Your hair is going gray but you don’t want to dye it yet. That would admit defeat. I part its darkness in uneven rows, with a comb, starting in the front and working my way to the back, hunting. Pull it out from the root, you instruct, but I can’t get a good grip with my tiny hands and I break it, don’t tell you, and I keep trying to find my targets. It’s not fun but I have to do it, or else. You are seated in front of your makeshift vanity and I am standing on a stool because I am not quite tall enough but you don’t care as my arms and legs hurt from the minutes that feel like hours.
You finally give in, and also decide to take me to get my eyebrows professionally done. The Brooke Shield’s look is so out honey, the man at the beauty shop tuts at me. You smile in agreement under your shower cap of black. You didn’t tell me that I would spend my mornings, my hands finally big enough, tweezing my own face, after this, but I do, and it’s all hunting and trying to pull it out from the root and breaking and remembering your anger which is mine.
Later I will think about those days of searching and plucking and breaking the white hairs on your scalp, the veins, blue and red beneath my growing hands, as I move across my own face. Sometimes I think about those weekend afternoons and wish we had shared something more than this.
Your auntie has too many damn kids mom tells me one day over a glass of Chablis. She’d just taken a capsule of Fastin for dinner as she laughs at her cousin living on government cheese and food stamps, cornflakes served with spoonfuls of sugar and powdered milk. Even at an early age, I knew the shame of being poor, of being fat, of being anything my mom thought wasn’t classy. On her second glass, she whispers the story of how auntie’s mom smothered her last child when she fell asleep, rolling her immense body onto the baby as it nursed. That’s why she has so many kids mom continues to whisper into her third glass, her slender hands cupping it like the face of a sleeping child.
The story behind the stories:
These micros deal with the complicated relationship I have with my mother. In “Tweezer,” it’s an exploration of aging and beauty as well as the expectations of being a daughter. “Of Being” continues this conversation with an added layer of trauma from extended family, alcohol and diet pill abuse. I am so grateful to Sarah Freligh and Meg Pokrass for their workshops last fall where these CNF pieces were created.
Melissa Llanes Brownlee (she/her), a native Hawaiian writer, living in Japan, has work published or forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Reckon Review, The Hennepin Review, Cheap Pop, Milk Candy Review, Lost Balloon, Atlas + Alice, Fictive Dream, Maudlin House, Five South, and Cotton Xenomorph. She is in Best Small Fictions 2021, Best Microfiction 2022, and Wigleaf Top 50 2022. Read Hard Skin from Juventud Press and Kahi and Lua from Alien Buddha. She tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at www.melissallanesbrownlee.com.
“Tweezer” was originally published in Red Fez, “Of Being” was originally published in JMWW.
Winter was coming. I bumped along the frosted dirt road in the Park Service truck, veering to avoid the biggest potholes. Any day I took out the truck was a good day, but the shining sun and sapphire blue sky made today all the more appreciated.
I was a guest in this desert for a few months, working at Hovenweep National Monument. Most days I spent at the Square Tower ruins greeting people in the Visitor’s Center. But days like this were why I was here: The times I could get out of work boots, into hiking boots, and step deeper into the nature of the place. Today’s plan was to check on two of the outlying sites and show a rangerly presence. We called it work, but I took an afternoon alone amongst the juniper trees and ancient ruins as one of the perks of the job.
Hovenweep, which in Paiute/Ute means “deserted valley,” is comprised of a handful of acres spread out across the border of Utah and Colorado, containing Ancestral Puebloan sites. While these mesas and canyons were once a bustling center of activity for hundreds of people, these days not many people visited the Monument, which lay nestled in the desert an hour and a half drive from the modern world. It felt like a deserted valley to me.
By December, the other seasonal volunteers and rangers had moved on, and only the lead ranger, Jim, and I were left to take care of everything. With just us two available, it meant I often worked alone in the Visitor’s Center. It astounded me that they would leave a twenty-four-year-old, white, hippie girl from New Jersey to run the joint, but with a daily winter average of 15 visitors, I guessed they figured I could handle it.
Today, however, held an uncommon treasure. Jim stayed behind and I escaped the Visitor’s Center to make the rounds in the cold afternoon sunshine. Hackberry ruins waited silently as I parked the truck and climbed out. The air was dry and stark. Nothing moved.
The desert plains offered little noise; no buzz of technology anywhere, no cars, no tall leafed trees to rustle had there been any wind. Only my feet created any sound—kicking stones aside, sliding across dry dirt, and rock hopping. I moved along the trail to look for offending garbage, or any signs of people at all. Nothing. It seemed a place frozen in time.
The Hovenweep I had begun to know held its grip on me as I imagined time in solitary confinement might; nothing to break the silence except me. I could scream at the top of my lungs and no one would hear. I could lie in the middle of the trail looking up and lose myself into the blue. I could sing my favorite tunes as badly and loudly as I wanted, without fear of anyone but the coyotes judging me. Sometimes I just sat, looking around, listening to nothing. It was the biggest sound I had ever heard. All that nothing, with nothing but me to fill it. I usually didn’t even try.
By 4:30 I turned back to the Visitor’s Center, avoiding the same cracks and ruts in road. I pulled up next to the boxy, grey-blue building to find Jim coming in from the last tour of the day. He blended in quite well with the desert in his requisite olive-green Dickies and hat with yellow National Park Service patch on it. Only his long, grey-white hair stood out against the backdrop. The wind had picked up and he and his four elderly and enthusiastic charges scurried in from the cold.
The actual area inside the building where visitors could stand and peruse books, videos, and various stuffed lizards was about the size of a bathroom. A doorway led to a room half that size where we volunteers and rangers sat to greet park guests. This connected to a third room, Jim’s office. There was a back door hallway, about the size of a shower stall, which connected these rooms, and one tiny bathroom out back. The quaint building was cozy and served its purpose. It allowed us a roof over our heads when it rained and gave visitors from around the globe a place to begin their journey into the castles of the past.
It was a mid-December Wednesday, and this last tour had been the only one of the day. While I had been lazing around the outlying ruins, Jim had been lazing around the Visitor’s Center, doing paperwork, and making sure to correctly count the eight visitors who managed to make it out this far. The elderly guests left and we began to lock up for the night.
“Talked to the Boss last night, and guess what?” Jim asked in the playful way he always spoke.
“They’re coming tonight to install the phones?” I replied. There had been promises of phone service for weeks now, but somehow it kept failing to materialize.
“No. They’re giving us a millennium surprise. They’re going to tear down this old place and build a new Visitor’s Center. Pave the parking lot, and the road coming in, and give us a whole new modern feel here.”
I wondered how anyone could construct a new building when they couldn’t even get the phone lines installed, but I asked “How long have you known this, Jim?”
“Oh, they’ve been talking about it for a while, but you know the Boss. Always tell the people at Hovenweep what’s going to happen to Hovenweep after it’s been decided. I guess they’re finally gonna do it,” he replied.
He spoke with a laugh, but I guessed that he was not pleased about the modernization of the Monument. Despite his being a pretty reclusive person, I had gotten to know and like Jim a lot. He had been working as the main caretaker of Hovenweep for many years, and if anyone was entitled to an opinion about this news, it was he. Unlike our current regional boss, who appeared to be only in the Park Service to see how soon she could become director of the whole operation, Jim genuinely loved Hovenweep.
As we finished up our daily record keeping, I took real notice, maybe for the first time, of the building my life currently revolved around. It fit perfectly into the flat desert landscape, neither sticking out drastically, nor disappearing entirely. It was there when you needed it, kind of like what I imagined the ancestral Puebloan people were striving for with their buildings.
While no one knows for sure what those ancient buildings were used for, some theorize that the Puebloans went inside for small gatherings, or to cook, or just to get out of a snowstorm. Whether the people simply did not spend a lot of time inside because the buildings were small, or the buildings were built small so the people would not spend too much time inside, was unclear. Regardless, the ancient people lived outside, on the mesas, in the canyons, with the world. I liked that about them, and felt like this aging Visitor’s Center was a reflection of their style.
“Well, who needs this junky old shack when you can get the taxpayers to build you a new one,” I said as Jim locked the doors behind us.
