Can you put me on tilt? my leaning son asks. He can’t help this leaning, even though he’s seat-belted and secure in this wheelchair he’s been sitting in living in declining in the past dozen years. He can’t grip the chair’s controls he can’t control his grip he doesn’t have a grip not anymore. His muscles are wasting away, he’s losing strength, he needs someone to put the chair-back back. He needs someone to put him on tilt. Tilting relieves the pressure on his neck his spine his back his butt he’s got no padding there no padding anywhere not on this young man my son who’s wasting away. Tilt makes me dizzy but it’s better sometimes, he says. So I put him on tilt and he’s ok for a moment — suspended, he’s at peace or looks like he is, like the dream is over, like the worst has passed, like a decision’s been made. I make a joke like I do, it’s a joke he usually laughs at, it’s a thing we do, the two of us, a thing we have, the two of us, but he doesn’t laugh at this joke he doesn’t smile he doesn’t respond. Not while he’s on tilt. And I feel this flash this bolt it’s more like a shiver — the dream that ended, the worst that’s over, the decision made: He’s giving up, I think, and I have no reason to think this no reason not really not now not yet where’s this coming from so I bite my tongue or my lip or my left arm or is it shame I chomp down on — I chomp down on it hard as in hard without holstering. But it is here in this moment, with trapdoors and trapezes, among horsemen and hangmen, that I know what I know, that I’m not what I thought that I’m not what I believed that I’m not what I hoped. This kid who doesn’t complain never about pain not once not ever this young man of a kid who never feels sorry for himself not once not ever this darling young one the strongest one I know — the one I lean on, I lean on his strength — he takes a moment for himself he takes a moment to regroup he goes on tilt and he found him some peace yet here I shiver and I simper and I dizzily posit if-thens: If he’s giving up, how am I going to lean on him, lean on his strength? If I can’t lean on his strength, how am I going to be strong, strong enough to be there for him? I mean he’s tilting. I mean how can you lean on a guy who’s tilting? I mean he’ll fall. I don’t understand what I’m positing I don’t understand what I’m saying to myself but I fear the worst a worst that’s not over a weak moment that isn’t a moment but a river of them a river that says Uncle a river that says Quittin’ time a mirror of a river that says Look hard look hard look real hard whose face do you see? I look at my tilting son’s face that darling young face he looks so peaceful I mean peace like a real river and I remember something he’d say after I’d tell a joke he didn’t get Why do I have to understand what you’re saying all the time? he’d say and I hear that river the peaceful one the river that turns tables on unsuspecting levees the one that turns cartwheels at crunch time. Can you put me on tilt? I say to my son Are you just kidding? he asks I don’t know I say and I picture a pinball heart riding shotgun on the peaceful river the one that’s leaning the one that’s lurching the one that’s letting go I’ll try I say in words neither one of us understands.
The story behind the story:
On June 11, 2018, I was in a Kathy Fish FastFlash workshop. The day’s exercise: the breathless paragraph. I was home with my son Cory, watching Cory be Cory. Watching Cory be his beautiful self. He had been getting weaker, muscular dystrophy was doing what it does, and Cory had been hanging in, hanging in the way he always had, hanging in the way he always would, but there was something about that day the light I think it listed his breathing I think it rivered my heart I think it quivered and I felt myself slipping I felt he was slipping I felt I was losing him right then and there. I was scared for feeling it and ashamed for thinking it. Tilt came out of me in about 20 minutes. Cory died from complications from muscular dystrophy on January 3, 2019.
Pat Foran is a writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His stories and CNF have been published in various journals. His work was selected for the Best Small Fictions 2021 and Best Microfiction 2021 anthologies, and for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2022. He also received the 2021 Mythic Picnic Prize in Fiction. Find him at neutralspaces.co/patforan/ and on Twitter at @pdforan.
“Tilt” was first published in Anti-Heroin Chic and was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021.
I walk through the snow, wearing my mask towards the Covid-19 Assessment Centre. Taped to the window are yellow construction paper ducks, fluffy clouds. The door is open. Miss Patel says hello and welcome. Are you here for Story Time Saturdays? We’re reading Granny’s Sari. My son waves his hands in the air. YES YES. The security guard checks his clipboard, looks at my health card. Nods. We are ushered in. The security guard gestures to the cheerful blue and green carpet/folding chair. On the wall, the lion still frolics with the bumblebee and I show my son the rainbow arcing over both of them. We can smell alcohol wipes and Play-Doh. The cold cement floor chills through the soles of my shoes. A doctor, wearing a yellow construction paper isolation gown, a mask, and a plastic face shield says, Granny’s favourite sari was a very special one. If you just lean your head back, I’ll insert the swab into pictures of a forest painted on it will only be for five seconds. The swab feels like when I get water up my nose in a swimming pool. After the story/test, the doctor hands us cookies and a special number to check the results. I walk home through the warm summer afternoon, holding my son’s hand.
The story behind the story:
During the lockdown in 2020, my partner and I went to get tested for Covid. To our surprise, the testing station was in the same place we’d taken our son for playtime and stories when he was little. Though the room had been stripped of carpets and had only a few folding chairs and tables inside, the jungle mural on the wall was still there. I wanted to talk about the surreality of being in a place that had been so warm and friendly 15 years earlier and now was another symptom of a world that felt like it had gone mad.
Sage Tyrtle’s work is available or upcoming in X-R-A-Y, The Offing, and Apex among others. She’s told stories on stages all over the world and her words have been featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. She runs a free online writing group open to everyone. Twitter: @sagetyrtle
“Miss Patel’s Story Time Assessment Center” was first published in 433.
I (inhaled, then) exhaled pain into my daughter’s hair. It wasn’t my plan. My husband was supposed to be sitting in my place, his legs open, a red plastic chair squeezed between them with our four year-old sitting atop the seat. And while he moisturized and detangled her curly puff ponytail, I was going to sit in our bedroom closet, lights off and body hugged against the stinking laundry bag, to weep. But plans, like they tend to, changed. And so I sat with my legs open, wide-tooth comb in one hand and a spray bottle in the other, and (inhaled, then) exhaled pain into my daughter’s hair.
I (inhaled, then) exhaled and said, “You know about the virus, right? [She nodded and said yes.] Well, there’s other things going on too.” I inhaled thinking that would stop whatever it was I was going to say, the damage I was about to do. I held my breath and imagined my father sitting next to me as he inhaled the world and exhaled, “You know your ABCs right? [I did.] But do you know ‘em backwards? See, baby, you gotta be prepared because some cop’ll pull you over and have you saying the ABCs backward, trying to trip you up and haul your ass off to jail.” And I remembered his angry, raggedy breathing as we recited the ABCs backward as we sat on the living room couch, and as he drove us in his Volvo down the highway and he asked me to keep an eye out for the police, and as we sat in the car later eating ice cream from Thrifty’s.
I exhaled that memory and more pain came out of me than I wanted. I breathed a fraught life into existence and it nestled in my daughter’s curls. I had to get it out of me, of her. More than anything, I just wanted to get out of here—this world. “People are marching in the street. They’re angry. [She asked why people were angry.] Some people out there hate Mama’s skin.” And because folks on the Internet, doctors and psychologists, said parents should be specific when informing their children, I (inhaled, then) exhaled my pain into the ragged parts I had made in my daughter’s hair with the rat-tail comb and specifically cut the innocence from her throat as I said, “People hate Mama’s skin because she’s Black. I’m Black. You know you’re Black, too, right? [She nodded and asked which people hated me. Was it the bad people?] Yes, the bad people.” Then she wondered if it was the bad people we saw on the bus. Before the virus, we’d always see the black and white bus taking “bad guys” to the local lock-up by our house. These were the bad guys she knew. They probably looked like cartoons in her mind. I couldn’t quite tell her that some of those bad people were also driving the bus and running the lock up. But it didn’t matter. Bad guys wanted to hurt Mama. And bad guys wanted to hurt her.
Then my daughter (inhaled, then) exhaled pain too. I held my breath when she said she’d protect me. She’d beat up the bad guys. I didn’t say a word. Couldn’t. I didn’t want to cut more of that innocence from her throat. “Thank you,” I said and kept (inhaling, then exhaling and) combing and twisting her hair.
And so while my white husband was upstairs in the rocking chair, cradling our youngest daughter, cradling her sleepy head with ease, without the pain of running into closets to weep into a pile of dirty laundry, I was downstairs with our oldest daughter. The both of us inhaled and exhaled pain in silence as we stared out at the sheet of night beyond the sliding glass window, our bodies rigid, our hair parted.
