For the middle of the night, sneaking out of your bed, wide awake and hungry: a peach, leftover spaghetti, the last six cookies in the package. Eat fast, before your parents wake up, before the furnace kicks in downstairs, before monsters creep toward you from the shadows. Slink back to your room, bursting but not sated.
For the hole inside you, never filled: a stolen bag of cherries. Spit the pits into your hands and go to sleep with stained palms against your hard, round stomach, pretending you can feel kicking feet. You will be a mother one day. You will fill this belly with love. Name your children out loud to the dark room: love, love, love.
For the night you meet your future husband: shots of tequila and appetizers, the kinds on toothpicks. Tiny meatballs. Mini egg rolls. A former football player at your high school leans close and spits in your ear, “You’re way hotter now.” You slide toward the end of the bar. A man that looks familiar with a glass of red wine—he once took biology with you, is that right? You ask him for a sip.
For a birth: carrot cake, slightly burnt around the edges, brought to your hospital room in uncomfortable silence. Your mother was never really the baking type. She places a slice next to you as you unwrap your son, unclench your jaw, hand your baby over.
For the first day of school: cinnamon doughnuts and orange juice, laughing as your three-year-old grimaces at the bitter sips, as he holds the straw so carefully for his baby sister. Sobbing as you drive out of the school parking lot and down toward the highway, the baby asleep in the back, three cherry pastries in the box in your lap. Eat them fast, one after the other, until your chest hurts, until you can’t picture him panicked at recess, at lunch, at circle time. Fluttering, stimming fingers and rocking groans.
For the appointments and meetings, seemingly endless: black coffee.
For teaching your son how to take a pill: a tic-tac on the back of his tongue, a chocolate kiss in the palm of his hand.
For the mornings he refuses to go to school: a butter croissant at the local bakery. Take all three kids, hiding your panic in this early morning adventure for treats. Your daughters laughing in pajamas. Your son silent, staring out the window. The bag oily and warm in your lap as you drive them home. Put on a movie in the living room as the sun rises, then sneak into your empty bedroom. Slide into the big bed, pull the quilt up and around you, and call your husband. He is in Boston for work again this week. He’s still in bed, just now waking up, but he’ll call later to check on you, he says. Can you make it, he asks?
For chasing your son up the street: promises of ice cream. When he stops at the corner and veers down the block instead of into oncoming traffic, remember to breathe. Yell his favorite flavors: Chocolate, Cookies-n-Cream, Lemon Ice from Rita’s. Come back, baby.
For a new med trial, another med trial, the eighteenth med trial: an empty stomach.
For the post-911 call quiet: a sleeve of saltines. Crumbles fall from your lips as you cram more and more in, jaw unhinging, refusing to take even the slightest sip of water. Maybe you’ll choke. Maybe you’ll die here on the cold floor, your husband and daughters in their beds upstairs, your son’s begging echoing through the kitchen, the dining room, the living room with its broken window and overturned chairs.
For the hospital: a ham and cheese sub with lettuce and pickles. You stop at a deli on the way because the nurse says your son won’t eat. In the elevator, every floor is announced by a child’s recorded voice, the full car emptying level by level until you are the only one left. Past orthopedics, urology, endocrinology, neurology. Past asthma. Past epilepsy. Past cancer. The doors open at the top floor: the children’s psych unit.
For the meetings with the doctors, psychologists, nurses, the social worker who questions your fitness as a mother: a bowl of wrapped chocolates in the center of the table. You take one and it melts in your hand as you listen, leaking out of the red foil into your palm.
For the handoff of your daughters on your way home: a plate of leftovers from your mother, who wrings her hands and begs you, “What else can I do?” You don’t answer, don’t shout, “Just leave me alone!” like an angry teenager who knows there must be a different world than this.
For knowing there is no different world than this: Miller Lite and gummy bears. A late-night candy binge with your child, giggling in the dark kitchen, relieved tears running down your face. “Don’t tell,” you whisper. “I can’t keep a secret,” he whispers back. “I know,” you say and kiss him with sticky lips. “Ew, mom,” he says and curls up in your lap like a baby. His legs, longer than yours now, tuck into your belly.
For eating every feeling that is too big to endure: an entire bag of carrots. An entire box of Thin Mints. An entire container of blueberries. An entire loaf of French bread. An entire month without looking at yourself in the mirror. An entire year of promising that you’ll stop eating carbs. An entire series of appointments with a very young, kind-faced therapist who promises that you are so much more than your weight. An entire marriage wondering if your husband will ever tell you that you’re pretty again.
For diagnosis after diagnosis: a skipped dinner, whispered questions to the sky, an uneasy coming-to-terms. “This hole is not bottomless,” you lie to your husband before bed. “This climb is not solitary,” he says, resting his forehead against yours.
For watching your mother play Yahtzee with your kids: three-bean chili with homemade cornbread that fills your house with the smell of honey. Your husband comes into the kitchen and puts his arms around you while you stir. He whispers in your ear: “I love your chili.”
For the moments lengthening, the years progressing, the diagnoses changing: burgers grilled in the backyard while your children swing. Toast the buns just so, extra pickles just so. Sit and watch. Quiet, relaxed breathing. This is how other families live, you think.
For the bond between your children solidifying, the scar tissue dense and strong: banana bread, cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies. Fingers dip in the batter, bites of raw dough when your back is turned. Pretend you don’t notice, their secrets swelling inside you. Not hope, no, but not grief.
For the climbing and falling, the glow of a day’s reprieve, the darkness of another week’s driving back and forth through city traffic, the full hospital parking garage, the stamped ticket so you can return for a visit the next morning: a peach, leftover spaghetti, the last six cookies in the package. Whatever you can find, whatever gives you the energy to push, to pull, to wait quietly. Your husband kisses your cheek on the way out. “You’re so beautiful,” he says. “Bring him home.”
The story behind the story:
As I began the transition from freelance essayist into literary writer, this work of nonfiction practically burst out of me. Unusual in voice and form, it let me approach some of the harder aspects of parenting, disordered eating, and romantic love from a slightly distanced (and thus safer) lens. The 2nd person POV opened up new doors to me as a writer, and I’m still a huge fan. In this piece, it allowed me to touch on some very ugly moments in my life…in a way that ended up feeling loving, forgiving, and somehow even grateful.
Hannah Grieco is a writer in Washington, DC. Find her online at hgrieco.com and on Twitter @writesloud.
“The Last Six Cookies in the Package” was first published in Longleaf Review.
In the corner of the graveyard, not far from his church, Father Wernerus builds a concrete altar with niches. Before the concrete dries, he embellishes it with crushed purple glass, golden tiles. He sees in his designs clusters of grapes, ears of wheat. He imagines visitors who will come, and see, and be stirred, pilgrims who are Catholic and Protestant, carloads of people. He’s making a garden for them.
Before he built the Watts Towers, Sabato Rodia says that he was an itinerant worker. Says that he did a job for Father Wernerus, designed concrete flowerpots, finished the pots with wires and seashells. Says that Wernerus refused to pay him, told him he was laboring for God. Says that he should have gotten his hands on an axe and “chopped that priest.”
Betty Avery moves in with her aunt in Atlanta and looks after her for years. She goes outside to see what she can make. She paints blue and yellow designs on her aunt’s brick house, stripes of robin egg and sunshine. She shelters a Cuban man who has no home, and he busts up the old driveway for her. She adds some of the busted cement and rocks to a stump in the front yard, adds a yellow tire. It’s her first yard sculpture.
Father Wernerus shepherds a parish of German farmers in Dickeyville, Wisconsin: a village with cheese factory, blacksmith shop, three sons who died in the war. He compels the faithful to build a school, to purchase a bell, to remove unwanted trees from the graveyard, and then to give work and money to the shrines he makes from concrete, from broken jars and colorful stones, fossils and corals. He calls it “God’s wonderful material collected from all parts of the world.”