A week later the Boss came to Hovenweep for a visit. She met with Jim, did her perfunctory check-ups on various aspects of our work, and left before lunch. It seemed she preferred the flashier parks likes Arches, Canyonlands, and Natural Bridge, where gorgeous works of nature needed protecting, hundreds of visitors required impressing, and nonstop issues demanded managing. It was standard that Hovenweep fell onto the bottom of the pile for her.
But this time the Boss had brought with her the wave of the future, the architectural drawings for the new Visitor’s Center. As soon as she left, I dived into the plans with Jim.
It was to be a modest building, but distinctly different from the desert landscape. It would have a large interpretive space and shop area, offices, actual separate bathrooms for men and women, vending machines, and best of all, phone service. It would be built closer to the road, which meant those working in it would be enclosed quite deeply within and not have a direct line of sight down to Square Tower. I preferred the current setup, where the winter winds blew right through the single panes, causing me to look up from the desk and into the world outside. The plans looked nice, but Jim and I agreed that it all was so unnecessary.
In 1923, President Warren G. Harding declared Hovenweep a National Monument. Around the same time, our little building was built at Mesa Verde National Park, some fifty miles away. By the 1950’s, the public began to visit Hovenweep, and a Visitor’s Center was required. Some creative park employees cut the little building in half, and carted the two pieces from Mesa Verde to Hovenweep. They reassembled it, took a few pictures, and voila, instant headquarters.
I couldn’t help but notice that our whole job at Hovenweep was to preserve the buildings of an ancient people, exalt their lives, and understand their motivations, and yet the NPS powers that be were so eager to throw away this interesting bit of recent history. Jim began a fight to preserve the building, gathering historical documents and photographs, contacting retired rangers for information, and building a case to present to the NPS.
People who made the effort to travel all the way out to Hovenweep generally appreciated history, and they liked the story the old Visitor’s Center had to tell. At the very least, visitors suggested that the new center be built (who doesn’t like new bathrooms?), but the old one be kept to celebrate Hovenweep’s history. It seemed to the Park Service, however, that the history of the Monument itself was less valuable than the history of what the Monument protected.
Before returning to New Jersey for a Christmas break, I headed back to the outliers to hike the four-mile trail across Bureau of Land Management land that connected Square Tower to its closest neighbor, Holly. Arriving on another perfectly sunny day, I sat on a cold slab of pale rock to ponder the incredulity of these seven-hundred-year-old remnants.
At the head of the canyon rested a large boulder. Atop the boulder, a typical stone Ancestral Puebloan building somehow clung to the rock surface. Holly House. With the side walls completely flush to the rock itself, and stone bricks of the same color and texture, the building simply looked like an extension of the boulder. One impossible side door overhung the canyon below.
I imagined people walking all around this shallow canyon, living their everyday lives, and climbing up to that tiny doorway when they needed whatever laid inside the building. A whole community lived in this area, and only these few ruins remained.
It pleased me to know that at one time, in one place, right where I was, there were people who lived in harmony with their world. I didn’t doubt that they affected nature in their own ways, but they somehow had a handle on meshing with it, too. They built a stone structure that blended into a boulder and created a city that left nothing behind but that boulder house as evidence.
As I made my way down the scrubby canyon trail, I thought about the new Visitor’s Center that would replace our eighty-year-old shack and felt sad. Not because I imagined that new bathrooms would suddenly draw in hoards of disrespectful Americans to trample the ruins and disintegrate the structures with their greasy French-fry fingers. No distance of paved road, or glistening of new facilities would be quite enough to entice any but the most excited travelers to come here. No, I was more concerned with how Hovenweep would feelafter such a big transition. It meant the end of an era. The end of simplicity, minimal impact on this environment, perhaps even the silence.
Eventually, I came to the junction of trails that led to Square Tower and saw the ruins at the canyon edge. I realized that an entirely different era had ended when the Ancestral Puebloan people moved away from here in the 1280s. They lived and died and raised their babies in and around these canyons for hundreds of years. And then, they left, leaving everything of their world behind. Would they laugh at our silly little rock pathways and our obsessive ranger rules about not touching the stone buildings? Would they find it strange to feel a connection to an old building and want to preserve it? Did they carry sadness for what they had left behind?
I wasn’t sure I could ever know the answers to all the questions that Hovenweep asked. But I knew that I wanted future visitors to be able to stand in the silence of this place and reach out with their own hearts and minds into the deep nothing and discern for themselves the answers.
The threat of a world computer crash riveted the news as I made my way back to the desert after Christmas holiday. I arrived on December 31st, 1999, prepared for at least three more months of silent service to the Monument. I watched some New Year’s Eve celebrations on the static-y TV, and figured that since Sydney and Beijing had not melted into oblivion at the changing of the clock, then we Americans probably wouldn’t fare much worse. With Jim sequestered in his house for the night, I went to bed early in my own apartment, ready for another quiet day at the Visitor’s Center. I doubted anyone would come on New Year’s Day, but I would be well-rested to greet them if they did.
I awoke to a sound. Like the foolish girls in horror movies, I tiptoed to the living room to see what it was. I stood in the dark and heard a soft dripping noise on the roof. The living room clock turned to midnight as I moved to the front door and stepped out into the night.
It had begun to snow. I looked up into the black sky and the million stars I usually saw there had been replaced by millions of white flakes drifting down on me. I laughed to myself. If this was the oblivion of the new century, I would take it.
The thin veil between the lives of the Ancestors and my own lifted, ever so silently, ever so briefly. I finally understood. I knew that they had felt some sadness as they gathered their babies and left their world behind. I would feel the same way when my time in the deserted valley ended. I loved the old grey Visitor’s Center, as I loved the old Puebloan buildings of stone, but any one building, whether from this era or one long past, did not make this place what it was. A year from now, when new staff, new bathrooms, new phones, and a big shiny Visitor’s Center building overtook this land, it would still be Hovenweep. Just as it had been for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The cold air whispered across my face and the wet snow clung to my hair. Winter had arrived.
The story behind the story:
“Deserted Valley” was the first essay I ever published. At that time my writing process was undeveloped. I knew the story I wanted to tell with the piece, but I wasn’t sure how to get there. I wrote it more than ten years after the winter I spent at Hovenweep National Monument, so I went back to my old journals and photos to glean the day-to-day life I had lived in the desert. It sounds cliché, but Hovenweep is a truly magical place, and I wanted to tap into that source again. I sat quietly at my writing desk and allowed the memories and moods of that landscape to resurface. The more I did that, the more easily the words spilled onto the page and the pieces came together into something I hoped would reflect the beauty and power of Hovenweep.
Amanda K. Jaros is a freelance writer and editor. Her essay “Blood Mountain” won the 2017 Notes from the Field contest at Flyway Journal. Other work has appeared in journals including Terrain.org, Newfound, Appalachia, Stone Canoe, and elsewhere. She is the Editor-in-Chief at Literary Mama and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University. She lives in Ithaca, NY with her husband and son.
“Deserted Valley” was first published in print in Pilgrimage Magazine in 2013.
The weight of light can be measured by my uncle Kev’s death. But before that, some memories: it’s family dinner and uncle Kev’s explaining how the bread mashed in his ex-boxer’s, sixty-year-old fist represents Pangea and the glass of wine in his fingers the Tethys Sea. He’s telling us about the earth’s history, Wegener’s theory of continental drift, orogeny, extinct volcanoes, dragonflies in amber, and trilobites. Mom and dad tune him out. As do I. I get enough of that kind of shit at school. But uncle Kev doesn’t care. He’s relentless, a natural fighter, and won’t stop until he’s educated me properly. Most of his instructing, though, takes place in his car, when he’s driving me somewhere. There’s no escaping him there.
When he talks about light, his eyes gleam like wet pebbles. He always smells nice, like Old Spice™️ aftershave. He waves his hands a lot. They’re hairy and tufted, like a coconut. His polished nails blur cyan in the air. One time, he tells me about how light actually dies, as it hits our eyes, and says, “Isn’t that beautiful, I mean that light must die so we can see?” I wish I’d really been listening to him, at what he was really trying to tell me, but I thought he was just plugging some lame metaphor: like light is just like Jesus, always sacrificing and always giving, as if light exists in some sublime state of eternal crucifixion and resurrection. And I reply: Maybe light would rather not die. Maybe light doesn’t give a shit about our sight.