DW shares the story behind the story:
“A Black Mama’s Breathwork, or, the First Time I Had ‘The Talk’ with My Daughter” was created in a moment of deep sorrow. It was the summer of 2020, and everything was falling apart outside our home. There was (and still is) the coronavirus, BLM protests across the nation, police brutality on full display, an increase in Black folks dying under mysterious circumstances… I was desperately trying to keep it together inside our home, all the while my own emotional and mental health was fracturing. I was trying to figure out a way to breathe through it all.
In the Black community, we have this thing called The Talk where Black parents and elders teach the younger generation about how to navigate this world as a Black person. I know this will be different for my biracial children, but some things won’t be as I am still their mother and they still have Black grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and friends. At the point when I wrote this essay, my husband and I already had frequent conversations with our children about COVID-19, and I knew that we had to have similar conversations about the flagrant racism happening around us and the protests against that racism. How do you do that without overwhelming or frightening a child? Yourself? I made an attempt, and the world shifted.
DW McKinney is a Las Vegas-based writer whose work appears in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Mom Egg Review, Barrelhouse, Hobart Pulp, and Narratively, among others. Her writing has also been anthologized in I’m Speaking Now (Chicken Soup for the Soul, 2021). A recipient of the 2021 Shenandoah Fellowship for BIPOC Editors, her nonfiction was a finalist in Hippocampus Magazine’s 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction. The founder and current instructor for We Are The House: A Virtual Residency for Early-Career Writers at Raising Mothers, McKinney also serves as a nonfiction editor at Shenandoah. You can drop a line on Twitter @thedwmckinney or at dwmckinney.com.
“A BLACK MAMA’S BREATHWORK, OR, THE FIRST TIME I HAD “THE TALK” WITH MY DAUGHTER” was first published in JMWW.
The remnants of my mother’s life fit neatly into the corner of a walk-in closet. They’re a modest inventory: five-mini cassettes, thirty-plus photo albums, a jewelry box containing a frustrated tangle of 14 karat gold chains and tennis bracelets, a couple of high school yearbooks, some salvaged Christmas ornaments and snow globes, a slim black book of poetry, a fat grey Day Planner containing doctor’s appointments, an assortment of sad crafts (broken handmade earrings, sloppily decoupaged boxes, glitter glued cards) intended for friends, neighbors, doctors, nurses, teachers, and anyone else she felt needed a token of appreciation. Her five journals take up the most psychic space. They are of varying size, length and legibility, detailing her struggles with illness, her reckoning with her own mortality, and her preoccupation with her weight and appearance. Her trembling hand haunts the page, the blue cursive snaking like veins into indecipherable patterns when she’s exhausted or overly medicated. Her thoughts on life, family, love and memory echo in the mind of the reader, her only reader. Me.
These are the words responsible for my mother’s death: Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Superior Venacava Syndrome, Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome, and von Willebrand disease. Most of these diseases reside in the blood. From the time of my mother’s pregnancies, blood was a portent of death. When I was born, her blood was stubborn, forming into thick and dangerous clots. During my younger brother’s delivery, her blood gushed steadily, warranting a transfusion.
On every birthday, she would relish in telling the story of how we were born. For my brother and I, the ending was the same: “We almost died, but we didn’t. We’re too strong. We’ve always been fighters.”
In the summer of 1994, my mother died at age 40 in a small, nondescript room in the Intensive Care Unit of a Florida hospital. It was not a surprise. I’d been preparing to mourn the inevitable loss of her throughout my childhood. At 13, I was a model of stoicism and took the news wordlessly. I forced a few tears but felt nothing. My father stumbled through his choked explanation of life support and hard choices and DNR and gone, gone, gone. She was gone. I felt my feet not touching the carpet, awkwardly suspended while sitting on the edge of my grandmother’s guest bed as my father rambled on. The mattress trembled with the sounds of my brother’s sobs. And yet, there was silence. It was coming from inside me. I put my ear to it and kept it there. My body was a hard and scrawny shell, echoing the sounds of its own emptiness.
“I’m terminally ill,” my mother explained one summer afternoon in 1991. She’d recently returned from her first, but not last, stint in the Intensive Care Unit.
In April of that year, she was admitted to the local hospital for a hysterectomy, a relatively routine surgery. As she recovered, the mood in her hospital room was buoyant and light-hearted. No big deal. They’d removed her womb and soon she’d return home to us.
“Mom is singing us a tune,” I’d playfully observed while we gathered at her bedside with mylar balloons and fast food. But mom was not singing, she was desperately trying to breathe. A tracheotomy was immediately performed, a hole punctured through her windpipe. She couldn’t speak. Then, she slipped into a coma. We all feared she wouldn’t return.
Now, she felt the need to explain, but we already knew that sickness was the fifth member of our household. “Terminal means there’s no cure. It means I’m not going to get better.” She was fond of imparting the meaning of words to us from an early age, building our nascent vocabularies with words that held significance in our daily lives: “bedridden,” “Dilaudid,” “hospice,” “Demerol,” and, now, “terminal.”
I picture her holding the hole in her throat to muster a faint whisper. Her skin is sallow and ballooned, an expanse of bruised flesh obscuring the pretty face of the mother we’d known at school plays and on beach vacations. The room smells like moist skin and iodine. My younger brother, Justin, and I stand dutifully at our mother’s bedside, nodding politely while her eyes open and close, her words drifting and then returning like the waves we splashed in during better days. The hiss of the oxygen tank marks time. We stand, hovering, watching the rise and fall of her faded seafoam green comforter until we know she’s finished her last thought. We return to our rooms to play.
I envisioned my mother’s funeral often as a kid. What I came up with lacked imagination: black outfits, rain, somber faces. I’d force myself to stay in this moment, to rehearse mourning her absence from my life. I would hysterically cry in the black dress I wore during the Spelling Bee finals. Mom loved that dress. I would put my arms around my brother as he sobbed. For once, he would need me. And there were all the others whose lives she touched. They looked at the casket lowered into the ground, faces drawn, eyes tiny pools of sincere emotion. They were so sad, too.
I closed my eyes, trying to hit the rocky bottom of devastation, the dark pit of despair, digging deep for the incredible pain that would accompany my mother’s death and allow me to put it into incredibly affecting words. I clenched my fists, curled my toes, and tried to enter that nadir of unexplored misery. But I couldn’t will myself to feel differently, especially when she sat in the passenger seat in front of me as we drove to Dr. Greenberg’s office, whizzing by palm-lined curbs and commercial buildings the color of sunrises. Her face confronting me in the rear-view mirror, wan but beautiful, Liz Clairborne sunglasses and brick-red pout. I’d give up and stare out the window, exhausted by this morbid exercise. I sucked at imaginary grieving.
I thought I would only grieve for what was: the loving notes in lunch boxes, the impromptu living room dance parties, and the cool, gentle hand stroking my hair when my stomach hurt or my heart ached. Instead, I grieved for what was never to be. I would never know my mother as I would if she’d lived and grayed and grew to view me as an equal. I was too young when she died to understand her apart from her static role in my life as “Mom” with all of its accompanying stereotypical domestic tasks that she desperately tried to perform despite being unable to walk, to breathe without oxygen, to move without pain.
After she died, I tried to forget her. There was something to be said for moving on, for jettisoning the past and breezing through tragedy with fortitude. In high school, I buried my head in books and the heavy bend of boys’ arms who wanted to take care of me, who saw me as both wounded and strong. In the back of my closet, the journals and other keepsakes remained untouched while, in bed, I oscillated between feverishly writing poetry and fucking the first loves of my life.
When I left for college in 1999, I left all of her belongings in my father’s care. I knew neither he nor my brother would rummage through them. They were as adept at avoiding the past as I was. I didn’t want to bring any tangible reminders of her with me. It was her words in the pages of those journals I feared the most. My mother was a lover of words. She was an avid reader and had the unspoken hope of one day writing what she called “The Good American Novel.” She was a witty conversationalist, but an even better writer. She filled greeting cards and thank you notes with beautiful prose that could inspire or comfort an ailing neighbor, a depressed friend. Her words had the power to heal or to scar. There were times she could crudely rip you open with one phrase and then carefully sew you up with another, leaving you to wonder what vital parts of yourself were removed in the process.
Using words artfully was how I sought my mother’s attention, garnered her praise, and reassured myself of her love. I slipped letter after letter in my sprawling Crayola hand under her bedroom door apologizing for any wrongdoings that were met with condemnation, easily detected in her impatient sighs and gritted teeth. But I could repair with words, I could impress with my rudimentary handle on language. Words bridged distances. Words resulted in conciliatory morning hugs and a welcomed shift in perspective: Mommy did love me after all. Words were damage control.
