Glass Wind Instruments for Intimacy and Vulnerability
by Madeline Rile Smith
Growing up, I never imagined I would become a visual artist, let alone an artist working in hot glass. In high school, I was required to take an art class, so I signed up for a glass elective, with no idea what I was getting into. At first, I was terrified of burning my fingers, but after a few sessions, the hypnotic presence of melting glass in a flame lured me in. Hot glass is always moving; it has rhythm. The artist must respond with her own movements. You cannot control glass on your own terms; the glass will always be the one to set the terms of engagement. When you work with glass you must be humble and accept that you will fail over and over. A day’s work might shatter into a hundred pieces if you get cocky or overconfident. Glass demands a zen mind. When your piece is destroyed in an instant, you accept it and keep working.
Flameworking in my studio in the glass department at Rochester Institute of Technology
I’ve been playing violin and viola since I was a toddler. By the time I was in high school I was prepared to have a professional career in music but was sidetracked due to a serious chronic pain condition. When I began working with glass, I realized it was like playing an instrument: your body and hands work together to produce something delicate and ethereal—and often ephemeral.
Like music, glassblowing is a collaborative art form.
Like music, glassblowing is a collaborative art form. In the hot shop, artists need a partner to breathe air into the blowpipe as they manipulate the 2300-degree blob of molten glass. The collaborative nature of glassmaking is similar to that of chamber music, where bodies are coordinated and orchestrated in space toward the group effort of a shared goal. My strongest memories from childhood involve practicing with my classical string quartet—with me on viola, two violinists, and a cellist. We spent untold hours in collaborative rehearsal, detailing the minutiae of musical expression in order to create a unified sound that would transcend the sum of each of our solo instruments. In an ideal ensemble, each member approaches the group with a sense of generosity, putting forth an effort that extends beyond each individual, toward the shared goal of collective expression. The tender and dynamic tension of music can be broken at any moment if one member of the group falters. The act relies on a delicate state of interdependence. The music is not complete when a member of the group is missing, and a single person cannot carry the experience alone, much like the communal act of creation in the glass studio.
A trumpet for two simultaneous players. When my partner finds his note, I attempt to push him off of it to create mine. Our breaths compete and combat inside the instrument to create a tone. The backpressure of another person blowing into the trumpet creates a significant challenge. Part shared effort, part battle of breaths. We both end up winded.
To me, the communal aspects of glass and chamber music require the kind of trust that is necessary for strong collaboration. Music and glass both rely on mutual understanding of subtle, non-verbal gestures—a moment’s eye contact or a punctuated breath can be used to synchronize coordinated movement or a pause.
Flameworking a glass instrument. I use a torch powered by a mix of propane and oxygen. The flame is about 3600 degrees Fahrenheit.
This spring, I began a series called “Instruments of Connection and Compromise,” a collection of glass wind instruments that require multiple players. There is something squeamishly intimate about sharing a mouth-activated instrument with another person. You and your partner must stand shoulder to shoulder, simultaneously blowing into a hollow vessel to create a tone. As you exhale, you can feel the back pressure of your partner’s breath on yours, like your mouths are touching, but from a distance. Your breaths intermingle, creating a sound while simultaneously knocking one another off the note as soon as you establish it. Blowing into a glass trumpet makes the entire instrument buzz. When your partner buzzes into their mouthpiece, it causes your lips to tingle, as if you were kissing, by proxy, through a curving glass tube.
“Duel Duet” in action.
There is a humorous absurdity that I love about the glass trumpets. I craft them through a meticulous flameworking process, using techniques similar to scientific glassblowing. The end result is a long winding trumpet, like a device from a Dr. Seuss story.
The charge of my work has changed, eliciting visceral reactions of repulsion, echoed by a longing for the connection we were once allowed. In the age of Covid-19, the act of breathing can no longer be taken for granted; a healthy unencumbered breath is revealed to be a gift.
“Close Enough to Tickle,” 2020. A glass instrument for three wind players.
As the instruments are played, the performers’ bodies awkwardly huddle around one another. Spittle accumulates inside the trumpet body, while shrill honking noises are produced. To me, the ridiculousness of the performance creates friction against the precise technique required to create the glass trumpet.
“Duel Duet,” 2020. A glass trumpet for two players.
These instruments were conceived and created only weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic spread to the United States. A week after this series was completed for my MFA show, my studio was padlocked by the university, all thesis shows were canceled, and the meaning of my work changed overnight. What began as a humorous and awkward gesture became terrifying. The thought of standing close to someone, let alone breathing into the same glass tube while swapping saliva, was horrifying. The charge of my work has changed, eliciting visceral reactions of repulsion, echoed by a longing for the connection we were once allowed. In the age of Covid-19, the act of breathing can no longer be taken for granted; a healthy unencumbered breath is revealed to be a gift.
Madeline Rile Smith is an American artist working in glass. She earned an MFA in glass at Rochester Institute of Technology and a BFA in glass from Tyler School of Art. Madeline draws upon her musical background to create glass musical instruments that explore the physical connection between players. She utilizes hot glass as a performative medium to consider notions of intimacy and compromise. Madeline’s sculptural glasswork has been exhibited in venues throughout the US and featured in New Glass Review 41 and 35. She has instructed glassworking in schools and institutions throughout the East Coast, including UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, Salem Community College, and Rochester Institute of Technology. More at her website, MadHotGlass.com or follow her on Instagram @MadHotGlass.
Performance photos by Elizabeth Lamark. Gallery photos by Scott Semler. Special thanks to Ethan Townsend, Ying Chiun Lee, and Jensen McConnell for performing on these instruments with me.
Emily Steinberg is an artist, writer, and educator whose work has been shown across the United States and Europe. She has been named the first Artist in Residence at Drexel College of Medicine in Philadelphia, where she works with medical students to translate their medical school experiences into words and images. Her visual narratives have been regularly published in Cleaver Magazine, where she has recently taken on the role of Visual Narrative Editor. Her memoir, Graphic Therapy, was published serially in Smith Magazine, and her short comic “Blogging Towards Oblivion” was included in The Moment (HarperCollins). She is a Lecturer in Fine Art at Penn State University. Steinberg earned her MFA and BFA from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. To submit graphic narratives for consideration in Cleaver, contact Emily at [email protected].
SOME BRIEF THOUGHTS ON SELF-IMPROVEMENT
by Reilly Joret
My wife fingered the remaining chocolate syrup from her bowl to her mouth and announced she was going to bed. I’ll admit The Tonight Show monologue that night wasn’t going to change her mind. It was all obvious punchlines about the president’s Asia trip, with some cheap shots at the end for the congressman with the Honduran mistress maid, and the reality TV star with the unflattering DUI mugshot. I feared this was becoming the norm. I followed my wife upstairs, hoping we might discuss this unsettling trend, or get in something cursory between the two of us, but she fell asleep in a way that suggested a medical condition.
Our doctor had recommended we remove the television from the bedroom, claiming it was best for both of us, studies had shown, etc. We gave it to a woman at my work who said she needed one in front of her treadmill. It wasn’t going to win us any humanitarian awards, but I was still trying to scrounge up some goodwill at the office. It hadn’t worked, and I’d been left with the increasing inability to fall asleep. Forty-three minutes, an hour seventeen, an hour fifty-one, two hours and three. Our doctor recommended warm milk and counting sheep to ease what he casually referred to as “an adjustment period.” So, I drank glasses of warm whole milk, then skim, soy, half-and-half. I mixed them together and drank that. And I counted. I tallied the barnyard, then the parking meters along Sycamore Street, the counties in the tri-state area, the bricks on the First National Bank’s facade. No luck. I lay in the dark, staring at the steady shape the streetlamp cast across the ceiling.
Dino pushed into our room like an invading army. His collar clanged like armor. His tail flogged the framed pictures of vacation beaches and the home store Buddhas that helped my wife with her yoga. I hissed at him to lay down, closed my eyes, and counted the thumps his tail made on the carpet. The number was nearing one hundred fifty, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went to shoo him away, but the blankets pinned me to the mattress. My wife layered and tucked the sheets and covers, trying to recreate the feel of a luxurious hotel bed, and it closed around us like a finger trap. I rolled my body to create separation, and kicked at the blankets. As their grip loosened, I dealt a harder blow, and heard my toenail tear a gash in the top sheet.
Dino shot up and stared at me from beside the bed with his ears back in defense from the sound. I turned to my wife. She was still asleep in the same dead pose. I listened to her breath, counting the seconds between inhale and exhale, waiting for it to quicken or for some other sign she’d noticed, but nothing changed. Dino walked three cautious circles at the foot of the bed and laid back down. His tail began thumping again. I pulled myself from the finger trap and slunk towards the bathroom. I had known for a while about my toenails. They’d been burrowing weird shapes in my socks, and making certain shoes uncomfortable, but they hadn’t done damage. Now, I was disgusted with my lack of stewardship.
I sat on the edge of the tub counting the floor tiles, and remembered gently kidding my wife for the time she spent in here, but no one was laughing now. For five minutes of time, I’d have to explain a ruined set of sheets. Of course, it would have been five minutes if I hadn’t let things become so far gone. It took five minutes just to snake my fingers through to where the clippers resided, deep inside the vanity drawer long ago claimed by my wife, and overcrowded with fiendishly-shaped grooming devices that seemed to threaten harm. And then I had to slowly chip away at the proof of my negligence. The big toes offered the toughest opposition, but the clippers and I prevailed, even if it was only a short-lived victory.
The results were poor. My nails were too angular and jagged, still too much like blades—though now they were serrated. I went to the drawer again, and found my wife’s nail file. Its sides were bifurcated, split between increasingly finer grits and labeled accordingly, which facilitated the institution of an assembly line on my toes. Then, once they were smooth and glossy, my fingernails looked outrageous by comparison. It took another half hour of work until I could approve of my hands. I returned to bed and fell asleep instantly.
A feeling of accomplishment pervaded the next day until The Tonight Show monologue, when looking at my nails no longer did anything for me. In bed, the minutes ticked by again. I tried counting them, but this only made it worse. My satisfaction turned to discomfort, and then became a nag, which manifested itself as an itch that radiated from my groin out over my entire body. I tried to scratch, but my nails were too short to alleviate it.
Standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror, I witnessed the severity of the problem. Here I was, peacocking around about an overdue nail trim, when the rest of my corporeal chunk lurched like a Sasquatch. I was a thin veneer, shamefully pretending to be civilized.
Waxing began with my shoulders, then proceeded to my back. A makeshift combination of vise-grips, a spatula, and a golf ball retriever allowed me to access the more remote areas. My chest and thighs were easier, requiring only a protractor and a ruler. The groin was last, and as anticipated: not pleasant, precarious, but necessary.
The next morning, I took a post-shower victory lap around the bedroom. I paused in the middle of the room and posed, as though sculpting myself into marble for my wife to behold. The water droplets slid unhindered from my body.
“Since when don’t we use towels?” she asked.
She threw one at me from the pile of laundry she was folding unevenly.
The post office delivered my last check from the bottling company. Just the check, no additional remarks included. I spent the afternoon practicing my signature, not wanting to squander a final opportunity to show H.B. Davenport & Co. what they were losing; but my pen didn’t wet the page properly to give my letters the boldness they required. I searched the house, but we only had one cheap box of the same cheap pens. I left the check on the kitchen counter, took a couple naps, and trimmed my goatee until my wife came home.
She set the groceries and junk mail on top of the check and didn’t mention it. She barely mentioned anything the whole evening, and then said she was going to bed. The monologue dry spell was beginning to sour her mood, I could tell.
After she’d gone upstairs, I sat on the couch stroking my face. Dino pawed at my leg, apparently concerned I hadn’t also gone to bed. I’d shoo him away, he’d come back. He was picking up on the restlessness surrounding him. I walked him around the house, hoping it would tire him out. It didn’t, so I got his leash and took him around the neighborhood.
After midnight, our street was as quiet as could be. The pulsing of the day—husbands and wives back and forth to work, children canvassing lawns for adventures, contractors’ saws and hammers, pneumatics and rotating electrics, cars, delivery trucks, front doors, garage doors, voices carrying through open windows and across backyards—retreated without any sign of ever having existed. The houses were silent, just spreading placid pools of light from front porches and central hall chandeliers. I walked Dino through the silence, remorseful for the jangle of his collar, hoping we could somehow capture the smallest fraction of the austerity the other houses seemed to have in abundance.
We returned home, and I wandered room to room. I couldn’t find tranquility across our threshold, only turmoil. A strange, almost sixty-cycle hum radiated through the house. I unplugged the television and cable box, the microwave and coffee pot, and turned off everything except the front porch light. It felt worse in the dark. The chaos, imperceptible during the day, cloaked by the commotion outside, now threatened to vibrate the house apart. I had to root it out before it tore us to shreds.
I dealt with the drawers in the bathroom first. Dull scissors, baffling implements, half-used duplicates of deodorants and perfumes. They were all discarded without second thought. What remained was cleaned, consolidated, and organized. I applied labels to the drawer fronts to prevent a return to this state. The kitchen received the same treatment. De-Tefloned pans, right-angled whisks, wax-gobbed spatulas, and Tupperware in need of birth control were tossed. I raided the refrigerator and pantry, the cabinets and sideboard. Night by night, I moved through the house. No room, no item was spared judgment. I took special delight in ridding our lives of the plush throw blanket my mother-in-law bought us in Graceland. A calm, Spartan order was settling in.
One morning, while we drank coffee from two of our remaining mugs, my wife asked if I’d seen the stick blender.
I remembered pulling the stick blender’s phallic case from the abyssal cabinet next to the dishwasher. It was buried under three items I didn’t even know we owned. This was enough evidence to condemn it. Her tone implied otherwise.
“You’re throwing our money into the trash,” she said.
“What’s the alternative? Live in a heap because it’s our heap?”
“What are we going to have left when you’re done?”