It’s the only time I remember him giving me a grieved look. But this was before, and now we’re driving down Route One and uncle Kev blurts out, “Kinch”, which is what he calls me after reading Ulysses, “Answer me this, How’s the spirit supposed to fecking survive when it’s got to look at this shite every fooking day?,” nodding at the strip malls and billboards, a question whose unanswered weight each passing season presses down on me like ten thousand leaves, maybe more, because soon afterwards came his limp wrists floating like pale petals in a pink scurf that won’t come out of the tiles. And because he still burns and reaches me like light from a dead star, it makes no sense to say he no longer exists, especially, when I see him, as a child, basking on kilned rocks after swimming in the cold water of Keeley Bay, telling me how much he loves it there, the sunbaked scent of stranded kelp, the wisps of tickling seaweed, and the way light rushes into spaces he never knew about inside him: shooting deep inside him, promising him that it will always be there and never leave him. And I wonder too, sometimes, if what he did was his way of giving back the gift, so light could see things it couldn’t otherwise see, and whether somewhere, perhaps not so far off, he stills skips up to some sunny attic, where he unpacks his sewing machine and stitches a dress from old curtains, hoping that with his new lip stick and pumps, when he hits the streets that night, he might get lucky.
(For my uncle who took my education upon himself, since he trusted no school to do it.)
The story behind the story:
This piece is the first in a series I’ve been writing about an uncle (“Uncle Kev) who’s been visiting a teen version of myself over the last year or so. He’s Irish (like my grandfather) and was a formidable boxer. He’s annoying. He demands to be heard. He’s trying to stop me from molding myself too closely to society’s conforming demands. His life’s project is to do away with my high school’s curriculum so I can learn to think for myself. He’s obsessed with light, too, and will abuse any chance he has to lecture about its physical, ethical, literary and philosophical properties. I think, also, he comes around because he can’t save himself, so he’s trying to save me. Uncle Kev has visited X-R-A-Y Lit, Orca, Janus Literary and will appear soon in Atticus Review.
Work is forthcoming or appeared in Pithead Chapel, Vestal Review, Reflex Press, Scrawl Place, Best Small Fictions(2021), trampset, X-R-A-Y Lit, Fiction International, Orca Lit, Atticus Review, Ellipses Zine and other print and online journals. Find him on Twitter.
“The Weight of Light” was first published in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine.
Her tail is up and there is a spring to her step as my Labrador non-retriever mix heads out on her morning walk through the manicured landscape of our gated, cookie-cutter community. The Saint Augustine grass is thick and coarse and while she is not fond of the feel of it on her paw pads, she does love a leisurely sniff of the secrets hidden deep inside the nearly impenetrable mat.
There went Barnum, the lumbering old English Lab she so wants to romp with, but who makes the hair on her back stand up like she must have a touch of Rhodesian Ridgeback somewhere in her DNA. Barnum’s scent is fresh— he must have been here already this morning. And here, here is the scent of little Raven, the sweet and timid Schnauzer with the lovely silky beard who shakes and trembles even as she approaches, trying to make friends.
After a short time, we come to the special place. This deeply shaded area is a scene straight out of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and Sugar approaches with not-quite-unbridled curiosity and more than a bit of trepidation. The sniffing becomes more intense and her ears are now lying back like the fins on a ‘57 Chevy. What’s that? A scaly armadillo? Or perhaps it’s an otter or a bobcat. These scents are still unfamiliar. It’s not the rabbit or squirrel or even the fox she knew from our Northern home. This reeks of something deliciously feral and, though she is cautious, she wants to know more.
This small oasis in the middle of a beautiful but homogenous plant palette is a thicket of saw palmetto, Sabal palm, prickly Bidens alba, and grand live oaks heavy with tillandsia. Hundreds of ball moss cling like gnarled claws to knobby branches while the Spanish Moss hangs like flowing tresses, making me think of fairy tale witches and their spells. The damp fetid earth, the mosses and lichens, the decomposing bodies of snakes and grubs, all sustaining so much life. Even as the plant and animal carcasses pile up, millions of creatures are living and breeding in this bio-soup of steamy bog. Towering old Slash pines welcome nesting herons, owls, and hook-beaked ibis. By the grace of all that is sacred, the landscape crew with Roundup tanks on their backs do not bother to come here. Maybe the witch has scared them off.
If I would let her, this dog would dig here in the deep pile of dropped fronds from the cabbage palms, unearthing ants and beetles, anoles, and God knows what else. She would dive in and roll about with abandon, loving the feel and the smell of it all on her coat. How she would love to get her teeth on a real scrap of bone and sinew, with maybe even a bit of fur left behind to tickle her palate
A small ringneck snake catches her attention and I pull her away before she can pounce on it. I keep her a safe distance from the hefty toxic Bufo toad who looks stern and judgmental and the two-striped walking stick that can shoot its stinging venom straight into your eye from quite a distance, and won’t hesitate to do so as my little fluffy dog who waits at home for her walk will tell you.
The rescue people said Sugar had one puppy, maybe there were more, but only one that they knew of. The details were sketchy, but it looked as though it hadn’t been too long ago that she’d nursed her pup.
Who knows what stories Sugar would tell if she could? Why did she cower that night early on as my husband took off his belt preparing for bed? Why does she timidly approach, yet still shrink back when a man reaches out to pet her?
Sometimes Sugar romps and frolics and acts like a puppy as though she’s fully recovered from the bad times. She’ll wag her tail and smile, and it seems that all is right in her world. There are times though, that she is very sorrowful. She’ll plod along with her head down or curl up in a corner with a loud sigh. It’s these times that I find it so hard to comprehend how people can believe that animals don’t have memory and feelings of sadness and despair.
Sugar and I have gone gray together over these past ten years. I do my best to give her happy moments and give her space to have her lamentations. I hope that our walks on the wild side will take her out of the sad place she goes to when she’s too long confined in the house. But wait! That’s me. It’s me that needs to get outside – to see and smell the wild things, to dig in the dirt, to stir the soup and explore the bog.
Maybe it’s really Sugar that’s doing her best to give me happy moments and space for mylamentations. We’ve learned a lot from one another, and although we talk long and often, there are secrets so terrible that neither of us will ever be able to share. It would break our hearts.
Satisfied for now that all is well in our jungle, we are silent on the short walk back to civilization.
These small wild places, these exquisite gifts tucked away in our urban landscape, offer respite from the safety of our air-conditioned fortress. Sugar will lie on the cool tile, feet racing as she chases the wild prey of her dreams. I will sit nearby, reading of adventure.
The story behind the story:
While looking for a home, my husband and I found the unusual HOA in Florida that would allow Sugar, our 70-pound lab mix and Sophie, our 14-pound Bichon. We could, if we wished, even add a third dog to our family. We rented with an option to buy. I wrote Wild Thing in my head while on a morning walk with Sugar. It was one of the first essays I ever published. I was not yet comfortable writing about my daughter’s suicide. So afraid of judgment, so mindful of the stigma, I allude to that grief in the essay, but leave it to the reader to gauge. Melancholy or Madness?
One day I counted 13 vultures roosting in a dead tree and thought it an omen. Although my husband and I made some lasting friendships and there were some great things about the community (a poetry slam with guitars and steel drum!), we soon decided the gated oasis was not for us.
I read most of my work to Sugar before submitting. Little Sophie recently crossed the rainbow bridge, but I still talk to her too.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is an essayist from Baltimore. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine, the Brevity Blog, Shondaland, and elsewhere. Her essays, have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. Her essay collection, Love in the Archives, is forthcoming in 2023 from Apprentice House Press, Loyola University. Find her on Twitter here.
“Wild Thing” was first published in In Parentheses Magazine.