I’d fold my construction paper messages of contrition into fours and carefully print: To Mom, or Mums, or Mommy. Love, Your Loving Daughter, or Jilly, or Jillian. I’d tiptoe to her bedroom door while she took a migraine-induced nap, slide it into the dark crack, and pray my words would bring out the light in her again. I was usually successful. Whatever spilled out of my mouth or onto the floor, I’d later clean up with simple but heartfelt sentences.
Ten years ago, I read my mother’s journals in their entirety for the first time. It was an unremarkable occasion. On a rare visit to my father’s home in Florida, I gathered them up along with other childhood mementoes, stuffing them into my suitcase. Once back in my Brooklyn apartment, I read one after the other. Life rarely unfolds like poetry. The act of reading my mother’s words was not revelatory. It was not traumatic or necessarily cathartic. Rather, it was the return to a familiar place that I could now see for what it truly was. Like returning to your childhood home and having the humble realization that it’s much smaller and plainer than you remembered.
The notebooks span from her early teen years until shortly before her passing. There are years missing, significant intervals of time unaccounted for. For the most part, the gaps coincide with those few years when the pain was minimal, and she looked her best. She wrote the most when she thought death was imminent. During this time, the medications eased her body but twisted her words. Mom was an unreliable narrator.
The journals’ aesthetics are in direct opposition to my mother’s modern and tasteful sensibilities. Apart from the childhood diary, these notebooks are pastel and tacky, most likely drugstore purchases by acquaintances or distant relatives. One that she started on her 34th birthday is an especially hideous lavender floral print with a countrified image of straw hats and baskets of flowers. My mother hated flowers.
There is a journal inscribed to me although I don’t remember ever being gifted it when she was alive. Each entry begins “Dear Jillian,” but, early on, there is a digression that conveys her hopelessness and frustration followed by: “I’m forgetting whose book I’m writing in.” The journal is slick and sky blue in color. On the front is a watercolor sketch of a young girl carrying a metal bucket through a quaint and pastoral setting. She is performing her daily chores. A dutiful daughter, a martyr.
“Oh, aren’t you just the littlest martyr,” she hissed at me, wheelchair-bound in the Sam’s Club checkout aisle. Bored and hungry, I was leaning over the shopping cart like it was my Victorian fainting couch, provoking my mother’s wrath. I looked at her dumbly. I was eleven and not familiar with this word.
She continued, “A martyr is someone who thinks that everything is so difficult for them and they have it the worst. Poor, poor Jillian. She has the meanest mommy in the world.”
“I don’t think I’m a martyr,” I mumbled while burning tears slid down my pouting cheeks.
“Then quit acting like one.”
Another vocabulary lesson. Another scar that would heal when I realized who the real martyr was.
On most pages of the journal dedicated to me, the truth is diluted because of her intended audience. She wants to protect me from those all-consuming thoughts brought on by depression, financial worry and bodily pain that comprise her other journals.
January 29, 1992
Today you won the spelling bee for the second time in two years. Last year I was in the hospital […] I remember (even though I was on a lot of drugs) I was so excited and begged the nurse to let you up and you and Justin came up.[…] I was so proud of you.
I know this has been a hard year for you; for all of us and you have tried very hard to help us all lead a normal life; and of course it was not normal; but maybe it shows all of us that there are more important [things] like having a healthy family and that families are different; not many people celebrate their birthdays in their mom’s hospital room or drink eggnog in bed on Thanksgiving, or give a fashion show in a hospital room.
I appreciate that you don’t act embarrassed by the way I look right now. You know I have always said you were a fighter when I was pregnant with you; only you and me knew that you would be born and you would be born beautiful and you would be born special[…]
This first entry is a warm testament to our halcyon days. Throughout my 5th grade year, my mother and I bonded over the Scripps National Spelling Bee word list as I prepared for county finals, then state. We’d both lay in her bed on Saturday afternoons in the dark, the TV humming in the background was the only source of light. She’d quiz me, choosing a word at random, and I’d confidently spell out each letter, awaiting the moment when her eyes glowed in the dim with pride.
Prior to each round of competition, my mother would tell me I was beautiful as she applied blush to my baby fat and tamed the ends of my fashionable bob with her curling iron. I’d kneel down in front of her as she sat in her wheelchair, my back to the vanity mirror but it didn’t matter because I only wanted to see myself through her eyes. Brandishing the mascara wand, she’d command me to raise my eyes to the ceiling like a saint. I wore a new dress and matching headband.
“Spell ‘corporal.’ Spell ‘whittle.’ Spell ‘Mississippi.’” I wanted to spell each and every word of the English language correctly so we could remain connected, so I could continue to feel her soft and delicate fingers on my face, around my shoulder as my father took photos after each win. This is what normal families did. They cheered on their daughters and had celebratory meals at chain restaurants.
At the state finals, I wore my lucky black dress and headband. After this round, I’d be on my way to Washington, D.C. for the National Spelling Bee. I would wheel mom around the Washington Monument, the White House. I spelled “pedagogist” with an “e” instead of an “a.” They rang the bell and it was all over.
My mother’s other journals are grim and painful reads. She refers to the last notebook she wrote in as “my sick well book, my listening ear, my shoulder to cry on.” While there are many quotidian details about errands to craft stores and doctor offices, most entries express a woman’s fury that her body has betrayed her and that others refuse to acknowledge this betrayal.
February 11, 1992
I am so angry I want to kill myself. I want to scream my fucking head off…I am fucking useless, a fat blob that vegetates for a year unable to help myself or anyone else. I don’t know how I can go on like this. What can I do?
I saw my mom in her darkest moments, moments that she never intended me to witness, similar to the moments in her notebooks that she never intended for me to read. Depressed and broken after my father’s departure just months before her passing, she’d prop up her pillow and put on her Estée Lauder while asking me repeatedly if I thought my dad would come back if she got off the steroids and lost some weight. Her moods were mercurial and she could be cruel if on a particularly potent dosage of medication. She depended on me for nearly everything and easily lost patience if I didn’t bring the right color of paint from the crafts supply bin or didn’t offer Nurse Leslie an iced tea upon her arrival. She had a bell she would ring whenever she needed something: her pills, Ritz crackers, a glue gun, her dayplanner, her pills. I cringed at the sound, dreading the caustic and slurred directives to come when in its presence.
The ghostly echo of that bell heralds shame now. I ignored its call on more than a few occasions. The sound of it was embarrassingly vulnerable, a reminder of how familial roles had inexorably shifted. Shortly before her death, I’d leave her alone for hours at a time while I entertained friends in my bedroom as if I was a seventh grader living on her own.
“Where’s that noise coming from?”
“Oh, that’s just my mom.”
My mother’s journals help me re-examine my complicated relationship with her with something approaching clarity and acceptance. I read on even when I come across sections that throw everything I’ve ever believed about her, myself and our relationship into total disarray and cutting relief: “It seems unbelievable I am going to have another child and sometimes it seems unbearable because Jillian has been so crappy lately. She probably senses it from me.” Or when she made this observation about eight-year-old-me: “I don’t think she ever needed me… Her shell grows harder to get threw [sic], I’m to blame I guess…” Had I always had a shell? Did I not need her then? I can’t remember.
I was forced to re-evaluate everything about my childhood in this raw and completely unromantic light. If I’d never had access to my mother’s inner thoughts, I could still do what most of us do when we lose someone: idealize them and the bond they shared with us. It’d be all cookies and care and can-do-no-wrong.
But there was a lot of wrong done. And I am grateful for the wrong as much as I am for the right. I am grateful to have access to multiple versions of the truth and, subsequently, multiple versions of Linda Crowther. The first few years after my mother’s death, there was a raging emptiness that I couldn’t fill because I didn’t have all the answers I wanted. Whenever I gathered the strength to pay tribute to her memory, I was confronted with the worn-out dichotomy: the beautiful and vibrant stay-at-home mother vs. the bedridden and bruised woman with oxygen tanks and comas in the ICU, who was nearly unrecognizable in those last few months. There was so much more to her, so much in between that I missed because of the particulars of our family situation. There hadn’t been time to ask about my mother’s hopes and dreams because to do so would be to rub salt in a festering wound. The gaps in her story left her incomplete in my mind.