I explained that it wasn’t about what would remain. It was about trading things for a new feeling, an organic environment where we could breathe. I asked her to stop for a moment and open herself up to receive the sensation of the house. She was having none of it. She stormed off to work, leaving the ingredients for her split pea soup on the counter.
My magazines finally arrived in the mail. I read them all by the time my wife came home. She had a take-out meal with her that she said was for dinner, but the men’s magazines condemned this as being too sodium-laden and processed. I declined her invitation, and took Dino for a run instead. He was getting to be a real chunker, and I had to get my heart rate to one hundred and fifty-three BPM.
I thought about the interior design magazines while I ran, and for a long time after. They implored me to embark on a soul search for my personal affinities to Country Glam or Boho Chic, to explore space as texture, and couple sleek mid-century lines with thrift store finds that expressed personality and whimsy—if whimsy was part of my personality, I suppose. But I didn’t need design gurus utilizing esoteric terms with flippant familiarity. I needed the Platonic ideal of our living room, the Truth of the space. These were layers of reality, not shag pillows and low-pile rugs. The wall between the living and dining rooms was reality—and also load-bearing, evidently. I had to find the room constrained within the room, yearning for its realization.
I awoke to my wife yelling from downstairs.
“Did you move the furniture?” she kept hollering.
I came down to find her collapsed on the relocated chaise lounge, howling, and cupping her foot.
“Did you move the furniture?” she asked again.
The answer to her question seemed obvious.
Her toe was turning a tumultuous swirling of purples and yellows beneath the hairs that sprung from her knuckle. I placed a frozen bag of French-cut beans on it, and reminded myself to wash the bag before returning it to the freezer. She diagnosed the toe broken, and asked for supplies so she could tape it to its neighbor. I had marshaled our first-aid kit into order during one of my organizational nights, and brought it to her as though it sat atop a velvet pillow, proud that she could perform her task with ease. I made coffee and brought her a cup, setting it beside her before loitering a kiss on her forehead. She shook me away.
“Why? Just why?” she asked.
“The living room was a farce.”
“It’s been that way for five years.”
“It was difficult to get the indentations out of the carpet,” I agreed.
She huffed, and limped upstairs to get ready for work.
When she came hobbling through the kitchen door that evening, I was waiting for her at the table. Before she had time to set her purse on the counter, I handed her a loose assortment of wrinkled, coffee-stained copy paper.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a start,” I said.
She read the first page slowly, then thumbed through the others with increasing speed and decreased attention. She finished the last page, then stared at me blankly.
“What is this?” she asked. “Pages—pages—of one-liners?” She looked at the papers again and shook her head. “What is this supposed to be?”
“It’s a rough draft. I printed a good copy, and mailed it to The Tonight Show.”
She fell forward onto the counter, and looked at the first page of my manuscript again.
“This is how you spent your day?”
“I know the monologue has been bothering you—”
“The monologue has not been bothering me. This,” she said, gesturing wildly towards everything, “has been bothering me.”
“I can only do so much at once.”
My wife took up a new hobby. She made phone calls, scheduled appointments, and shuttled me to doctors’ offices. We had long conversations with several of the doctors. They were quick to point out that they had no desire nor intention to place blame. I was quick to commend them. The other doctors were less conversational, and only seemed interested in tests they intended to perform at later dates for additional co-pays, and future follow-up consultations for the same. This was concerning. My wife was collecting referrals like trading cards, and her new hobby was beginning to impede my progress.
One doctor sent us home with probes and monitors we were instructed to affix to specific parts of my body before bed, which would measure all the things needing to be measured. My wife spent the better part of The Tonight Show clamping and taping the dongles and meters to my prescribed parts until they dangled from me like the jewelry of a space pirate. I lost all freedom of movement with these devices tethered to me. I couldn’t shave or spackle, paint or hammer. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. They beeped when connected; they beeped when disconnected. I couldn’t make sense of what they wanted from me. After a few nights dragging those things around, they had my wife drive me to a sleep center for an overnight stay. I lost a whole evening reorganizing someone else’s room.
With the experiments over, I could get back to work. I was mitering and coping an inside corner when my wife came down the basement stairs to talk to me about talking with the doctors.
“Don’t you remember what Dr. Phillips said?” she asked.
“Not as such, no.”
“She said we needed to establish boundaries.”
I examined the cut I just made. The power miter saw was not strictly necessary. I could have performed the work without it, but it moved the process along while still maintaining the required precision.
“Apparently, that was one of her more salient points,” I said.
Crown molding was exactly the type of boundary our dining room needed.
“Where are the boundaries? It’s three-thirty in the morning. We don’t have any boundaries.”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
She leaned slightly while I carried the molding past her. Dr. Phillips, or perhaps Dr. Senglin, or Father Kendrick had stressed the need for us to engage with each other’s lives again. Maybe it was in one of the men’s magazines. I thought my wife might want to see what I was accomplishing, but when I returned to the basement with my next measurement, she was gone. She would have seen everything coming together.
The maintenance was becoming unsustainable, however. Something had to give. Everywhere I turned, a spot needed wiping, dog hair needed vacuuming, the yard needed scooping. Dino’s half-masticated rawhides were omnipresent. Stains were inescapable. My days were spent following him with disinfectant wipes and a garbage can.
He had to go.
My wife abandoned her hobby, and began spending long periods in bed. She didn’t watch The Tonight Show anymore, and she didn’t ask about the powder room I took down to the studs, or the old pickup truck I planned on using for runs to the home center, but had to park in the driveway and dismantle the engine. I worried she was regressing so far into herself that she wouldn’t be able to appreciate the transformations around, and that she would reach a place where I couldn’t reach her anymore.
I circled the bedroom one night, noting the frequency of the drafts swaying the curtains, and the patterns our feet left in the carpet. My wife’s breathing raised and lowered the blankets over her in the slow pulse of a summer lake. She slept on her back with her head turned to the arm curled behind her, and looked posed for a photograph or painting in the way that people used to. I saw the picture of her hung, huge and solitary, on the white wall of an empty museum. It had the same curiosity, drew the same fascination, as any great canonical work. It was easy to forget sometimes. When I looked at her, I saw the world drawn to scale, unified, pulled together in a more profound way than I was prepared to experience. That it would be her who was here, peaceful and full of grace, well…I was still as awed by her as ever.
I stepped back to take in the whole scene, to study it and burn the details I’d forgotten back into my memory. But the more I observed, the more it seemed out of balance. Her upper body flowed easy over the pillows and mattress, an effortless expression of comfort and serenity. A cocoon encased her from the waist down. Her legs were mummified under the blankets. Such an off-putting juxtaposition betrayed the truth of how she should be seen. I knelt at the foot of the bed and pulled at the pleats and folds like opening a present without damaging the wrapping. I found one leg under the covers, eased it out, and set on top of the blankets. This little correction changed the whole scene. It looked like she wore a flannel and down tunic as she descended from a Grecian urn. But her foot drooped to the side, making her look bow-legged. I reset it and adjusted the blankets to hold it upright. It fell outward again. I cradled her foot in my hands and inspected it for any inherent causes. Her toe had healed nicely, but those hairs were still on her knuckles. They were an aggressive disruption, asserting dominance over the idyllic scene. Those fine, haphazard hairs were all I could see. I retreated across the room, hoping distance could maintain the trance, but it kept receding. I didn’t want to lose her. I thought I could touch up the picture and hold on. There was still some wax left over. I retrieved the jar from the bathroom and set to work, but her scream shattered the tranquility of the vision, and it was gone.
She left a discomforting indentation on her side of the bed. Flipping the mattress corrected this concern, but there’s something disproportionate about living alone in a large house.
I’d ask her to come back, but there’s no helping some people.
Reilly Joret is a writer and mechanic. There isn’t as much overlap between those two fields as you’d think. He graduated from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland with a B.A. in English and Creative Writing. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA. This is his first published short story.
You scratch because it itches. You’re over the moon with excitement. Good news always drives your histamine reaction and now you’re breaking out in hives. You drink a glass of water. You breathe, slow breaths, in, out, the way the yoga teacher and the meditation guru and the homeopathist and the ENT guy instruct. The itch gets funky, like a dance, up and down your arms, the backs of your thighs, a place between your shoulder blades you can’t reach. You ask Ben to reach for you and he says he won’t because scratching only makes it worse. If you’re going to marry this guy, you want to know. You tell him he has to and when he does, you know you made the right choice.
Susan Tacent’s work has been published in a variety of literary journals including Tin House Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, decomP, Blackbird, Ontario Review, and DIAGRAM. In addition to teaching writing workshops, she facilitates an assisted living book club where the participants’ collective age exceeds 900 years. You can find her online at susantacent.weebly.com.
The truth is, she misses everything from those days, the skirts they wore and the bangs they had, side-swept, always on the verge of disappearing, like youth. Like life. It all slipped away, as her parents had warned her, even the people. Girlfriends you thought you’d have forever, poof, lost to marriage or motherhood or minds suddenly changed. They didn’t want to be girls anymore. They moved to other states. They changed their names and lost themselves.
Disappearance can happen so easily. It was her turn, that one summer, when she was still taking the bus home. She was walking to her apartment across a huge parking lot, nearly deserted in the afternoon heat. Done teaching for the day, in her business attire, carrying a briefcase. Good hair. Makeup starting to melt. As soon as he pulled up alongside her, she knew who he was and what he was doing. How could she miss him? His face was on flyers all over town, guest-starring on the local news. This time he was wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, trying to grow a beard. He had been to her apartment complex before; a woman’s screams sliced into her sleep one humid morning.
Hey, do you want a ride?
A ride? (But my apartment is right over there, she thought but did not say.)
Yeah. It’s hot, so I figured you might want a ride. (Perfect words, faulty tone. The lie crept out.)
This was her cue. She bent at the waist and leaned in to get a better look. The audition ended there, with her bowing before him, briefcase tapping against her knee, all her lines cut. He knew what she was doing, could already hear her calling the police, though she never actually did. He tore off so fast she couldn’t read the license plate.
Sometimes she thinks she should have gotten in the car. If she had sat right down in the mystery, she would have had her answer. The truth can be dangerous but she likes to brush up against it. What if she had chased after the speeding car until the sweat rolled off her? Or she could have ditched her briefcase, jumped on the roof, and held on for the ride of her life, surrendering her hair to the wind. Her favorite scene: throwing her head back and shouting Northwest Stalker!, just to see his face. To show the world she got one thing right.
Jan Stinchcomb is the author of The Kelping (Unnerving), The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have recently appeared in Wigleaf, Hobart, and Pithead Chapel. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in The Best Small Fictions2018 and Best Microfiction 2020. She lives in Southern California with her family. Visit her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.
It began with a stove,
burnt mahogany dissipates in, wishing
the ember hinted the future: mother
running out of her favorite house,
home to the ancestors’ cedar trees. She had one last look
at her bedroom door, the one grandfather
painted pink, now dark red. I could only recall
the sound of its opening. I was raised
respecting scars that linger, knowing
they would not recover, the wail
of an old man coiling flames, the burning forests
sprouted in my eyes, planks of cedar etched
on my back. Every story
holds bliss, this story
was my mother alive. Every story
holds sadness, perhaps this story
was my grandfather’s. I was raised
knowing, able to see past my blank eyes.
The charred grain edges, infused with
butter fillings, slices of white cheese
wedged in whole wheat, a hint of salt
sifting through openings, a treat Nanay
bought during my birthday. One piece
was considered a feast, enough
to satiate a mind. It was a hero, trailing
a path to provinces, as if arriving
at dark alleyways was happiness.
Nothing is perfect, Nanay says.
Contortions made the taste last long,
for years almost, as if it would erase
our memories of the burning cities.
The tongue would caress a portion,
like a mother covering the ears
of her child during gunshots. I wish
history was like a lily, without hesitation,
rising and floating away.
Jaewon Chang is a high school junior living in the Philippines. His works have been recognized by the Scholastics Art and Writing awards on a national level. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in District Lit, Austin International Poetry Festival Youth Anthology, National Poetry Writing Month Anthology (2020), Ilanot Review, Passengers Journal, and elsewhere. During his free time, Jaewon enjoys traveling the city on foot.
It is midnight in early March and I am on the phone, pacing the wood floors of my sweet, single-story house on the east side. Since moving in four months ago, I’ve come to love everything about this place, from the nesting red-tailed hawks in the front yard to the train tracks in the back. It’s a weirdly balmy night in Nashville and I’m talking to my musician-projectionist friend back in Virginia, comparing my mother’s old gardens to coral reefs. Before it sold, my friend saw that house for herself: the superabundant lightning bugs, the blooms on the trumpet vine, the fractal canopy suspended above the creek. She gets what I mean about the flowers. I jot down some notes, hang up, and go fill a water glass. I catch a flash of white light through the slats of my blinds and step on the back deck.
Oh hey, lightning.
Minutes later, in bed, I receive a never-before-seen mass text: Imminent Extreme Alert: TORNADO WARNING in this area until 1AM. Seek shelter immediately.
Housemate’s in Bali and parents are asleep and I’m too new in town to have a go-to, deep-help person yet, so I turn into my own go-to, deep-help person. I grab my backpack, my grandmother’s opal ring, and the key to the cellar. This house has one of those outdoor access, cement-stair basements, so I need to go outside to get inside. The siren sounds just like the movies. Trees lash the air behind me as I pull the doorknob tight with one hand and turn the key with the other. It gives and I burst into the basement, rushing over to grab a thick white comforter off my painting chair. Within seconds, the power cuts off and the room goes black.
Okay, okay, okay, I hear myself saying. There is unusual pressure in my ears. I want to watch from the doorway, but I don’t know if it’s safe. From the landing at the bottom of the stairs, I look up into the dark, churning sky. This is not a normal storm. The lights of downtown Nashville, which are usually visible beyond the skeletal winter trees, have completely vanished. Clouds flash the color of split pea soup. Bursts of blue-white light explode somewhere off to the right. I can’t see the hail but now I can hear it. The siren revs up again and I exhale, stretching a single-syllable curse into an entire emphatic sentence.
