Category: Nonfiction (Page 1 of 10)

How to Promise

By Zach Semel

A few months after I get back from Europe, I’m in the back seat as my dad drives down East 72nd Street toward 2nd Avenue, luxurious building lobbies flashing by in golden blurs.

Thirteen floors up, we knock on their apartment door.  My heels tap anxiously on the hallway carpeting.  The door opens, letting out a dull glow.

“Hi, sweetie,” my grandma says, strained, wrapping me in a warm Columbia-sweatshirt hug.  I kiss her on the cheek.  We put our coats down in the corner.  The living room and dining room are one open space furnished with a long, maroon, leather couch and a wooden coffee table streaked to appear aged.

“How’s Grandpa?” I ask.

“He’s asleep,” she says.

Past the closed door of the quiet bedroom, the bathroom smells barren—no more of that familiar shaving-cream air.  As far as I’m concerned, his lifelong brand was classic Barbasol in the stubby navy-blue bottles—the ones you trip over in the street the day after Halloween.  He had always smelled like it, as if he had just gotten back from a 1980s barbershop.  But he doesn’t use that stuff anymore; my dad got him an electric razor because he’s been cutting his cheeks up so badly.  I see the shampoo he used to use, too—Pert, those bright green bottles like apple-scented cleaner.  The mirror seems dirty now, and they don’t keep many pills in the medicine cabinet, “or he’ll hide them.”

In all the stories I read about Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or whatever—the disease makes people forget these peripheral things.  Where they put the electricity bills, bank statements.  Where their favorite restaurant is.  Who their children are.  But what I was not prepared for was how he forgot how to take care of himself.

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The Brambles

By: Michelle Bracken

At thirty-three years old, I work for the local school district, and after nine years of teaching elementary school, I leave the classroom for an office position. I work in a department founded to serve the needs of second language learners, but the truth is, it’s harder than teaching.

The pay is better. The hours, too. I tell myself that I will have a greater impact on students, but there are days I miss the classroom: the sounds of a school, the tattles and stories children tell, the questions they ask, the way they run up and throw their arms around me. The light in their eyes—the hope. It’s unmistakable. That’s the one thing I’ve never had. As a child, I had no hope, just a darkness I could not escape like an albatross around my neck.

***

By the time I am eight, I have learned how to change a diaper, how to properly make a bottle for my baby brother, and how the threat of the hanger frightens my brothers and sister into silence. I’ve also learned that life is disappointing, and that even though my stepfather promises a visit by Easter, it will never happen.

I have learned that men are attracted to beauty, and that because my mother is beautiful, there will always be a man vying for her attention, and that sometimes we will come last. I have learned that my father is still in love with her, and that he believes they will get back together. I know this will never happen. Many things will not happen.

I will not be the smartest kid in my class. I will not have many friends. I will find it hard to relate to kids my age, and when the teacher asks us what we had for dinner last night, or what we did over the weekend, I will find it difficult to answer without feeling shame. I will not learn how to deflect until I am much older, but I have learned to be quiet and to mind my place. By the time I am eight, I have learned that if you say nothing enough, people will think you have nothing to say.

By the time I am ten, I have learned how to shop on food stamps, and find it ridiculous that it doesn’t allow funds for toilet paper. I’ve learned how to go without, that sometimes it feels better to eat nothing, that the emptiness in my stomach comforts the loneliness I carry. I’ve learned how to hide my body in oversized shirts and that the uglier I look, the less people speak to me. I make myself look how I feel: worthless, someone to be forgotten.

I am forgotten after school, left alone at the flagpole, watching mothers collect their sons and daughters, and I see the pity in their eyes. They ask if I need a ride, if everything is okay, and I have finally learned how to smile when all I want to do is cry. Yes, I tell them, yes, she’s on her way. She is always on her way. There is always something that must be done. A bill to pay. A child to take to the babysitter. A date. Cigarettes to buy. I tell myself these are all things to be done, that she must be on her way, that she has not forgotten me, that she could never forget. My mother is young, and I know she’s doing the best she can. But there are days I wish that she did better and that no one looked at us with pity.

My mother leaves us for a weekend getaway. She leaves us with a childhood friend of hers. This friend, she’s a drug addict, and we endure a hellish weekend. The worst storm that year—the streets are flooded, and it seems like the rain will never stop. My mother’s friend spends all the money my mother gave her on drugs and we spend that weekend sleeping in her car and sneaking into hotel rooms.

My infant sister has a fever and vomits all over my clothes. I sleep with her on the floor and try not to cry, try to believe that my mother will find us, that this weekend will end, and that one day my childhood will be normal, that I will not have to repeat this life, that I will not need to worry about such things as money and safety and whether or not we’ll eat that day. I make a wish that my childhood will be different, that instead of crying myself to sleep, I will sleep soundly, that my mother will tuck me into bed and read me a story. That never happens.

***

It’s my last year of college, and the university has required that all students complete eighty hours of community service. I live a mile from an elementary school, and since I have no car and no driver’s license, I have decided this is my option. I don’t know it yet, but I will make my career here. I will become a teacher. I work with third graders, and we sit at the lunch tables in the cafeteria and talk about writing. Their teachers have given us assignments, but I don’t care about any of that. I only care about what the kids have to say, about what they had for dinner, and about what they did on the weekend. I can see it in their eyes, a commonality. A childhood of poverty, trauma. That perhaps they want to say what no one has yet heard, what no one would care to know. 

Why can’t they just read?

They never do homework. 

I can never get the mother on the phone. She just doesn’t care.

These are things teachers say about their students, and though it isn’t all of them, their voices are loud, and it stings me every time. The tone. The lack of empathy. How everything is wrong and how it is everybody’s fault.

One afternoon, a young girl sits beside me while her friends play double dutch.

“Don’t you want to join them?” The day is beautiful. It’s not yet April. The sun warms the concrete wall against our backs.

“My mom has brain cancer.”

There’s a moment of silence between us, and even though there’s so much I want to tell her, all I can say is how sorry I am.