It is her words that fill those gaps now, that resurrect her in all her sickness and vitality and vulnerability and strength and uncertainty and hope. I know her as a moony adolescent confronting mysterious headaches and crushing on her youth pastor’s son. I know her as a young mother and wife with dreams of becoming a writer deferred.
I know her as a woman with glaring insecurities: “I can handle the clots, the kidneys, the R.A. [Rheumatoid Arthritis] and the M.S. [Multiple Sclerosis]. I cannot handle my appearance. I know I should be grateful that I’m alive and I know I made various deals with God while I was in the hospital; but I look at myself and I gag.”
I know her as someone still trying to grow up: “I still feel like a child, a jerk, like I’m not in control. I was reading my old diary. I was such a nerd.” In her journals, she is a host of contradictions, a jumble of flaws and failures and fantasies that make her that much more authentic, that much more real.
In my journal, Mom edited our life, paring it down to the rare highlights–now free to shine as they were no longer surrounded by fear, prescription drug side effects, chaos, late-night ER visits, hopelessness and the other core themes of her life. She saved that for herself. Even if she did plan for me to read my journal while she was alive, she knew it would eventually become a posthumous read. She knew I’d eventually seek out her words after her death, looking for clues of who we both were to each other, searching for confirmation of those glimmers of love she showed me when I could make her proud. So, she rewrote the past to shape my future. She filled a whole book with the story of those sweet Spelling Bee days when we both willfully pretended that our lives were ordinary and happy. This effusive and tender tribute to me preserves the best version of herself. She wanted to be remembered as a mother, my mother.
My narration is just as self-serving. In 1992, at age 11, I wrote my mom a letter on the last page of the journal she’d written to me. I have no recollection of writing it or reading the parts she wrote before it:
I love you with all my heart and I enjoy talking with you, like today. I think that we’re getting closer every day. Today you and I ate marshmellow [sic] krispy [sic] treats and I wrote my story on the computer. I think today was a good day for us. You are getting better. I know it. Your self is coming back. You are gaining your memory back more and more. I know that you will one day be all well and everything will be back to normal…
I’m not certain who this “self” coming back was that I referred to, but I am certain that this excerpt makes me recoil in embarrassment. It’s achingly insincere. I have a vague recollection of this day. My mother showered my writing with attention and praised my baking skills as she bit into a brittle krispie treat. It could have been that I was the perfect caregiver. It could have been the perfect dosage of liquid morphine.
I was desperate to reassure her so I could reassure myself, so I could present a version of the truth that offered hope and the semblance of a normal and healthy mother-daughter relationship. If anyone were ever to peer into this notebook, they’d see a mother’s love reciprocated by a doting and supportive daughter. They’d detect the poetry in the mundane.
I didn’t believe my mom was getting better. I read the truth on her body–each stiff joint and bruised limb and glazed eye spelled out her suffering. She did not need me to echo what we could both hear so clearly in the strain of her movements and in the labor of her breath. The language of illness is unspoken but heavy with meaning.
Yet, I wrote her an encouraging letter brimming with unearned optimism. Our journal ends with a promise. Our journal ends with a lie. By reading my mother’s words, I’ve learned that sometimes the lies we tell each other say more about us than the truths we confess. I wish she were here to lie to me now.
Jillian shares the story behind the story:
I’d been trying to write this essay for most of my life, to begin to tell the story of caregiving for my terminally ill mother while honoring who she was apart from the tragedy of her body. Once in custody of her journals, I began to connect her words to mine and explore how language bonded us but also served as a barrier—a way to protect us from how her body failed us both. I wrote a version of this essay many years ago. After one personal rejection, I put it aside. Not because I didn’t believe in it but because I let life get in the way. During the pandemic, I returned to it and my writing in general. I was floored that Pithead Chapel accepted it.
Jillian Luft is a Florida native currently residing in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Hobart, X-R-A-Y, Booth, The Forge Literary Magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a memoir. You can find her on Twitter @JillianLuft and read more of her writing at jillianluft.com.
“My Mother’s Only Reader” was first published in Pithead Chapel.
I know by the knife in my pocket that this is when I was in high school. I’m maybe seventeen here. Pocket full of scrounged change—stolen change—I’m out on the dark sidewalks of our crime-ridden neighborhood, seriously jonesing for a cigarette, walking down to Handi Mart before they close because the Save-X is already locked up for the night. The mercury streetlights buzz out their weak little puddles of ghostly light here and there, somehow only managing to make the dark spaces in between seem darker. Under the buzz of the streetlights a coal train rumbles past a couple of blocks down to my right, competing with the screeches of the switchyard a few blocks further off the other way. Otherwise it’s quiet, too cold for the bugs, too cold for people to be out on their porches with their glowing cigarettes and crumpling beer cans and boom boxes. They’re inside huddled around their flickering TVs instead, behind the few lighted windows that scatter randomly among the dark windows, the vacant windows, the broken-out windows, the burned-out holes that used to be windows. Used to been, as they’d say around here.
You stay alert to your surroundings here, especially after dark. Every third house is vacant, likely to have someone drinking or using or squatting or fucking in it. Every seventh or eighth house is either gutted, stripped of its copper, burned out, or a weedy vacant lot. Darkness rules between the little puddles of light, and there’s no shortage of assholes willing to pull some stupid shit for no reason other than that they’re fucked up or cranked up or fed up or just plain given up. Hope, like streetlights, is a rare commodity around here.
There’s a spot along this walk where one night I heard a noise behind me and looked around to see a car on the sidewalk a couple of houses up the hill behind me, engine off, lights off, coasting down towards me between the front yard retaining walls and the parked cars. No idea who it was or even what kind of car it was. As the four round high-beams lit up I sprinted up a driveway and into the pitch dark of someone’s back yard—watching the car stop at the foot of the driveway, waiting until I heard the engine start and drive off—then felt my way through some back yards until I could come out somewhere else.
I’m passing that spot when I see the cop car down the hill at the closed BP station on the corner, the one with the mechanic’s shop. It’s a little past the alley that I would usually use for a shortcut, pulled into the curb cut behind a late-‘60s VW Beetle that has the hood open. Its headlights and spotlight are pointed at the Bug’s rear engine, but the blue lights aren’t spinning, and there aren’t the usual three or four cars that tend to pile in for a call around here. As I come closer I hear the radio squawk, and I can see the cop standing there looking casual, talking to a girl in the light between the cars.
She doesn’t belong here. Especially at night. She belongs in a mall somewhere. She’s got this whole Molly Ringwald presence that just doesn’t fit in with the hoods and the hookers and the crankheads and the bikers, the fucked-up desperates who live around here. She may as well be wearing a target.
Thing is, there’s a part of me that identifies with her. The part of me that’s failing out of high school but knows he’ll go to college someday, maybe even be a professor, maybe a writer. The part of me that got moved here when he was fourteen, from the educated middle-class black neighborhood in DC where he had only recently discovered the freedoms of the Metro system and the Smithsonian, and got landed in this cesspit of racism, hatred, abuse, and despair—all because his dad decided to quit his job as “The Reverend” and take up with some woman he had met at some protest or peace workshop or some shit, leaving my mom high and dry to support me and my little brother on a temp-service nurse’s wages. No way she could afford to keep us in DC on that, not beyond the end of the school year when the church wanted their house back. Nowhere else to go, we ended up here in this town because it’s where that other woman lived, and my mom thought we should be close to my dad for some who-the-fuck-knows reason. That part of me identifies with her.
The part of me that had to learn that around here no teenager is dressed without a knife, or that a teenager who doesn’t smoke or get drunk is probably a narc and definitely shouldn’t be trusted and probably needs to have his ass kicked just on principle. That part of me identifies with her.
The part of me that had to learn to keep my mom’s decrepit Beetle running, because he’s the man of the house now and no way in hell she could afford to take it to an actual mechanic. So he’s had to learn to bleed the brakes and adjust the brakes, to pull the drums and replace the worn brake shoes, to change the fouled spark plugs and plug wires and the distributor cap and rotor, to set the gap on the points and adjust the timing, to change the fuel filter and clean the air filter, to replace and adjust the fan belt, to crawl up underneath in the itchy grass of the back yard, working totally blind, and adjust the valve-tappet clearance.
So there’s the part of me that identifies with her, and there’s the part of me that thinks just maybe I can offer some help. I pass my shortcut and walk down toward them.
Between their lights in the darkness and the noise of the cop car’s idling engine, they don’t notice me until I’m just a few feet away. The young cop jumps, startled and wary, his hand shifting toward his sidearm. The girl doesn’t react as if I’m a threat. Hell, I’ll take it.
