
My father wasn’t only a dentist. I’ve seen him away from the office, mostly, at a safe distance from career ambition and the field of dentistry.
Childhood memories of him project as grainy silent home movies. He’s in dungarees, as he called them, and that faded denim shirt he only wore around the house. He takes my brother and me to pro wrestling matches and even wrestles with us on the family room carpet. He’s at our sporting events straight from work, shedding only his lab coat to root for us in jacket and tie. My father provided us a luxurious home in a safe, affluent suburb with great schools. We’d go on at least two family vacations a year. He wanted us to be happy, to give us reasons to smile.
Still, between my childhood fear and the difficulty I found moving beyond small talk about sports or my latest job as an adult, the emotional distance sometimes pained me. I’ve always longed for a deeper connection with my father, so not being able to ask a question as seemingly simple as why I had braces for ten years served as a lingering reminder of our difficulty of having an open dialogue, let alone a relationship.
Ultimately, it took the end of another relationship to bring me to the question. It happened after the breakup with my first serious girlfriend after my divorce. I was 36 and arrived at my parents’ house a little after 7 a.m. It was rare for me to show up unannounced, let alone at this hour. They’d returned from a winter in Florida the day before. I’d slept only a couple of hours, so for me the open blue sky felt like afternoon. Outside their door, though, I worried they might not be up, or clothed. I opened the storm door and by the time I stuck my key in the lock, their dog started barking. As my mom opened the door, the pressure in my chest, throat and face exploded into tears.
“What happened?” my mom asked.
“She’s not home,” I said.
The heartbreak of another doomed love petrified me. My parents listened and consoled. I sat between them, my father wearing only pajama bottoms. One positive result of my divorce is that I’d become more comfortable talking to my parents about my personal life—given my mom’s presence—and they’d proven an invaluable sounding board during the most difficult times of my marriage and eventual split. After I took a bathroom break, my parents moved to another couch and my father had also put on a T-shirt. He seemed far less vulnerable.
“I have something I’ve been meaning to ask you, dad,” I said. “I want to know why I had braces for so long.”
Though his eyes met mine easily, my father’s face remained expressionless.
“And why I got them on so early.”
He said nothing, undoubtedly caught off guard.
“When did you get them on?” my mom asked.
“You didn’t have them on in—” she said.
“I did. I got the thing for my underbite first and then—”
“Are you sure?” she asked. “We should get the pictures.”
I’d already looked through our family albums while they were in Florida, and said I’d found a picture from April 1982 confirming it. My father sat up straighter on the couch. He cleared his throat and began speaking the way I imagine he did at dental conferences.
“Well, there were studies done saying if you moved teeth too fast you could lose them when you’re older. The roots wouldn’t be strong.”
“Oh,” I said, quite surprised at such a plausible-sounding scientific explanation. He didn’t elaborate and my mom didn’t chime in, so I nervously filled the silence.
“I can’t say I’d be any different, more secure or whatever, but I know growing up I felt ugly.”
“Nobody had them as long as I did.”
Although the self-perception of ugliness began fading once I started dating in college, the core shyness and insecurity still crept in, especially after breakups. So it felt important just to say it, to tell the man I’d begun seeing as a tormentor why braces had become emotional shackles. However, my declaration lacked triumph. Was I looking for an apology? Scientific journal citations about the studies?
Years later, I’d finally Google my father’s explanation to discover a theory called “resorption,” which said teeth could fall out if moved too quickly during orthodontia. That theory had mostly been debunked, apart from people who have a genetic trait that causes abnormally weak roots. So perhaps there had originally been justification for the slow, methodical adjustment of my teeth, but my brother, only a few years behind me, had such a decidedly short stint. Questions lingered.
Not long after I sprung the question about braces that morning, my mom cooked bacon and eggs. As I pondered how to find a more suitable romantic match, I asked my parents more about how they met, and my father told a chapter of their story I’d never heard. While in dental school, he enjoyed one of the perks of working at a hospital—the nurses. After meeting my mom, who was in nursing school, my father didn’t ask for a date immediately. He was seeing someone else. My mom had a boyfriend at the time as well. The door to romance opened months later, when my mom told him she was getting her wisdom teeth removed.
“Can I observe?” my father asked.
Like the dentists who worked on our braces, he was a student. So our family began with my father hovering over my mom in a dental chair, the way he eventually examined our mouths as children. I can picture him with a brown crew-cut and clean-shaven face leaning over her, with both an anticipation for what he might learn about this extraction and the exciting possibilities about bringing a new person into his life. My father might have made small talk or told a joke to set her at ease before anesthesia. And my mother, self-sacrificing and demure, would have likely proven an extremely affable and obedient patient.
After my mother’s post-surgical pain, I wonder what came next. Did they talk dentistry and what he learned? Did she tell him about the pain she felt or wooziness caused by painkillers? I wanted the full story.
All along, I suppose that’s what I’ve always wanted. To reconcile my braces experience in an orderly way just as my father hoped for order in his life—well-behaved children with neat smiles. Instead of braces and dentures, I use words and stories to straighten and make whole a crooked and broken world. Perhaps all my own sitting in a dental chair had proved the perfect training for something more than the smile: a way to let my mind roam until I was ready to make my voice heard, liberate myself from the figurative braces.
In the story of our family, the image of my father plying his trade as a young dentist while my mother received dental care gave me a new plotline to follow. After my mother’s wisdom teeth appointment, I knew the story of a movie date that eventually followed. The main detail I remember is my father accidentally falling asleep in the theater restroom because he was so exhausted from work. Gone from the movie for more than fifteen minutes, my mother worried he’d ditched her. My curiosity leads me to wonder: how did he manage to secure another date? And when did they start talking about marriage? Children? Her giving up nursing to stay at home? Was there talk about skulls in the basement? The Belt? Braces?
One question chases the next, leading to the realization I’ll never fully comprehend the teeth so carefully tended until they one day reside in the earth, straight and rooted, but in a far darker, less understandable state.
Geoff Graser has published literary work in Santa Clara Review, r.kv.r.y., and The Big Brick Review. His journalism has appeared in USA Today, Washington City Paper, and Medium. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College and a Master’s in Journalism from Syracuse University. Home base is Rochester, NY, and geoffgraser.com.