“It’s okay,” she says, “but I’m really going to miss her.”

We sit like that until the bell rings, and even though her eyes are wet, she smiles when she waves goodbye. I don’t know what I can do to comfort her or if I can comfort anyone.

***

When I’m twelve, my shoes have no shoelaces, and sometimes I sit in the closet of my bedroom. I share a room with my sister, and we have no toys. That year, my teacher assigns Where the Red Fern Grows, and I hate it. I hate every bit of it. I hate reading about how poor Billy’s family is and how his dogs die. I hate the sadness of it all.

My mother’s boyfriend is a man I cannot stand. We hate each other. He calls me a fat cow, but this is nothing in comparison to what he does to my brothers. To the belt he wraps around his wrist as he walks down the hall. To the steel boots he wears when he storms into their room. I hate how I do nothing and that instead of trying to save them, I cry myself to sleep, hoping that my cries will drown everything out. I cannot stand to know the pain my brothers endure, and even though I know this will affect them, that it will be something they always carry, I try to believe it won’t, that somehow it won’t tarnish who they have yet to become. I try to believe that like the novel, something positive will come out of all of this, that some kind of red fern will sprout from the brambles of our childhood.

***

When I am twenty-four, I teach reading to a group of fourth and fifth graders. I do not have a classroom, but a hallway. The custodian has sectioned off an area for me, bordered by tall filing cabinets and rolling cupboards. I tape motivational posters to the walls of these cabinets and treat our space as hallowed ground. We have classroom rules, rewards, and even a holiday party. Sometimes the students don’t want to return to their regular classrooms, and even though they are all considered to be reading far below grade level, the students all enjoy reading Bud, Not Buddy. It isn’t a book I assigned, but we found an excerpt of it in a textbook, and because they loved that excerpt so much, I buy them each a copy.

But that isn’t the moment that sticks with me. Mostly, I think of Raj. He lives with his grandmother, his twin brother, and their cousins. He often writes about football, and his handwriting is careful and precise. He isn’t a bad speller, nor a bad reader, just behind.

Once, I ask him about his grandmother and if he’d like it if she’d read to him. His eyes light up, and for the first time, I can see the hope. A little fire of hope. His smile is small. He looks away. “She’d never do that,” he says. “Says I’m too big for that stuff.”

Raj, a fourth grader, often got sent to the office. It seems as if all the teachers are afraid of him.  The principal, too. As I eat my lunch in the staff lounge one afternoon, the school counselor talks about him and another boy. The teachers talk about these boys all the time, all the trouble they cause. When asked what he thought would happen to them, the counselor nonchalantly replies: “On the street in two years, for sure. In a gang. Drugs, that’s what.”

***

When I am thirty, I teach third grade. During a poetry lesson, we analyze the lyrics of Beyonce’s “Halo.” It’s my attempt to teach imagery and figurative language, and when I ask them to consider who would be the halo in their lives, I’m only taken aback by Tyler’s response. Tyler says that his halo was his dog, but that someone has stolen his dog, and so now he has no one.

When he says this, the room is silent. There is no joke to be made, no laugh to be had, and nothing to distract. The class sits with his words and we play the song again and everyone sings.

***

Months after I leave the classroom for a district office position, I find myself at one of the toughest elementary schools in the city. I’m there for a student meeting. I attend several student meetings. I attend these meetings and discuss whether or not the student in question needs additional services because of a learning disability or because they are a second language learner. Mostly, it’s language.

This day, a fight breaks out, and the principal and vice principal rush out of the room, desperate to break it up. I follow and though I can’t see around the building, I hear the shouting and cursing and the adults yelling to stop it, just stop it!

A boy runs toward me, and though I can’t make out his face, I have a sense that it’s someone I know, and before I can make him out, he has wrapped his arms around me and keeps calling my name.

Nathan, a former student of mine, just holds onto me. He isn’t crying, isn’t shouting, just holds me, and when he looks up, he smiles. “I can’t believe it’s really you,” he says.

We talk about the fight, and I tell the administrators that I know him, that we have a good rapport.

“He’s always so angry,” they say. They say many other things. That he needs medication, that he destroys school property.

“That’s not like him,” I tell them.

And I go further. I ask if they know that a few years ago his youngest sibling died, that later he lived with his grandfather, and that recently, he too passed away. They did not know any of this. They shake their heads.

Nathan. When he smiled, I could see that he still had hope, that something still glimmered. But I wonder about him all the time. I wonder where he is and if that smile still surfaces, if his eyes still light up when he thinks of the future, his favorite meal, his favorite book, his favorite song.

***

Tyler is having trouble in middle school, and I make an appointment to see him. That hope in his eyes, it’s gone. His eyes are dark, and whatever fire was there has vanished.

“You’re here to see me?”

“Definitely you,” I tell him, and he gives me the tightest embrace. I can tell that he’s sad, perhaps lost, disconnected. His hug tells me all of this, that he can’t believe I’m even there. We sit in a nurse’s office, and we talk about school, his grades. The projects he has due, how he’s unhappy. Tyler is the oldest and has to take care of his younger brothers. He knows that I did the same with my family, and I get it when he says he’s tired.

“I just don’t think it’s fair,” he says.

It isn’t. It will never be fair, and it’s hard for me to put into words what has taken me years to understand. The cards we are dealt, they’re unpredictable. Life isn’t fair for everyone, and for most people, it’s disappointing.

But I can’t tell this to a thirteen-year-old. I can’t tell him that it will take him years to get over it, that it will take him years to let go of the resentment. But I tell him that school will be his saving grace. Stay focused on that, I tell him, and that will be your ticket out. Your dreams, what you want in your future, it is in your hands.

Perhaps that’s too much for a seventh grader to understand, but I have to try. We talk for an hour, and when it is time to leave, he doesn’t want to say goodbye.

“This is it?” he asks.

This is it. I wish I could do more. I wish that I could make his problems go away and that I could give him the childhood we both wanted.