“Hey guys,” I say (I haven’t mastered “y’all” yet). “Can I help?”
“Everything’s under control,” the cop says. Straight out of his training manual.
“You sure?” I say, speaking to her. “I know a little about Bugs.”
“Triple-A is on its way,” the cop says.
“I might be able to save you the trouble,” I say to her.
“That won’t be necessary,” the cop says. “Move along.”
“Sure,” she says, speaking at the same time. “If you want to, thanks!”
The cop glances at her, then back at me, looking annoyed and a little alarmed.
The girl steps back to clear a path to the engine compartment. The cop steps the other way so that he’s directly at my back when I squat down behind the engine.
“What happened?” I say, looking for anything obvious.
“It just quit,” she says.
“Sputtered and quit?” I say. “Or was it more like you shut the key off?”
“More like the key, I guess? It may have sputtered once, but I drifted it down here from up on the next block.”
“Got gas?” I say. We’re poor around here. Running out of gas is a common breakdown.
“Plenty of gas,” she says. I can see that there’s gas in the clear plastic fuel filter, and the fan belt’s intact, and it’s tight enough, and everything turns okay when I twist on the alternator pulley. There’s no smell of leaking gas—well, not beyond the normal smell of any old Beetle. The carburetor cable’s intact and the linkage turns like it’s supposed to. None of the obvious wires seems to have fallen off.
“Was it acting up at all before this?” I ask.
“No. It was running just fine.”
“Ever done this before?” I ask. “Just quit like this?”
“Not since I’ve had it,” she says.
“How long you had it?”
“A couple of years.”
Must be nice to be a teenager with her own convertible Beetle.
“The hell you doing ‘round here at night anyway?” Shit. There I go.
“Just off work down at General Sales,” she says, without missing a beat.
“Ah,” I say. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” she says, her voice flat. I’m not totally sure she means it. General Sales is a cleaning-supply wholesaler just over the hill, down in the industrial zone along the tracks.
Flummoxed, I start tugging on wires. The ignition wire to the coil is secure. The fat spark-plug wires are all secure on top of the distributor, and down at the other end where they go through their separate holes in the sheet metal to the spark plugs. They’re even the good orange wires that my mom couldn’t afford. The coil wire’s secure in the distributor. Then I pull on the end where it goes up into the coil and I feel movement.
“Did you find it?” she says, sounding excited.
“Well, we won’t know until it starts,” I say. “But maybe.”
I tug a little harder on the wire and it pops loose, moisture seal and all. Not sure why Volkswagen thought it was a good idea to mount the coil with all the wires coming down out of the bottom where gravity can work ‘em loose, but I ain’t the engineer. Nothing I can do but deal with it.
I jam the wire back up into place, but it doesn’t snug up. I can feel it grinding, swimming, as I wriggle the wire.
“Yep,” I say. “I think this is your problem.”
“So I need a new one?” she says.
“I hope not.” I pull the wire back out, looking for pitting on the C-shaped copper barrel connector. The copper’s not pitted, so it hasn’t been arcing a lot. When the same thing happened to Mom’s bug I just spread that C-shape open a little with a screwdriver and it never happened again. I owe that trick to Mom’s spiral-bound copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, which may have been the best investment she ever made. The other part of its title is even better: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Compleat Idiot. That’s me. The compleat idiot.
I reach into my jeans pocket and I pull out the knife in question. This is the crappy old knife I had after my brother stole my favorite Buck knife. This one’s an old, rusty folding knife with a fake mother-of-pearl handle. It looks like a switchblade, but it’s not. Just a lock blade, with a weird old pin-style locking mechanism. The blade is covered in rust, and maybe half an inch of the tip is broken off. It’s an old piece of shit, but it will serve for a screwdriver here. I open the knife, insert the back of the blade into the gap on the C-clip, and twist it back and forth to spread the gap out a little, so the clip fits more tightly into the coil. When I reattach the wire it goes in with some resistance, and feels solid, like it should.
“Okay,” I say, looking up at her. “Let’s see if it’ll start for us.”
“This is so exciting!” she says, trotting around the driver’s side of the car.
I stand up and step back, folding the knife and slipping it back into my pocket, glancing at the cop’s oddly stoic expression.
“Ready?” she says from behind the wheel.
“Yeah,” I say. “Give it a shot!”
The starter growls over a couple of times and the engine splutters to life, with the old Beetle’s characteristic puff of blue smoke and the whistling exhaust. She gives a little whoop from inside as the pulleys spin and the fan belt vibrates, and as I close the flimsy louvered hood I feel the momentary glow of a successful troubleshoot. Okay, of victory. Hoodlum one, cop zero.
She is back around behind the car, with her leather purse in her hand.
“What do I owe you?” she says over the noise of the two engines.
“Owe me?” I say. “What?”
“Well you did just fix my car,” she says. “What do I owe you?”
“Um…” I say. “Got a cigarette?”
“Sorry,” she says. “I don’t smoke.”
“Ah well, then I guess we’re even.”
“What?!” she says. “No. Are you sure about that?”
If I asked for it, she’d probably give me enough to buy a carton.
“Nah,” I say. “Not gonna take your money.”
“Well then thank you,” she says, holding her hand out.
I shake her hand. “You’re welcome.”
She turns to the cop, “Can you radio in and cancel the Triple-A?”
“Yes ma’am,” he says.
She starts to turn toward the car, then swivels back, meeting my eye and gesturing at her purse. “You’re sure?” she says.
“I’m sure,” I say. “Thank you.”
“Thank you!” she says. Then, turning toward the cop, “Thank you both!”
She walks back around the car just as the stoplight for 13th turns yellow, and she manages to get her purse behind her seat, get buckled in, get the brake off, get the car in gear, pull out of the parking lot, and get through the intersection before her green light changes.
I listen to the engine as she drives off toward the lights of downtown. It sounds like a healthy Beetle—inasmuch as anything designed after a 1930s light-aircraft engine can sound healthy. After a couple of blocks she disappears down the slope, and the sound of her engine fades beneath the sound of the idling police car.
“Welp,” I say to the cop with a wave. “Have a good night.”
I’ve already turned and taken a couple of steps toward Handi Mart when he speaks.
“Stop Right There.”
My gut clenches. I won’t actually be diagnosed with the anxiety disorder for another couple of decades, but at this point I have spent my whole life with a domineering father, one who could turn evil at the drop of a hat. By the time I stop and turn around my bowels are already cramping.
“Sir?” I say. Fucking voice shaking. An octave too high.
“Come back here,” he says. His hand is resting on his sidearm.
I close the ten or fifteen feet between us, watching his face, keeping my hands visible.
“Let me see that knife,” he says.
I pull the folded knife out of my pocket and hand it to him, hinged end toward me.
He turns it over in his hands. “This is an illegal switchblade,” he says.
“No sir,” I say. “It’s just an old lock blade.”
He swings the rusty blade until it locks open, then he fiddles around with it, trying to figure out how to unlock it.
Not thinking, I reach out. “Here, let me…”
He recoils, snatching the open knife away from my hand.
“Sorry,” I say, pulling my hand back.
He looks at the open knife, then gives me that suspicious-cop glare.
“Let’s see some I.D.,” he says.
He watches my hand carefully as I reach for my wallet, so I pull it out between my thumb and one finger, holding the other fingers open, if a bit shaky, so he can see that there’s nothing else in my hand. I slip out my learner’s permit and hand it to him.
Oh wait. Learner’s permit. I’m not seventeen here, I’m still sixteen. By the time I’m seventeen I’ll have my license.
He looks at the unlaminated card with its typewritten information and no photo.
“Got anything else?” he says.
I pull out my high-school ID, basically a business card with a blank where they had us write our own names.
He looks at the card, then glares back up at me. “No photo I.D.?”
I have to pee. “No sir.”
He continues to glare at me.
“I’m sorry sir, that’s all they give us.”
He switches the knife and both I.D. cards into his left hand and reaches into his pocket for his flip book and pen. I wait as he flips to a blank page and starts writing the information into his book.
“Is this address correct?” he says.
He writes into his pad. Then, “Date of birth?”
It’s right there on the learner’s permit, but I rattle it off with well-rehearsed speed because I have this feeling he’s testing me.
He nods and writes in his pad for a second. “Social Security?”
It’s also on the card. It’s my license number. But I rattle it off as well.
I give him our seven-digit phone number. He writes it down.
“Now,” he says, glaring directly at me again. “If I call this number your parents are going to answer?”
“Uh, no sir,” I say. “It’s just my mom, and she works second shift.”