Sabato Rodia enlarges, embellishes, remakes his towers and his life. Instead of diminishing, he unfurls. Maybe he was born in Rivottoli, maybe Rome, maybe in 1875, or 1886. His older brother immigrated, worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. When he turned fifteen, Sabato followed his brother, crossed to the far country, and went into the mines. Then there was an accident. I imagine the props buckled, the mules keened, the earth slammed down, crushed the older brother like an olive pit. I imagine Sabato dug through the debris, tried to find light, and blew ash from his hands.
When the legs break off her pink plastic flamingos, Betty Avery puts them on another pile she’s making. She calls it “that big sculpture.” A pile that holds a little bit of everything: a lamp that doesn’t work anymore, tiles, broken mirrors, spray-painted concrete fragments, anything she can’t bring herself to discard, wants to keep.
Marie, Father Wernerus’s elderly cousin and housekeeper, becomes his co-laborer. For five years, she talks about his garden plans with him, moves iron bars and fence wire inside the house they share, brings wooden forms when he’s ready to pour concrete. She fashions the glass rosettes that adorn the Grotto of the Blessed Virgin. Marie’s hands are sore, her fingers bloody from arranging the shards of glass.
Thomas Harrison suggests that Sabato Rodia built the Towers because of trauma and pain, because he wanted to atone for his wild ways. Sabato drank too much, mistreated his wife, deserted his children, took part in knife fights. Sabato survived the mines; his brother did not.
Betty Avery and her husband Billy drive to Treasure Island, where he buys little statues of cowboys and Indians. She arranges his collections in her aunt’s house, covers the living room wall with pictures of people who look like Jesus. In the cracks in the stump outside, Billy sticks some green pinwheels.
Into wet concrete, Father Wernerus presses amethysts, turquoise and unpolished onyx, and crystals. For the Sacred Heart shrine, he perches Jesus on a blue sphere, raises a dome on four glass-encrusted pillars. From the villagers, he collects brooches, pendants, porcelain teacups, figurines, other things they treasure; he adds these to wet concrete.
Sabato Rodia moves to Seattle, then Oakland, then Los Angeles. He works for a builder, listens to mariachi and jazz, guzzles cheap wine, woos and marries women, and sheds each like a sweater that scratches too much. When he’s forty-two—his eyes enflamed, dust in his lungs—he buys a small house, a weedy pie-slice of land near the Red Car tracks in Watts. His home for the next thirty years. I imagine he drinks bootleg gin, and smashes the empties, and piles up the glass-bits in the middle of his lot, a mountain of shine. Over outdoor fires, he heats the glass until it’s molten; he makes new colors, new shapes that he pushes into concrete.
Betty Avery goes to the library, meets the oh-so pleasant man who says he represents her neighborhood. All the houses on her street and the surrounding streets are red brick, two-story, cookie cutter. Your house should look like everybody else’s, he says: he’s warning her.
Several Menominee Indians give arrowheads and axe heads to Father Wernerus. He presses them into another garden wall.
On his lot, Sabato Rodia makes many things from concrete: towers, and ovens, planters, a merry-go-round that doesn’t move, a fish pond, a cactus garden, a gazebo, and a baptism pool. He names all of it Nuestro Pueblo.
The people who run Betty Avery’s city send her a notice in the mail, tell her she must dismantle her sculptures, clean up her yard. She paces in her house, moves too fast, bumps into a wall mirror, shatters it. She sweeps up the mirror pieces, saves them in a box.
Father Wernerus says that his garden is “for God and country.” With donations from his parishioners, from business owners, he buys statues: Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, an eagle of Carrara marble. Over Columbus’s head, he makes an arch of conch shells and abalone shells and broken glass, blue as the sea.
When someone asks why he built the Towers, Sabato Rodia says, “Why does a man make shoes?”
Betty Avery reminds herself that she’s a strong person. People say they’re afraid of her. People ask her to predict their futures. People call her root lady. People call her witch. People call her everything, she says, “everything but a child of God.”
To acquire more materials for his grotto, Father Wernerus goes to river banks and limestone quarries and caves. He knocks stalagmites loose with hammer and chisel.
Charles Mingus remembers seeing Sabato Rodia build the Towers: “He was always changing his ideas while he worked and tearing down what he wasn’t satisfied with and starting over again, so pinnacles tall as a two-story building would rise up and disappear and rise again.”
Betty Avery chips, scours, washes away the blue and yellow paint so that her house will be plain brick, nondescript again. One morning, her sculptures are gone. Her neighbors wonder if her husband loaded them into a truck and drove them to the landfill, or if she’s moved the assorted pieces inside her house.
The parishioners give Father Wernerus money, and household items, and family treasures. Men with trucks bring dirt and rocks. Girls help him by rinsing glass and small rocks in pans of water; some girls help inside his house, where Marie shows them how to press glass rosettes into concrete. Boys shovel foundation holes, move the heavier things. The blacksmith makes iron bars for him. George Splinter sometimes assists him all day.
Sabato Rodia raises towers made of rebar, wire, and concrete; while it is still wet, he stamps the concrete with corncobs and shoes, adorns it with shells, buttons, pebbles, mirror pieces, and broken soda bottles, the brightest shards.
No more dead shrubs, no more busted driveway, no more stump sculpture, no more big sculpture with flamingos on top. Betty Avery works inside her home, hangs more pictures, paints her cabinets. She remembers what her mother told her: if you can’t use your head, you can always use your hands.
As Harris suggests, you might see vernacular architecture, or assembly art, or a pile of junk, or amalgamate sculpture, or pieces of debris.
Imagine a ziggurat, a spire, a midden, a thing made of concrete and glass and mirror, its fragments catching light.
Ƿ, the Letter Wynn
The letter ƿ has vanished from the English alphabet. Named wynn, or wên, or ƿynn, it represented the w sound. Wynn meant joy, delight, pleasure. If you looked further back, maybe you would find a family to return to in the letter wynn. If you scraped away the layers, maybe you’d uncover some tie between wynn-that’s-joy and kin, maybe you’d connect wynn to the German “die Sippe” (meaning the clan) as the medieval literature professor Maureen Halsall does: “all joy appears to have been seen by the Germanic people as having its source within the peaceful bonds of human community.” Maybe there’s kin or a suggestion of kin in every alphabet, syllabary, rune-row. Maybe when you picture kin, you would see yourself reaching for the sewing box that holds your great-grandmother’s letters, stumbling upon a field of timothy grasses you knew as a child and have longed for ever since.
Maybe your joy memories are tied to food memories, cubed steak and gravy, lima beans, orange gelatin beaten into fluff—and that steak beaten too, with the edge of a saucer, taking the toughness out, all that pounding because your grandmother wanted you to taste one of her favorite joys.
After her mother died, Marilyn Nelson traveled to Hickman, Kentucky. In her poem “The House on Moscow Street,” she describes her visit to “a tarpaper-shingled bungalow”—the former residence of her great-grandfather Pomp, her family’s homeplace. She says that seeing it moved her “not to silence but to righteous, praise Jesus song.” Her praise song had catfish in it, and turnip greens, and “hot-water cornbread.” She called “with all her voices,” but the ghosts of her loved ones did not answer her.
Maybe you wish you could journey back to a small house with low ceilings and red linoleum on the kitchen floor and a calendar with calf birthdays, a house you’ve loved all your life and have almost lost now. And you would find it unlocked, and go inside, and smell molasses, or pine oil cleaner, or the dust that lingers in an empty hallway, or potatoes frying on a stove that was no longer there. And you would say to yourself what the poet Maggie Anderson says: “the woods are going to take this home place back one day.”