The A/C won’t work, so I call a repairman. His name, he tells me at the door, is Matthew. I lead him to the office we added on ten years ago—it has a separate system—and point out the little trapdoor in the ceiling. He’s up there a long, long time, and when he finds me in the kitchen, he’s slick with sweat. He says that the access to the heating and cooling is way too small. Very hard to get up there, very hard to navigate once you’re up there. And Matthew is a small man, not much taller than me. Worse, says Matthew, when the unit blows and needs to be replaced, the ceiling will need to come down. He wipes an elbow across his dripping forehead, then digs out his phone. He shows me a photo of his tape measure stretched across the A/C, then stretched across the joists: the A/C is wider. Matthew tells me he emailed a video to his buddies. It’s not desirable, I know, for one’s house to provide lunch break entertainment for so jaded a guild as the A/C repairmen of Mississippi. Matthew says a door should be cut high up on the wall for repairs, because, as is, it’s near impossible to change a coil or fan unit. He says this door would be at the ass end of the unit, but that that’s better than nothing. He says that if he gains a few (here he pats his wet shirt, stuck to his abs) he couldn’t squeeze up there, even with a shoehorn and a crock full of bacon grease. Matthew: it’s possible that at this point I have a slight crush on Matthew. Small, trim men can be so appealing. Also, authority makes me horny. I’m willing to concede that, in addition to heating and cooling, there are numerous subjects of which I’m ignorant. Several years ago, on vacation with my former college roommates, the five of us sat around the way we do, drinking and catching up. The quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire had just begun airing. One of my roommates, Laura, a biologist and high school teacher, had auditioned for the show, graduating through several levels, though ultimately she wasn’t chosen. She told how part of her was relieved because she would have been embarrassed in front of her students if she got tripped up on a simple question. “Yeah,” said Beth, director of social work for a big prison and a master of TV trivia, “I’m relieved, too. I mean, what if you used ‘Phone a Friend’ and there I was, your entertainment lifeline, and I couldn’t come up with, like, the name of the car on Knight Rider?”
Denise, former captain of the Notre Dame soccer team and now CMO of a Fortune 500 company, said, “Right, as your sports lifeline, how bad would it have sucked if I didn’t know who won the World Cup?” They kept talking about Laura’s audition as I worked it out: “You mean—you mean I’m the only one who’s not a . . . what do you call it . . .” (I’d never seen the show) “lifeline?” The girls exchanged looks: Uh oh. Laura laid a palm, chilled from her gin and tonic, on my knee. “Oh, B.A., honey. Don’t take it personally. After all, come on”—she smiled, not unkindly—“what are your lifeline areas?” Let’s see. There’s poetry. Metrical and free verse. So there. And babies. I’m good at babies, at making them and birthing them. I used to be good at making milk for them, too. I recall how my babies would fall asleep while nursing, how their lips would loosen from my nipple, how I could see into the sweet pink grottoes of their mouths, their tongues still flexing a time or two, the pearly milk pooling there or sometimes running from the corner of their lips. Eat all you want: I’ll make more. And let’s not forget I am very good at cookies. My friend Lee Durkee says I bake the best snickerdoodles he’s ever tasted. And he’s never even tried my lemon poppyseed. Or, sweet Jesus, my gingersnaps. My areas of expertise are scrolling through my mind as Matthew scrolls through photos on his phone, detailing the problems. I’m nodding. Which is to say, faking, which I do when flummoxed by technology or mechanics. I’m like a dog—a bitch, in fact, for I feel ungainly and femaley—a bitch, reading her master, trying to glean her fate from everything but words. If Master points to Car, does this mean Park, or Pound? Matthew says Freon and BTUs and then several unrecognizable terms. I’m still nodding when he leaves. So I track down the original contractor. I’m hoping he camouflaged some magic attic access, stairs that descend when you pull the sconce beside the bookcase, which probably revolves. He did not. He built this addition ten years ago and can’t remember why we settled on this design. Neither can I. That’s another thing I’m not good at: remembering. He thinks we knew access would be hard but decided it was worth it for roofline aesthetics. Hmm, I think. I do like aesthetics. I nod. He thinks we decided that the unit would last maybe twenty years or more, and that we’d deal with replacing it then, cutting a hole through the sheetrock. No biggie. I nod, thinking, Would I really have agreed to sew a dress knowing the zipper wasn’t long enough? Would I really have thought, Hey, we’ll just cut the dress off when I’m done? But the longer he talks, the more familiar the idea sounds. I say, Do we need to build that access door Matthew suggested? The contractor huffs a laugh. No, he says, most certainly not. I nod. This contractor—I notice for the first time—this contractor is a handsome man. A big man, tall, with a generous belly pressing taut his striped polo. I bet he shops at stores called Big and Tall. Big and Tall and Yummy. I would like to help him choose his striped polos. Try this one on. And this. If there was a planet where all the repairmen were repairwomen, I’d rocket there, never to return. I’d still be puzzled when something broke and they explained—I’m nobody’s lifeline, after all—but I wouldn’t be additionally puzzled by my failures as a feminist. So we’re good then? the contractor asks. I nod. I’m a good dog. I offer him a cookie.
Why I’m So Well Read
Once, when we were young and poor, my husband and I learned that an Irish friend was road-tripping across America with two Irish pals, so we invited them for a visit. They arrived sniping at one another. They’d had a falling out, and in fact after dinner they were to have a doozy in our driveway that stopped just short of fisticuffs, then go their separate ways. But, before this happened, when thanking us for the meal, one of the men opened his wallet and held out a fifty-dollar bill. Don’t be silly, we said, we’re not taking your money. He insisted. Thanks, we said, but no. He kept at it, clutching the bill. The more we rejected his money, the angrier he got. Finally, we accepted it. All I could figure is that he had plenty of dough, and felt bad that the three of them had argued, and wanted to make up something to someone, somehow. Perhaps if we’d acquired the fifty through some usual channel, we’d have stored it in some usual place. But it wasn’t paycheck money, it was found money. My husband walked to the bookshelf, opened a book to its fiftieth page, slotted the bill there, then slid the book back. That way we could kind of forget about it, but we’d have it for an emergency: an elegant solution. We were poor and young, I already said that, and dumb with love. One night, I was working at my desk when my husband wanted to frolic. He called for me and I delayed, needing ten minutes to finish my project, then ten more. Finally I heard a noise and looked up. He wasn’t there, but his penis was, jutting from the doorframe. Out of sight, he gyrated so his penis beckoned, like a crooking finger, and we both got the giggles. My camera was on my desk, and, still giggling, I took a photo, then followed him into the bedroom where we made our love. Weeks later, when I picked up the developed film, it took me a minute to recall why I’d photographed my door. But oh, there it was: my husband’s penis. I showed him, and together we laughed. Then he moved to tear it up, but I stayed his hand. Let me keep it, I argued. Let me keep it someplace secret. Into a book, page fifty. It couldn’t have been more than a few months later when we found ourselves desperate for dough. We walked to the shelf and removed the book in the upper left corner, turned to page fifty. No money. We opened the next book, the next. No money. We’d neglected to note which book contained the money, but knew where to look, forgetting that we tend to dip frequently into favorites, then reshelve them in the nearest space. We expanded our search. No fifty anywhere. And then I remembered the penis. Now we were searching for both. We checked the fiftieth page of every book in our house constructed of books. We must have loaned them out. We do that, we can’t help it. We collect strays, lost students who need some pals, some protein, and sooner or later we’re incredulous, “But you’ve never read Hopkins?” or “You’d adore Denis Johnson,” and a few hours later the student is saying goodbye with a doggie bag and an armload of inspiration. But we couldn’t remember any recent borrowers, and couldn’t imagine asking about the bonus material, even if we had. Did we lend both books to the same student? If so, in what order? Fifty then penis, we decided, was slightly less salacious than penis followed by fifty. It’s been nineteen years. Our house has more books than ever: not just poetry and fiction and memoir, but biographies, cookbooks, thrillers, graphic novels, mysteries. I love a good mystery. Like, where the hell is that photo? Even now, middle-class and middle-age, I never open a book without hoping for a fifty or a penis.
The story behind the stories:
Inspiration for “Why I Am”: One day it occurred to me that my habit of checking the fiftieth page of books in my house–a silly habit I still indulge—has roots so complicated that I could perhaps never explain them. So I tried to explain them. I will add that this piece appears in Heating & Cooling, and when I published the book my friend Bob Zordani pointed out that I should have put this piece on page fifty, and indeed I should have.
Inspiration for “Heating & Cooling”: I began this piece in a querulous mood when my husband was out of town and several things broke in our house at once; my inability to fix or even understand basic systems I depend on left me feeling worse than useless. My first draft was written in June in Mississippi with the AC unit still broken, which might account for some of its peevishness.
Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi from 2016-2021, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi. Fennelly has published six books. Her most recent book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (W. W. Norton), was named an Atlanta Journal Constitution Best Book, a Goodreaders Favorite for 2017, and the winner of the Housatonic Book Prize. Fennelly and Franklin live in Oxford with their three children.
The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly forward, backward, sideways, and, for short distances, upside down—hummingbirds can do things other birds can’t do precisely because they are so small. In this class, we’ll look at tiny texts and learn what can be accomplished in a small space that can’t be accomplished in a bigger one. www.lafayettewritersstudio.com
“Why I’m So Well Read” was first published in Five Points. “Heating and Cooling” was first published in The Southern Review.
Every hour we shed 30,000 skin cells. Some we’ll swallow back down, like an auto-cannibalism. Some won’t be ours, but they’ll settle in and stay. It’ll look like a place called home among the bronchi and the bronchioles, the ligaments and the tendons, the red and the yellow marrow. It’ll look like rooms called family, like a fortressing against the beliers.
I had a neighbor who could be a difficult woman, prone to emotional outbursts and cruel comments but equally prone to volunteer her time at church and her children’s school. When her husband left her for another woman, she fell quiet, chain smoking on her porch every night for months. I found myself holding my breath when I was near that silence, waiting, anticipating. What and why, I didn’t know.
But I had no problem imagining the details when I read the headlines.
She finishes her workday. Stops by the receptionist’s desk to drop off her famous chicken lasagna recipe. They laugh about Cheryl in Accounts Payable wearing a hot sauce stain on her new blouse the entire day. She walks to her car. Drives in the opposite direction of home.
She has held the pieces together as long as she can.
He’s living with the new woman now. But sometimes, when they pass the kids off at the Save Mart he pauses, and she thinks, There’s still love there.
She shoots the new woman on a gravel road. Sets the car on fire. Catches her heaving breath, watches the flames rise almost as high as the acres of corn flanking her, amazed she’s now free of the other and she can go back to what once was.
But the other never really left her. She carries the dulling weight of the dead inside her bones, where they lie together in a windowless cell every night, like a fortressing against the betrayers.
I often thought about that weight of the other my neighbor carried. The flames. The woman who replaced her. Breathing it all in. As if she left the front door open, a beckoning to come inside. But life pushes through. Memories fall back to a rarely used room. New neighbors move in and gut the unhappy house. And I forgot about all those 30,000 bits floating around.
Until the next year, when I watched an ending on an airport lounge TV an ocean away one late-summer day and pictured the beginning.
A man I will never know rises to begin another day. Picks the navy and cream tie his ex wife bought him just because. Grabs a coffee around the corner. Perhaps he reaches the lobby door at the same time as a coworker. Perhaps she smiles as he holds the door, and they both comment on the perfect blue sky. Perhaps he catches a trace of vanilla and bergamot, a heart note of lavender. Perhaps a few minutes later he shuts his office door and calls his ex wife. Something reminded me of you this morning, he’ll say.
And yet—an hour later, after the boom and the trembling and the fires take hold, he will leap from a wrested window, just ahead of the dismantling and the dust.
He’ll settle among so many others, until the shell shocked and the politicians and the first responders suck the bits back in, like a fortressing against the marauders.
The beliers. The betrayers and the marauders. The bits of the living. The bits of the dying and the already dead.
It’s too much for me, breathing in the dead.
I call them specks, motes, soot. Or, for the kids, I say dust bunnies as juice boxes are passed around.
Makes you suck in your breath a little, doesn’t it?
We’re too filled with the fallen already.
The story behind the story:
I came across the 30,000 skin cells shed every hour fact on one of my Google rabbit-hole excursions. The first word that popped into my head was “cannibalism”, because all I could ponder was how many of those cells do we breathe back in every hour, whether ours or those around us? And is it worse when those cells we breathe come from tragedy? I remember shortly after 9/11, some people speculated on the potential physical and psychical damage that may arise from Manhattan’s “tainted” air. I couldn’t stop thinking about that for the longest time. And I thought of my old neighbor, who a few years before, had murdered her soon-to-be-ex husband’s new girlfriend, set the car on fire, then stood there, watching her nemesis’s body burn. Tragedies and evil actions are all around us. I originally wrote this piece as a longer CNF, but I kept finding myself more drawn to trying to whittle it down to the essentials of image, cadence, and sound repetition. When I write, my goal is to stop the reader in their tracks, make them sit up a little straighter: Hey, pay attention. I’m trying to tell you something about the world here. It’s a lofty goal. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer.
L Mari Harris’s stories have been chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 and Best Microfiction. She lives in the Ozarks. Follow her @LMariHarris and read more of her work at www.lmariharris.wordpress.com.
“Cannibals” was first published in Bending Genres.
1. Our teacher sends us home with slips of paper reminding us that tomorrow is soft pretzel day, ten cents apiece. After the sale we converge on the folding tables in the school yard, pressing fingertips wet from our mouths into the tiny cubes of salt that litter the surface, licking them clean.
2. The news cycle must be slow because suddenly every station is airing a report on the questionable safety of peanuts, pretzels and other bar snacks. Up for debate: the alarming (or was it negligible?) amount of urine and E. coli detected from people not washing their hands before they dip into communal bowls. My schadenfreude is fueled by this possible vindication of my recent hypervigilance against germs.
My husband points out I’ve eaten from the bowl of free popcorn that came with our two-drink minimum back when we frequented comedy clubs in the late eighties. When I say I wasn’t sharing it with a roomful of strangers, I get the face that says, “Really? You sure about that?” I picture a server in a crowded club balancing trays of wet cocktail glasses and beer bottles through a maze of rickety tables, chairs repositioned in the aisles, and think, “Oh. Duh, they recycled the leftover popcorn.” It was always too salty, but we ate it anyway.
3. Years before we are married, I notice a fine edge of grit along my boyfriend’s hairline after he works out. “Salt,” he tells me and shrugs. We are both still unaware that each of us carries a genetic mutation that affects the transport of salt through cells.
4. The first test to rule out cystic fibrosis is a sweat test. I hold my toddler daughter on my lap and allow a technician to extend her forearm and rub a chemical onto it as she screams in protest. It doesn’t hurt, I’m told. Her arm is wrapped in something that stimulates production of sweat, which is collected and later analyzed for chloride levels. It’s one more in a spring and summer of tests and as we leave the hospital I think I am crossing something off my list. Ruling it out is tossed casually from my lips without traversing the threshold of my brain where fear crouches in wait.
5. When I am a little girl, on our playroom shelves between copies of Harry the Dirty Dog and Babar the Elephant are dark, European story books my art director father collects for their illustrations. Never mind that these are barely suitable for kids, hardcore as the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Pictures of axe-wielding witches and razor-toothed monsters terrify me when I dare to turn the pages.
I prefer stories that only pretend to be scary. In one favorite, Grover from Sesame Street begs me to please stop turning the page, bringing us closer to the monster at the end of the book. With each page he grows more desperate, tying the pages closed with rope, nailing the book shut with two-by-fours, building a wall of bricks. The monster on the last page is, of course, just lovable ole’ Grover. He sheepishly covers his face with one hand and confesses, “I am so embarrassed.”
6. An ancient warning, handed down as northern European folklore: “Woe to that child which when kissed on the forehead tastes salty. He is bewitched and soon must die.”
7. A social worker hands me a booklet. An art director now myself, I can immediately see it was created decades earlier and reproduced ad infinitum for each new generation of parents. This tells me no significant progress has been made since the seventies — when children with cystic fibrosis died in elementary school — and now, 1998. Days earlier we were told the median age of survival had reached 31. I don’t want to open this book. I know what waits at the end and not even a fortress of bricks can protect us.
8. A common cold can lead to a lung infection and hospitalization. We wash our hands as soon as we return home from anywhere. Another child with CF can pass bacteria through casual contact, which can also lead to a lung infection and hospitalization. Unless it’s Burkholderia cepacia, which is resistant to most antibiotics and, in some cases, fatal. Our daughter masks at appointments and stays at least six feet away from other kids with her disease. The only ones who actually understand what she lives with.
9. Humanity will be unpacking for years the ramifications of life in 2020 and 2021 and probably 2022. There is both togetherness in this collective experience and divisiveness. The ones who dip into the bowl of pretzels on the bar and the ones who avoid it like the plague, LOL.