***

I cannot say that I know any better than anyone else, but I know what it is like to come to school hungry, to think of excuses not to go home, to wear the same clothes day after day. I know what it is like to grow up poor, tough, and sometimes unloved. That feeling—it gnaws at you, and there comes a time when all you want to do is scream, and if my students needed to scream, I let them.

Raj threw a chair at me, and he missed, and years later we saw each other again. He still had that small smile, and out of all the teachers standing outside the front of the school during dismissal, I am the one he chose to see.

He talked about his high school classes and how he was on the football team, and his life wasn’t perfect, but I could see that he was better, and that he still remembered whatever kindness I had showed him so many years before.

The brambles of his youth—they were no longer the same. And neither were mine.


Michelle Bracken is a former elementary school teacher who lives in Los Angeles. She’s a 2019 fellowship winner at theOFFICE,and a past participant of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the ZYZZYVA Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Litro UKThe Baltimore ReviewForklift OhioThe Superstition ReviewEmpty Mirror and elsewhere.

 

My Accent Makes Me Beautiful

By: Anthony Isaac Bradley

While browsing the supermarket snack aisle, I was told that the members of R.E.M., a band at its peak during my adolescence in 1997, were gay.

My high school peers declared this in the IGA supermarket. They meant both identity-wise and musically, which raised questions: Did this mean they all slept together? Or were they individually queer, with individual queer activities?

Side note: Imagine Michael Stipe and Mike Mills as lovers. Bill Berry and Peter Buck? How would this change the band dynamic? My mind turns in on itself.

These same acquaintances would later decree—in the same store—that one of our classmates was decidedly “queer.” With my ass still firmly in the closet, I had nothing to add, for or against. I listened, pretended to search for those Hostess carrot cakes that would cease production during my twenties. Still, I felt an interior ping. Their homophobia jumpstarted my awareness. I left the IGA with carrot cakes and my very own queer band.

***

Michael Stipe and Co. are My Queer Band (MQB), the first significant lifeline I was offered concerning my sexual repression, before I knew Bowie, before I understood why I was very into Tori Amos (“I just really like redheads,” I’d say, oblivious). Despite Stipe being cryptic in the media about his sexuality, I clung to MQB for years like no one else could encapsulate my wants. I flip-flopped from straight to gay, from gay to straight to bi to pan (currently!), but I kept songs like “Falls to Climb” or “Nightswimming” with me, despite my evolution. MQB is my through-line.

Even now, I find Stipe’s mumbly-before-Mumblecore, cynical-yet-hopeful lyrics relevant. Growing up in Stoutland, Missouri (population 155) required that you stare at your shoes. As Ice-T said, “Talk shit, get hit,” Or just be present, get hit. Being queer on a gravel road could end badly. Or at the Jack in the Box, where one local was beaten into a coma for his perceived sexuality after placing a take-out order (an oft-discussed story around my high school). Being cynical was my reliable illusion of control. Being hopeful about my future? Difficult, but just the hint of possibility in Stipe’s voice went a long way, as opposed to the nihilism of my other obsession, Nine Inch Nails. In hindsight, I think there was a good amount of hopefulness coming from Mr. Reznor, but that’s not what I needed from him.

A straight ally once told me that “Nightswimming” is the worst song he’s ever heard. Hates it. I’ve never asked for specifics, but he’s usually better at offering a motive for dislike, which leads me to detect a built-in revulsion of what could be defined as a “wuss song” (piano plus earnest yearning).

I just think an ally would automatically understand MQB, but rainbow bumper stickers on cars belonging to friends and teachers can’t solve every problem.

Though the subtext of “Nightswimming” might sail over the heads of some hetero listeners, the song’s merging of male body intimacy (in a queer-reading sense) and the anxiety of exposure/consequences (“The fear of getting caught/Of recklessness and water”[i]) is an earnest call that LGBTQ+ listeners will certainly recognize.

Getting caught wasn’t an option. Cruising in my hometown pre-Grindr was a thing to keep secret. Draping clothes across the bushes with someone of the same sex was never to be shouted about, or whispered as a melody, and certainly not understood unless you’ve done it (two straights caught in a pond or parked car doesn’t carry the same repercussions). Why take the risk, unless you have a death wish? My friends and neighbors were hunters who added camouflage instead of trying to lose it. Nature was for facing death, not love. My father shot deer. I shot glances. Either could end with a fatality.

Side note: I was (am?) possibly the last human being to accept the sincerity of “Everybody Hurts.” I cried. I still do. This isn’t my problem. I’ll stand on a car during a traffic jam and sing, “Don’t let yourself go,” without irony.[ii]

And with a Midwestern accent, of course.

Georgia-born Stipe can’t hide his accent either. In “Country Feedback,” it’s seduced into the open by the song’s musical arrangement. Being sensitive about my low-in-the-mouth delivery, I’m drawn to artists who can’t hide their authentic selves. Imagine my joy at the song “Falls to Climb,”[iii] where Stipe sings with earnest, “My accent makes me beautiful.” Except he doesn’t. I confess this essay was born from a mishearing of these lyrics. I mistook “actions” for “accents,” and I thought, Ah! There it is. Yet another reason why R.E.M. is MQB. Michael Stipe knows the weight of his accent, its history and signals.

Side note: MQB had to be R.E.M. It could never be Queen, because nearly everyone at the pontoon factory (my first job) would blast “We are the Champions” while asking me how much “sugar” I had in my gas tank. If you don’t speak the language, that means defective if queer. A busted engine. Funny or fruity.

Nearly everyone I spent time with back then let those slurs roll out on the regular. I did, on occasion. I had to blend in, and I had to consider that telling the truth to a close acquaintance could result in a parking lot fight. That’s how our fathers raised us, how the hundreds of nearby towns built on the same blueprints expected us to act. Tradition. That’s the word.

Oh, there’s an accent here, too. I hear slander with an accent no matter where the state line lies, even if there isn’t really a trace of one. When I paraphrase a slur, the accent comes with it. The rush of speech, a forcefulness with the opening enunciation—f-f-f—before the low rumble.