The wynn (ƿ) was carried over from the alphabet of the old tribes because there was no sign for w in the Roman alphabet. The wynn had been, perhaps continued to suggest, a rune, a magical letter. The literature professor Henry Morley says that the runes were “cast into the air written separately upon chips or spills of wood, to fall as fate determined on a cloth, and then be read by the interpreters.” There’s something like joy that moves me when I look through the wavy-glassed window of an abandoned house, that tosses me like rune chips, and spills me, and lets me spell a new word.
Maybe you would want to bite your tongue, hold yourself like a glass of water that must not slosh over the sides, keep your new word to yourself for a while, wondering if there would be another loved house, wondering what word might come next if you poured out this one too fast.
Maybe you would walk through a wild field you used to know, the grasses high, the sumacs and hawthorns claiming it now, your hands held out as you puzzle through a tangle of brush, through a spill of light, dimmed by needles, by leaves, dogtooth, specks of purple, and you’re taking in the shade, the mossy stones where spring-water seeps from a mouth in the earth, singing a song of clay.
In her poem “The Durrett Farm, West Virginia: A Map,” Irene McKinney listed the things that were falling down on the farm where she had grown up: some of the Sour Russet apple trees, parts of the old house that starlings and wasps had nested in, a shack that saplings had sprouted through, the fences. Her father was declining too. “I began to want… to become my place and be in it,” she wrote. She remembered eating “elderberries, fuzzy sumac, birch bark, wild grape vine, sassafras leaves and bark, may apple, fern roots.”
Ēðel wynn was home joy, what you might feel when you return to your family’s land. Fugles wynn was fowl joy, what a goose feels when its feathers lift it into the sky, when one of those feathers becomes a quill, fillsa calfskin page with marks that look like tracks. There are kinds of joy that can change us, greet us in the place where a ghost should be, stir us until words spill out.
Twenty miles from the Durrett farm, my grandmother’s farm. This might be the last time my son and I visit her in the concrete block house with the wood floors my grandfather made from their own trees. She’s ninety-three, sits near a TV tray, plastic cup, drinking straw. She and my son kick a cloth ball, play keep-away. She’s mostly quiet. In her face there is warmth and light. I ask her a question, but she does not answer, as if some part of her is already in the middle of becoming, taking on a new shape, or tracking through an overgrown meadow, or flying off, lifting into sky.
The story behind the stories:
Natasha Trethewey suggests that poems about the past can “try to tell a fuller version of history, to consider things that might help change the future that we’re headed to, to make a world that is more inclusive, just, and humane than at our present moment.” For a while now, I’ve written poems that are striving for fuller history, for lyric history, trying to listen to and learn from the stories and songs of farmers, miners, millworkers, and laborers–people in Appalachia, the South, and beyond. When I turned from poems to essays, it was partly because I had been listening to (tuning in? visioning?) archaic letters and legendary figures and fading houses and scraps of Middle English, and I was casting about for a form or genre that suited this different kind of listening.
William Woolfitt’s poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in AGNI, Blackbird, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Spring Up Everlasting (Mercer University Press, 2020). His essay collection Eyes Moving Through the Dark is forthcoming from Orison Books.
Once there was a Blockbuster on every corner, and from every radio Kurt Cobain sang about teen spirit. But Kurt was not a teenager anymore, and neither was I. We were a generation waiting to be named, a weak signal of discontent arcing our way across analog airwaves into a digital wilderness.
In those days I couldn’t imagine life without America Online. How else would you get online? And where would you go, even if you got there? It would be like being lost in a strange city with no GPS, not even a map. You could stop strangers and ask them how to get where you wanted to go and hope they knew. You could look at the position of the sun to figure out which direction you were going. Unless it was night, in which case, you could just drive.
In those days I often found myself waiting for guidance. I was out of college, in a slump. I was trying to live without having an actual job. I did work-like things. I wrote resumes for people who were looking for actual jobs. I did late-night copyediting for a local paper. I wrote newsletters for a video rental store. I worked out of my “office,” my mom’s old sewing room. The movie Slacker hadn’t been released yet, but I could feel the word waiting for me in the disapproving glances of relatives.
I tutored middle school students in a distance-learning program. I asked them to write about how they felt about the Gulf War, which inspired them not at all. They wanted to write about New Kids on the Block.
This made sense. The boy band would outlast the war.
The world was changing. Walls were falling. America was going online, and I was going there, too. Before AOL, I had used something called Dialog to find magazine articles at the library. Dialog charged by the minute, and usage was jealously guarded: you had to convince the librarian that you had a legitimate reason for wanting this information, such as a school project, and that you were not just satisfying an idle whim.
I got my first email through something called the Ocean State Free-Net. It was, as the name suggested, free. You used a dial-up modem plugged into a phone jack; you entered a phone number and waited for the crackle and whine of a successful connection. Words (and only words) then appeared on your computer screen: in my case, a 9-inch black-and-white Mac Classic.
I had no idea how this all worked. I accepted it as magic. I had no idea how most things worked. I blundered through the world, pretending to be an adult. In some vague way I was waiting for real life to start. In some vague way I was waiting to be discovered. I had lost touch with most of my high school friends. One friend was in grad school in upstate New York. We got together during school breaks, but I usually ended up in her basement playing Nintendo with her teenage brother.
What are you doing with your life? A girl as smart as you!, her mother chided me.
Sometimes I felt an MFA was in my future, fated to find me. Still I resisted. My writing was alive to me in the hours between midnight and three, in my childhood bedroom, words keeping me awake, feeling on the verge of some great discovery. I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit in a beige-walled room around a fake-wooden table while people asked me if I thought I had “earned” my ending.
Yet there I was, writing eight hundred-word articles about the history of popcorn.
Once, I did apply to an MFA program—just one. It was a fellowship program that only accepted two people per year. I applied because a writer I admired had gone there, and, shortly after, had shot himself.
This seemed like a logical reason to choose a school.
I sent in my application packet—by mail, of course. I waited months, and got a thin envelope in reply. I remember crouching behind an endcap at the mall bookstore where I worked that year and crying. My co-worker Erik asked what was wrong.
I’ll never be a writer, I said. I’ll never be anything. I’ll just work at this stupid mall bookstore until I’m dead.
Erik was eighteen. He tried to comfort me as best he could. He said they were opening a new Barnes & Noble in Warwick. He said they were hiring.
The world kept changing. By the end of the nineties I would no longer have a desktop computer or a landline. AOL CDs would be drink coasters. Google would be a verb. I never did get that MFA, but I would be, finally, a published writer. I remember my first story acceptance, which came by phone. I remember proofs of the story being delivered by Federal Express.
Once I got hired to do some work for a magazine. I had to send them a signed form. I figured out a way to sign the form on my computer and “fax” it to them through the magic dial-up modem. All of us were astonished when it worked.
I received a confirmation page from one of the interns at the magazine. At the bottom of the page was a series of Xs and Os arranged in rows that widened and narrowed. Viewed from a distance, with your eyes squinted shut, the Xs and Os could be seen to form the shape of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek.
I emailed the magazine, complimenting them on their stationery. LIVE LONG AND PROSPER, I wrote.
LOL!, the intern wrote back.
As far as we knew, in those heady days of Hamster Dance, we had reached the final frontier. But it was only the dawn of the digital age.
The story behind the story:
Because I work in a library, I probably think more than the average person about what kind of media lasts and what doesn’t. Books can last hundreds of years if the paper isn’t acidic, but what happens when the object still exists, but the means to access it is gone? At my library, we found a stash of what looked like oversize videotapes, and after some research found that they weren’t VHS, weren’t even Beta, but some other video that predated Beta. From the labels, what was on them seemed to be important local history, and I’m sure the people who recorded it were happy knowing they were preserving this information using the latest cutting-edge technology, not realizing that within 20-30 years, the tapes would be unplayable. That got me thinking about the rapid technology shifts in my own lifetime, growing up as part of an “in-between” generation, not quite a digital native, and the awkwardness of being in between, those years when you can no longer get a pass as an adolescent but have no idea how to go about being an adult. Those were some of the things that inspired this story. And “The Way” by Fastball. And how much I still miss my tangerine-colored clamshell case Mac.