In my family we eat only the packaged pretzels but no longer wipe down the cellophane with paper towels drenched in disinfectant. Just enough fear is the balance we’ve struck.
10. I’ve slowed down, an attempt to savor each day without racing to cross the next thing off my list. The monster on the last page of this story might be a razor-toothed demon or just a friendly blue Muppet with a honkable pink nose.
The story behind the story:
I was several months into writing my memoir-in-progress, which dealt with my experience raising a child with a life-threatening genetic illness, and an essay I wrote on the topic had just been published in The Washington Post. I found myself pulled toward creative nonfiction, breaking away from a more traditional essay format in favor of prose. A friend had just been published in Hobart and I loved how she broke her braided piece into tiny, digestible bites. It inspired me and one day I sat at my laptop and wrote in a state of flow that felt like a fever dream. That piece, simply titled “Salt”, fast became one of my favorite pieces. “Salt” is about vigilance and germs, danger and terror creeping in, monsters and pretzels and isolation. It’s a memoir in prose and I am so excited to share it here.
Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia writer and healthcare communications consultant whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Brevity Blog, Hobart, Many Nice Donkeys, The Manifest-Station, LOL Comedy, and elsewhere. She is currently writing a memoir about her journey from hypervigilance to trust. Find her on Twitter @abbys480 or visit abbyaltenschwartz.com.
My two small nephews and tiny niece climbed out of the couch cushion fortress on the bedroom floor. As the first sliver of sunlight whispered through the blinds, they jumped around me on the bed, shouting the details of their dreams. I was in my early twenties and loved my older sister’s kids- the weasels as I affectionately called them- with a fierceness I was unprepared for. It’s a testament to that love that I let them turn my bed into a bounce-house at the ass-crack of dawn, gladly trading sleep for the music of their laughter.
“I wish we lived here,” four-year-old Katie said as we sat eating breakfast.
“It wouldn’t be as fun if you lived here all the time,” I answered. “Because I’m your aunt, I don’t get to see you every day. So, when I do, we stay up late, have treasure hunts in the woods, and eat dessert pizza. If I was responsible for you all the time, you’d have homework, bedtimes, and healthy foods.”
“Like a mom,” she said, full mouth dripping milk. “When will you have kids so we can play with them?”
“Chew! You’re gonna choke,” I said.
“Cooousins!” her older brother Lee shouted.
“I don’t think that’s gonna be any time soon,” I said, thinking that no child should be born into the shitstorm that was my relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend.
“Mom says you’ll be forty before you have kids,” Lee smiled.
“What?” I laughed, nearly spraying the table with Cinnamon Life. “I’m going to ask your mom about that.”
Jake sandwiched between Lee and Katie in age, and always one step ahead, was quiet, pondering. As he took a bite of his cereal, I watched the thought arrive.
“Guys! If she has kids, she won’t have time for us!”
Their eyes grew wide.
“That’s not totally true,” I said. “I’ll always make time for you guys. But when I have my own kids, there will be fewer slumber parties.”
Not if. When. A word spent with unquestioning confidence. A safe and far away assumption, believing I’d have my own tribe to follow the paths worn in the woods by those around the table that morning, my first lessons in a love larger than I thought my heart could hold. My only lessons. Forty has come and gone, my empty arms proving my sister’s prediction wrong.
When I was 13, 14, 15 as my body began to curve and spread, I’d stand in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom with a wadded-up shirt under the one I was wearing. T-shirt for the first, and second trimester. Sweatshirt for the third. I took the business of making it look realistic very seriously. Sculpting it into a perfect mound. When I was sure it was right, I’d step back from the mirror, discovering who I had become, a calm smile spreading across my face, butterflies releasing in my true tummy. I’d turn sideways and stare at the roundness, the size of it. I’d rub my hands over it, cupping them underneath as if the weight demanded more support. I’d stand there for the longest time, enchanted by my reflection, by how beautiful I felt. Unable to take my eyes off the woman waiting for me.
I had things I wanted to do first, acting, writing. It took me years to stabilize the overwhelming anxiety that limited me for most of my life, later diagnosed as OCD. I just assumed, despite my late start, I’d find the right person, the right time for children. Neither ever happened.
I lived in Los Angeles for eight years. I’d moved there to pursue acting, which mostly amounted to selling vitamins to the Rich and Angry in Beverly Hills. The winter before moving home, I had my thyroid removed due to cancer. Both of my sisters flew out to be with me. Two days after surgery, weak and emotional, a bandage over my open wound, I took them sightseeing.
We stood on the stairway of The Kodak Theater in Hollywood, home of the Oscars. I’d watched countless times as actresses climbed those steps, believing the view would one day be mine. That morning, hormones raging in the key of clear-eyed reality, I collapsed into my oldest sister’s arms on those stairs sobbing. This isn’t going to happen for me. I always thought it was. But it isn’t. This same truth finds me now.
My body’s turning the page. Nature, that unrelenting bitch, does not bargain for time.
Motherhood, or lack thereof, was never a choice I made. I suppose, in some way, it was a series of micro-decisions, so imperceptibly small that I barely noticed I was choosing one path by not choosing another. Still, there’s no moment in the road behind me that I look to and say I should’ve done it here or that man should’ve been the one. Perhaps it would be different if I were a woman who mapped her life instead of trusting the compass in her gut. But I’m a woman who wakes in the night, panicked by some tiny mistake, my mind punishing me for something that will be meaningless next month. So, I’m grateful not having children can’t be distilled down to one moment or choice because that’s a one-way ticket down a rabbit hole I can’t afford. I cling to the hope that there was a knowing in me, greater than the sum of my regret looking back, a wisdom in trusting the compass that led me here.
I always believed I’d have a son. His image was born with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. I could see this little boy clearly in my mind’s eye, dark hair and deep hazel eyes, a gentle, curious soul with a tiny smile that lit up his face, sitting on the kitchen counter as he asked me a question, reaching for my hand as we walk or melting his weight into my chest, the constant thrum of my heart his lullaby, as I carried him in my arms. Everything about him felt familiar, this little loved one I hadn’t met waiting in the future, certain though far away.
The name came almost as sudden as the image, unique and beautiful, like music running through my mind. Though I sang it inside my head, practicing for Some Day, for a long time I wouldn’t say it out loud. I felt some strange superstition as if it were a magic spell I’d cast on my future, whose certainty lived in silence, a wish that if spoken wouldn’t come true. Over the years, the mythical fathers changed like a revolving cast of characters, but two things remained, belonging only to me, this sweet boy and his beautiful name. I’d search for it in baby books, excited to find it, annoyed when it was listed for girls and not boys. I’d judge the different spellings and never remember the meaning until I’d see it in print, discovering it again every time. Mighty warrior.
I meet my friend at a bar for wine and writing, which we both know will only ever turn into wine. She has notes for this essay.
“No writing advice, but you should definitely get knocked up,” she says refilling my glass.
I laugh at her certainty, knowing how simple it seems from the outside. With my obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, the chaos in my head seems louder with each passing year. I’ve used every tool I have to fight my way to solid ground: therapy, medication, yoga, meditation. I need a certain amount of rest and peace to keep myself on an even keel. How fair would it be to add a child to that?
“You’re making excuses,” she says. “This sounds like something you really want, have always wanted. Life is short.”
In the week after that conversation, I sing the notes of his name in my mind. I lay down words in my laptop and discover the truth of what she’s said, somehow surprised by the depth and length of this want that’s been with me for so long. I visit the feeling of him, the weight and rhythm of his deep sleep breathing against my chest. I ask myself questions.
What is the difference between an excuse and a reason? Would a child give me incentive beyond myself, beyond my family to keep fighting the darkness in my mind? Or would it make it harder, swallowing, not only me but my innocent child? Is that just my OCD demanding the certainty of some perfect outcome before committing? Or is it logic, raising her voice above want?
I rush onto the train grabbing a seat, swinging my backpack onto my lap. A small voice floats over rows of winter hats to find me.
“What kind is this one, with the pointies?”