I slam the door and retreat into the basement. Time to decide which corner is most likely to keep me alive—definitely the creepy interior closet with the breaker box and the hot water heater. I use the faint light of my phone to navigate across the room, knocking into a couple boxes on the way.
Okay, okay. I feel dread pooling my stomach, tension in my lower back. I hear the familiar sound of an approaching train, but I know that this time it is not a train. I wrap myself in the blanket, squeeze into the narrow closet, and pull the door closed. Okay.
The dreams started in my early twenties. It was usually the same clipped scene: me, standing outside, watching gunmetal-green clouds whirl above a forest. Half the time, I had my camera and took pictures of the funnel cloud as it dropped down, expanded, and started to advance.
For the most part, these were not violent nightmares of being crushed or flung into the air—I was just mesmerized and filled with terror. The dreams placed me in a moment of chilling recognition. Whenever I dreamed of a dark funnel cloud moving on the horizon, I saw the shape of absolute danger. The word impending comes to mind.
But what is it, actually, other than a symbol of doom? A tornado is a wild-card weather event, a ferociously spinning vortex of air brought to earth for a short time under exceptional circumstances. When a severe thunderstorm exhibits dangerous rotation in its mesocyclone, tornado formation is possible. But the factors that compel a particular supercell to level up its violence remain a mystery, as only a fraction of such storms actually produce tornados. It’s not yet possible for us to anticipate when or where a twister will touch down, if at all. In the dreams, and growing up back East, I always wanted to keep an eye on the storm.
If you look closely, nature makes for pretty watchable TV. On any given day at my parents’ old house, you might witness the second a hawk snags a starling off right the lawn. More likely, you’d see a groundhog sprint for the shed, an aggressive spat between blue jays, or a towering cloud formation straight out of a dream—but anything was possible. That’s the feeling: endless potential. You could never get to the bottom of it.
My parents raised me and my brothers to take an attentive, reverent approach toward the world: to keep our eyes peeled for oddities and unexpected blips of beauty. We were taught that your day can be massively improved by a brush with the other-than-human world—elements, animals, plants, all of it. Beyond seizing these opportunities, we were encouraged to acknowledge and appreciate them.
Growing up, that meant that we stopped what we were doing to look at an enormous black snake wrapped around the back tire of my mother’s truck. It meant that my brothers and I built bonfires out of cherry tree trimmings and ice caves out of blizzard snow. It meant that I got a full report from one of them after he witnessed a lethal duel between a toad and a praying mantis, and that my mom and I got to brag about the curious fawn that approached us in the car.
All this to say: I grew up with the understanding that human beings are embedded in a field of interdependent relationships. Sunlight, ivy, owl, oak—I wouldn’t be me without them.
Sometime after 1:00 a.m., when the tornado sirens stop, I leave the basement closet to check the sky again. It doesn’t look tranquil, but the freaky, dire feeling in the air is gone. Firetruck and police sirens start up, blaring louder and louder until there are blue lights flashing all over the trees. Nope, I think, exhausted. Too much. I go back inside the house, peek through the blinds to make sure my car isn’t crushed under a pine tree, and fall into bed. No dreams.
In the morning, I wake up to a bunch of texts from friends all over the place. Hey girl are you okay after last night? Call me when you’re up. Just checking in. We are safe. Damage to the property. Did you see?? It’s pretty bad. People died. Love you.
I issue a stream of responses and return a missed call from my brother, who studies, reveres, and tracks bad weather in a way that would make our farming ancestors proud.
“Did you get in the basement and everything?” he asks.
“Dude, I had to. It did not feel like a regular tornado warning. When the lightning lit up the clouds, they were completely green. Never seen that in my life.”
“You did the right thing,” he says, his voice knowing and grave. “You’ve got to respect nature.”
“Yeah,” I say, looking out the window at a line of cars being turned away from my block. The power pylon just down the street is now lying across the road, blocking traffic. “You really do.”
Ten minutes away, my parents’ place has power, so I drive over with an overnight bag. In the kitchen, my dad pulls up the Weather Channel’s map of the tornado path. He points to my house in relation to the green line and I gasp so theatrically you’d think I was joking.
“No way. Dad. It was right there. It was right there.”
“Yeah, it was,” he says. “A couple hundred yards, maybe. Your mom’s gonna lose it. But think about it: as scary as it is, knowing how close it came—how much more terrifying would it have been during the daytime? When you could see it?”
I think of my dreams, get a chill.
Turns out, when I could no longer find the lights of downtown Nashville anywhere on the horizon, it was because the twister was on the ground, heading east, blocking my view of the city. At the time, I thought I was looking into the dark, but I was actually looking at the tornado.
I try to spin the endless potential of nature as a good thing, but I’ll admit that its capacity for surprise is unnerving. At any given time, the outdoor environment you find yourself in may rapidly change. It can put you in a situation that didn’t exist ten minutes ago. Action may be required. Sometimes you’ve got to get involved.
My parents never said this out loud, but they modeled it all the time: my mom once rushed into the backyard to thwart a hawk’s raiding of a rabbit nest; my dad once had to catch a lawn-wandering, dinosaurian snapping turtle in a trash can. So it’s little surprise that when my brother and I encountered a dead white goose on the grass as little kids, we named him Gander and buried the body at the edge of the stream. We were known to scoop tadpoles off the pool cover in the spring, to check the filter for trapped frogs in the summer.
It’s not like doing this kind of shit makes you a saint or something. It’s just common courtesy. If we want to watch geese fly in a V-formation overhead and hear frogs in the summer darkness, we ought to show them some respect. To do what we can when we’re called to.
On Wednesday morning, I get a text from my friend that got hit hard: Let’s document with art. Whenever there is daylight come. There are side streets.
My walk through Five Points is punctuated by a series of stomach drops. The tea and candle store, the art supply shop, the spot where I just saw M sing. The nail salon and CBD store no longer have walls to speak of, and the back of the brewery is missing, along with most of its mural. Next to a stretch of exposed drywall, half of a large, green, cone-shaped hop flower remains.
When I get there, my friend’s house is swarming with people hauling tree limbs and debris into trucks. Her trailer and outdoor tub are lying in a pile of disturbed earth behind the house. Her entire fence is leveled, save for a single painted slat of wood. Three birds and a squirrel lie still in a small patch of the garden. I find my friend and hug her. I take photos and move around.
I find a blue flowerpot in a deep hole under an uprooted tree. I spot two planks of stripped wood stuck straight through a door-sized pane of intact glass. I see buffet tables piled high with free barbeque. I see a woman with a crushed look on her face standing beside a roofless music venue. I see feather tufts in a small circle on the ground.
Later, I try to get back to my house through the park, but it’s still taped off. I leave my car near the entrance, adjust my settings, and set off to see the downed trees.
I come across one pileated red-headed woodpecker, a couple of squirrels, and a single cyclist, but otherwise, the park is still. I feel physically activated and full of uneasy jitters. Full-sized trees are lying on the ground, limbs all over the place. Oak, pine, sycamore, hackberry, hickory, walnut—massive, gorgeous, ripped out by the roots like so many dandelions, strewn across the golf course, piled in crisscrossing heaps.
I swing my camera around and climb up on one huge, horizontal trunk, hopping across to another, shooting the landscape, checking leafy branches for birds’ nests. At the top of the hill, near my house, I see a ragged gap where the tornado crossed the train tracks. Looking down at the sloping hills of the park, I try to visualize an honest-to-god vortex thrashing its way through this quiet, green place. My imagination fails. I still can’t quite grasp it, even as my hand is sticky with sap from a felled forty-foot pine.
Thank you for the oxygen, I murmur again and again, passing from one to another. You were a great tree, tree.
My recurring dreams were visceral and hard to forget. I talked about them, wrote about them, and read about them. All the dream resources advocated for keeping a morning record, so I got in the habit of writing down the scraps.
In this one dream, my mom and I are standing in a crowd on a shoreline, facing the water. There are a dozen white horses in the surf and six or seven waterspouts in the distance. Everyone is watching but no one is afraid. Taking photos, I turn to my mom and say, Can you believe this is real life? It’s just like my dreams! To which she shakes her head, astonished. At that moment, I’m really glad to have both a camera and a witness.
Why is it that most dreams swiftly dissolve in the daylight while others intrude on waking life, commanding our attention? Why does one supercell scare the dog and drench the city while another spawns ten tornados across middle Tennessee? Such uncountable, unknowable variables, these are. The human brain, the mesocyclone. We are subject to them both.
Clearing debris on the north side of town the next day, I come across a small, unharmed tree that looks like it had been dressed with pale pink party streamers or cotton candy. Shreds of insulation hang from each of its thin branches, glinting in the sun like millennial tinsel. From a distance, it could be a cherry blossom or a dogwood. When I try to pick it off with my gloves, the insulation resists, coming apart in grainy tufts. The fine, pink fuzz clings to the bark like stubborn lint. I ache for a hand-held vacuum.
All around me, volunteers in boots and work gloves assemble in droves, hauling wheelbarrows and chainsaws. In the alleys, between towering piles of branches and roof siding, smiling people push carts full of water bottles and snacks. Inside the damaged middle school, folks are boxing up school supplies before the building is taken down. The day is charged with a palpable sense of purpose. The sun is high and bright. I’ve never seen such openness on the faces of strangers.
Checking my phone, I see my friend back on the east side is making plans to host a community drum circle. Local businesses that suffered damage give updates on their status; others that were spared raise money to support them. People share stories, solidarity, and links to donation drives. Music City knows.
I am trying to apply what my parents taught me—to respect the tornado’s right to exist while grappling with the tragic consequences of its power. To be aware, to be grateful. To hold the wreckage and the gathering.
A formidable force of nature tore its way through this vibrant city in the dark of night and the very next day, our interconnectedness suddenly appeared obvious. As if an ancient, secret lamp were turned on, revealing the fragile, knotted web that has always held this thing together.
We look good in this light. We should keep it on.
Rebecca Titus is a writer and visual artist whose work can be found in Mount Hope, After the Pause, Foundry, Susquehanna Review, The Hollins Critic, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Hollins University, reads poetry for Flock literary journal, and draws live music in Nashville.
The world was fuzzy. Victoria blinked. She blinked again and again until the room came into focus. A pixelated ceiling. A window opening to blackness. An unkempt man slouched in a chair, fist propping up a mess of greasy dark hair. He had sallow skin, dark bags beneath bloodshot eyes. Familiar eyes. Barry’s eyes? Benny? Billy? Billy.
“Billy?” she rasped.
He sat up straight, suddenly alert. He flew toward her, swooping down and kissing her before she could stop him. His breath smelled like something rotten—a forgotten peach, curdled milk. His lips smashed into hers, pressing her hard into the pillow. Every time she thought it would end, it somehow kept going. “I can’t breathe,” she managed to mumble beneath the weight of his lips.
He released her. He dragged a chair next to her hospital bed. “Do you remember the accident?”
Victoria had a vague memory of leaving work. Nodding to the resident peddler on the corner. Fishing a bruised banana from her purse for him. Staring at the steady stream of hypnotic white lines, the empty pavement stretching to infinity.
“You smashed into a tree,” Billy said. “You must have fallen asleep. The doctor said you have a pretty serious concussion.” He was grimacing.
“Why are you making that face?”
“It’s the baby,” Billy said. “They couldn’t save it. I’m so sorry.” He brushed a lock of hair from her forehead, exposing a ripe armpit.
Victoria wrinkled her nose.
He grabbed her hand, but she could barely feel his touch. “It’s not your fault.”
She leaned back against the pillow and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m so hungry.”
“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll go find the doctor and hunt down some food.”
After Billy left, she examined her body. The left side looked all banged up—leg in a brace, arm in a sling—but she felt perfectly symmetrical. She felt a large bump on her forehead, but it didn’t even hurt, like it wasn’t even real. She moved her hands to her stomach. She hadn’t even been showing, and yet, she felt lighter.
It was nearing ten p.m. The hospital was strangely quiet. Victoria got out of bed. The thin hospital gown hung from her body like a bag.
Outside, leaves rustled in the trees. The breeze drifted in through the open window, grazing Victoria’s exposed back. She nearly fell over. She walked to the hallway on unsteady feet, wispy legs. The gown fluttered behind her. She could barely feel the ground beneath her feet, like she was floating.
She floated out of the room, down the hospital’s corridors, all the way outside. The street lamps lit up a mosaic of reds and yellows blazing in the trees, openly signaling their imminent decay. The breeze rustled her hair, blowing behind her, going through her, carrying her faster, farther.
She remembered the great big oak rushing toward her. The flash of bark. The exhilaration she felt when she thought it was all over.
“Look what came!” Billy said, appearing in the kitchen. Victoria sat at the island counter, eating chocolate chips straight from the bag.
Billy set down a bouquet of pineapples, strawberries, chocolate-covered bananas blooming from a pot wrapped in crinkled red paper. “Get better soon!” the card demanded. “We’re lost without you.” It was from her coworkers at the marketing firm. Instead of feeling guilty, Victoria felt relieved not to be there, contorted in her desk chair so long her knees went stiff, her feet numb, tingling pinpricks climbing her shin until her entire leg fell asleep and she had to punch it back to life.
Billy wrapped his arms around her waist. He massaged her belly, slid a hand up her shirt. His fingers felt like clammy little tendrils. She slid off her stool and moved to the other side of the counter.
Billy sighed. “I know it must be hard.”
He gave her a pitying look. “You know.” He placed a hand back on her stomach.
“Don’t you have tires to rotate? Oil to change?” she said.
“You have to talk about your feelings, Vicky.”
“I’m just trying to help you. You could meet me halfway here.” His irritation was palpable. A hot white light radiated from his body, but it was hard for her to care. She plucked a strawberry from a plastic stem. It tasted like ashes. She spit it out, covering her hand in a stringy mess of red entrails.