Kathryn Kulpa is a writer and editor with words in Five South, Flash Frog, Milk Candy Review, Monkeybicycle, and No Contact. Her work has been chosen for Best Microfiction and included in the Wigleaf longlist. Her flash chapbook, Girls on Film, was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest.
“Dial-Up Days” was first published in Carbon Culture Review.
I stand in water. It sloshes ’round my scuffed black leather wingtips, laps up the ankles of my rumpled dress slacks, turns khaki to the color of murky brown. Onlookers furrow their brows, incredulous that I do not see I am in danger of drowning, that if I don’t make a move for it, the water will continue to rise until it covers my soon-to-be-bald head. What they do not realize is I have already drowned. Can they not see my sopping clothes; the now seaweed green tweed jacket; my wrinkled, white translucent skin? This water is receding. I have survived my Biblical Flood. I am coming up for air, not suffocating. My exploded lungs have been cauterized; I now breathe shallower: but calm and sure.
I look for you, but waves wash you to another shore, an island uncharted, perhaps, to inhibit my finding you. Did you suffer so? Rather than buoy you up, did my selfishness climb squarely on your shoulders and thrust you downward? Push you under into the electric bosom of a bloom of pulsing jellyfish… until it was you who passed away? Or did your shocking beauty simply meld with theirs, escaping me as I first wondered? My hope is you did get away. My prayer is you are dry and safe and contented. Even if it means I cannot be with you.
I may not be dry, but I am drying out. I have always had a dry sense of humor, a British sense of humor, I like to think. Admittedly, I can be droll. My odd obsession with court jesters remains a curious thing. Was it their tomfoolery or their role in history? I don’t know. Whatever it might be, you used to laugh at me more than the TV. I cannot hear you laughing now. So, it begs the question: when did you turn it off? When was it you stopped laughing? Or was it me – in one of my sardonic rants – who thought he had had the last laugh?
You were always a giver. The problem is I’m a taker, was a taker…for what it’s worth. And givers and takers are a mismatch. I did what takers do; I took all you had to give, emptied all your pockets and filled them with rocks: one for each of my character defects. So, you stretched out your arms and tried to swim away, but sank. Yet upon the first swirling rush that separated my grip on you, you dropped my rocks and swam untraceable among the camouflage of coral reefs. So, here I am.
Yes, I stand. I’m not buckled at the knees as before or dead as expected. The lifeline you threw me caught ’round my neck, but it worked. It was the one time when looking in the end of a bottle, I actually saw a ship, and with it the possibility of steerage to a new land… dry land. Its pasted, miniature masts and cotton-twill sails still able to bear my living freight and move me to a healthy destination. You equipped me to survive the flood in the face of self-harm. How can I repay you? By letting you go? By not even thinking to follow you?
The small ship, pulled out for embarkation, is now crushed to bits beneath my feet. Peer close, and I might even pass for the Giant Polybotes, bane of the God Poseidon, standing on a shipwreck from the battle of Nisyros. A broken bow floats out to the Aegean Sea. An anchor pulls the splintered spine of this ark into the pit of a dark swell. I was supposed to find Terra Firma by Noah’s mandateas one of a pair. I beg you. But I’ll force myself to understand, if I am to go at it alone.
If it is what you need, I will unabashedly say it aloud, “I no longer drown myself in bottles, thanks to you.” So, I will stay clear of the companion way and wish your sails full billows to get you to your place of secret solace. I will not follow you. But I will always think of you. And if you will allow, I’ll tightly scroll this missive and slip it into this bottle here, then toss it far in the direction I hope will one day reach you.
The story behind the story:
This is a memoir piece based on the author’s journey out of alcohol addiction and its impact on his marriage. The intent was to create a structure with a movement—akin to lapping water, moving the protagonist (or antagonist?) to the shores of truth and self awakening.
Published in 100+ literary journals across five continents, Keith Hoerner (BS, MFA) is founding editor of the Webby Award-recognized Mircrofiction e-zine / print anthology: The Dribble Drabble Review. A Best of the Net nominee, he is also a Best Book and American Writing Award Finalist.
“Making It Back to Shore with No Sign of Your Footsteps in the Sand—or Sight of You on the Horizon” was first published in Flash Boulevard.
“People with dementia often ask to go home. … many nursing homes and hospitals have installed fake bus stops. When a person asks to go home, an aide takes them to the bus stop, where they sit and wait for a bus that never comes.” Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Memory House,” New Yorker (October 8, 2018)
On our nightly walks, my husband and I see a bus trundling by, lit up inside like the diner in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” but completely empty. Every night, the dark outside, the artificial light inside the bus rumbling along the empty street. The silhouette of the driver, the rows of empty seats. We’ve contemplated getting on the phantom bus, just to see if it’s real, but some superstitious dread prevents us.
Imagine instead the Alzheimer’s patient who sits patiently at a fake bus stop. “I’m going home,” the elderly woman says to no one in particular. She fiddles with the top button on her coat, plants her purse more firmly in her lap. The aide has promised to pack her bags and send them later. She’s been waiting a very long time. When is the bus due? There’s no schedule posted. She’s hungry and tired and wants so badly to go home. Night is falling.
Even as she waits, she knows that her home is no longer there. The cupboards with their orderly stacks of plates and bowls and cups, the drawers with silverware neatly sorted, the closets filled with outdated clothes she couldn’t bear to part with. The yellow sofa she should have reupholstered. All gone.
Still, she waits. She can picture the phantom bus so clearly, the empty interior brightly lit, the driver who will kindly stop for her. The brakes will wheeze as it pulls up to the bus stop. The folding doors will open with a thunk and the courteous driver will get out to help her up the stairs. He’ll be wearing a plaid shirt like her husband’s. He’ll comment on the weather, ask how she’s been doing. Best get moving, he’ll say. You don’t want to be late for your family reunion.
She stands and raises her arm, ready to wave when the bus appears.
The story behind the story:
It wasn’t until I read about the fake bus stops in memory care facilities that I found a way to write about the strangeness of the empty bus my husband and I saw every night on our walks. I hadn’t yet heard the term “speculative nonfiction,” but the flash veers from the factual and remembered (itself both real and surreal) into the realm of the speculative with “Imagine instead.” There are more paragraphs devoted to the fictional Alzheimer’s patient’s experience than to our nonfictional walk. Though she is imagined, I hoped I could make her “real” through concrete details (such as the purse planted “firmly in her lap,” the yellow sofa that needed reupholstering in the house she left behind). She too “can picture the phantom bus” as she waits, “the empty interior brightly lit,” the courteous driver in the plaid shirt “who will kindly stop for her.” I often use literary allusions as subtext. Emily Dickinson in particular haunts my work.
Jacqueline Doyle is the author of the award-winning flash chapbook The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press). She has published creative nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, The Collagist, matchbook, Passages North, and Fourth Genre. Her work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction’s “Sunday Short Reads” and has earned seven Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on Twitter @doylejacq.
“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” was first published The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts (Matter Press).
My six-year-old daughter wants a pet. No, she needs a pet –her words, not mine. As much as I love dogs, I’m not a pet person. Not at this point in my life. This almost-40, perpetually exhausted mother of two (including an extremely active toddler) has no energy left to take care of one more child. When she first asked if she could have a pet, my answer was a flat no.
The following day, I heard her energetically saying “Sit!” and “Fetch!” Long story short, her baby brother can now sit and fetch a toy or a snack for her. Now that he was trained, she went back to asking for a real pet. This time I explained why we couldn’t get one. Not now, I said. The crafty little one took her puppy eyes to Daddy. Of course, Daddy melted. She could have a goldfish. Imagine how fun it would be to clean its tank, feed it, and watch it go glub glub in the water! She pranced away without a word.