A father is reading a book about dinosaurs to his daughter, who is maybe five years old. I turn my head and watch them. I do this a lot lately, studying parents and children as if I’ve just landed on this planet, which in a way I have. I find myself staring at the way they interact, fascinated by this intimate verbal shorthand I will never speak. A language I knew once, years ago, but whose fluency has faded with lack of use.
“They are as much yours as mine,” my sister, Shannon, says of her children. She calls them Ours. A beautiful gift and powerful salve housed in this tiny word.
She keeps reminding me that it’s not too late for me to be a mother. Shannon had two kids by the time she was 20, her whole life built around these beautiful, needy creatures, shaped to fit their care before she’d run grooves of habit and preference into the surface of her life. I stand at the other end of this spectrum, a lifetime on my own, wondering when the grooves got so deep.
My dreams are haunted by the ghosts of Potential Father’s past, like some surreal Lifetime movie starring all the guys I’ve dated. My Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. The Good Guy, whose heart I dragged through the shitstorm relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend, like a selfish child clutching at both. The Republican, who I loved but wasn’t in love with, The Wine Guy, who followed me across the country to chase a dream that wasn’t his. In the dark chaos of these dreams, they are always leaving. I am on the outside, alone, soaked in sadness for what is no longer mine, unsure if my decision was the right one. One by one, night after night, they knock on the door of my subconscious, as if to ask, “Are you positive I wasn’t the one?” I wake disoriented and filled with the grief of being left behind. Still, the answer to their question is always yes.
I am a teacher’s assistant in a classroom of children with special needs. Before Covid remote learning, my heart would swell as I walked down the hallway, tiny bodies rushing past, loud, untamed, and excited. Everything about me vibrated to the frequency of their laughter.
I possess a strange confidence in working with kids, one I rarely allow myself elsewhere. I’m good at connecting with them, all the Auntie mojo in me finally being used again. I thought that this job was a beautiful solution, outsmarting the loss, filling the place in me that felt empty. But I slowly began realizing how wrong I was.
There was no distance to protect me. Jealousy tightened in my chest when my coworkers coddled my favorites. I’d push it down, but guilt flooded in to replace it. I interrogated my reactions. What’s wrong with me? In the halls where small bodies stampede, I felt joy lined with sadness. None of these little beings would ever be mine to build forts with or have treasure hunts. This was my job. I loved it, and I wanted that to be enough. But the place I hoped to fill only echoed louder with emptiness.
I spent eight years in Los Angeles torn between the future I imagined acting and the family I adored in Illinois. I always thought the decision to walk away would come to me suddenly, an undeniable mandate spoken in the deep voice of the gods. I never suspected it would bubble up from inside me, slowly melting my beliefs like ice, one quiet idea at a time.
When I think of motherhood, settling into the silence beneath thought, I feel a quiet certainty, rising up from a bone-tired body that has survived so much: autoimmune disease, thyroid cancer, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. It whispers a truth that weighs more than words: I cannot do it alone.
Maybe the compass in my gut has been broken all along. But I’m choosing to listen to my body.
My nephew Jake, the little boy who sat in the kitchen so many years ago, took his own life at 22. In the months following, I’d look at babies, feeling a pull in the deepest part of my belly, some never-was umbilical cord tugging me towards a tiny soul I hoped to meet. Maybe it was the life force raging in me, or the echo of my best memories, longing to start again.
In sharing the devastating loss, I discovered something in the eyes of strangers, a sort of silent calculation of the amount of grief I was allowed, some strange hierarchy of mourning.
Who were you to him again?
I was his aunt. I am his aunt.
As I silently debate the correct tense for dead loved ones, the softness in their faces fades a fraction, relieved to not have to comfort his mother, sister, or wife. At least that’s how I interpret it, perhaps filtered through my own insecurity. Just the aunt. I wanted to download a lifetime of memories shared, to prove I’d earned the intensity of what I was feeling.
People forget that mother is not only a noun but a powerful verb, lifting trucks off babies, laying down lives to save them. I’m not a mother. I will never claim that noun. But I’ve mothered. A verb woven in my bones, called to life the first time I met my nephew’s eyes. If you say it’s not the same, you’re right. But my version of this verb, the only action I’ve ever been certain of, is no less real or fierce, or natural.
Ask the children. Search their eyes. Scan the molecules of their brightest moments. You’ll find me there, slowly arriving at a place where I understand how this verb shaped my life. Learning to let go of the noun that will never be mine, by recognizing the children who somehow still are.
It’s not a perfect process. I inch closer to acceptance by focusing on all I’ve been given. But the truth is, I’m still floating in an ocean of ambivalence, the waves changing every day.
When I ache for the little voices that will never wake me for breakfast, I’m comforted by the ones that did so long ago, when I believed being an aunt was meant to prepare me for motherhood. It turns out, this was the journey I was built for, the privilege of watching these amazing beings change, their lives expanding, the root of our love reaching deeper than I thought possible. No longer the children who ran into my arms, they are still the core of everything I am, saving me from myself with every call, visit, text or memory.
Being an aunt changed me. It’s a love that hums in my blood, sewn into my soul, unchanged by time, space, and even death. But there is an emptiness in me that sometimes aches for more, a loss no one else can see.
I’ve learned to mourn the past, the lives and seasons that altered and defined mine. But how do you grieve for something that never was? How much space is this invisible loss allowed? It’s a familiar hymn on the lips of so many people reaching this season of their lives, the sun setting on Someday, the Far Away Future suddenly tomorrow, then yesterday, then out of reach.
We can make space for that. Or we can run from it. With alcohol, sex, drama, or drugs, tangling ourselves in regret, missing chances to change the moment we’re living. I’ve done a lot of running in my life. Now I’m searching for the courage to be still and level my face at the reflection of the life I’ve created.
Lately, I stand in front of the mirror, staring at the naked length of myself, changed by time, gravity, cellulite, and weight. I rub my hands over my belly, a place never occupied, smooth and unstretched. My eyes follow the gentle curve of my hips, unwidened by birth. I don’t know one mother who’d trade her child for the stretch marks they caused. Still, I cling to this bikini season consolation prize, my shallow insurance against regret.
As I take in the naked truth of who I’ve become, this body home to the choices I’ve made, I search for her, beyond the shape I thought she’d carry. Meeting her eyes, I offer a soft smile, opening my empty arms to this woman waiting for me.
Digging through closets on a recent visit to my mom’s, I discovered a baby name book I bought years ago. The blue eyes of the plump diapered boy on the cover tucked safely away through all my moves. I turned the pages, landing quickly on the one with the corner bent, marked by my younger self as if I might need a map to find my way back. In the middle of the page, the spelling I chose for him glows bright highlighter yellow. It’s meaning below, new again. Mighty warrior.
I hear the music of his name in my head, then softly say it out loud.
I would’ve named him Kaelan.
The story behind the story:
Inspiration for this essay: I was working on my memoir in progress when the memory of being in front of the mirror pretending to be pregnant as a teenager flashed in my mind. It was like a thread that once pulled unraveled so many thoughts and feelings about motherhood I’d not only never put words on but wasn’t fully aware of. The essay began pouring out of me. At first, I didn’t think it belonged in a memoir about losing my nephews to suicide and my own mental health. but when I submitted it for workshopping in my memoir class my classmate pointed out that this was really what the memoir was, grieving not the lives of those we lose but the lives we thought we’d live.
About the process of writing this essay: I was several drafts in with this piece when I met my friend for wine and notes. She said it felt as though I was searching for silver linings, determined to end on a happy note. She challenged me to dig deeper into the regret and doubt I was glossing over. She gave me a practical example, referencing an episode of one of my favorite shows (Bo Jack Horseman) where a character’s voiceover about a vacation seems light and adventurous. But in the final moment, the character reveals the hard truth of her travels. She wanted that level of intimacy and disclosure. I went home with a belly full of wine and rewatched the episode, sure I had nothing more to disclose. But I felt the final moment of the episode land in my body. I knew what was missing, a truth I hadn’t let myself think about, let alone speak, for years. I started writing about the name I’d kept like a secret I’d hoped would come true. I let Kaelen fully enter the essay, encouraged by another friend who told me he was as much a character in this story as I was. I let myself grieve him and that changed everything. The piece suddenly felt more vulnerable and true. Once I let myself sit with the weight of the grief, the ending came easy, organically. It felt like equal parts gut punch and quiet acceptance, not a woman talking herself into sliver linings.