“Jesus, what’d you do that for?” Billy said.
She held out her hand. “Taste this, will you?”
“That’s got to be the grossest thing you’ve ever done.” He forced a smile to show he was only joking. He wiped her hand clean with a paper towel.
He took a fresh strawberry from the bouquet, sniffed it. Poked it with his tongue. Nibbled off the end. His expression lightened. He popped the rest in his mouth. “It’s good,” he said with his mouth full, garbling his words.
Victoria braved the chocolate-covered banana. The banana tasted just as ashy as the strawberry, but the chocolate casing was smooth and velvety. She wondered if maybe it wasn’t the fruit. If it was her. This strange, new body.
Everything the living would consider healthy—the kale spinach smoothies she used to blend every morning, the medley of squash, carrots, and onions she’d roast for dinner—tasted repugnant to her now. The only things Victoria could stomach were peanut butter cookies, potato chips and onion dip, popcorn doused in a stick of butter—things she’d long avoided.
No matter what she ate, she didn’t gain weight. She remained light and buoyant. She didn’t even need to exercise anymore. She could spend the whole day curled up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, reading the books lining her walls that she’d been meaning to get to since college: The Brothers Karamazov, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights. She’d sit for hours, getting lost in worlds of heightened emotion that seemed so much more meaningful than hers ever did, oblivious to Billy puttering around the apartment, the neighbor kids squealing outside as they chased their barking dog, the phone ringing and ringing and ringing (“Don’t you hear that? The accident didn’t damage your ears, did it?”). When Billy asked Victoria if she was up for a game night with their friends, she didn’t even glance up from her book. “I’m reading.”
“I don’t mean now, I mean in a little bit.”
“I’ll be reading then too.”
“Don’t you want to see our friends?”
“I just want to finish this chapter.” She’d played Apples to Apples a million times. She’d never read Moby Dick.
She used to read all the time as a kid—The Boxcar Children, Goosebumps, The Magic Treehouse, transposing words into vibrant movies in her head while her classmates turned every boring facet of their lives into a game: pretend grocery store, pretend doctor, pretend dinner. But after college, marriage, the marketing firm, she never could seem to find the time or the energy to read as much as she wanted. It often made her angry, losing so much time to things that seemed so pointless—watching Billy’s intramural soccer games, reviewing ad copy for products no one needed. “You’re being ridiculous,” she used to tell herself. “You have to live in the world.” Still, the thought nagged at her, burrowing deeper and deeper, its roots taking hold and spreading as far as they could go.
It was the reason she finally acquiesced to Billy’s guilt trips about having a kid. Her boss wouldn’t make her come in for six a.m. website launches, stay until nine p.m. for client feedback, attend product launch parties over the weekend. She only realized what she was doing when it was too late. She couldn’t bring a kid into the world for a terrible reason like that. How selfish that would be. How cruel.
Victoria walked straight at the bedroom wall. The limitations of the physical world she’d grown so used to for twenty-seven years overpowered her, so that instead of going through the wall, she collided with it. Her supposedly injured arm, locked in its sling, was the first point of contact. Her arms were turning into a mosaic of purple and blue splashes.
Billy called from the hallway. “I’m picking up tacos for lunch. You want fish?”
“Chorizo,” she called out. “Make it a chimichanga.”
She charged ahead again, faster this time, full of purpose. She willed herself to keep her good arm down by her side. To forget her old body. Still, she collided with the wall. She bounced back like a spring and fell to the floor.
“What the hell, Vicky?” Billy said, appearing at the doorway.
“I thought it might be one of the perks,” she said. He helped her up, inadvertently smashing an ice pack against her shoulder.
“You need to rest. You need to get better so you can go back to work.” He tucked her into bed and pressed the ice pack to her head, securing it with a long pink ribbon.
She loosened the ribbon under her chin. “Why would I go back to work?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Dead people don’t go to work.”
“Is this a bit?”
“I’m hollow inside, Billy. I float.”
He crossed his arms. He opened his mouth like he was about to say something, his chest filling with air, but then he released it in one big whoosh.
“You’re lying in bed, Vicky. You just walked into a wall.”
“That’s just an illusion.”
“So what then? Is your spirit really in the bathroom?”
She sighed. “I’m still trying to figure this body out. I realize I’m not a ghost, but I’m some sort of in between. Maybe a ghost with a human costume.”
“If you’re dead, why do you need to sleep? Why do you need to eat? Tell me that.”
“That’s the nice thing about being dead. You don’t have to do anything. You can do whatever you want whenever you want as often as you want. There’s nothing inside of me. No organs. Nothing to sustain.”
Billy put a hand to her breast. “I can feel your heart beat.”
“That’s just part of the costume.”
Billy shook his head, incredulous. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, Vicky.”
“Don’t do anything. I don’t need you.”
“You don’t need me.” His voice sounded so cold, edging on anger. That’s when it hit her—there was no way he could possibly understand what was happening to her. She should’ve known, but her new head made everyone else so cloudy, so that she’d been doing and saying whatever she wanted without considering how it might be received, which was nice for a change, but it also meant she’d have to contend with consequences she used to be able to sidestep. Had she realized this before, she wouldn’t have said anything. “I’m sorry, Billy,” she said now. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m really tired, that’s all. I should rest, like you said.” She curled up on her side. The ice pack slid down her forehead, covering her eyes.
He sat there for a while, staring at her. She could practically see his body through the back of her head, the way it pulsed and blazed.
Finally, he left the bedroom, yanking the door shut behind him so it slammed. She squeezed her eyes tight, pulled the blanket over her head.
Victoria perched on the edge of the exam table, her jeans crinkling the paper lining.
Billy sat in a nearby chair while the doctor checked her blood pressure, heart rate, the dilation of her eyes.
“Your husband tells me you think you died in the accident.”
Victoria sighed. She rubbed her face with her hands. “Would you believe me if I said I was kidding?”
She stared blankly past the doctor at the wall. An anatomical chart of the human body hung there, illustrating stringy muscles she was glad she no longer had to worry about. “It doesn’t really matter what I say, does it? You’ve already decided.”
“She’s never this brazen,” Billy said.
“A miscarriage can be very traumatic,” the doctor said. “We might come up with all kinds of ways to cope.”
“It was the size of a centipede. People squash centipedes all the time,” Victoria said.
The doctor placed a little blue pill in the palm of her hand. “I want you to try this.”
“It’ll help you feel more like yourself.” He handed her a cup of water.
“But I feel better than ever.”
“Please, Vicky?” Billy pleaded. They both stared at her, a manic orange pulse radiating from their bodies, consuming the entire room until it engulfed her too. They weren’t going to let her leave until she took it.
She swallowed the pill, trying to assure herself that it couldn’t affect her anyway.
They both relaxed, and the orange receded back into their bodies.
“Wonderful,” the doctor said. “I’m going to have a word with your husband.” He and Billy stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind them so she couldn’t hear. Like she was a child, she thought. Maybe this was how the dead were treated. Patronized.
At first, she didn’t feel anything. But after a while, she felt weighed down. The left side of Victoria’s body, the side that had been most banged up in the accident, now felt heavier than the right. She hobbled lopsided around the living room, her swollen leg crashing into the floor with each step. She walked too quickly and fell over, her bad arm breaking her fall. She rolled over on her back and rubbed her tingling arm. Shapes began to form on the stucco ceiling—Billy, her friends, her clients and coworkers and boss. She needed to go back to work. She needed to exercise. She grabbed her belly and felt soft flesh—too much flesh.
She remembered with painful clarity the tree speeding toward her, the flash of bark, the rush of anxiety, and it hurt suddenly, even though it was weeks ago, it hurt. She felt the tree bearing down on her, crushing her, crushing the baby. She squeezed her belly, empty now. It was her fault. She was careless. She was reckless. She was selfish.
When she woke the next morning, before she even opened her eyes, she felt her body levitating above the mattress. All the worry was gone. She remembered that none of those things mattered. Why couldn’t she see it before?
You could work somewhere else, Billy used to say. Write for a nonprofit that helps the homeless.
And make my entire purpose and livelihood dependent upon their misery?
I’m just saying if you’re not happy, do something, don’t just bitch about it.
Well she’d gone and done something about it alright. She felt so lucky not to have commitments anymore. She refused to let Billy manipulate her back into her old ways, the ways of the living.
When she went to the bathroom, she flushed that day’s pill.
Later, when Billy said he needed to take her to a therapist, she smiled sweetly and climbed willingly into the car.
She tried running out the clock by reading The Grapes of Wrath in the drab pink waiting room, but people kept asking if she had an appointment. So she hid in the bathroom. She locked herself in a stall with her book for the rest of the hour, not even minding the open toilet seat crawling with bacteria, the smells wafting beneath the short, thin walls.
When exactly one hour had passed, she went outside to wait for Billy.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
“Fantastic,” she said, smiling extra wide for good measure.
Billy walked in circles around the living room, straightening books, folding throw blankets, fluffing pillows—something she’d never seen him do before.
“You can go back to work you know,” she said, looking up from Anna Karenina. “Clearly you’re bored. I’ll be fine.”
He put on a record. The Temptations’ Greatest Hits.
He shimmied over to Victoria. “Hey, let’s dance,” he said.
“I thought I was injured.”
“Think of it as physical therapy.” He took her hand and pulled her up from the leather armchair.
They swayed in the small space between the coffee table and TV, her feet hovering above the ground. She could feel the music pulsing through her costume. Was it fun? Maybe. When she was alive, she used to enjoy dancing with Billy. Was even the one who’d put on records and rub up against him to make him laugh.
He pulled her closer, smashing her arm in the sling between their stomachs. He rested his head against hers, breathed her scent in deeply. “Remember when I used to sing to your belly?” He kissed her neck, then moved his mouth to hers. He ran his hand down her side, across her hip, between her legs. She didn’t push him, but she pulled back so his hand got stuck in the waistband of her underwear.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“I’ve been trying to tell you. This body is all show.”
“You still think you’re dead?”
She sighed. “I know it’s hard for you to understand, but I need you to accept it.”
He grabbed her shoulders. “What’s the matter with you? I’m your husband.” He started to shake her. “Doesn’t that mean anything to you? Don’t you care?”
“Billy, you’re hurting me!”
“Now you can feel pain?”
Then suddenly, like a switch had been flipped, his anger turned to fear, to guilt.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” To her relief, he rushed out of the room.
The windows had frosted over, sealing them in a hazy bubble.
Victoria curled up on the couch beneath a throw blanket, reading The Stranger.
The phone rang but she ignored it. Billy picked it up without looking at her. He’d been avoiding her the last couple days, but she preferred it that way.
“Andy, buddy! No, I don’t think I can make it to soccer. I need to stay with Vicky a while.”
“You should go,” she chirped.
He moved to the kitchen, where she could still hear him mumbling earnestly.
She felt herself floating above the couch, her body filling with helium. She could float all the way up to the ceiling if she wanted to. She could float away. While Billy was preoccupied, she went to the sliding glass door.
Winter had arrived early, burying everything in snow, sealing streets and sidewalks beneath slick sheets of ice.
She glided out onto the porch without a jacket or shoes, but it didn’t matter because her socks hovered above the snow. She floated to the top of the railing. She wanted to float all the way up to the sky, but she felt invisible tethers tying her to the earth. She lifted her arms and closed her eyes, the helium tugging her up, up, up. Soon, the tethers snapped. They flapped loosely around her ankles as she rose above the house, the electrical wires, the tops of the bare trees. She knew she’d plunged into a cloud when the light filtering through her eyelids darkened and a soft, pillowy substance kissed her skin. When she was high enough, she stretched her arms out in front of her and flipped sideways, the better to soar across the great expanse of sky.
“Vicky, what are you doing!” Billy’s voice called from far below.
She would’ve ignored him, would’ve kept soaring until she could no longer hear him, but she felt herself being tugged back down, reeled back in like a kite. She floated down to the earth, landing softly in the snow.
When she opened her eyes, she was laying supine on the snowy lawn in front of the porch. She stared up at the sky. No clouds obstructed the sun, yet there was a dullness to it, as though it had spun farther away in space.
Billy towered over her. He must have yanked the tethers, pulling her back down. He picked her up and carried her like a baby up the porch steps.
“Put me down,” she said, but he didn’t listen.
He carried her inside and set her on the living room rug. He began peeling off her wet clothes. “Do you think you broke anything? How’s your arm? Christ, you’re soaked. You could have hypothermia. I better take you to the doctor.”
“I can’t get hurt, Billy. I told you.”
She touched her head. Her fingers came back wet with red. She licked one. It tasted sweet, like corn syrup. “It’s not real blood.”
He stared at her, mouth agape. “For Christ’s sake, Vicky, we can’t go on like this!”
She looked at him thoughtfully, relieved that he finally acknowledged it. “You’re right. We can’t.”
Victoria packed a bag. There were no clothes in it, only snacks and books, as many as she could fit. Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice, As I Lay Dying. The bag didn’t feel heavy at all.
Billy had finally returned to work the day before, maxed out on vacation days. She only had an hour before he returned. She left a note so he wouldn’t go looking for her. It wasn’t right for the living and the dead to be together, she wrote. He needed so much, and she needed so little. She hoped he found someone who could give him the things he needed.
Victoria didn’t mind being in limbo, but she never expected limbo would reside on Earth. Maybe it was the ones who loved you in life that kept you in limbo after death, she thought, with their insistence that they owned you, that you belonged to them, belonged to anyone at all beside yourself. Without Billy’s demands weighing her down, maybe she would’ve already floated up into space. She needed to find others like her, others who needed nothing.
Despite the snow, she didn’t put on a jacket. She didn’t put on mittens or a hat. She did put on boots, but only because it would be easier to traverse the ice if levitation failed her. She walked out into the cold. Of course, it didn’t feel cold to her. It felt invigorating.