The accent sticks in my ear (only my left—the right is a poor receiver). My occasional dropped-down words and—let’s be honest—my whiteness, often made me a safe space for bigots and the like, an invitation for some to roll up and share. I like to think it was the tolerated intolerance of my small town, not necessarily anything I was giving off. Here’s a bit of cowardice: I often code-switched from sounding slightly rural to very rural so I wouldn’t get the shit beat out of me. Remember those gravel roads? I was told how so-and-so might be, you know (accompanied with exaggerated wrist bend).

Such-and-such was caught with another guy, therefore watch out. The agenda is real. My classmates confided in me, and so did my factory coworkers. Sometimes my family. My accent was proof of good old boy, but one way to make them think otherwise was to play MQB whenever possible. At work, parties, wherever.

Wuss. Queerbait. My accent makes me beautiful.

I hated it for years. I wanted to tear my vocal chords out and wreck them in a garbage disposal. Not all that surprising, as I was a devotee of self-hate before I began teaching. My students now chuckle at my pronunciation of certain words, the way they roll off my tongue in a barrel and land flat.

My accent makes me beautiful.

Side note: Stipe used to make out with his straight bandmates on stage to get a rise out of homophobes in the live crowd. Big points for that.

MQB was a way to say I’m queer long before I could in the literal sense. Stipe’s own sexual preferences didn’t become known to the public until years later, so I couldn’t know at the time if I was just projecting onto the band’s catalogue, but it was easier than trying to hunt down queer-ish materials at the local library. Most of the attendants wore camo or a cross around their necks, and besides, friends remain within earshot in a town this size. As much as these boys had my back, fear could’ve informed their decision to accept, or not to accept. If I couldn’t carry a book out, I could hide a song.

R.E.M.’s intent doesn’t matter, really, as they left enough space for my own interpretations and insecurities, open to every age (like a good MQB should). I wear lipstick with my Forever 21 jacket and hum “Near Wild Heaven.” On the lyric, “House made of heart, break it,”[iv] my accent says, Hello. This is when I message people that matter and spill, “I’m sorry, but I’ve been listening to MQB so I’m intensely emotional right now, and I just wanted to say I love you.” It’s important that they know not just how I sound, but where I stand.

[i] R.E.M., “Nightswimming,” 1992, track #11 on Automatic for the People, Warner Bros., 1993.
[ii] R.E.M., “Everybody Hurts,” 1992, track #4 on Automatic for the People, Warner Bros., 1993.
[iii] R.E.M., “Falls to Climb,” track #14 on Up, Warner Bros., 1998.
[iv] R.E.M., “Near Wild Heaven,” 1990, track #4 on Out of Time, Warner Bros., 1991.


Anthony Isaac Bradley is an MFA candidate at Texas State University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Cimarron Review, and other lovely places. He’s a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives with his cat and the ghost of another.

Manhandled

By: Catherine Jagoe

The summer before you turn twelve, something changes. You don’t know it, but the forces of metamorphosis are being unleashed in your blood, your brain. You just know that everything feels charged. Even the air seems to vibrate slightly, as if humming out of range of human hearing. The sun is too bright, the grass neon green. On the way to the outdoor pool at the boys’ school where your father works, you pass distant male figures, incandescent in their cricket whites. The odor of manure mingles with the scent of roses and the reek of chlorine.

On the high street of your little town in northern England, there is a life-size cardboard cutout propped up outside Rowland’s, the chemist: the Kodak lady in a bikini, all white teeth, breasts and cleavage. You see her every day on your way to school. In a covered up, chilly, pale world, all that tanned skin is shocking. So is her flat stomach, so unlike yours, round with puppy fat.

The pink-brown circles of your nipples start to swell. You don’t like the conical bumps they make under your cotton undershirt. They’re not breasts. But they’re not flat, like before. At first they look like blisters, but eventually they become small mounds. They feel tender, like a bruise. Running around with this newly floppy, non-streamlined chest becomes less comfortable and sometimes painful. You’re the first girl in Mrs. Groves’ fifth-year class to wear a bra, although the swellings on your chest don’t look like the Kodak lady’s or your mother’s breasts, which you’ve seen in a nude photo hidden in your father’s sock drawer. “Playtex Cross-Your-Heart,” the boys chant mockingly. They know, of course. They see. Standing behind you in line, they take to snapping your bra strap painfully.

You know, but can’t remember how or when you learned, that there’s a topless model every day on page three of the Sun. You become uncomfortably aware of the girlie magazines—Playboy and Penthouse—on the top shelf at the newsagents down the hill. You try to avoid looking at them as you hand over the money for the Guardian you’ve been sent to buy, or the Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars you love. You’re embarrassed to be in the same room as those breasts and the man at the counter. In their presence, you feel shamed and dismayed. Is this what you’ll become? It’s hard to imagine. This is what men want? Those appallingly large breasts are exposed and taboo at the same time. To you, they seem to blare like megaphones, but no one mentions them. They exist in a register beyond normal speech.

You’re tall and are occasionally mistaken for your mother’s younger sister. Once, when you’ve been sent to take your youngest sibling for a walk in her stroller, a woman stops to exclaim over your adorable little one. You’re covered in confusion—you’re only eleven. You stammer a denial, mortified to be taken for one of the girls who gets pregnant and leaves school forever. You’ve seen girls like that berating their whining toddlers at the bus stop. You don’t want to end up like them.

The wild land across the road that you loved to roam with your little brother is sold, and work begins on a new housing development. Now, walking past it, you quail as the construction workers look up and give wolf whistles. On errands for your mother, you have to pass a group of youths permanently stationed on the town hall steps, smoking, horsing around and guffawing. It feels like running the gauntlet. You can’t walk to the shops without passing them. They stare and elbow one another, mutter comments you can’t hear. At these moments, you long to be invisible.