A pet list came up next. Since she wanted a “real” pet which she can take walks with, and since I was too tired for a dog or a cat, she came up with a list of tier 2 pets. Tier 2 pets, she says, are those whose poop you don’t have to pick up. Like hamsters, mice or even a rat will do, she said.
I cringed. “A rat? Are you serious?”
“Yes! Don’t you know, Mama? They’re so fluffy and cute.” Her wide eyes in full earnest.
Don’t I know rats? Oh, baby girl, I want to say. I’ve lost count of the number of rat-traps my mom and I used to set in our tiny home. I remember my mom frantically covering everything on the dinner table to protect it from rat droppings falling from above. I could tell her about that day when my sister and I had excitedly put on our DIY rice flour face masks and slept in them. The person who gave us the face mask recipe had said to keep it on all night for clear glowing skin. In the middle of the night, my sister woke up screaming bloody murder. A rat had licked her face. We swore off face masks for a long time after that.
Or I could tell her about that day after Diwali, when people were bursting firecrackers on the street. Dad was away on transfer and when we unrolled our mattresses on the floor (we only had one bed), an entire family of rats scurried out. My mom, my sister and I huddled together on the little bed meant for two kids, afraid to stretch our legs. By the end of our stay in that house, the rats had grown so big and fearless, the stray cats that roamed around the building wouldn’t dare to cross paths with them. Cowards! my mother would mock-spit at them.
But to tell my daughter all that, I’d have to explain many other things like why growing up, we didn’t have bedrooms of our own or a toilet inside the house, or why we lived in a place with a rat problem, and why we didn’t have so many things she considers given. I will tell her this someday, not forgetting to add that despite this, my sister and I had an extremely happy childhood.
I will tell her this another day, not because I want to protect her from reality, but only because I want her to stop being such a sloth, put her goddamn shoes on, and leave for school. The bus driver has already called twice. “I’ll think about it,” I say.
We rush into the elevator. “Mama, I think I will get a pet.” Her confident face looks up at me.
“Wait, I said I’ll think about it, I didn’t say yes.”
Her eyes twinkle. “Yeah, but you had said the same thing when I asked for a baby brother and I got one, didn’t I?”
The story behind the story:
I am turning into my mother. I find myself subconsciously adding “When I was your age…” into conversations with my (now nine-year-old) daughter. She seems to enjoy these tidbits from my childhood, even though it’s so starkly different from hers. Her perspective on my childhood is so refreshing and often amusing. I would never, not in a million years, think of rats or lizards as “cute” beings!
For this essay, I only knew I wanted to write about her negotiations with us for pets, but elements of my childhood–the rats, and the conditions we lived in, braided themselves organically into the narrative, and the ending surprised me in the best possible way–I’d forgotten that conversation in the elevator with my daughter. It popped up unexpectedly when I was writing this, making me smile. Cut to present day: we’re pet-sitting a pair of turtles for a friend in preparation for getting our own pet turtles soon.
Bio: Hema Nataraju is an Indian-American writer and mom, currently based in Singapore. Her work has most recently appeared in Booth, Wigleaf, 100-word Story, Ruby Literary, and Nurture Literary, among others. One of her flash pieces is on the 2022 Wigleaf Top 50 longlist. She tweets as m_ixedbag.
“Pet Negotiations” was first published in Ellipsis Zine.
Minute one: I tell Phil he’ll be free. No more vomiting, pain, or bitter pills. That he’ll run fast again. That there’ll be lots of squirrels and sunshine forever. Minute two: I tell him I love him, filling sixty seconds with our nine years. Three: Force a smile and laugh about puppyhood. How he chewed new carpet, once pooped on the bed. Whaaat? I sob through minute four, tracing the black stripes in his grey fur. Five: kiss Phil’s long nose, hug him, then nod to the vet. I watch his chest rise and fall, rise and fall. Rise. Fall.
The story behind the story:
This story is near and dear to me, and I’ve never cried more over what I’ve written. I guess that was my process: crying. “Phi” is an expression of the old saying that the only sadness animals bring us is when they leave us. While specifically about my whippet, the piece is really a candle in the window to all pets loved and lost.
Karen writes short in a low basement. Her work is in or forthcoming in FlashBack Fiction, Reflex Fiction, Bullshit Lit, Blank Spaces, Ghost City Press, AlienBuddha Press, Roi Fainéant Lit Press, Funny Pearls, and others. She/her. @MeKawalker883
Seconds after I began swaying in a lakeside hammock with my baby cradled in my arms, my 3- and 5-year- olds began to wander out of my sight into the thick of the nearby woods. Barefoot and bathing-suited, they were armed with sticks and their imaginations; peals of laughter and the crack of dry wood snapping under their feet were my only clues as to their whereabouts.
I stayed put and closed my eyes, giving in to their desire to roam freely and giving up my instinct to overprotect. Feeling more relaxed than I had in five years of parenthood, I recall thinking, “I’m onto something here.”
Turns out, so were my free-roaming kids. Their sticks and wild play soon disturbed a nest of angry ground wasps hidden beneath the thin soil of the forest floor. A couple of hours and two baking-soda-anointed kids later, I had to chalk that one up as one more part of my learning experience on parenting in the woods.
Beyond remembering to carry a first-aid kit, I’ve also come to realize that such brushes with nature, big or small, reveal an important version of my kids — and myself — not always apparent in our city life.
Wasp stings and the bites of half a dozen other bloodthirsty flies and insects are all part of the daily routine when your backyard is a huge, wild forest. For my kids, this backyard is sometimes an outdoor freshwater field station where their dad is a scientist. Tucked into a remote corner of Northwestern Ontario, the research facility is a collection of 58 freshwater lakes and their boreal forest watersheds on a swath of remote, provincially owned land. Access to the area is tightly controlled, and the site is not marked on any gas station road map.
It’s part backcountry adventure, part family-friendly work camp. A handful of cozy cabins and bunk-style dorms are set into the trees along the perimeter of a cluster of chemistry and biology labs, a workshop and a dining hall that doubles as a meeting space. You can find just about everything you need to live and work comfortably and communally here. Families are welcome to visit and stay during the long weeks and months that field work demands.
The seemingly endless forest of evergreens and birch looms large in this landscape, and you don’t have to walk far in any direction to find the clear, unspoiled waters Northern Ontario is known for. The nearest grocery store, playground and reliable cell phone signal are in a town of 1,200 people an hour’s drive away.
Quite often when we head for these woods, it’s just me and my kids, a couple of dozen researchers, staff and their dogs, and the great, wild outdoors. We can wander freely, where and as we want, for as long as we want, with nature as our playground — making my approach to parenting out there as much of an experiment as any official study of freshwater science going on.
There’s an abundance of convincing research out there for parents these days showing why it’s good for kids to spend more time outside. Ironically, a lot of this evidence and advice is aimed at my generation of 30- and 40- something parents — the last generation of people who really played outside.
Our childhoods were full of free time spent wandering streets and playgrounds, forests and fields, in multi-age gangs of kids, no adult supervision in sight, and coming home only when the streetlights turned on.
Yet our own children are being raised largely indoors, with more time being spent on more abundant screens. And even when our kids do go outside, the way they spend their time there has changed: they’re more likely to be in highly organized sports, safely designed playgrounds and supervised schoolyards, rather than playing freely and imaginatively on their own.
Coining the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” — what he describes as “the broken bond between our young and nature” — author Richard Louv explores the links between time spent playing outside and kids’ overall well-being in his book Last Child in the Woods. While making the case that our generation of outside-raised kids is raising its own generation of restrained “containerized kids,” Louv’s most salient point is that while any time kids spend playing freely outside is better than none, the very best things happen when they do it in nature.