Melissa Brooks is a Chicago-based writer with an MFA in Fiction from the University of San Francisco. Her work has appeared in The Matador Review, Arcturus, Gravel, and elsewhere. Her short story “Closed Casket Calling Hours” was included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. She currently works in marketing at the University of Chicago.
Squinting against whiteness the child left her mother beside the woodpile. With the sudden drop in temperature an icy crust had formed on last night’s new snow. “We’ll find it!” her mother called, watching the child walk on the surface while she stood shin-deep, clutching her stump to her breast. It was tightly wrapped in rags. Bleeding was stanched. The throbbing had slowed, perhaps due to the cold. But she was burning up, dizzy.
For a moment her mind took flight and she observed the two of them from above. Her daughter moved away, shrinking to a dot. “It all looks the same!” the child cried. “I don’t see anything.” . The voice brought her back. “Everything will be all right. We’ll find it. I promise.”
Charles Holdefer is an American writer currently based in Brussels. His work has appeared in the New England Review, North American Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and in the 2017 Pushcart Prize anthology. His recent books include Magic Even You Can Do (hybrid) and the forthcoming Agitprop for Bedtime (microfiction). Visit Charles at www.charlesholdefer.com.
When Mom died Rachel started asking questions. What did Mom make for Christmas morning? Egg casserole. When did Mom go back to school? I was fourteen, you were eleven. The questions got smaller and bigger, as though by their specificity they were magnified. What did she smell like? She wore Chanel No. 5. I know that, Tabbie. But what did she smell like? She smelled like orange honey and coral lipstick and bright green breath mints. What did her hugs feel like? They were nice. Tabbie. Like she was bringing you in and keeping you out at the same time.
You see, I remember everything. Rachel says I’m the only person who truly loves her because I know everything she ever did. She is my sister, my friend, and still—I lied to her.
Mom had a set of matryoshka, Russian nesting dolls, that she kept lined up on her bookshelf. I can see inside people like the inside of those dolls, each self tucked inside the others. Much like a mother sees all the ages her child ever was: the baby in the toddler, the toddler in the teenager, the teenager in the thirty-year-old. Mom told me once that when I stood in the sunlight she could squint and see twelve-year-old Tab, five-year-old Tabbie, and Baby Tabitha deep inside. Matryoshka means “mother” in Russian. Maybe that’s why.
I realized I was different on Thursday, January 9, 1992. I was thirteen. I was riding the bus home from school, staring out the rainy window. Greg Saunders was sitting nearby and I was thinking about how he pushed me at recess back in sixth grade. It was March 7, a Wednesday. I’d had cottage cheese in my lunch and Sarah T. said that was weird. I told her she was weird. Then Stephanie started talking about her slumber party and we both shut up because we wanted to go. I remembered Stephanie’s slumber party. We watched The NeverEnding Story. I wore my pajamas with the dancing toothbrushes and my dad was twenty minutes early picking me up. I rushed to get my sleeping bag and I forgot one of my socks. It was Saturday, March 10, 1991.
This is weird, I thought. Does everyone remember like this? I started asking.
I’m fascinated by other people’s memories: What do they keep? What do they forget? How are those decisions made? My husband, Danny, tells me people don’t make decisions about what to remember. Just like I don’t choose to remember every detail, he doesn’t choose to remember only certain events.
But Danny is a person who forgets. After we’d been dating six months, I asked him what he thought after we had sex the first time. He stammered, searching. I could picture little men walking up and down his brain, looking for a file that had been misplaced, mislabeled, or recycled. They muttered to themselves: sex with Tabitha, first sex with Tabitha.
He said, “Oh, it was nice.”
He didn’t remember.
It makes me feel small, to remember these forgotten things. That’s why I lied. These memories are suffocating. They pile up on me and I cannot breathe.
The day Mom left us was a Tuesday. December 6, 1990. I was twelve and Rachel was nine. It was a school day, but a heavy snow came through in the night. Mom paced the kitchen listening to the DJ read the list of school closures. “Closing school?” she said. “Ridiculous—it’ll be melted by noon.”
She was showered and dressed when we came downstairs for breakfast. Most days she was still in her bathrobe, packing our lunches. Mom had a part-time job at a dentist’s office, doing the books. But she was home when we left and home again when we got off the bus in the afternoon so what she did during the day was invisible. She wore a cream turtleneck sweater, dangly gold earrings, and her camel church slacks. Her blonde hair was swept up in a twist. Dad had already left for work, leaving early to shovel out the car, and make his way through the snow to the office. She made pancakes, a rarity. She made too many at once and they sat in a cold pile on a plate by the sink.
“Eat up, girls. Then go play. We’ll go out in a little while, when they get the roads cleared.”
“No school!” We shouted, “Snow day, snow day!” We jumped up and down and held onto each other’s hands. At this age I was as likely to trip Rachel as I was to paint her nails. We were tight in the love-hate hug of sisterhood.
We went outside to play, but after a few snowballs the novelty wore off and the cold set in through my wet mittens. Rachel wanted to build a snow fort. I tried to tell her it was impossible, that the snow didn’t make ice blocks like it did in the cartoons.
“Fine, Tabbie,” she said. “Don’t help. I can do it.” She took a handful of snow, which crumbled in her hands. She shook the frozen clumps of snow from her mittens and set about pushing the snow into a mound. She’d find a way, maybe, but I was going inside.
The house was dark after the sunshine on the snow and quiet, like no one was home. I walked into the living room, my snow pants heavy and wet around my ankles. I stood at the bookshelf and looked at Mom’s matryoshka dolls. The biggest doll had a red coat with small blue flowers and pink painted cheeks and a mouth painted in a small red bow. Her black hair peeked out from her red kerchief. Her blue eyes glinted with a dot of white at the pupil. I pulled apart the belly with a satisfying pop. Inside, I found the next doll with a green coat and the same blue eyes, the same black hair, the same bow mouth. Underneath her, a doll with a dark blue coat, and then the orange coat, and then the light green coat, then the light blue coat, and, finally, a baby, wrapped in a painted pink blanket. Her eyes were closed, little painted half-moon lids, always asleep.
I heard my mother call. It was almost time to go. I put the baby in my pocket and went to change. I left the dolls open and scattered along the bookshelf like a series of unanswered questions.
Once in the car, I asked, “Where are we going?”
“The mall,” Mom said.
But when we got close to the mall, we turned left into the parking lot for Garcia’s, the Mexican restaurant. Mom took us each by the hand, walking in the middle, linking us together. I kept one hand in my pocket, rolling the small, egg-shaped baby doll between my fingers and palm. The restaurant was almost empty.
“Girls, I want you to sit right here. I’m going to go over there, at that table by the window. I’m going to have lunch with a friend. I’ll be able to see you. It will be your very own special lunch date. Just you two.”
She smiled. Her coral lipstick shined against her white teeth. She bent down and kissed each of us, hard. She stood up and straightened her sweater, smoothed her hands over her camel slacks, rubbed her lips together to redistribute the lipstick. She walked to a table by the window and she sat down across from a man.
The man wore a dark suit. I saw him only in profile, but I was sure I didn’t know him. He was losing his sandy-colored hair, but it puffed above his ears hopefully. He wore glasses. I had never seen him before.
Rachel kicked her shoes on the legs of her chair. “What are we doing? Are we gonna eat?”
I kicked her shin under the table. “Shut up. Stop it with your feet, ok?”
I was trying to listen to my mother and the man in the dark suit. They were too far away; I couldn’t hear what they were saying. The waitress stopped at their table, glanced over her shoulder at us, then took out her pad and pen. She brought chips and salsa to our table without stopping. I kept looking over at Mom and the man.
“Tab, what are we doing? Who’s that guy?” Rachel asked.
“Shut up. I’m trying to hear them.” Mom was talking using her hands. The man looked serious. He kept nodding. He’d say something—break into Mom’s talking—and her hands would flurry to a stop. They would fall, like birds shot out of the sky, into her lap, limp and still.
The waitress brought us two Sprites. She told us our mom had ordered lunch for us and it would be here in a few minutes. There was a TV in the bar somewhere over my shoulder and Rachel kept looking past me and zoning out. I bobbed the straw in and out of my Sprite, watching the bubbles push it up to the top. The tiny little bubbles shot the straw up into the air when my finger released the pressure. Rachel’s eyes looked glassy; her mouth was partway open.
Lunch came. Mom had ordered us each two chicken tacos, with a side of rice and beans.
“Plates are hot, ok, kids?” The waitress told us. The plates were white ovals and the rice and beans were gooey, melted together with orange and white cheese. Rachel asked the waitress for another Sprite. Mine was only half-gone. Mom and the man weren’t eating, but they drank coffee.
Mom was crying now. She had a Kleenex out of her purse and was dabbing her eyes with it. Her nose was red. The man in the suit reached out and covered Mom’s hand with his. Mom slipped her hand out from under his to steady her coffee cup to her lips. She sipped, nodded, then put her hand back on the table like an invitation. His big hand covered hers again.
The waitress came and got our plates. Rachel was still watching TV with that stupid look on her face.
Mom and the man stood up. They hugged. She turned toward us and smiled. The smile faltered like it wasn’t sure it could balance on its own.
“Who was that, Mom?” Rachel asked.
“A friend,” she said. “Get your coats, ok?”
She took our hands again as we left the restaurant. She walked briskly across the parking lot toward the movie theatre.
“Let’s see a movie, what do you think? Huh, girls? There’s that new one out. Alone at Home or something? Want to see that?”
“Home Alone,” I said. “It’s called Home Alone.” And yes, I wanted to see it. Jenny had seen it last weekend and said it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen in her life, she laughed so hard she almost peed her pants. But I was vaguely angry. What were we doing? Why was she acting like this was normal?
Rachel jumped up and down, still holding on to Mom’s hand. “Yes! Yes! Please?”
Rachel didn’t understand you didn’t have to beg when something had already been offered.
It was cold and the guy at the ticket booth wore red earmuffs. “Two for Home Alone,” my mother said. “One for… Dances with Wolves.”
“That one started about ten minutes ago.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” she said.
“You’re not coming with us?” I asked.
“I’ll just be next door. You two are getting so grown-up, my goodness, we can do things like this now.”
Rachel asked for popcorn and Mom nodded. Rachel squeezed my hand like she’d just gotten us something really good. What’s wrong with her, I thought. Why doesn’t Rachel see how weird this is?
We got our popcorn and Mom walked us to the door of our theater. “I’ll be right next door, ok? I’ll be here when you guys get out. I’ll be waiting right here.”
I remember everything about that movie: the bit parts, the jokes that didn’t quite work. I remember more than just his hands on his cheeks in that mock scream. I remember him being forgotten as his family rushed out the door. It didn’t seem funny at all, to be left at home by yourself. To be forgotten.
When the movie ended, I was sick to my stomach from the Sprite and the popcorn and the wondering. I rolled the baby matryoshka in my sweaty pocket. We walked out of the darkness of the theater into the lights of the lobby. Mom was standing right there, just where she said she would be. I could tell she’d been crying. The man in the suit was walking out the door.
What had they done?
Mom drove us home. Rachel bounded into the house in front of us.
“Who was that man, Mom?” I asked.
“I told you, Tab. A friend.”
“Does Dad know him?”
She turned her head so fast a piece of hair slipped from the pins and slapped her on the cheek. “No,” she said. “No, your father doesn’t know him.” She walked into the house and left me standing on the steps.
Later that afternoon, I stood at my bedroom window and watched Rachel make snow angels in the front yard. She stood on the bank of the driveway and fell back, a trust-fall to no one. She was chubby in her snow pants, awkward as she tried to get up without ruining her angel. She waved at me in the window, but I just crossed my arms.
Mom walked out to the driveway and pulled a blue suitcase from the trunk of the car. She carried it to one side with both hands and the weight of it bounced up and down on her thigh. Rachel paused and looked up at our mother, carrying the suitcase. Rachel must have seen her, but she didn’t speak. The late afternoon light was thin, the shadows dark and cold. Again, Rachel fell back into the white drift, so sure the soft snow would catch her.
I listened as the suitcase was hauled up the stairs and then dragged down the hallway carpet. It must have been heavy. I heard my mother close her bedroom door. I walked the short hallway to my parents’ room and knocked once. I opened the door before she could answer.
She stood over the bed pulling out her green sweater from the suitcase. She had changed out of her camel slacks, back into jeans and a sweatshirt. She held the sweater by the shoulders like she was trying to decide whether to try it on.
“Tabbie, you’re supposed to wait for come in.”
“Want to help me?”
She handed me sweaters and I put them back into her bureau. She didn’t explain. I didn’t ask. Maybe she thought I wasn’t old enough to understand or I was too young to remember. Maybe she was trying to show me that she had decided to stay. I helped her put away sweaters, jeans, her fancy black dress. She put her mother’s pearls back into her jewelry box.
When we were done, I walked downstairs to the abandoned matryoshka dolls. I took the baby from my pocket and carefully recreated the shells of the dolls that held her. When they were complete, I took the mother doll with the red coat and kissed her little bow mouth. I put her back, safely, at her place on the shelf.
Over pizza that night, Rachel told Dad about going to the movies. Dad asked Mom, “What did you see, honey?”
“Dances with Wolves. The one with the guy and the Indians.”
“Oh,” he said, disappointed. “I wanted to see that.”
“Well, you should. You should go. I’m sorry—I just couldn’t do a kid movie today.”
“No biggie,” he smiled.
Years pass that way: being polite and passing the breadsticks. I read once that there are years that ask questions and years that answer. But some questions are never answered, and the years pass anyway.
I never discussed that day with anyone. I grew up, left home, married Danny. Mom got sick, and sicker, and smaller, until she was so thin her passing was like fog burning off in the morning sun. Rachel grew up, too, in her way. I never outgrew being the big sister. She started asking her questions about Mom. I answered them, faithfully. Until I lied.