This is the point when your inner self and the life of the world collide. The girl who writes poetry, reads a stack of library books a week, adores French, plays the piano, favors turquoise ink, has a crush on Jonathan Gowdy; the girl who loves swimming and hiking and baking Victoria sponge cakes; the responsible older sister who is passionate, tender-hearted, conscientious, and eager to please, starts to be accosted by the world, which sees only her outside. In your new female flesh, you’ve suddenly become visible, a blinking icon on the sexual radar screen. In this world, you no longer have any control over how you’re seen. You’re becoming aware, from what you hear and read, of how dangerous this being seen is, how much can be done to the female body against its will.

That summer a stranger appears one day while you’re walking alone on the canal towpath, three miles from home. Fat and pale, he lumbers toward you in trousers that seem to be falling down. You tense. There’s no way home except past him. He doesn’t try to touch you but stares fixedly in your direction. Your mouth goes dry, and your palms sweat as you squeeze uncomfortably by on the narrow, muddy path. Nothing happens, nothing at all, but this encounter marks a turning point in your inner life and stays with you for years. It’s your first taste of danger. When you get home, you tell no one. What is there to tell? You’re trying to act grownup. You’re learning the rules, absorbing the grammar of silence. There’s loneliness in this.

Another day, there’s a man loitering in the bushes on the other side of the swimming pool fence. He holds a small, dark thing in his hand, at crotch level. He says nothing, stares at you. Then he vanishes. You’re shocked and bewildered, but too embarrassed to tell the knot of ladies chatting nearby. So you don’t. You stay silent, trying to quiet the commotion in your mind, willing it to go away.

First blood: a rusty stain in the crotch of your underwear, the pink checked polyester ones that you like because they’re lace-trimmed briefs and not the waist-high, little-girl, combed cotton ones you’ve worn till then. But the blood doesn’t look red enough, not like blood at all, really—not what you’d been expecting. You see your mother trying to summon enthusiasm as you tell her, but she comes over as weary and inexplicably defeated. She gives you a package of Dr. White’s napkins and an elastic sanitary belt with hooks, and shows you how to attach them. You feel awkward with this new, bulky thing between your legs, sure it must show.

Your friend Janet, three years older than you, smokes in secret. That summer the two of you sneak out after dinner and stand under the apple trees with their small, hard, unripe fruit. You watch in nervous fascination as she draws the hot smoke into her, talking of boys, glib, knowing, self-assured. The two of you daub your eyelids inexpertly with purple Biba eyeshadow and apply the lip gloss you bought with her on a trip to London. You wet your fingers from a small black flask of Biba perfume with a yellow stopper and yellow flowers, rubbing it on your pulse. Some nights that summer, alone in your bed, you part your thighs, all ache and ignorance, and imagine being with a boy, full of wanting, but not knowing what to do about it.

The fair comes to town for the August carnival and sets up in an overgrown field, beckoning with its heat and noise, its music and colored, flashing lights. You and your siblings beg your father to take you there, dying to spend your pocket money. There are rifles you can shoot, aiming for the bullseye. If you hit it, you get a sad goldfish mouthing silent o’s in a plastic bag. There are screaming bumper cars and a manic merry-go-round you get sick on. You buy a stick of candyfloss the color of Pepto-Bismol, wound around a wand by a woman in a van who smiles as she leans down to hand it to you. It wounds the tongue like meltable wire wool, then dissolves into gritty sweetness, leaving your lips sticky and stained.

You try to throw rings over spikes to get a prize, but never win any of the stuffed animals or cheap jewelry. You eat a nasty, boiled, naked-looking thing called a Hot Dog for the first time in your life. You buy a toffee apple, glazed red with tacky, hard-boiled sugar, and bite through to disappointment—white, mushy fruit. You’re slightly dizzy with the smell of exhaust, bruised grass, hot grease, sweat and Brut.

Suddenly, in the crush of bodies, there’s a hand, too close and in the wrong place. A moment of shock and disbelief. The hand takes you out of the din of the fair and into a still and timeless place of silence. It has attached itself to your body, is feeling your bottom, cupping a buttock, squeezing and rubbing it, refusing to let go, as if it were fondling something it owned. Stroking the plaid fabric of the skirt you made yourself in home economics class, proud you can now use a Singer sewing machine. Your entire being flashes an SOS, electrified by not-wanting. You turn: a small, middle-aged man you don’t know leers at you. Almost in tears, you back away, furiously wishing you could spool back to before it happened. Later you shame-facedly mutter something about it to your dad, who balls his fists and growls, “Where is he?” Mortified, you beg him to let it go, not to make a fuss, desperate not to draw any more attention to your body. So you try to tell yourself nothing has been done. You say nothing to your mother when you get home and go swimming with the family that evening, willing the cold water to wash away the traces of that hand. But it’s not on your skin: it’s in your head, indelible.

You return to that moment at the fair because you want to understand the toxic cocktail of shame, silence, helplessness and fear you imbibed, one that gets infused into women from an early age. Already you knew—without being told—that being groped is an expected consequence of being a woman, nothing to complain of. You’d joined the world that ranks sexual assault, and trivializes certain kinds of unwanted physical contact. Yet being handled like that lodges inside you like a burr, painful and uncomfortable.

It’s your induction into life in a young woman’s body. Harassment in public places by male strangers becomes an omnipresent force in your daily life. The comments and looks on the street, in public places, ramp up. Unwanted advances can happen any time, on the most mundane errands—grocery shopping, going to the post office, walking the dog. From that year on, you inhabit your body differently. You feel like a magnet, a target, in a way you don’t want. Filled with a new wariness, you learn not to make eye contact; where possible, you seek to avoid situations that could trip the alarm now constantly armed within you. This is when you start losing your voice, when your chatty preteen self is edged out by someone more taciturn and watchful. You strive to come across as aloof, forbidding. You practice silence. You take to wearing baggy, concealing things. As a young woman, you want to be invisible.

You’re not. At eighteen, you take your first vacation without family, just you and four girls from high school, on money you saved from your first job, working in a department store. You take the train all the way across England and France, to a campsite on the Mediterranean. One night, your friends get more drunk than usual and disappear on the beach with guys they met at the restaurant. You stand on the beach in the dark holding their passports, shivering a little as the blood-warm sea advances and retreats around your ankles, alone and full of fear for them and for yourself. There are men loitering on the road above, staring down at you. Wherever you are on that trip, there are always men, aware of your presence, following your movements.