Indeed, in our own private wilderness, I’ve learned at the first mention of “I’m bored,” to grab our water bottles and rubber boots and go for a walk. With no particular destination, and no fixed plan or activity, we just head for the trees or the water, stopping when the kids want to explore or play. Within minutes, the grumbling and complaining gives way to relaxed conversation and curiosity, playful, peaceful intent, and genuinely happier kids.
Just like full tummies and quality sleep, daily unstructured time outdoors has become an essential tool in my parenting kit, whether in the woods or at home in the city. Be it a bike ride around the block or just free playtime in the yard, children return to the indoors a restored version of themselves, all the keyed-up dials set back to normal.
There’s a place in our woods where we like to walk barefoot from the beach and play under the shady, cool canopy of the older evergreen trees.
There’s an extensive “castle” of lean-tos and fallen logs taking shape in there among the tall trees and mossy outcrops, where a carpet of pine and spruce needles cushions the ground and mutes our footsteps, turning the soil so acidic that weeds and brush can’t crowd in and block the fun.
It’s a place so quiet and mystical, you can almost believe in the fairies the kids have spent hours building tiny pinecone villages for, if not sense the presence of unseen eyes, be it wary wildlife or ancient spirits.
This is a place for messy, imaginative play, for gaining what Louv calls a “sensory experience of nature.” For my kids, this is the time and space for digging in the dirt and jumping in puddles, for berry-stained mouths and rock-filled pockets, for following a line of marching ants, chasing a butterfly or just sitting still to watch the clouds go by.
Their keen appreciation for the natural world is developing before my eyes, giving them a sense of how they fit into the puzzle of life and filling some inherent need to be connected to the land — profound feelings easily awakened in the wild that can’t be replicated in a playground.
Or as Louv puts it: “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young … If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”
Driving slowly along the winding dirt road back to the highway and civilization one year, my kids and I came up unnoticed behind a mother black bear and her three cubs. We stopped the car and stayed inside, watching them from a distance with cautious awe and wonder.
The cubs were jumping and rolling over each other, frolicking with playful abandon the way any young siblings are prone to do. The mother bear was ambling along a few paces ahead of them, aware but relaxed, one eye seemingly on them, the other on the road and the woods. It was only when they eventually heard us, intruders on their private moment, that they scampered into the woods, shy and afraid.
For me, too, the outdoors offer a reprieve from my everyday “real-world” parental fears. The inherent risks of the woods and wild nature somehow seem more avoidable and manageable to me in comparison to the culture of fear we’re raising our kids in, back home in the city.
Every news story about abductions, shootings and terrorism plays on my anxieties. Most parents I know even fear being judged or reported for allowing their kids to play outside without the hyper-vigilant supervision we’ve been told is the new normal. In the woods, away from relentless media coverage and social pressure, I’m often more relaxed and less afraid —– or at the very least, afraid of fewer things.
My children, too, need that reprieve, that freedom. Not just to play wildly and simply in nature, but also to be free of my motherly eye constantly trained on them. They need the less worried version of me, that one that gives less of “no” and more of “yes,” is more playful, less efficient, and who has more time to listen and enough time to want to.
Parenting in the wild has the power to show you what you’re really made of, but also what you really need. When I first walked into those woods with my kids, I didn’t think I could parent to that degree on my own, keeping them safe and occupied all day. I had to learn to trust myself, and them. We’ve all emerged from the forest a little more resilient, more grounded.
The story behind the story:
I wrote this piece in the thick of the hands-on parenting young kids require. When I pitched it, I knew I had a unique perspective to share about living at that field station, but writing it also let me reflect on the struggles and joys of finding my own way in motherhood, of contending with that isolation both physical and emotional. It’s interesting to revisit it now that my kids are almost all teenagers — so much more independent and far less interested in spending weeks alone with me in the woods. Our time in the wild comes in much smaller doses. This is a good reminder to me to savour each one.
Carmen Kinniburgh is a writer in Northwestern Ontario and the co-founder of unhitch.ca. Her work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, websites, reports, grant applications, and for a few years, even her parents’ annual Christmas letter. Thanks to the generous encouragement of the Laughing Foxes writer’s group and SFU’s creative writing community, Carmen is also now working towards her 100 rejections. She lives in a small house with her partner, four children, two dogs and a whole lot of books.
“Parenting in the Wild” was originally published in 2017 as “Experimental Parenting” in Almost Fearless magazine. This is an edited excerpt.
There was a time when my children were orphans. There was a time before I became one. My younger son and I were never orphans at the same time; we missed an overlap by seven months. He was gaining parents while I was losing mine. When I adopted Jack months before my mother died, I had been balancing the number of parents in the world. That need for balance–I know it well. I felt it as a child; it manifested as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. When I was nine, I lost my father, and as if to balance that loss, my limbs compensated with too much movement, too much awareness, too much repetition–anything to take my mind off of my worry.
To calm my nerves, I counted.
1. When I was a child, I had to make sure my right and left sides experienced touch the same. If my right arm swiped a door frame, I’d need to step back into the doorway to swipe my left arm. If I stepped on three sidewalk cracks with my left foot, I’d do the same with my right. Left, Left, Left. Right, Right, Right. The degree and duration of each touch mattered. Did I need to recreate a stomp or a fairy-light tiptoe? Had it been a drawn-out dusting of my left shoulder or a clap-length press? In my mind, I was “evening out the sides.” If I didn’t, something bad might happen.
My grandmother gave me a 5×7 cardboard picture of Jesus. It was bright orange and yellow and sat on my nightstand. I kissed that photo three times in the morning, three times after school, and three times at night. Kissed it to the point that some of the cardboard wore off and parts of his face were missing.
In the third grade I concluded any paragraph written for school with “Period,” “The End,” and an actual punctuation mark of a period. My teacher, Ms. Weitrich, would cross the words out and write, “Just one single period.” When I refused to stop writing my three-part finale, she gave up. Once, towards the end of the school year, she stuck a smiley face sticker next to the series of endings and wrote, “Amen.”
It was weeks after my father died from a heart attack that my symptoms first appeared. Genetics play a role in the development of OCD, but stress is also a factor. My mother never reported any of my unusual behavior to a doctor, so I never sought help. And, like most things in my family, we never talked about it. Amen. Amen. AMEN.
When I became an orphan, within months of my son’s adoption, it seemed the universe had been doing the same as me–restoring balance. When my mother was sick and her death imminent, I saw myself as an ORPHAN. The word was unavoidable, accusatory. The word itself was blaring. Odd, though, because I’d never used “orphan” to describe my own children; I referred to that period of their lives as “when they lived in Russia” or “before they came home.” Rather than say they lived in an orphanage, I prefered the Russian term of Baby Home, any title that included home. Home, home, HOME.
2. I took my spot nearest the nightstand, my mother kneeled next to me, and my sister settled in on her other side. I waited until they both matched my positioning, until all three of us were kneeling up high against my bed, our hands folded prayer style–fingers crossed, not pressed together–with our elbows propped up on my Holly Hobbie bedspread.
I began. “Our father with Art in heaven …” My grandpa’s name was Art and that was how I thought it was said.
At the end, in unison, we said, “Amen.” I then repeated, “Amen,” a little louder, all by myself.
I led into the next, “Hail Mary full of Grace–” By now my family knew the routine; the same three prayers were to be recited in the same order.
We were nearing the prayer’s end: “ … now and at–ACHOO–the hour of our death.” I stopped; I needed to know who had sneezed.
My mother turned to me, urging me along with her widened eyes. In the past, when anyone would cough or yawn or flub a word, we needed to start over from the beginning, start again with “The Our Father.” I understood my mother’s frustration at this moment; it was getting late and we had almost finished two of the three prayers. But, no, I knew it’d been Beth’s mouse-size of a sneeze; she’d been the one to make me lose focus.