Rachel was over and Danny was making paella. It was a Friday night and we were already on our second bottle of wine. Rachel sat on the counter next to Danny as he chopped green beans. They were talking about Spain. Rachel told him about a little hotel in Ronda she visited in college that had a theater room that played old movies. She watched Casablanca there, her favorite.
Rachel turned to me. “What was Mom’s favorite movie, Tab?”
“Out of Africa.”
“No. No—it was that other one. Kevin Costner. The one where he’s out on the prairie and there’s that Indian woman. What’s it called?”
“Dances with Wolves.”
“Right. Dances with Wolves.”
“That wasn’t her favorite movie, Rach.”
“Yeah, it was.”
“She never even saw that movie.”
“What do you mean? Of course, she did. I remember her talking about it.”
“No. Dad loved that movie. That’s Dad’s favorite movie. He went to see it by himself. On Saturday, January 12, 1991.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yes. Really. God, Rachel. You know I remember these things. Why would I be making this up? He went to go see it by himself after my basketball game. I scored eight points and Megan Parker twisted her ankle. And then Dad went to go see that stupid movie. By himself.”
My heart was racing. My cheeks were slapped red from the wine and I could hear my voice getting higher, like bubbles fighting their way to the top of a straw.
“Sorry. God, you’re touchy.”
“No. No, I’m really not, Rachel. It’s just you don’t remember these things and then you ask me and you expect me to remember everything but you don’t even believe me when I tell you. It’s annoying.”
“Sorry. I won’t ask you about anything. Ever.”
“Good. Because I could tell you things you couldn’t even believe.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You have no idea, do you?”
I told her how about the snow day and going to Garcia’s and the man in the suit and Mom in her camel slacks and her with her stupid mouth open watching TV. I told her about seeing Home Alone just the two of us.
Then I lied. I told her we came out of the theater and Mom wasn’t there. She wasn’t there waiting for us like she said she would be. We waited and waited and she never came back. I told her we finally walked through the snow-drifted parking lot and into the mall where we held hands and walked the long mall, looking into each of the stores hoping for a glimpse of her twisted blonde hair, her cream sweater, but nothing. We found nothing. She wasn’t there. As it was getting dark, we walked back to the movie theater and sat huddled together on the floor next to the popcorn machine. The teenage clerk asked us if everything was ok and when we said yes he shrugged and walked back to rip tickets. How Mom finally walked into the theater, her blonde hair now down around her shoulders and covered with a fine blanket of new white snow. How she took us by the hands and told us to never, never, never tell our father that she was gone all day while we wandered around the mall.
I lied so she would know the truth.
I told her everything that mattered. I told her about the blue suitcase thumping up the stairs. I told her how I helped Mom unpack and put away Grandma’s pearls.
“Where did she go?” Rachel asked.
“She was gone, Rach. She was gone with him. And I would see him, all the time, growing up. He would come to my basketball games and wave to Mom. God, we had him and his wife over for dinner.” I heard my voice climbing higher.
“Dr. Tillman, her boss.”
“Tabbie,” Danny said, looking at Rachel who had started to cry.
“She has to grow up—she has to grow up sometime! I know this. Why should I be the only one who knows this? Why should I be the only one who has to carry all this around? All she and Dad do is talk about how perfect Mom was. All Dad can say is how much he loved her. Well, I remember. I remember the fighting, them screaming at each other. She never came back, Rachel. She never really came back. She left us. Just like she left us at that movie theater.”
I stood up and walked out the front door, into the cold night. It had started to snow while we were busy in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, sorting memories. I hadn’t stopped to grab a coat and it took just a moment for the chill to set in. I wrapped my arms around myself and watched the snowflakes fall in the circle of the streetlight. The snow settled on the street in a quiet blanket. Each unique snowflake landed silent and anonymous.
I heard the door open behind me, but I didn’t turn. I knew it was Rachel. She stood beside me with her hands stuffed into her coat pockets. She leaned into me, nudging her shoulder into mine.
“Tab, I know there’s a lot I don’t know. I know I don’t have your perfect, photographic memory—or whatever it is. But I know Mom loved us. I know she wasn’t perfect. I know I only talk about the good stuff. That’s what I choose to remember. Maybe she left us at that movie theater all day. But she came back. She was there for us after school. She was there at our graduations. She was there to watch you play basketball. She loved us. Your memories don’t change that.”
I nodded. My throat swelled with the pressure of words I couldn’t predict.
“You’ve got to be cold,” she said.
I turned to Rachel and my tears touched her cheek before anything else. I wrapped my arms around her. I felt her shoulder blades fold, like frail wings, under her coat. I saw her, a little girl again, making snow angels, falling back, trusting the soft snow to catch her. I held my little sister like a snowflake on my tongue.
Marion Peters Denard facilitates writing workshops at Writers’ Room, a creative writing studio located in Jacksonville, Oregon. She studied writing at the University of Puget Sound and Dartmouth College. Her poetry has appeared in Adanna, Peregrine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. She is currently at work on a novel for children.
THE MYTH OF THE ARAN FISHERMAN
The Art of Jan Powell
by Melanie Carden
[click images to enlarge]
Knitting transcends time and is a dominant theme in Jan Powell’s life and work as an artist. Through her use and creative exploration of this craft, Jan has produced—over the past four decades—a tangible amalgam of heritage, feminism, and memory.
While working towards her master’s degree, another artist told Jan the legend of the Aran fishermen, whose intricately hand-woven sweaters have long been the topic of myth and symbolism. Though proven untrue over the years, the sweaters were long believed to help identify the Irish fishermen if they died at sea and washed ashore.
It was 2004. The tragic tsunami of Indonesia was still in the headlines, and the artist found herself in sincere sympathy for the families of those killed. The story of the Irish fishermen so profoundly resonated with Powell—whose mother and grandmother taught her to knit—she shifted her art to focus on the exploration of and use of knitting, so steeped in symbolism of identity, heritage, femininity, time, and memory.
What began as a conversation with the artist’s brothers, Parallel Perceptions is a monotype print created from deconstructed garments. While reminiscing, each sibling had such dissimilar memories of the same childhood story. It struck Jan as remarkable that though the basic structure of the memory was intact for each of them, the details—the fibers—had been uniquely distorted within each sibling’s mind over time.
Similarly, in Worn Out, Powell draws on her childhood. Just as her mom would unravel old sweaters to repurpose the yarn, Jan deconstructed children’s garments similar to the jumpers (sweaters) she and her brothers wore to create this piece. The symbolism of dismantling, through distortion, unraveling, and deconstruction, are as evident here as in her other works. Over time, our memories diminish, fade, and tatter—just like the sweaters.
The Fabric of Memory
Jan Powell’s artistic journey following the connective themes of fiber is also inspired by the work of the artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010). Bourgeois worked in a variety of media, including textiles, and believed that clothing is a metaphor for times past. Makers both, Jan’s mother and grandmother were avid knitters and dressmakers. The Fabric of Memory is a tribute to and celebration of this heritage. Inspired by Bourgeois’ metaphors and the feminine, lacy styles her grandmother wore, Powell built up layers of old, knitted garments to convey the passing of ages and the progression of time. Charcoal and graphite create intensity while the grey, monochromatic palette steeps the piece in the idea of faded diminishment.
Matriarchy reverberates through Powell’s textile work; the mother creates life, childhood memories—even, at times, the clothing. All of these strung together speak to one’s identity. Bourgeois once said, “You can retell your life and remember your life by the shape, weight, color and smell of those clothes in your closet. They are like weather, the ocean—changing all the time.”¹
Temporal Fossil #1
Temporal Fossil #2
It is in these ephemeral earthly elements that Powell draws inspiration for Temporal Fossils #1 and #2. These pieces—photographs of hand-knit shapes, frozen in ice—are designed to convey a sense of archeology and the fragility of the planet. Exhibited in HOT: Artists Respond to Global Warming at the Depot Square Gallery (Lexington, MA), the breadth of Powell’s storytelling is obvious. She has captured the ultimate power of matriarch, Mother Earth, as well as the juxtaposition of strength and fragility. Though not intended by the artist, a case can also be made that the effeminately cast Temporal Fossil #1 is a poignant snapshot of the complexities of the isolation of a woman’s infertility. The unattached string evokes a separation, a truncation in the ability to sustain life in the womb and here on earth as climate change erodes Mother Nature’s cycles.
Powell layers her temporal theme not just in the creation of this piece, but in its literal dissolve; the original has, of course, since melted. What appears cast in eternity is impermanent and fluid, like time itself.
Most recently, Jan’s work in Art on Science: 26 Etudes, is an installation in which a scientist is paired with and reacts to an artist’s work. The inspiration for her print Something Vanished was dementia, and it is a collaged monoprint involving photo transfer, intaglio, and hand-coloring.
Both her mother and grandmother, honored in the piece, suffered from dementia. The artist’s love of these women and fear of the disease are represented in the piece. Powell’s piece was paired with David Kaplan, a biomedical professor whose work involves using silkworm cocoons to build neuroscience medical applications. Now sixty-nine years old, Powell says, “As I am getting older, I’m sort of thinking, ‘oh my God, when am I going to get dementia?’ I hadn’t realized it was going to be that emotional.”
Jan describes how emotion is a catalyst in the creation—but also the resolution—of a project. There is no failure in art she says, only the idea of resolution. She will ask herself, “Is it resolved?” Her philosophy of resolution has many components, and it changes with each work of art she produces. It may be texture, color, mastery of technique, or, of course, emotion. She has six unresolved versions of Something Vanished in her studio.
As in many of her works, Something Vanished offers layers of transparency, begging the question, what has been lost? Though the idea of hereditary dementia may be daunting to Powell, it is clear there is still so much left to be done—created—resolved. Just as the artist’s mother would unravel an old sweater to create a new one, Powell’s deconstructed textile tells the story of renewed purpose, even as threads fray and time plays trickster. The fibers may be worn thin from life’s elements, but Powell’s work lends proof that the myth of the Aran fishermen was, in fact, true. The weave of your sweater is your identity.
¹Morris, F. Herkenhoff. “P & Bernadec M. 2007 Louise Bourgeois: Tate Modern, London, 10 October 2007-20 January 2008.” London: Tate
Melanie Carden is a Boston-based writer and editor. Formerly a newspaper columnist, she writes about food sovereignty, cooking, culture, and social justice. She earned her BA in food and culture journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a passionate advocate for lifelong learning—the traditional, immersive, and online classrooms alike—and remains an active alumnus for the University Without Walls department of her alma mater. Visit her website at www.melaniecarden.com
SOULS FALLING INTO HELL LIKE SNOWFLAKES
by Roy Bentley
“I saw souls falling into hell like snowflakes.”
—St. Teresa of Avila
Am I the only one in the Cleveland Art Museum today
looking for mercy? I’m looking at an artwork about Hell
or the end of the world, recalling my then-small son saying,
of the Challenger disaster, I’d have gotten out. In the painting,
there are boats and the boats are filling, the sea aswarm and
starkly bullying like the first dopplered image of a hurricane.
Angels with an artist’s idea of wings are manning the tillers,
captaining across a broth of larvae-white bodies, the deltas
and islands and archipelagos of extended arms and hands.
If the broken world in the painting does anything it repels,
a summation you’d prefer to skip altogether, thank you.
But if you’re lucky, you’re one of the rescued who
are now far beyond the graveyard of linear time.
When I was a kid, John Glenn went into space,
sardined into a Mercury capsule, Friendship 7,
and my hillbilly family cheered the tv-launch.
Appalachians think they know about an afterlife
and God—so when my silver-haired grandmother
read aloud from a King James Bible, finger tracing
the lines on the red-lettered pages, the birds of Ohio
a night-chorus outside the window, I could see where
this was going: to a hell of the Imagination. So I told her
to rest her eyes for a while. To settle back on her star quilt—
I’d read. I made up a Jesus. One without a beard and such
fragile looking skin. A man-god who looked like he could
appreciate rocket launchings, the quiet heroism inherent
in the dropping of bodies splashed down without shame
in a storybook Pacific, the wake of an aircraft carrier
roiling blue water under a big, glaring white sky—
my God looked like the astronaut John Glenn,
but I made sure he said the word verily a lot.
Enough to make him at least believable.
Roy Bentley, a finalist for the Miller Williams Prize for Walking with Eve in the Loved City, has published eight books, including American Loneliness from Lost Horse Press, which is bringing out a new & selected. He is the recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the Ohio Arts Council. His poems have appeared in Cleaver, The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, and Shenandoah, among others. Hillbilly Guilt, his latest, won the Hidden River Arts / Willow Run Poetry Book Award and will appear next year.
She says: your mother must want something from you.
My mother can’t walk or talk. Her body is bones wrapped in reams of moth skin. Her brain works in insect twitches.
At the nursing home, there’s an awkward expectation for her to die.
My mother looks at me, wanting something. The dark yokes of her eyes are always the same. I think we’re both confused about beginnings and endings.
I imagine telling the nurse: You’ve got the wrong girl. I never give her what she wants.
I’m a grabber and a snatcher.
I knew it when I plucked the rose from our neighbor’s prized garden. My small fist on the stalk. The snap made me think I’d surprised it, and I was ashamed. My mother, watching from the kitchen window, came outside with her Nikon. The picture’s in a frame on the wall. It is the closest of close-ups. Black and white. Me, in profile, the face slack, the one eye in distress, the flower-head pressed to my lips. I’ve stopped wanting the rose already.
I knew when I found the dead bird with the metal leg band in our backyard. I thought the metal was a precious thing, and I wanted it more than anything. I raced inside for my blunt school scissors. The procedure was premeditated and slow. Long enough for me to be repulsed by my persistence. The leg flopped back and forth as I worked its sinew, working it into a not-a-real-leg. When it was over, I knew I’d mutilated a dead bird and that I’d never forget that about myself. Those digits etched in the flimsy cuff. The stupidity of hope.