He glares at me.
“My roommate might answer,” I say, hesitantly.
“Your roommate,” he says.
“Yes sir,” I say.
He glares at me.
“Well, our boarder—um, housemate,” I say. “He—uh—rents a room from us.”
The cop continues to eye me suspiciously. Later I’ll wonder if it’s some kind of interrogation technique.
“Wait here,” he says.
I stand in the lights of the police car, spotlight still pointed at my crotch, while he walks around and sits down in his driver’s seat. He picks up the radio mic and mumbles into it. I can almost make out the radio side of the conversation, mumbling some coded numbers and then a “Stand by.”
I stand there with visions of mugshots and fingerprints playing out in my head. Thinking about having to call my mom after she gets home around midnight. Thinking about spending the night out at Bonsack (every teenager around here knows where juvie is), because ain’t no way she could get bail money before tomorrow. If she could get it at all.
The stoplight cycles to itself, arbitrarily stopping the occasional car that comes past. At one point three cars come by all together. Each of the drivers looks over at us—at me—standing there in my torn jeans, my mismatched denim jacket, stringy long hair blowing around in the chilly breeze and catching in the fake fleece of my jacket collar. Looking every part the local hoodlum they would expect to be detained by the police in this neighborhood. Hands jammed in my pockets, starting to shiver because I was dressed for walking, not for standing around, and I was planning to be back home by now. And I really need to pee. And I could seriously use a fucking smoke. A relief valve pops off down at the little tar and asphalt plant by the tracks. Its sudden gurgling “PSSSH!” isn’t so startling from three blocks away next to an idling engine, but when it popped off one night when I was right next to it walking our dog, I just about pissed my pants. Poor dog shook for an hour.
The cop sits in his driver’s seat, fiddling with the knife in his task light. He eventually figures out how to unlock it, and folds it shut.
Another coal train whistles its discordant air horns down where the tracks cut off the corner of 18th and Cleveland, right behind the tar plant and General Sales where the girl in the bug works. I listen to its engines rumble around the curve of the river, almost making a semicircle around where I’m standing. Waiting. For a while I can hear the engines from one direction and the scritching wheels from all the way around to the opposite direction.
The mumbling radio finally says something that catches his attention. He mumbles a response into the mic and gets back up out of the car.
He silently hands me my learner’s permit and high school I.D. I slip them into the empty cigarette pocket on my jacket. The wallet can wait.
He doesn’t hand me the knife. He stands there holding it, looking at it.
“What were you planning on doing with this knife?” he says.
“I dunno,” I say. “Maybe fix a girl’s car?”
He glares up at me. “You getting smart with me, boy?”
“No sir,” I say. “It’s just—”
He waits. “Just what?”
“It’s—just a knife, sir,” I say. “Just a—tool.”
It’s just part of the uniform in this neighborhood. Just what every teenager is expected to possess. Just one little accessory that says no I don’t think I’m better than you. No I’m not a narc. No I’m not going to rat you out to The Man. And yes, I will defend myself with a sharp object if you make it necessary.
Decades later, when I’ve tried to write this half a dozen times, I’ll think to ask him if he wanders around this neighborhood at night without his sidearm.
“Well,” he says. “I know who you are and I know where you live, and I know you’ve got this. So I’d better not hear about any trouble.”
He hands me the folded knife.
“There won’t be any trouble, sir,” I say, dropping it back into my pocket.
“If there is, you’re the first person I’m looking for,” he says.
It will also be decades before I think to mention that everyone in this neighborhood has a pocket knife. The teenage boys, the teenage girls, the grade-school kids, the dealers, the thieves, the bikers, the dads, the moms, the church goers—the little old grannies—everyone.
He doesn’t dismiss me. I wait. I’m not turning my back on an agitated cop.
“May I go now?” I finally ask.
He makes me wait a few more seconds. Then says, “Get out of here.”
I turn and start toward Handi Mart, hoping they haven’t closed yet, but within a few steps I can see that they’ve already turned their lights off. I’ll have to walk another mile, over the tracks and the river, to the all-night Citgo that’s in a safer neighborhood, that’s not certain to get robbed if it stays open, that doesn’t need the metal security grating over the windows and the sawed-off twelve-gauge under the counter. The one that charges fifteen cents more than I have in my pocket for a pack of smokes.
The cop drives past me in the same direction, well over the speed limit, his taillights disappearing around the curve and onto the bridge before I can walk the length of one parking lot. It’ll take me almost half an hour to walk to that Citgo. He’ll be there in three minutes.
I’m walking back out from the dumpster behind the darkened Handi Mart, my bladder feeling a little better, when I see the tow truck coming toward me. It’s moving slowly, the driver consulting a clipboard and peering ahead, scanning the deserted lots, hand on top of the wheel with a delicious-looking cigarette glowing between his knuckles. As he passes I see the oval AAA emblem on the truck’s side, its reflective background glowing in the ghostly streetlights.
The Story of the Story: This incident stayed with me for a couple decades before I tried to write about it, and getting to what’s on the page here took a couple decades more. I had to do it all the wrong ways first. All the wrong narrative voices. All the wrong pacing. A bunch of “atmosphere building” that had nothing to do with the incident itself. Second person imperative, for crying out loud. If you noticed “Decades later, when I’ve tried to write this half a dozen times […],” that’s not hyperbole. It wasn’t until I could cut away all that other stuff and put myself all the way back in the scene—hear the trains, smell that engine, feel the chill of the night air and the grit on my fingers, taste the anxiety in my mouth—that I could finally find the details to write what’s on the page here. I was surprised at how much it hurt to go back there, but turning it into a story proved cathartic in the end.
Jay Parr (he/they) lives with his partner and child in North Carolina, where he’s an alumnus of UNCG’s MFA in creative writing and a lecturer in their nontraditional humanities program. He is honored to have work published or forthcoming in Identity Theory, Bullshit Lit, Roi Fainéant, Five Minutes, Anti-Heroin Chic, Dead Skunk, Discretionary Love, Streetcake, and Variant Lit.
“The Knife” was first published in Variant Literature Journal #3 (Spring 2020) and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.
The fifth broken way a father loves his son is Drawn Line. In this way, a father grabs his son by the shirt collar and shoves him out the door, tells him not to come back. There is shouting. There is this: you can live in your car, your tent, your anger. This is for everyone’s good, the father yells, but the eels twisting in his head will not let him believe it. The son will never believe it. The fifth broken way is a love in hate’s clothing. The fifth broken way is a desperation; the sound of a stranger sobbing on a train.
When my son was born, I was the first to hold him. The nurse didn’t like his color, so she had me hold him beneath a heat lamp like he was six pounds of fast food. Even after his color improved, I didn’t want anyone else to hold him. He seemed too fragile. He seemed so fragile and I didn’t trust anyone else’s arms enough. I barely trusted my own. If someone were to drop him, it should be me. He would always be questionable and he would always be my responsibility.
The first broken way a father loves his son is Smoke Mirror. The young son calls out from his bed and the father takes the stairs two at a time to find the son huddled beneath blankets, scared of what he calls “fakes”—the unseen, ghastly things that accompany childhood, so the father makes a show of searching beneath the bed and behind the door and amidst the clothes hung in the closet and proclaims the room free of fakes and then sits cross-legged by the son’s bed until the tiny boy drifts off to sleep, while all that time the father thinks how lucky he was that the fakes happened to be gone when he needed them to be gone, but he knows he won’t always be so lucky. He can’t protect his son, not really. The first broken way is fraudulent—a young maple seedling sprouting from a crack in a sidewalk.
My son ran away from home once, when he was eight. It was early June. I caught up with him four houses away. He carried a folded map of Ohio, a pocket knife I’d given him for whittling, his stuffed bear. He carried anger. He was headed south, intentionally or accidentally. I walked with him a while. I asked him where he was going to stay and he said, “Hotel.” I asked him what he was going to eat and he said “Hamburgers.” I asked him how much money he had and he looked at me like that was the one thing he didn’t remember that he was forgetting. I reminded him I planned to grill some hamburgers that night for dinner. We turned around and walked back home without another word. He held his bear by one paw, its head dragging on the concrete sidewalk.
The second broken way a father loves his son is endless work, Sisyphus Stone, because the work is exhausting and the exhaustion makes it feel like something was done, something must have been gained, but the truth of the matter is that all the doctors, all the therapists and the tests and the evaluations and the new meds and the new self-help books all bring the old results, and those bring the frustration and frustration’s long shadow, despair, because if the patient dies on the table, no one cares how long the procedure was. No one counts the stitches.