“That’s it.” I shot my sister a dirty look. “From the top.” (Again, Again, AGAIN.) I bowed my head and closed my eyes. “Our father with Art…”
Towards the end of “Glory Be,” during, “As was in the beginning is now,” I smelled the salty, buttery aroma of freshly made popcorn, and knew Beth, who selected a spot nearest the door, had escaped. My mother had stayed. Going forward, it would be my sister I could count on more, the one who would stay. The one who would count.
Meeting new people, social situations where he doesn’t feel in control, starting new things—my younger son Jack has had his own share of anxiety. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia; most children who share either diagnosis also experience anxiety. In the first grade, he developed a tic: an incessant clearing of his throat. It continued for years and was most noticeable before any stressful event, like the beginning of each school year. He now attends a private school for those with dyslexia and ADHD, and his tics have almost disappeared. Occasionally, I hear an extra clearing of his throat—two, sometimes three in a row—but no one else in my family notices, and I wonder if I am imagining it. I never point it out, not to anyone; it seems to be a language he only uses with me. A language only detected by the anxious.
3. Each day during middle school, as we waited for her to return from work, my sister and I would hang out in our mother’s bedroom. She had the biggest bed, the most delicate bottles, the most ornate looking lipsticks. The room and her drawer contents–the neatly folded silken slips, the lace and satin nighties–smelled like her cologne, as she called it, musky and warm. Our video games were set up in there, and on my turn, my sister would sprawl out on Mom’s down comforter, her homework fanned out before her. I’d scoot to the bed’s edge, my face inches from the television set.
One afternoon, on level three of Ms. Pacman, I glanced into the mirror behind the dresser. I stopped. The left side of my face had frozen. It was no longer matching the right. When I smiled, only the right side of my face curled into a grin. When I lifted my brow, only the right side arched.
I reached behind and tapped my sister on the leg. She toppled over her spelling book and folders as she moved towards the dresser. “Watch this.” I smiled. We both studied my reflection’s half grin.
She shook her head as if to say, “So what?”
I flared out my right nostril, in and out, in and out. “Weird,” she said. “Now make a mad face.” Two different emotions emerged—the right side scowled while the left side stood still.
Beth orchestrated my next expressions. “Do a surprised face, now a scared one. Try sad.” Sad, happy, sad, happy, SAD.
We rarely called our mother at the hospital where she worked as a nurse because we knew how busy she was. This, however, felt important. Beth ran to the kitchen, to the house phone mounted on the wall; I continued to study my face.
As my sister made her way back into the bedroom, I caught her reflection in the mirror. Her smile had flattened. “Mom sounds worried. She’s coming home.” I turned from the mirror, no longer finding my face as humorous. It was rare for my mom to leave work early—the only other time had been five years before, the time I’d fallen off of the bathroom counter and needed emergency surgery. This time I was afraid I might get into trouble, as if I could have prevented my uneven expressions like I should have prevented my clumsy dismount from the sink that had led to stitches.
When my mother got home, she rushed around, ordering me into the car. “Go. Go. Go.” I slid across the vinyl backseat, tried to catch my reflection in her rearview mirror, wondering if any of my neighbors were watching the commotion, had noticed something was off. If it were a true emergency–it did feel that way–maybe my mother should have called an ambulance. Perhaps she thought she’d be faster in her olive green Camaro as she sped to the hospital, to the children’s ER next door to where she’d just left.
The doctors performed a few quick tests, diagnosed my unevenness as Bell’s Palsy, and prescribed prednisone. I liked the attention from the pretty nurses, some of whom were my mom’s friends from the hospital next door. I kept hearing: “How is she? … Do you need me to do anything?”
Once the medicine had kicked in, my mother revealed she’d been worried I’d had a stroke. For her, Bell’s Palsy was a relief. I recovered within weeks and didn’t need physical therapy or any further treatment. I’d never had physical therapy–perhaps my mother didn’t believe in therapy of any kind–and wondered if I would have gotten a lot of attention like I did at the hospital. Either way, my sides were evened out. I was fortunate; some people with Bell’s Palsy never regain use of half of their face. My mother spoke of a doctor she worked with whose mouth sagged his entire life, possible proof for her of therapy’s ineffectiveness. For him, there’d been no shot at balance.
While I was counting cracks in the sidewalk, grabbing door knobs, citing and reciting prayers, my sister developed her own anxiety disorder: trichotillomania. Those afflicted with Trich pull out hair, mostly from their heads but it can be from any parts of their body. I blamed my anxiety on the silence and fear surrounding my father’s death; she attributed hers to our father’s yelling. I grew out of mine; it took neighborhood bullies to shame Beth out of hers.
A childhood friend who’d lost her brother had developed a disorder similar to my sister’s. In junior high, my friend twirled clumps of glossy black hair between her thumb and forefinger, and once it was tightly wound, she’d scratch her handful of hair. Taut like a rubber band, the sound would reverberate throughout the classroom. This friend was tiny—no one expected such a sound to come from her. I never found either hers or my sister’s behaviors strange; I was more curious, and relieved that I wasn’t the only oddball.
4. My sister claims my unusual OCD-type behavior began when I was younger, before our dad died. She recalls the time our mother took us to Dayton’s, the fancy department store downtown, to have breakfast with Santa. Mrs. Claus, Santa, and the elves would sing Christmas carols while we ate our silver dollar pancakes and greasy sausage links. Afterwards, everyone would line up to get their photos taken with the cast. During “Jingle Bells,” as I was trying to clap along to its beat of three, Jing-le-Bells, Jing-le-Bells, I panicked. I couldn’t hear. The other kids were banging their forks against their plates, pounding their fists into the table, and shrieking out the lyrics. My mother beckoned an elf over to our group, anything to get me to stop crying. The elf, in her striped stockings and pointy ears, kneeled down beside my chair, and just to me, sang “Jingle Bells.”
By high school, my OCD had gone away, though it resurfaces when I’m overwhelmed. I was taking graduate classes and waiting tables at night when I first began teaching. On occasion, I would leave my house and need to return home to make sure that I’d turned off the coffee pot, the iron, lock the door, anything. Once, I needed to leave school in the middle of class because I was convinced my negligence was going to burn my apartment down. After that, each morning, I’d allow an extra ten minutes or so to check and recheck appliances and locks. Off, on, off, on, OFF.
My children do not seem to mind when others find out they are adopted. There is no shame. No secrecy. At their ages, I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t have a father—I didn’t want to be seen as different. When someone asked me what my parents did for a living, I’d avoid the question, or lie. Once when friends were over, weeks after my father had passed, a telemarketer called the house and asked to speak to my father. My mother had taken the call and all we heard was, “He’s dead.” She was telling the truth, and there was nothing wrong with her reply, but I was ashamed that my friends had to hear that, had been subjected to my family’s secrets, had been privy to our sorrow. We all know he’s dead, I wanted to scream. Dead. Dead. DEAD.
Months before my dad died, I tried to imagine what life would have been like if my father weren’t around. Back then, I never allowed myself to wonder the same about my mother—that would’ve been disastrous and unbearable. I never told anyone that I felt responsible for his death and held onto this guilt throughout my childhood. He was alive one minute, dead the next. (Undead, dead, undead, dead. DEAD.) My sister blamed herself, too. Beth had been dealing with neighborhood bullies and desperately wanted a friend. She’d made a bargain with God—she was willing to sacrifice our father in exchange for one loyal friend, just one. (One, none, one, none, ONE.) I still will not allow myself to imagine the worst of life’s scenarios, as if my thoughts might provide the universe with an idea that it finds too tantalizing, too alluring to ignore.
5. Seven years ago, my anxiety and depression reached an all time high. I worried about everything, and it affected my self-esteem. Depression is powerful. When you are in the dredges, you do not see things clearly—at that point, it can be nearly impossible to pull yourself out. I’d do what one of my therapists had suggested; in a series of three, I’d repeat: “You have a family who loves you. You have a family who loves you unconditionally. You have a family who loves you, and you are lucky for that.” As I’d witnessed in group therapy, not everyone can say that about their own families.