Here’s what I need to tell that nurse. My mother started to want when I was one year old, when she took me on a plane overseas to see her dying, estranged mother.
My mother always told the story with gritted teeth. Her mother was gone by the time we landed. I had been an unsleeping terror on an all-night flight.
I imagine that plane’s hydraulic thrum. I hear it in the obscene lift the two attendants use to move her in and out of bed every day.
In the middle school popular clique, it was shoplifting. At the local department store, Liz Miller and I glided up and down the escalators, licking our chops. I plucked at trembling racks of earrings. I got so good I could take one, two, three cardigans on the featured rack. I wanted and wanted, and so it would only stop when I got caught. My mother says: You’ve always been a greedy little girl.
These things that I took and took and snatched and grabbed? The bird band and the rose and the cardigans? Their currency was bogus.
As soon as I get to her floor, I hear my mother loud and clear. She can’t talk, but now she is screaming.
An attendant understands this as: More tea!
I’m the only one who can translate her. She wants her mother and I want my mother. I picture us all as hungry bird mouths. Little openings, skyward, stretched out to an aching point, stretched to infinity.
Give them permission to go. Help them settle the unfinished business. Assure them you will be fine.
I imagine death as no more asks and no more wants. I imagine the coolness that comes over the body, just like the hospice pamphlet described. My mother, myself, at peace, wanting nothing, limbs unencumbered by flesh and blood, unmoved by removal.
Michelle Ephraim is Associate Professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she teaches courses on literature and creative writing. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Tikkun, Lilith, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Morning News, and other publications. She has been featured on The Moth Radio Hour and is the co-author of Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas (Penguin, 2015).
The banana bread would not bake. Maddy had followed the recipe to a T, only substituting canola oil for half the butter, honey for half the sugar, skim for whole milk, and nutmeg for cinnamon. Putting on long oven mitts and pulling the door open, she checked the loaf again. Three hundred and fifty degree heat swept into the kitchen, already filled with late summer swelter. Not wanting to take the time to lift the single bread pan onto the top of the stove, she pulled out the rack, took off one mitt and stuck a toothpick into the loaf. Raising it straight up, it was plain to the naked eye—her reading glasses were sitting idle on the kitchen table—that raw batter clung to the sliver of wood for dear life. If it had been at all cooperative it would let the toothpick withdraw, leaving no trace on the twig, as if untouched by the experience.
She knew that there was a brief moment between when the middle was raw and when the entire loaf was done, but dry as August crabgrass. It was a narrow window and she wanted to catch it, having missed the moment between seeing her husband standing next to his suitcase—mouthing words, dropping keys on the kitchen table—and when he stepped out of the front door. He had looked at her, holding his duffle bag in his hand. His briefcase leaned against his leg. A large roller suitcase rested by his rear. “My keys.” He held them out as though in full explanation.
She wanted to say, What? You’re leaving? Leaving me? But she looked at him quizzically instead, not reaching for the keys.
He cleared his throat, as if disgusted to have to explain. “I was on a ski lift and fell, tumbling airborne. Afraid of falling, of hitting hard. Then I realized—you know you can realize things in a dream—that the snow was soft and I let myself go. Falling. Free.” He nodded. When she didn’t respond likewise he continued, “I woke up and caught myself almost rolling out of bed. Then I knew: it would be okay. I’d be okay.”
She wanted to say, That’s what you want to tell me? That you’ll be okay? But what came out was, “Ung,” and another, “Ung?” She would have given anything to be someone else—a woman in a sitcom, perhaps, with a smart answer followed by a laugh track and a younger boyfriend. “Ung,” she’d said again. “Ung.”
Now Maddy rechecked the bread. She flipped the finally golden-brown loaf onto a cooling rack on the counter, next to Tad’s first letter. It had been nine days and four hours since he’d left. She skimmed the first apology— “it’s not you”—and the second one—“it’s me.” Near the end was what she had waited for, and didn’t want to know, and didn’t want to go on not knowing. No one else. She didn’t believe it but appreciated the effort. Maybe four years hadn’t been completely wasted.
The spacious Philadelphia row house that they had shared sold quickly in early fall, before the housing market completely dropped. She would have felt bad for the young couple who bought high, but they were both lawyers and should have known better. The street that was now her street—with the narrow row house in her name only—was in walking distance of the old place. Maddy once ran into the buyers at the Italian Market. They were bargaining with a merchant, offering half the listed price for bok choy. She turned into DiBruno’s slip of a shop, inhaling pungent molecules of cheese and olives, heavy and thick as ricotta in a cannoli. She’d bought a quarter pound of one of the specials and determined that she should have asked for—that she and Tad should have asked for—more when they sold. Let the lawyers swim underwater.
A surprise October snow brought slush to her cobblestone street and ice to the front stairs. The slush turned brown and, in spots, black with hints of hunter green. Her boots came to her knees and thankfully so, for the brick sidewalk was pocketed with dips and trenches of the icy mix.
The next day was her thirty-ninth birthday. Feeling both industrious and a bit lonely, she joined a Tuesday night knitting club, admiring the creations of women who had been knitting and talking together since before she met Tad. She stitched a couple of scarfs and came to the realization that the women let her sit with them—let her knit with them, accepted her contributions of every other item for Appalachian orphans—and talked as though she wasn’t there. Not a question about her life.
At first, she appreciated being around new people and not having to say anything. When she shared a story or added a comment the others seemed to enjoy her anecdotes about her first-grade students. The knitters listened and nodded, as they twisted alpaca and mohair and worsted wool and clacked titanium needles in a rhythm steady as a cow chewing its cud, hour in and hour out. Their even rows grew with inattention, from balls of yarn into sleeves and backs; knit skirts with silk linings; and what might have been ordinary gloves and hats and scarves, save for a contrasting splash of orange or red against chocolate and navy.
Maddy also joined a papermaking class that met on Wednesday evenings and it wasn’t long before trees trumped sheep. She loved the rough textures, and draining color from carrots and beets and spinach to make dyes. After a few more weeks, however, she realized she had both a scarf and a set of note cards for her entire gift list.
Christmas came and went, with her gifts appreciated—though no more than store-bought—which confirmed the rightness of moving on. There was no future in wool, no tomorrow in paper.
Decisions became more rather than less bewildering. She stuck with cereal for breakfast, yogurt for lunch, cereal for dinner, with an occasional candy bar thrown in when hunger appeared between meals. Evenings of industry devolved from arts and crafts into weeknights of dinner for one in front of the TV, which evolved into lost weeks, then months.
She noted all her anniversaries, but couldn’t bring herself to celebrate any of them. The original one—her wedding day? When he left? The day they sold the house? The date on the divorce papers? Her friends took note of none of these. They came in two varieties. Her oldest ones had known her growing up. They never had liked Tad, naming him JustaTad after the first time she introduced him over a barbeque and he wore loafers without socks. Just a tad not like them, and not trying to fit in. Her newer friends, from college and work, were concerned about the breakup and wondered if she’d considered counseling.
Spring was lost on her. The tulips could have saved their petals of yellow and red, the azaleas bypassed their blossoms and turned their brown twigs into coverings of green leaves without pausing to show off in pink, red, and glittering white. She saw none of it, and was surprised to see flyers advertising strawberry festivals at churches. June, she thought, It must be June.
Back at school on the teachers’ last day, the janitor had vacuumed each classroom but by the time he reached the end of the first-grade hallway the canister in his machine was full and he gave her room more of a symbolic cleaning than an actual one. Using her own supplies, she swept and mopped the linoleum; wiped the windows with vinegar and crumpled newspaper; sanitized the desktops and chairs; and lovingly rinsed the green board of layer after layer of chalk dust. After four rinses the water ran clear and there were no streaks on the board.
Alone in her classroom, Maddy spun around in the middle of the room, her arms reaching for the walls, then the windows, and admired the way the room sparkled. Catching her breath, she pulled a fresh box of colored chalk out of her desk. WELCOME MAPLE LEAVES she printed neatly across the top of the green board. YOUR TEACHER IS MISS JONES. She read the words aloud dramatically and made a large sweeping motion as though it were fall and the new students were entering her room for the first time.
“Why thank you. Don’t mind if I do,” the other first grade teacher, Annie, said, stepping into the classroom.
“I thought I was the only teacher still here.” Maddy laughed self-consciously. “Don’t you love the way the room smells, clean but with a hint of chalk?”
“Incorrigible,” Annie said, and also laughed. She waited while Maddy closed up her room and they walked down the long hall. The cement walls had been hastily painted and were waiting for fall artwork. “Beading,” Annie said as they approached the parking lot.
“The kids would love that,” Maddy said. She had a vision of a classroom full of six-year-olds stringing beads that they’d made out of clay into bracelets and anklets and necklaces.
Annie pulled Maddy away from her future students. “A bunch of us—” Annie said. “I promised I would get you to come. All year you’ve begged off joining us for a sushi Friday or a Saturday matinee. Tonight, you’re coming. It’s Chinese and I know you like it.”
Maddy thought about Annie’s group of single women in their mid-thirties, hanging out while they waited. Too old to be laissez-faire, too young to give up: determined to be single and happy, whether they were or not.
“Dinner’s at seven,” Annie said in her no-nonsense teacher’s voice.
Maddy decided she’d go once—and kept on going into July, enjoying the low-key momentum of idle drinks and afternoon movies with tubs of buttered popcorn. Returning from the outings she would hesitate with the key in the lock, bracing herself. Her rooms had taken on the stale bouquet that she remembered from her grandma’s musty apartment, though Maddy had no mothballs.
Weeks into her newfound social life, Maddy paused, unlocked, stepped inside and quickly relocked. This time there was nothing, no aroma of aloneness, of having been left. Maybe they’re onto something, she thought, though the admission cost a little pride.
Approaching forty had been fine when she was married, but she didn’t like being on the old side of Annie’s group. She wasn’t sure if she belonged. Her quiet apartment told her she did, her dinners for one drove home the point.
She’d been busy trying on marriage—as if it were a jeweled necklace that looked desirable through the window, but upon closer examination was far too expensive, and made with stones that weren’t precious at all. While she’d been tied to Tad, the others had formed tight friendships, vacationed together and worked out whose homes to go to for Thanksgivings and other holidays.
As much as she wasn’t sure that she belonged in the singles group, the singles group seemed unsure if she was one of them. She felt like an in-law: included all summer out of obligation because she was Annie’s friend.
The group always rented a house at the Jersey shore for a week in the middle of August—perfect timing for Maddy, before the school year started—but no one invited her. Maddy was okay with that until she found out there was an empty room. She said to Annie, “That week sounds fun. I’d love to go. I can pay for the extra room.”
Annie looked away. “We save that in case Katy’s sister can come. She came once, a few years ago. The lease is in Katy’s name, so she keeps it in reserve. I’m sorry.”
Katy’s sister lived in Milwaukee and the odds of her coming to the Jersey shore seemed as likely that week as Philadelphia being pleasantly cool with low humidity. Maddy knew where she stood, which left her almost as low as when Tad left. This felt bigger: if the single women’s group wouldn’t let her into their inner circle, there was no inner circle left.
Maddy hadn’t gained over the last year but her weight had redistributed in a way that said Single and Not Caring. She took to wearing pants and tops with sleeves even in the late July sauna of downtown Philly. With a scant month remaining of her lush summer vacation, she was determined to make a pattern that she’d follow throughout the school year. Work out. Buy fresh vegetables. Cook.
She started by taking an afternoon to make a grocery list and leisurely shop. Heading home, she’d accumulated a cloth bag bulging with eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella under one arm, and a petite basil plant under the other. She leaned down to sniff the velvety green leaves. The licoricey scent made her close her eyes and inhale deeply.
She looked up, saw that it was Nick—flashed what she knew about him—fourth grade teacher, kids liked him, thick brown hair—and stepped into a pothole in the sidewalk. In the moment it took to hit the ground, she’d clenched her arms around the bags, which kept her upper body protected, but her right ankle immediately sent distress signals.
“I’m fine,” she said, trying a smile, as Nick ran to her.
“I got it.” He reached out, grabbed her packages and placed them off to the side, then knelt next to her. The first few pedestrians—who had seen her fall—walked around her, but the next few walked right up to where she sat before curving sharply to avoid her, as though wanting to be sure to communicate their disgust at the way she’d inconvenienced their passage. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” Nick said.
“Not startled at all.” Maddy looked at her ankle, which felt like it had swollen into the size of an acorn squash, but was in fact normal-sized. “It’s not purple yet or huge, so I don’t think it’s broken.” Mandatory first-aid training at school came in handy.
“Ice, that’s first,” Nick said. He’d taken the same first-aid class. “Let’s get you up.”
She leaned into him, and shrieked a bit and winced a lot on her way to upright. He asked if she wanted him to take her home. Grateful, she hobbled the couple of blocks, focused on keeping as much weight off her ankle as possible and wishing she’d already started her exercise program. She was pretty sure that his arm, which was snug around her to keep her up, and his hand, which was securely around her waist and pulling her up and toward him at every step, communicated to the rest of him that she was not recently acquainted with the gym. “I’ve been thinking of joining a gym,” she said.
“Might as well wait until your ankle’s healed. Don’t want to waste your money.”
When they got to her row house, Maddy stared at the front steps as though she’d never seen them before. She sat on the second step, facing the street. Propelling herself upwards using her good foot and hands, she scaled the six steps as though she were mounting the summit of Everest, backwards. Winded and in pain, she rested on the landing for a moment before Nick eased her to standing. Limping into her hallway, Maddy said, “Thanks, then. I can take it from here.”
Nick laughed. “I’ll get you iced and put these away.”
The Valium she’d been prescribed—but not taken—after Tad left were almost expired, but came in handy now. Nick found the bottle in the kitchen cabinet, nestled between the thyme and vanilla.
Maddy awoke in the night, stretched out on the sofa with her feet resting on a pillow, with both her foot and head throbbing, and a light on in the kitchen. Tad? She knew that wasn’t right. “Ice,” she called out. “Please?” The freezer door opened, then shut.