BIO: Maegan Gwaltney is a Chicago writer and storyteller. Her essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Rumpus. She performs at live-lit venues all around Chicago and is (still!) working on a memoir. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @MaeG765
“Motherhood (Or Lack Thereof)” was first published in The Manifest-Station.
There I am, 24, crying my eyes out at the stoplight at 9th & Main, crossing the Tapawingo Bridge and beating the steering wheel. There’s my car — a gold Saturn. The one the salesman kneed hard to prove its side-panels wouldn’t dent. As I remember it, the problem was that I wanted everything back — the woman I’d left, my childhood, a sense of myself as blameless — and it wasn’t ever, not ever, coming back. Around other people, I could hold it in. At my apartment I had a wall of books and a guitar to cry into. But alone in the car, the churches and bars of my hometown flickering by like frames of 8mm film, I couldn’t escape the hurt. Every pot-holed street led me straight to it. The big blinking sign at O’Rears Bakery delivered it like warm bread. I cried and cried and didn’t care who saw. Out running errands, a backseat full of groceries. On my way to work. Shame. Self-pity. Rage. The feelings hung over me like the bone-white sycamores leaning over their reflections on the Wabash. I wept for myself, for all of us. A vet at the Indiana Veterans’ Home where I volunteered — Gene — once said to me: “In Korea, why, I fought for everybody! Red, white, black, yellow, brown! My own men was just as likely to shoot me in the back! I fought for everybody!” I hadn’t understood. Then one day, out driving and crying, I did. And I wept for Gene. And for all the vets gathered in the day room smoking in their wheelchairs, watching The Price Is Right with the volume so loud the walls quaked, while outside sunlight cascaded through oaks and dappled the grass and a pair of squirrels hopped from nut to nut. No one was undeserving of love — not even me. I tried to talk myself out of it, dragging up old wrong-doings and regrets, imagining the wreckage people far worse than me had left in their wakes. But the world was relentless. For every incurable heartache, some undeniable gift. The smell of rain on hot asphalt. Powerlines catching a light so tender. Once I saw a striped awning in the parking lot of the Dollar Store and underneath it a boy selling flowers slept with his head on a table. The hurt I felt was coming for him, too. It made him luminous.
The story behind the story:
Sometimes when I feel stuck as a writer–not knowing what to do next or burned out on a longer project–I’ll turn to short forms. There’s something in a litany, in particular, the way it gathers steam, that helps break me out of the rut. With this piece, I was remembering an era in my life that appears to me now as little more than a blur of details and images. I’d gotten married at twenty-three and divorced six months later, and in my grief (for the relationship, for my childhood, for my sense of self) I couldn’t drive anywhere that next summer without crying uncontrollably. It was incredibly cleansing. Transformative. I don’t know. As soon as I wrote that first line, “There I am, 24, crying my eyes out at 9th and Main…” I was off to the races.
Steve Edwards is the author of the memoir Breaking into the Backcountry, the story of his seven months as caretaker of a remote Oregon homestead. His essays appear in The Sun, as well as Orion Magazine, Literary Hub, Longreads, and elsewhere. An Associate Professor of English Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, he lives outside of Boston with his wife and son.
All day I snap fresh sheets over antique beds, carry cart-loads of snowy towels still warm from the basement laundry, stop long enough to catch breeze from a window above Mohonk lake. All rooms must be done by three. Sweat streaks my legs, clings the green polyester uniform to breasts and back. I haul my cart from room to room, hide a book of poems in my lunch sack one day, a foreign novel the next. I tally tips; rent and tuition money.
All day a grasping tide of guests swirls around my cart. Fresh from the mountain lake, they drip abstract patterns on the floors I’ve just mopped. Stop long enough to ask for extra towels, extra glasses, extra pillows, mints. Some sidle up, some simply take.
When I reach my last room I’m tired of demands for extras, weary of bending over beds, sick of sticking my hand into strange toilets. Vacuum cleaner hose slung around my neck serpent-style; I bang into the Tower Room like an evil omen.
I don’t hear her knock above the vacuum’s hum–I jump at the hand that grasps my arm. Her eyes float behind thick glass, crossing, uncrossing. Her face twists, she struggles to speak–Can she see this special room for a minute? It’s so pretty. She leans against a walker, one leg bent beneath a jack-knifed spine. I nod and slowly she pulls herself from window to window, takes in the shining lake, gazebos edged with mountain laurel. She stands before the marble fireplace, gently fingers the carved mantel as I tuck quilts over heavy beds.
When I move towards the door, she stops me with her pale hand raised. May you have a good life. May you be loved. May you travel, she says and leaves me, open-faced with her good words: May you do what you want to do.
When I Was Thin
I bought new lace underwear by the handful, push-up bras, sheer hose, red high heels, tight skirts, enjoyed the feeling of insubstantial skin held fast, belts pulled taut against gravity.
When I was thin men pressed close, followed me home after dark, pushed their numbers into my pockets in bright cafes, addressed my legs as separate entities, my breasts as whole worlds unconquered, pleaded for entry.
When I was thin, I waited to be found out: female impersonator, double agent hell-bent on revenge against the men who once found my flesh obscene, my hair too thick, my teeth too straight, men afraid I’d bite them down to size.
When I was thin, I couldn’t fight the press of foreign flesh, unwanted hands against me, my own hands divided: one hand up, deflecting blows, the other beckoning, cupped in the curve of budding breast. I slept with the light on; when I was thin, I had no rest.
The story behind the story:
Benediction: I wrote Benediction many years after the encounter in my late teens that inspired it. I’d left home early to liberate myself from an abusive father and an untenable living situation. I put myself through college via a kaleidoscope of jobs, taking eight years to complete my BA. I worked as a cook, dishwasher, vintage clothing seller, laundry clerk, singing telegram performer, waitress, theatre costume shop worker, and memorably, a walking pina colada handing out bar fliers.
When I was nineteen I took a job as a maid at an old school luxury hotel in the mountains above New Paltz, NY. A summer job became full-time when I didn’t have enough savings, financial aid, or clear career plans to return to school. It wasn’t the worst job and it wasn’t the best. Like almost every job I’d had it taught me many things: how to snap a sheet over a bed so it floated into exactly the right position, how to make a bed with hospital corners, that bellboys were not to be trusted (tip thieves), the power of unexpected kindness, and the enduring strength of words, both spoken and written.
When I Was Thin: In an unconscious emotional response to multiple sexual assaults in my late teens/early twenties I put on a protective layer of weight. The extra poundage served its purpose for a time. Then, when I was 24 and had a few years of therapy, 12-step programs, meditation, and focused reading under my belt, I began to release my protective layer. It seemed to happen gradually, and then all at once after I took up working out like a new religion.
One day, walking up the hill in my college town, my now clownishly large jeans fell to my ankles. A passing motorist yelled out, “Hey droopy drawers! Time for some new jeans!, as I ran away frantically pulling my beloved but now outsized Girbauds. Like most women/femmes I’ve lived my life with an accompanying soundtrack of constant comment on my body, face, body parts, and clothing. But when I dropped 50 pounds, nothing prepared me for the almost instantaneous change in how I was perceived and treated in the world by men, women, friends, and my mother. It fascinated and enraged me. This piece is a distillation of my experiences, thoughts, and feelings at that time.
Maura Alia Badji is a poet/writer/songwriter/editor/ESL teacher, and Social Services worker. Her writing has appeared/is forthcoming, in TMI Project’s Stories for Change, The Citron Review, Identity Theory, boats against the current, The Deaf Poets Society, Switched-on-Gutenberg, The Skinny Poetry Review, Rogue Agent, Aeolian Harp, The Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, The Delaware Review, Pirene’s Fountain, The Buffalo News, The Phoenix Soul, The Good Men Project, This City Is a Poem, Barely South Review, and other publications. Maura earned her MFA at the University of WA, Seattle, where she served as an editorial assistant at The Seattle Review. She is the former founding editor of Paper Boat: A Literary Journal (1995-1998), and a former Special Education teacher. A New York native, Maura lives in Virginia Beach with her musician son, Ibrahim.
“Benediction” was first published in The Haight Ashbury Literary Journal.
“When I was Thin” was first published in Switched-On-Gutenberg.