At nineteen, you become an au pair in Spain. England was bad enough, but in Madrid you feel as if you’re under siege. You can’t walk through a park, or read a book in public, or order a Fanta, or wander along the sidewalk without a male of some age sidling up and whispering obscene things in your ear, or simply pestering to be noticed. A friend from high school, who is working for a family outside Madrid, is raped when she tries to hitchhike into the city. As au pairs, you earn a pittance: you sometimes have to choose between buying a coffee or the bus fare. She tells you the details, but nobody else. Neither of you thinks to report it to the police. It feels too private and shameful.

At twenty-two, you spend three months living in France alone in a tent as an onsite rep for Canvas Holidays, a British camping firm. You love being in charge of a campsite, solving clients’ problems, living out of doors. Your job comes with a moped, and you use it to explore the Breton countryside, taking long trips, exhilarated by your freedom. But there’s always the question of men, being aware of where they are and what they’re up to, what intentions they might have. In your journal, you draw a symbol for a woman, like a horseshoe-shaped magnet. A vessel with a hole. Unstoppered, unsealed. No way to cap it from the world. Men want into your body. They and the things they could do have moved into your head permanently.

In Madrid, and later in Mexico City, you are groped by strangers on metro carriages so crowded it’s impossible to maneuver away from the hand probing between your clenched legs, trying to insert a finger into your vagina through your clothes. It’s impossible to know which of the phalanx of men around you is the culprit, you’re packed in so tightly. You shift and try to twist away to no avail, wanting to kick, stomp, scream, but afraid you might make things worse. You’re surrounded by men, any and all of whom could harm you even more. When released onto the platform, you emerge shaking with revulsion and fright. You wonder, now, what would have happened if you’d protested out loud in those carriages? Would the crotch grabbing have stopped? Would you have been safe?

You think about the man at the fair, the men in those trains, feeling you up. There’s something pathetic about their furtive, sneaky fondling. Groping signals male inadequacy as well as male power. It’s something one does when one can’t see. To grope, in its primary meaning, is to reach out blindly, to search with one’s hands for something one can’t see well, or at all. Men who grope can’t really see the woman they’re molesting as a whole person, whose consent matters. Intentionally or unintentionally, they remind women of their powerlessness, the precariousness of their safety and bodily autonomy. Because it’s so far from healthy, tender, loving touch, groping generates mistrust and fear.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, you find yourself explaining to your husband of thirty years that you can’t count the number of times you’ve been out hiking, biking or walking by yourself and felt fear. Not mild anxiety, but heart-pounding, clammy-skin fear—fear of being sexually assaulted. He is surprised. You just assumed he knew. You tell him about an incident this week: Walking deep in the labyrinth of woodland paths in the Arboretum, you smell cigarette smoke. You hear and see no one, but you remember the nearby dump where men in hard hats maneuver beeping trucks constantly. You’re alone. You freeze, then flee.

The statistics on sexual assault are daunting and support the wariness you learned as a preteen. One out of every six American women suffers attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Girls and women between the ages of 12-34 are at the highest risk for sexual assault. It makes sense, given this, that you’re more scared of encountering a man in a lonely place than a bear or a mountain lion. Because at some level, women know they’re prey, and are primed to live accordingly. The threshold is different for every woman, but it’s always there. When you move about alone, you find yourself weighing your need to do what you want, go where you want, and comparing it to the amount of risk you may run. The choice is sometimes stark: suffer fear, or consent to a constricted life. One friend has camped solo in the mountains in Turkey, an adventure you think was way too hazardous. Another has never walked alone through the Arboretum, “for safety reasons.”

Even your home is dangerous. All the evidence shows that women should be more afraid of the men they know than of strangers in the dark. At twenty-four, you get into a petty argument with your long-term boyfriend, sniping at him while sitting on the sofa at his parents’ house. Suddenly he punches you in the side of the head, hard, jarring your neck. You’re thunderstruck. This was never in the vocabulary of the possible between you. Your head spins. Nothing but the sound of the blow ringing, as if you were underwater, as if God had reached out of the sky and struck you with a hammer. But it seems a random aberration, so you forgive him. You stay together for another year. Then he comes home one night after midnight, drunk, and won’t explain where he’s been or why. Instead, he starts punching you. Two days later, you fly to the U.S. for the first time, on what is supposed to be a one-year fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wearing your bruises and your baffled grief.

Living in Wisconsin that year, 1986, you feel less scrutinized, freer to move around. Legs in particular seem largely desexualized. People wear shorts everywhere, not just on the beach. You don’t need to smarten up to go to the grocery store—you can show up in stained, baggy sweatpants, as if you were just schlepping around the house. Utility and comfort prevail over looking good. But despite the significant cultural differences about how to dress and act in public, the sexual fault line is still there.

As a graduate student, you’re pressed to go out on a dinner date in the country by a male professor over twice your age, on a day when you’re wearing a tank top and very short shorts. It’s in the nineties and you find the muggy heat unbearable. You just want to be cool—not figuratively, but literally. Lulled into a false sense of security by the culture of leg-baring here, you naïvely hadn’t seen your outfit as a come-on. You’re taken aback and repelled by his offer, and the thought of being alone in a car with him rings alarm bells. But you fear the consequences of simply saying no, so you hedge and agonize, and extricate yourself from the outing by leaving him an awkward phone message later.

You eventually acquire an American boyfriend, whom you later marry. Whenever he leaves on a work trip, you sleep poorly. In your thirties and forties, even in this ultra-safe Midwestern college town, you startle awake at the slightest noise when he’s not there, primed to hear an intruder. It’s not robbery that frightens you so much as sexual violence. One night you become so convinced there’s someone in the house that you barricade yourself in the bedroom with a chest of drawers, clutching the phone under the sheets, only falling asleep when the sky starts to lighten.