My daughter should not have taunted her older brother.
Her older brother should not have tried to hurt her arm.
She should not have thrown something at him.
He should not have grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled her to the floor.
I should not have reacted so violently. I should not have said some of what I said: that he was worthless. A mistake.
I should have done this sooner. I should have called the police.
But I didn’t.
The sixth broken way a father loves his son is Rickety Bridge. In this way, the father knows that the son is growing tired of sleeping in his car, so he takes his son’s tent and pitches it in the backyard, near the firepit. The door of the tent faces east, protected from wind but aimed to catch the morning sun. He stacks some firewood near the stone-lined pit, places a box of matches inside the door of the tent, next to the rolled-up sleeping bag the boy used to use on the many camp-outs they shared in earlier, better years. The father remembers the boy falling asleep next to campfires, the dead weight of his limp body heavy in the father’s arms as he carried him to his bunk in the cabin, peeling off the boy’s coat and boots in the darkness. This sixth broken way is a wasted kindness; an old woman collecting trash on the side of a highway. A silent prayer for the stranger sobbing on the train.
Hours after the loud argument, we are awakened by heavy knocks on our front door. I throw on some clothes and head downstairs. I turn on the light in the foyer and open the door. Two cops stand on our porch. Someone has called them. One cop wants to speak to my son, check him for damage. The other asks me questions. I mention the prescription, the one he is refusing to take. The cops question my wife. They look for nervous tics, inconsistencies in our stories. Satisfied, the cops leave. We go back to bed but can’t sleep. We are different now. We are those people, the kind of people that other people call the cops on.
The third broken way a father loves his son is to truly see himself reflected in the younger face—Clear Mirror. The son’s anger is a young man’s anger, raw and straining at its chains; the way he uses his nails as claws, to open skin. The father’s is an older man’s: fire-tempered, edges ground sharp, hidden from view. The son’s is more direct, more honest. The father’s, more menacing.
People often say my son looks like me and they mean it as a compliment but we both never take it that way. It feels more like a warning, like a dead bird found at our doorstep.
The fourth broken way a father loves his son is Heavy Hollow, the realization that love and like are two sides of different coins. There is that story in the Bible: a father of two sons says he loves them both although they are both unlikable in their separate ways. The father in this story is meant to represent God because he feels nothing but love for the sons, which only makes things worse for us non-God fathers. It’s hardly a fair comparison. What if the prodigal had never left? What if he had stuck around and bled his father out, a bit at a time—every day another fight, another insult, another lie? Would the Father have cracked? It’s just a parable, the preacher says. It’s meant to convey a message. The message I get from it is that I’m fighting a battle God somehow avoided. Your Bible may help some folks, I tell the preacher, but in our house, it’s just another thing to throw.
When I was twelve, my father came with me on a Boy Scout camp-out in Dayton, the first and last time he would ever do so. My father was a lawyer, not an outdoorsman—his exercise consisted of working the lever on the La-Z-Boy recliner after dinner. My chosen sport that year was baseball, while his sport was watching news shows on television. I should have given up earlier on asking him to play catch with me, but I was the oldest and had no one else to turn to. He never wanted to play; he was too tired, too full, too busy, too disinterested. Instead, he bought me a Pitch-Back for my birthday, in July. It was a net strung taut inside a metal frame using springs; a sort of small vertical trampoline that returned a baseball that was thrown at it. It was a dad substitute. It was a very popular gift in our neighborhood that summer.
The camp-out occurred three months later, in autumn. A frigid northwest wind tore across the flat, open airfield at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, pummeling our flimsy tents which clung to the meadow on the far side of the runways. Periodically, jets would thunder their way into the gray sky. We weren’t prepared for the noise or the cold. Halfway through the night, my father abandoned the tent and folded down the back seat of our station wagon. We crammed our bodies into the rear of the car. The windows steamed. My father had bought a blanket made of some new-fangled metal foil, the kind used by Apollo astronauts. It reflected heat, but it also made a sound like the crumbling of tin foil whenever we moved. My father twisted and turned to get comfortable, then cursed at the noise it made. To fall asleep, we had to lay perfectly still. He fell asleep cursing. I stayed awake much longer, obsessed with the sounds: wind howling, jet engines rumbling, my dad’s deep breathing, the tiny crinkling of the foil as he twitched in his dreams.
He would later forget the trip, as people tend to do with all the sour things in their lives. I would remember it. I welcomed the aberration, miserable as it was—like a hunter who lowers his rifle, deciding to let the rare albino live.
The seventh broken way a father loves his son is Long Vigil. The son has been gone with the car for months; perhaps he went to California as he always said he would, but then again, how can that be, he only had enough gas money to make Indianapolis. Leaves fall and carpet the lawn; the clouds solidify in the sky, forming their winter crust. The father secures the tent stakes, restores the woodpile and tarps it against the coming snows. He stocks the tent with water, fresh matches. He kills two doves and butchers them, salt-curing the carcasses and leaving them hanging where the son will see them.
The father starts a fire—perhaps the son will see it from a distance. The father wonders if the son is living on a beach in San Diego, or dead in a ditch in Wichita. The father sits cross-legged in the door of the tent until his feet go numb. It is November now and he can see his breath. He feels the damp earth lose hope.
The seventh broken way has a mantra, to be repeated by the waiting fathers to the vacant sons: You have realized by now that there is no good reason to come home and there is no fatted calf here but if you return I will share what I have and I will sit with you while you eat. While you sleep, I will tend the fire. I will spend the winter here, watching the tree line. I cannot save you from this world but you can possibly save me. The seventh broken way is conundrum. Or selfishness. Or love. Come home, and I will show you that they are all the same.
“Seven Broken Ways” was first published in Booth.
Joe shares his process and inspiration for this piece:
This CNF piece came out of a fiction workshop (!?!?) I took with instructor Matt Weinkam and Literary Cleveland. I set out to write a fictional father/son story, but the truth of my own life, the human messiness of real fathers and sons, kept demanding to be written instead. I felt like I was botching the workshop assignment, but Matt told me not to fight it. The piece that resulted felt like a four-week therapy session, and ended up as a finalist for Booth’s 2018 CNF contest.
Joe Kapitan writes fiction and creative nonfiction in Cleveland. Recent work has appeared in DIAGRAM, X-R-A-Y, New Flash Fiction Review, No Contact, Spry, and others. He is the author of a short story collection, CAVES OF THE RUST BELT, and is a staff CNF reader for Atticus Review and Pithead Chapel.
Considering she was approaching 100, she was doing fine. She still planned dinner with her daughters most days, even put on a few pounds. She enjoyed having a cup of coffee with the neighbors at 4:00 every afternoon, nodding when they spoke of a son getting engaged or how expensive cherries were at the market. When her eldest son FaceTimed her, stroking his new silver-fox goatee proudly, and asked, “Do you know who I am?” she squinted at the screen. “Of course,” she said without a trace of irony. “You’re a very old man at the end of your life.”
Chain of Fools
It’s a sun-drenched cut-grass balmy-air day and I’m speeding down the street in a borrowed jalopy as Aretha wails One of these mornings on the radio hair tousling elbow out the window feeling strong when I see my boo with his Frank Zappa moustache and winning grin driving the other way and I wave the chain is gonna break and I laugh and my heart thumps chain chain chain and that’s when I notice the concrete truck crossing from a side street in front of me and I pump the brakes like mom taught me to do but nothing happens and I turn the wheel hard and I’m parallel with the beast looming next to me its whirligig thing mixing concrete ready to pour and the road is narrowing and I’m pounding the horn chain chain chain but nothing comes out and I scream and I scream and the driver looks over and the “O” of his mouth is like the “O” of the concrete chute and he jams his brakes that Omigod work but now he’s scowling and I’m squid-armed and quaking and now I can never say thank you mister I’m still alive I’m still alive I’m still alive.
Kathryn shares what inspired the writing of these two stunning pieces:
“All’s Well”: This piece was inspired by the surreal experience of observing an elderly, though mostly cognizant family member responding to her son’s FaceTime call as if speaking with someone much older than herself in a bizarre, albeit somewhat hilarious, role reversal. No one in the room was quite sure if it was dementia-fueled disorientation, if failing vision and hearing caused a genuine confusion over what and who was on the other side of the screen—or if she was just plain pulling our legs and teasing her son. A mystery that shall endure. I decided to keep to the very tight framework of a 100-word story to focus sharply on the resonant moment, as well as to honor the nearly 100-year life of this remarkable woman.