“Thought you’d never wake,” Nick said.
“Nick.” That’s who it was. “I fell.”
He pulled up a chair and sat next to her. “I was there.”
“I know. I didn’t hit my head.” But she was disoriented and tired, and didn’t want him to leave. “Thanks for helping me home. And staying. And the ice. I’m okay now. I’m sure you need to go.” She thought he was married or had a girlfriend or maybe a boyfriend—someone who would be waiting and wondering, even if he’d called to say that an uncoordinated colleague had tripped and he was being a Good Samaritan and would be home as soon as she woke up. Not that she’d kept him on purpose. The last thing she wanted was to be needy or seem needy. She stood on one foot and held onto the arm of the sofa.
He smiled and shook his head. “I know when I’m not wanted.” He made sure she had her cell phone handy and helped her to the door. “Lock up behind me. Can you get back to the sofa?”
She hadn’t thought of that. “Of course.” She could always crawl.
Ice, compression, anti-inflammatories, elevation. Repeat. In a few days she was able to get around with an ace bandage and a limp, as long as she wasn’t carrying anything. She composed a thank-you email to Nick, wanting to get the right tone. Grateful, not groveling. Hard to convey that in an email. But a call would be too much. A text was not enough. Immobilized by doubt as much as by her tender ankle, she wrote nothing. Thank you would have to wait the three weeks until teachers started back to school.
Annie—it was Annie, back from the shore with a peeling sunburn—who raised her eyebrows over coffee in Maddy’s living room. “He brought you home, found your Valium, and waited for you to wake up.” Maddy shrugged and Annie continue her gentle scolding: “We’re four days later and you haven’t said a word?”
Maddy nodded, silently appreciating Annie’s unhealthy pinkness. She would have happily sat there with her lips and heart clenched shut, but Annie was waiting. Maddy sipped delicately, barely parting her lips. “I got stuck. ‘Thank you for getting me safely home’ sounded cold—and too short. ‘Thank you for saving me from permanent humiliation on the sidewalk and an evening alone in pain’ sounded pathetic. Even desperate.”
Annie shook her head and smiled. “Try ‘thanks for helping me. I really appreciate it.’”
“Oh.” Maddy inhaled deeply. “That could work.”
“You’re like Goldilocks—only you stopped before ‘Just right.’”
Maddy composed and sent. A correspondence ensued: emailing a couple of times a day. Still unsteady on her ankle, Maddy took out a gym membership. She knew to avoid the treadmill until her ankle was healed, but she hit the weight room, lifting light barbells up, across, down, and back in burning sets of ten. She was surprised that her body responded eagerly. After only one week and three workouts her biceps reverberated with more of a ripple than a wave when she made like Popeye. Though it was possible that only she could tell the difference.
Annie, who’d been offering running advice for Maddy after each email exchange, was ecstatic when Nick suggested coffee on Saturday afternoon. She advised, “Beans to You, that’s the perfect place. Not a chain and you can sit as long as you want.”
Thrilled but cautious, Maddy said, “It’s a cup of coffee, not forever.” She could bring up how the first and fourth grades might work on a project together. Which she’d thought of but hadn’t mentioned to anyone, let alone Annie, one of the other first-grade teachers. Besides, Annie would wonder why Maddy had to have a topic to talk about with Nick, but Maddy knew herself, and she did.
Saturday morning, Maddy rose early and developed a new recipe for banana bread, with a touch of vanilla. Once again, her loaf refused to bake in the allotted time. She experimented with a second loaf: keeping vanilla, adding a sprinkle of cardamom, and doubling the bananas. She took the changes into account to calculate extra baking time. When she slipped the heavenly-scented loaf out of the oven the testing toothpick emerged clean and the top was a gorgeous light brown, with a slightly cracked crust.
Maddy checked her phone for directions. She wrapped the warm bread in a dishtowel and cradled it under her arm, excited to meet Nick and discuss her idea of class collaboration. Maddy knew where the conversation would begin; she did not need to know the ending.
Elaine Crauder’s fiction is in Scoundrel Time, The Running Wild Press Best of 2017: AWP Special Edition, The Running Wild Anthology of Short Stories, Volume 1, Cooweescoowe,Penumbra, The Boston Literary Magazine, and The Eastern Iowa Review. Another story earned The Westmoreland Award. Ten of her short stories are finalists or semi-finalists in contests, including finalists in Bellingham Review’s Tobias Wolff Award Contest and in the Mark Twain House Royal Nonesuch Humor Contest. Read more at www.elainecrauder.com.
IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT
by Brenna Womer
While shopping what’s left of the canned goods at the grocery store, an announcement at the top of the hour, robust and autotuned: “All employees must now perform a personal temperature check,” and I, in a pair of disposable vinyl gloves but not a face mask because Dr. Gupta says they’re unnecessary for the still- and now- and currently-healthy, holding the last can of Kroger no-salt garbanzos, recall they’ve always made this announcement, but two weeks ago they were checking the temperature of the meats.
Brenna Womer is a poet, prose writer, professor, and editor. She is the author of honeypot (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019) and Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance (C&R Press, 2018), and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Indiana Review, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere.
hands the swaddled child over. A dream is no place
for a baby. She has seen revelers pour the baby
from a carafe—he’s white wine, fruity like the summer
he is born into, and they drink the baby in the purple
dusk of a dream-cafe. She’s always too late to stop them.
She’s seen the baby become a city she might one day
reach, but the map shifts, its topographical lines
crowning, and her finger never lands on the same town
twice. Once, the baby grows up and becomes a murderer,
though not on purpose. She knows his heart is good.
He comes to her despairing, the knife slick and still
in his hand. His mother has splinters under her nails.
She has clawed the empty kitchen cabinets searching
for the baby. She’s flung open all the closets, ferreted
through the hamper, calling his name in ashen circles,
her light late and industrial, but his crib stays empty.
The numbers flicker silver on the afternoon clock
when the woman from the dream just hands her the baby,
adjusting the blanket on his head so his mother
will recognize him, saying, Keep him. Let him always be a baby, and the woman pauses and scoops up
a stray piglet, pink and winky-eyed, and tucks him
under her shoulder before she turns to go.
Mirande Bissell lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, where she loves to hike in the Patapsco River valley with her beagle. Her poem “The Mammoth Steppe” was the winner of the 2019 Stone River Poetry Review contest. She is a recent grad of the MFA program at Bennington College.
out my window colored heads bound in swiftness. in their decision to bring about movement
& motion. the snow is taking a break from falling, as it did just days before. the village is
painted in primordial gray, with roofs in color too happy even for a rainbow. eavesdropping
on a father being mourned at the mouth of the coroner’s bed. the aroma of death. a father
& daughter lost to loss’s gravity. a walk through the underworld would have to wait. his body
wasn’t friendly overnight. forgetting that it was capable of carriage, despite the force of gravity;
forgetting it was self-possessed, despite being broken down. anyone it keeps bumping into
when awake; it made what sounded like a voice of pleasure. but as closely as I allowed myself
to hear the bedtime fury, he was letting out what sounded like a body’s pain; wrestling to bring
itself respite. at least overnight. at least it should have been given a break. like in a fist fight
for survival. the mercury line inside the thermometer rising & rising. in cold flurries, the snow’s
motion resting, motionless. he inside the fury. I am with him, right hand on his forehead; as he is,
inside a breath, cataloging heat & cold. in hope of cooling. in hope of slipping free from the heat.
I am crossing a field with banks of too much snow. the grieving child watching with her eyes,
as she has seen too much too. you won’t recognize me. I see a twin likeness in the shadows,
under a thin light. we will be shadowless; skipping through somewhere where we can’t
or won’t want to be from
Stella Hayes is the author of the poetry collection One Strange Country (What Books Press, forthcoming in 2020). Stella Hayes grew up in an agricultural town outside of Kiev, Ukraine and Los Angeles. She earned a creative writing degree at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in Prelude, The Hunger, The Indianapolis Review, Small Orange, and Spillway, among others.
There are three women installed in the living room when I arrive. Smartly dressed, young moms most likely, with highlighted loosely curled hair, gleaming toenails, and tailored pantsuits. All have open laptops and cell phones—new information and guidelines saturate the air. I arrive with a friend because this is where our weekly writing group meets, at Hope’s house—because she’s wheelchair-bound and can’t easily secure a ride to our usual meeting places. The women are from the hospice—nurse, social worker, and gerontologist. It occurs to me that the more they deal with the dying, the farther away they get from death. They bring a pleasing scent to the room, perfume and doughnuts and pastries, which overpower the disinfectant used to clean up after Hope’s father’s renal stent failed in the middle of the night and urine soaked into the carpet.
We offer to come back at another time, but Hope wants us to stay. She rolls into the adjoining dining room and we follow, spreading out pens and Xeroxed poems and coffee on the table. We’ve done this every week for more than ten years. Today I’ve written a sestina about the character from Verdi’s Rigoletto and related it to the overwhelming feelings of vulnerability a father feels for his kids. Patti’s written about safe places and all the terrible truths a child must be protected from. We come down harshly on her attempt in the final stanza to tie this in with a drowning female Narcissus. Hope’s poem is about the mythological underpinnings of celebrity worship, the Roman Saturnalia, and human sacrifice. By the end of our two-hour session, all three poems are substantially improved. We will place them in folders, stick the folders into desk drawers, and repeat the process next week. I will probably bring another sestina, Patti will bring another poem about wrecked innocence, and Hope will bring one about some other aspect of popular culture. Or one where she flirts with and then castigates the Italian painter, Caravaggio. We hold fast to our comfortable subjects and styles.
We hear the conversation from the adjoining room. I’m sure they can hear bits and pieces of ours. Hope’s dying father is brought in. The nurse asks him about an open sore in his groin and if he still has trouble swallowing his meds. The gerontologist explains what hospice means, using simple and direct language, avoiding the word death. The social worker asks him which facility he’d prefer after reeling off a string of them. How about this one, she says, and I picture her positioning the screen of her laptop so he can see from across the room. Or here, she says. He doesn’t respond, and I’m reminded of my meeting with the activities director of the nursing home where they sent my father to die. He was barely alive and had a feeding tube attached to his stomach. So, what’s your dad’s favorite ice cream, she asked, we pride ourselves on our weekly ice cream socials.
No one uses metaphors, and Hope’s father gives simple yes, no, or I-don’t-know answers. One time the nurse uses the word spot, referring to an open bed at The Arbors. I think of Wordsworth’s phrase, spots of time, when he relates a particularly overwhelming experience from his own childhood where he steals a small boat and rows out to the middle of a lake. He’s surrounded by huge mountains illuminated by the piercing moonlight, and he’s terrified. And yet, he writes, these very spots of time “lift us up when fallen.”
Hope sits with her back to the others. When someone asks her about her father’s sleep schedule, Hope raises her arm, and without swiveling around, waves the question away. Several times we suggest that she join the conversation in the living room, but she insists she’ll find out all she needs to know later. Patti points out that living rooms ceased to be called parlors once funeral homes became known as funeral parlors, living rooms as opposed to dying rooms. I ask if parlor derives from the French verb to speak. If so, I say, then, we should think of our workshop as a beauty parlor.
Leonard Kress has published poetry and fiction in The Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and others. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex and Walk Like Bo Diddley. Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz were both published in 2018. Craniotomy appeared in 2019. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens College in Ohio. Read more at www.leonardkress.com.
It’s a damp, drizzly November night—Thanksgiving—and I can’t help but think of Melville’s famous orphan, who sets out from this insular city of the Manhattoes, goes to sea with branded Ahab, and eats hardtack with his shipmates aboard the doomed Pequod. ■ Blinky grew up on a cattle ranch in Miami. As a boy, he spent time in foster homes, on the street. He tells me about his father—then asks me to leave him out of it. Saw his mother for the first time when he was 12 or 13, around the time he started smoking crack. Saw her again—and for the last time—a few years later. ■ Blinky met the love of his life in Central Park. He was sitting on a bench, drinking a forty. Dani was sitting nearby. Hey, she called over, can I have a sip off your beer? No, replied Blinky. “She got all huffy and puffy, started talking shit in Spanish to her friend. ‘This cracker, blah blah blah.’” After a minute or two, he said—also in Spanish—Hey, I understood everything you just said about me. Dani blushed, got flustered. “Then I told her she could have the beer.” Soon, they were dating. She’d tell him about things like Pangaea, ask him about the farm animals back home. She spoke Spanish, English, German, Portuguese. ■ Blinky eventually asked Dani to go to Florida. They spent five years there. “We used to dress up as clowns and do street performances.” What kind? “Do jokes, bug around. Shit that clowns do.” By the time Miami police found Dani’s body, she and Blinky had been together ten years. Something about her death didn’t jibe. “The autopsy says one thing, the cops ruled it an overdose.” What’d the autopsy say? “She had lacerations on the back of her head, bruises running up and down the side of her body.” His voice softens. “She was everything. My best friend…” ■ A crisp, smiling couple stops, hands us each a small bag. Inside are soaps, lotions, Oatmeal & Shea Butter body wash, a single tampon. We thank them. They move on. I look over at Blinky. “We’re gonna need bathrooms and vaginas for all this,” I say. Laughing, he pulls out a small box of Ritz crackers. “I don’t have enough teeth to eat hard crackers. Baguettes, maybe. There’s not much to a baguette. I could just eat the inside.” ■
After kicking heroin in 1999, Jamie Alliotts went on to study writing at Columbia, Oxford, Dartmouth, and Iowa. A native of Oradell, New Jersey, he’s won awards and fellowships for his playwriting and essays, which appear or are forthcoming in Star 82 Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bayou, 40 Towns, and elsewhere. Alliotts is writing a series of stories about the horrors associated with twelve-step recovery, as well as a memoir about his experiences as a heroin addict in the U. S. Navy and on the streets of Manhattan during the 1990s.