Now, as a married woman in your late fifties, you’re fading into invisibility on people’s erotic radar. You’ve morphed from “miss” to “ma’am.” The loss of fertility and desirability has, paradoxically, increased your confidence in public. Menopause has granted some welcome freedoms. You now feel comfortable wearing formfitting clothes, something you’ve avoided for four decades. You’re more secure and at ease in your own body, and in your sexuality, than you’ve ever been. But that doesn’t mean the alarm system has been disconnected.

***

It’s been a beautiful day, but it’s almost over. You’ve been working inside the whole time, trying to make a deadline. You urgently need to be back in your body, moving, out of doors. You set off on a one-hour power walk through the neighborhood, a loop you sometimes do with a friend. The return half follows the bike path, which was once a train track. The last section is built into a hill, so it’s perched high above the yards that back onto it on one side. On the other, it’s flanked by woods. Shortly after you set off, you note, with a twinge of anxiety, that it’s almost dusk; fall is shortening the days fast—sunset has come significantly earlier than a week ago. In the woods by Lake Wingra, the katydids are sounding their Indian summer rattles as you pass. They’re loudest where the vegetation is thickest, where the jewelweed next to the sidewalk is chest-high. The shades get darker.

You pass the halfway point of the walk and make the turn off Midvale Boulevard onto the bike path for the home stretch. It’s completely dark by this point. A few hundred yards in, the tinge of anxiety becomes a flood that drowns your enjoyment of the walk. There are no street lamps along this stretch past the cemetery; there are houses on one side but some way off, their inhabitants effectively out of earshot. You start upbraiding yourself for being foolhardy, ruing your own stubbornness for putting yourself at risk again. You remember reading the newspaper reports of the woman attacked on the bike path last summer; how savagely she was beaten after being pulled off into the undergrowth and raped. She was found just two feet from the path. She lay there, close to death, for hours before she was rescued. You clutch the house key in your pocket like a primitive weapon, resolved to use it if need be. “So much for taking back the night,” you think to yourself, grimly. You’re just a mile and a half from home. This shouldn’t be a big deal.

By now you’re close to panic. There’s a quarter mile to the next exit from the bike path, and you walk as fast as you can, your heart thudding unpleasantly—the way it did that day at the fair when you were a girl—and turn off, thankfully, onto streets with lights and houses. At least now there are people around, within shouting distance. You’re safe. Or safer. Until next time. Because there always is a next time. And you’ll be listening, again, for the step on the path behind you.


Catherine Jagoe is a British translator, essayist, and poet who has lived in Madison, Wisconsin for over thirty years. She has a PhD in Spanish Literature from Cambridge University and is the author or translator of seven books of poetry, fiction, and literary criticism. Her nonfiction has received a 2016 Pushcart Prize and a Notable Essay citation in the 2019 edition of Best American Essays, and has appeared in Ninth Letter, TriQuarterly, Flyway, Under the Sun and The Gettysburg Review. Her debut poetry book Bloodroot won the 2016 Settlement House American Poetry Prize and the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Edna Meudt award. She is a contributor to Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series. She is currently translating contemporary Uruguayan poetry and working on a book of essays about place and migration. Her website is www.catherinejagoe.com

Hiram Clarke Symphony No. 1 in E Minor

By: Gazzmine Wilkins

“Mournful and yet grand is the destiny of the artist.” – Franz List 

The most useful skill violin taught me is to recognize music in the ordinary, in the everyday. When I first started playing, I didn’t have the ear that I do now. I didn’t realize the sounds around me were the symphony of my life. I wanted to compose the sounds of my family and of my neighborhood, Hiram Clarke. Especially after I read the supposed horrors of life there, of how, according to the Fort Worth Star Telegram, it was “written off as ghetto by everyone else.” What in hell would someone from Fort Worth know about what living in Hiram Clarke was like? They’ve never listened to her music. But what happens when that music is unavailable? When no one has ever bothered to compose her? What then? How do I capture a sound I no longer hear? Like the bass vibrato of my dad’s clippers in the early gray morning or the bell tinkle of my brothers’ laughter before their voices dropped? In this case, words will just have to do.

I. Sonata

I grew up in the dirty south of Houston, Lil Keke’s “Southside,” Big Mello’s “The Clarke,” “HC” to H niggas who know what’s going on—Hiram Clarke. Famous for Crips and birthplace of the Southside Fade. Known as “the mean streets” by The Dallas Morning News and “run-down” and “drug-infested” by The New York Daily News. CSTV named HC as “one of Houston’s most dangerous neighborhoods.” A place where niggas ain’t ever even heard of a sonata. For them that don’t know it: a movement in sonata form has two counteracting masculine and feminine melodies in competition to expose one another. When I think of an HC sonata, I hear bass subwoofers in candy-painted droptops swanging and banging on South Post Oak Boulevard and the splayed pizzicato of 9mm bullets. I hear the slow timpani of plastic high heels climbing undulating sidewalk. I hear the bass drumbeat of a dribbling basketball in the street, the hard slam of the ball into a red, bottomed-out crate roped to a streetlight. There’s the crunch of a sour pickle dipped into red Kool-Aid powder bought from the Kool Cup Lady. There’s the high-pitched squeal of sirens and the skidding of sneakers on pavement. The breathy beatboxing and yeah, uh, uhs of the beginning of a freestyle. The creak of the screen door opening and closing and the thick plunk of slimy decapitated okra into a bowl. Sounds of the neighborhood continuously breaking apart and coming back together.