“Chain of Fools”: Nearly being annihilated by a 30-ton concrete truck made a vivid impression on my teenage psyche and has haunted me over the years. The underlying theme of this prose poem/lyric essay is how oblivious to danger we can be when we’re sixteen or seventeen, how invulnerable we feel. The thrill and distraction of seeing my boyfriend driving the opposite way converged with the massive truck cutting me off simultaneously with the sudden loss of my brakes—a near-disastrous chain of events. I chose Aretha Franklin’s iconic song not as an allusion to infidelity but rather as a reference to the foolhardy decisions we sometimes make—especially in our youth. I was a fool for not paying attention to the road, the truck driver was a fool for crossing a major street when a car was approaching and perhaps my boyfriend was a fool for being so damned cute. Aretha has always been a favorite of mine and when I remember the joyfulness I felt just moments before that encounter, it is her exuberant, sensual voice I imagine blasting from my car radio. I decided to write this piece in one long, breathless sentence to convey the heady sense of excitement, joy, and terror I felt by turns, that day.
Kathryn Silver-Hajo’s fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry appears, or is forthcoming, in Citron Review, Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, Ruby Literary, SoFloPoJo, Fictive Dream, New York Times-Tiny Love Stories, New World Writing, Flash Boulevard, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Bending Genres, Cleaver Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, and others. Kathryn lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and sassy, curly-tailed pup, Kaya. Discover more at kathrynsilverhajo.com and follow her on Twitter: @KSilverHajo and Instagram: Kathrynsilverhajo
“All’s Well” was first published in The Drabble and “Chain of Fools” was first published in Unbroken Journal.
I look directly into the camera. I’m focused. Generations of family gather on the front steps of Rich Valley Presbyterian after visiting the gravesite of our Carrie, who passed of Spanish flu back in 1918, pregnant with twins. Her eyes were Viking blue like mine, like her son, my grandfather. We can only imagine what color the twins’ eyes might have been. Everyone seated around me has eyes everywhere else but the camera. Blue, brown, hazel, a set of green. I hold the lens in steady sight, come hell or high water determined my aunt get this photo on the first take. My arms contain my baby brother's blue eyes, his profile in search of our green-eyed mother.
I sit at my piano, a sturdy huge upright, and think of losing Carrie and her twins in the flu pandemic one hundred years ago. The story goes she was so pregnant a coffin as big as a piano was built to bury her and the unborn. My fingers sweep the keys and I hear babies crying.
My mother pays me two dollars a day to practice the piano an hour after school. An allowance for doing something I hate for someone else. I look back and think maybe she should have paid me three dollars, for Carrie and the twins. Madame Colette is my piano teacher. She is French and applies her eyeliner with a heavy hand. She boasts a long waiting list of clients seeking private lessons and tells me I waste her time with my wee hands incapable of reaching an octave. My limits are skeletal.
How to crate a piano. “Step back and measure twice. Round off to the nearest inch. Curved pieces are more difficult to measure, add 2” if unsure. *FINAL CRATE WEIGHT is provided as an estimate only. Actual crate weight will vary due to content and materials.”
My aunt snaps the Polaroid. Chins confetti the photograph. Our shared clefts stretch wide, a subtle slice of genetics, a dent in the curvature. Mine is poised and level ready. My cousin juts his, a smirk on his face. Chins of others tuck in thought, at children on laps, in repose, somewhere else but this moment. My mother cradles the chin of her niece and turns her face gently towards the camera. She will master the piano at a young age and will own a baby grand. The smiles vary. Sharp, flat, some stretched full ivory, others at rest in an upward curve. My lips set in impatient measure, a hint of up, a threat of frown. A family seldom together, yet as at home as if we all lived in the same holler within shouting range.
Sheree shares her inspiration for this piece:
“For Carrie” is a flash memoir written in response to a photograph of Carrie’s descendants gathered on church steps following a visit to her gravesite. I “met” my great-grandmother through the stories of her son, my grandfather, who grieved her loss until his death at age ninety-two. For them, I pass the story forward.
“For Carrie” was first published in Wraparound South.
Sheree Shatsky writes wild words. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals and her novella in flash, Summer 1969, is forthcoming at Ad Hoc Fiction. Sheree calls Florida home and is a Tom Petty fan. Read more of her writing at shereeshatsky.com and find her on Twitter @talktomememe.
Rachel talks about the how and why of her fascinating piece:
I love experimental forms of writing because the slight remove allows me to express truths I’m afraid to admit. I am fascinated with patchwork narratives—how stitching together fragmented experiences creates a tapestry. “School Girl Puzzle” is the second of a series of “quilted” essays I wrote a couple of years ago. In this essay, I examine factors that shaped my experience with school. The top half of the puzzle is the little girl before she is removed from the worst of her abuse when her parents divorce and mother and children move “to the city.” The bottom half mirrors experiences after she is removed from the limitations of her family and residual traumas and abuse when she leaves for “the big city.” Here, she discovers possibilities of a foreign world—one that revolves around education and rights—that opens up her journey toward healing.
“School Girl’s Puzzle” was first published in Bending Genres and was included in The Wigleaf Top 50Very Short Fictions, 2022.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots and teaches in her little house on the Canadian prairies. She is CNF editor at Atticus Review and the creator of the creative writing program Hone & Polish Your Writing. Find Rachel’s recent prose in Bending Genres, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Burningword Literary Journal and other fine journals. In 2020, her CNF made The Wigleaf Top 50 and was nominated for Best of the Net. For more, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com.
1. In New York City, inside Central Park on the path through the woods, you dropped my hand and didn’t pick it up again. Later you never called and I forgot your name, lost your number when I changed phones, apartments, states.
2. On the subway, the seat next to me was empty and then a man stumbled on at the Bleeker street station, smelling of booze and urine and urban decay. He took the empty seat next to me. I wanted to get up and move. But that seemed wrong so I stayed, only one more stop anyway. I’ve always wanted the courage to be kinder than I am most days.
3. A book, the title I cannot remember, about a woman who is the daughter of God, the sister of Jesus and she lives in New York City and she visits God, who is a sponge in the ocean off Long Island or maybe Atlantic City. I bought it at The Strand and found myself in its pages—lost and wandering. Then left it on a bench in Washington Square Park on my lunch break.
4. The desire to fly. It grows the higher you climb inside the stacks of the Elmer Holmes Bobst library. I stare down at the black and white tiles, Escher-like tessellations and suddenly think how beautiful a stream of garnet or crimson would be traveling across its surface. I did not realize it then, but later I will be grateful I did not jump that day.
5. The day I walked Sixth Street from the Washington Square subway stop all the way to Central Park without speaking to a single soul except the Irish guy at the bar near Bryant Park and West 43rd. He sold me a Dos Equis and gave me shots of vodka and we shared stories about home, family and the things we misplace when we migrate.
6. God at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park and the rooms and rooms of medieval art that I hadn’t expected and didn’t like. Christ on the Cross hanging in the Fuentidueña Apse with his questioning eyes following me as I moved through the chapel, until I grew hot and blushed under his knowing gaze.
7. Confidence. At the Nuyorican Poets Café on a Wednesday night while sipping a glass of water because my throat has gone so dry I cannot speak and realize that these are poets, this woman with braids stacked upon her head like cairns slamming wisdoms like drum beats against your wire-taut brain. Because these are writers, these are everything you thought you would be, could be, but aren’t and its best to get up now, slide quietly around the full tables and out the smoky entrance and take the D train back to your shared flat on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, pack a suitcase and book a flight home to Bama because you will never hurl words with such brazen poise and erudite originality.
Jamie shares her inspiration for “Lost and Found”:
“Lost and Found” is an ode to my college years in New York City. The subway, the fresh, clean smell of Central Park in spring, Shakespeare & Co books, Washington Square Park, hot coffee and bagels bought from street vendors. I loved every second of my life there but it came with a cost. Only years later would I realize how much the experience of living in New York City changed me, how much I lost and what I gained.
“Lost and Found” was first published in and was second place winner in Versification Zine’s Mosh Pit CNF Contest 2021.
Jamie Etheridge has writing in Essay Daily, X-R-A-Y Lit, Reckon Review, JMWW Journal, Identity Theory, Bending Genres and elsewhere. Her flash fiction, “Ways of Karst”, won the Fractured Lit Anthology II Prize 2022, judged by Deesha Philyaw. Jamie was a finalist for the Kenyon Review Developmental Edit Fellowship (CNF, 2021). She is a CNF editorial assistant for CRAFT Literary & tweets at @LeScribbler.