Several Novembers ago, in a moment of great sadness and desperation, I asked my husband why he even loved me. He rattled off a few things, but also wrote a more thorough list and emailed it to me. He said he didn’t want me to ever be left wondering.
There is a peculiar guilt among adoptive mothers–guilt over the length of time our children spent without us, whether it be in an orphanage or with a foster family. If only we had found our child sooner. If only we hadn’t delayed our decision to adopt. If only we had completed the loads of paperwork quicker. A friend who’d gone through fertility treatments blamed herself for not ditching the pregnancy route sooner, certain those futile months of needles and thermometers could have been better spent searching for her Chinese son. I imagine the checking and rechecking of temperatures and tests, the counting and recounting of days and shots, the imbalance in one’s hormones and bodies. And the guilt from not getting any of that right either. Not Pregnant. Pregnant? NOT PREGNANT.
6. I can still imagine my mother’s hugs—light, high on my upper back, her palms flat, her elbows tilted upward. A soft pat, pat, pat. The last time she embraced me, weeks before she died, it was too quick, too soft, and I can no longer feel it. No impression had been left on my back. If only it had been tighter, more indelible. Something to balance out the longing I have for more time with her; something to fill in for the time I wish I’d had with my sons. Pat, pat, PAT.
We had been waiting months for a court date to finalize our older son’s adoption, and had traveled to Russia to visit him. At the end of our stay, we were forced to leave him behind, not knowing how long it would be until we saw him again.
We always said our farewells in the play area, the room down the hall from the one where he slept–fifteen cots lined up soldier-style, in rows of three, head to footboard. With sheets tucked tightly into the mattresses, the fluffed pillows looked like little birds ready to bounce into flight. In the play area, a ruby red carpet covered the wooden floors. Spices from the day’s lunch of borscht and perogies had made their way into the bedroom, tempting the children’s hunger for more food, more love. More. A reminder that this place would always leave them wanting.
I had learned some Russian and, on our second trip, as we were saying goodbye, I whispered, “Ya tibia Lyblu.” I love you.
He stared at me, and with his sweet raspy voice, said, “Lyblu?” Love you? A question.
Tight, with hands that seemed too big for a two-year-old, he reached around my waist and squeezed. He then turned, shot off to join his group at the Baby Home, as if he’d be seeing us the next day and the next, unaware the wait would be months. I watched my son run off wearing almost nothing, in an undershirt, tights, and his little red sandals. Watched him dart past the potted plants and fogged up windows, watched until he turned the corner and was out of sight.
On the 13-hour flight home, from Moscow to Minneapolis, I’d replay what he’d said and imagined his clenched arms, his little boy smell of sweat and wind, his inability to comprehend love. I liked to imagine that months later when he hugged the giant Teddy bear in the common area, he conjured me: my skinny arms, my freckled hands. The desperation in my embrace.
Period. The End.
The story behind the story:
Because I have OCD, I always long for balance. When I was younger, it was more physical; but now I try to think of possible ways that every event of my life has a counterpart. Love and Loss, Birth and Death, Learning and Teaching, Anger and Forgiveness.
This essay includes adoption, grief, and mental health, the three pervading themes of my book, Guess What’s Different.
Susan Triemert’s collection of essays, Guess What’s Different was published in May of 2022. She reads creative non-fiction at Pithead Chapel. A mother of boys and cats, she lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can find out more about Susan at susantriemert.com.
“Evening Out the Sides” was first published in Pithead Chapel.
I have a friend who used to call me in the middle of the night. I would answer and could barely make out his words. He was most likely in a bar when he would call. We were all most likely in bars at the time, really anytime. Even though he now lives several states away, bar time has a unique and well-known time zone. A person who is a bar person always knows there will be other bar people, and you don’t have to feel bad, even if you are the only person in that particular bar on a Tuesday morning smoking Camel Wides and shooting whiskey. Somewhere, there’s another one of you doing the same thing, and if you close your eyes you can imagine taking that shot of whiskey with those people. If you think about it, and examine it really closely, it’s easy to imagine every shot as a form of communion.
Eddie would call and ask the same question every time, “What’s that word again?” I think there are plenty of words that I could have told him at this point, and there were times I thought about making them up. Sangrat. Philomonopoious. Declundity. And when he would say, “Yeah! Yeah! That’s the one!” and then wait until I told him its meaning. That was always what he was looking for.
Our University bookstore had a whole row of white flags printed with red crosses along the entryway. It was an art project or something. But Eddie wasn’t happy with what they sold in the bookstore. Why do they sell eyeshadow called lust and have crosses out front? So, one night he snuck and painted copyright insignias on the bottom of every flag. Look what we’ll sell you. Look at what you can purchase.
Eddie worked at a piercing parlor. That’s what they used to call them when I would frequent such places. Now, I think they call them studios. I’m not sure that I like the change. Parlor has a different sort of ring to it, don’t you think?
Eddie and I had classes together sometimes, but only the ones that happened to overlap out of our different majors. He was an art major. At least I’m pretty sure. I think they kicked him out before he graduated. Maybe they found out who had painted those copyright insignias? Maybe he showed up drunk to chapel? It really could have been any number of things.
The first time I saw him play pierce, my stomach dropped like I was standing on the highest ledge with no handrail. He was sitting in his truck, the small kind that would not do well in any sort of snow, but in California it was okay. I think he was sleeping in it, but there was no way to tell for sure.
I bummed him a cigarette and he pulled out a kit. It reminded me of how chefs carry around their knives in those black roll-ups. He slid out fifteen or so hollow needles and then methodically, ritually, pushed them through the meat of his calf.
I remember thinking that there should have been more blood.
Once, he had an art show off-campus and I couldn’t afford any of the paintings. They all depicted the same human-like figure. In each one, the figure was smoking; one was set in a church, one sitting on the sidewalk, one in a library. The figures all had a massive gash running from the base of their skulls down to their tailbones. I’m no art critic, but they seemed very well done.
I didn’t put the meaning together until much later.
I wasn’t there for his first suspension. Someone else pierced him with the hooks, but he told me later that he had rigged up the pulley system himself, that he pulled himself into the air. “There’s something about being pierced and hanging in the air that everyone should experience,” he told me.
Sometimes we would drink a couple of bottles of wine and smoke a little weed. We would end up talking philosophy, debate early and late Wittgenstein, with a fervor that seemed so real, so definite, at the time.
I bet if I tried to do the same thing now I wouldn’t have any points to make, any hills to die on, though I do occasionally flip someone off randomly; my contribution to changing the world.
He hasn’t called in quite some time, but I find myself hoping he does. I hope that he’s painting still, but that the gash isn’t quite as deep, or maybe it is somewhere where the figure can do more than just feel it. I hope that when he calls I’ll be in a bar, with a whiskey in front of me. I’ll have a whole list of made-up words and I’ll tell him exactly what each of them means.
The story behind the story:
I wrote this one time after having drinks in a bar and I realized I hadn’t heard from “Eddie” in quite a long time. Thinking about him, what he meant to me, and how we drifted apart brought all this out. But more than just that, the intensity with which he interacted and sought connection, sought understanding in a community that often claims to have all the answers is still important to me. Communicating meaning is fascinating, and studying some of the old language philosophers and their stories helped to tie some of the loose strings of this together, particularly the idea of fully understanding what a word is to someone. Eddie used to read all my work. I wonder if he’s ever read this and seen himself this way. I think he would have liked it.
Evan James Sheldon is the author of Children & Their Cages (Twelve House Books, 2022). He is the Features Editor for F(r)iction and the Editorial Director for Brink Literacy Project. You can find him online at www.evanjamessheldon.com.
“Blood Linguistics” was first published in Barren Magazine.