II. Largo

I don’t like to write about myself and especially not about my childhood. But the second movement of a symphony is for reflecting, for taking things at a slower pace, and for connection, un legato. I don’t like to write about my real life because that’s what They want. They revel in stories of underprivileged blacks in the hood. They find it inspiring when some of Us make it out, get an education, and find gainful employment making less than They do. But that’s a tired old song that we’ve all heard before. I will not exploit my people, my culture, my experience. I deserve better. We all deserve better. So, I am writing this for Us, because how We navigate this world deserves to be written about truthfully. We deserve to be sung about, to be composed. HC’s second movement begins in a hot Baptist church with a funky electrical organ and the opening notes of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” bass, tenor, soprano voices melting lyrics, a congregation’s sighs like the closed air in a seashell, the quick whip of paper fans, the slide of stockinged feet on carpet around pews and the muffled bang of knees hitting carpet. The pastor’s voice like the scratch of the needle before the start of the song saying, “God is good all the time.” A short reprisal of bullets and sirens. The congregation’s loud reply, “And all the time God is good.” Joy, joy, joy in the morning.

III. Minuet

If I just state the facts, my life does resemble a come-up. Daughter of a teenaged mama and a gangbanger daddy who grew up in a crime-infested area on government assistance makes it out the hood to become the first member of her family to get a higher education—some Lifetime movie-type shit. Never mind that my Grandaddy was addicted to crack and abandoned Daddy, that Grandmama threw Daddy out when he was fifteen, that he joined the Crips to survive, that he was always the smartest kid in an underfunded school, that he could dance like MJ but Grandmama made him stop because they was Pentecostal and dancing was the devil, that had the hood had better opportunities—or just the same goddamn opportunities for everyone – then there’s no doubt he would have been the first one in the family to go college. Never mind that this all happened to Mama, too, except she got pregnant instead of initiated.  But how we all danced! Despite all of this! Despite the heartache and the disadvantages and the sadness and the drugs and the gangs and the money and the drive-bys and the unemployment and the barred windows, we made room for dancing! The third movement is a minuet, a dance. An HC minuet is the sh-sh-sh slide of socked feet on carpet as Daddy moonwalked, Mama’s bones popping to an offbeat Hammer and Sprinkler, the clumsy clop of Chucks, Air Forces, Elevens against hardwood floors as we learned to dosey-doe in school, Mooky and ChooChoo’s young skin against cardboard as they breakdanced, standing-dancing on Daddy’s toes to Luther Vandross at Aunt Debra’s wedding. Dancing when there was a reason and when there wasn’t.

IV. Allegro con amore

Fourth movements are by far my favorite. My former conductor called it the “everything finale.” It’s fast and grand and the last opportunity to say what needs to be said. It’s the joyful end to a long emotional journey. The everything. My everything is the metallic sound of Daddy scraping the barbecue grate, the hiss of hot coals under seasoned chicken thighs, the slip of the wet skin of his hand wiping the wet skin of his brow, his flat car horn in the driveway when he got home from work that made me and Mooky and ChooChoo run out and wrap ourselves around his legs like sixty-pound ankle weights he dragged to the front door, the hard thwip of his shoelaces as I unlaced his boots after a long day. It’s Daddy singing Tony! Toni! Toné!’s “Anniversary” to Mama every year, the whistle of smoke blown from mouths, Selena Quintanilla in my CD player, Mama singing H-Town’s “Emotions” and “Knockin’ da Boots” (before I knew what that meant) while washing dishes, the fast low sound of air broken by the blades of searching helicopters in the night, ”HOU-STON” clap, clap, clap ”ROCK-ETS” clap, clap, clap when the game was on, Mooky and ChooChoo when they were still small and making up their own songs, even the intermittent gunshots that didn’t bother us at all, the squeak of my bow across cheap strings, the crowd rumble from cupped hands as I gave ChooChoo the People’s Elbow, Baby Miles when he cried at night and would only stop when the Wiggles sang “Fruit Salad,” the sound of Mooky breaking open a chicken bone and sucking out the marrow, their snores through the open doors, snores that are only snored in the comfort of home—music I haven’t heard in a long time. I’m trying to capture it, but I feel it slipping through my fingers. What I wish more than anything is that I could hear these sounds the same way I did when I was young, before I knew what it meant to be poor and black, but I’ll never hear them the same.


Gazzmine Wilkins received a BA in English and History from Houston Baptist University and is currently an MFA candidate at Texas State University.

 

Candling

By: Jo Varnish

I resisted this appointment. I didn’t take the clinic’s earliest available date, or the second or third. The doctor sits opposite me, a wide leather-topped desk between us. It’s my first mammogram so she takes inventory of my family history. Father: died of kidney cancer, age seventy-two. Mother: died of brain tumor, age forty-three. Brother: survived testicular cancer. My risk for breast cancer computes as low.

My friend in Switzerland discovers an egg in the forest, sea blue and speckled against the black earth. Looking up, the towering trees bear no answers. She tucks the egg in her bra to warm it as she walks it home, hoping she can save the baby within. I read the unfolding fairy tale through messages lighting up the screen of my phone.

In a white hospital gown, I go straight through for the mammogram. The oppressive machinery clamps down this way and that. Hold your breath here – breathe now – lift your arm – be still. There is no discomfort. Instead, I field the quick snaps of shame from having avoided my doctor’s advice to have my first mammogram for eight years.

In Switzerland, my friend improvises an incubator. She places a towel in a glass tank and sets up a heat lamp above. The egg goes from bra to soft bed without incident. My friend Googles and sends me her findings. This is a song thrush egg. I open a photo she messages: the egg’s beach cottage color scheme fills the screen, and we dare to imagine its survival.

I am shown to the hallway, still in the gown. The doctor reads my images and calls me into her office. She points out a concerning mass—a white-grey smudge—though it is likely nothing. I will go across the hall for an ultrasound for further scrutiny. There is a thickness forming in my stomach with a gravitational pull. I am breathing too deeply. Or too shallowly. The ultrasound will surely be negative, for this day doesn’t feel like catastrophe. My hair is washed and shiny. On a day of catastrophe my hair would be a mess.

In the dark of the moonless Swiss evening, my friend gently holds the egg and illuminates it from beneath with a flashlight. This is candling. In the video clip she sends, I can see the egg rendered bright orange-red, a minuscule dark being surrounded by a spiderweb network of tiny vessels.

The cold gel gives me goose bumps. The doctor moves a handheld scanner across my breast and presses down, rubbing back and forth over the mass. I see it clearly on the monitor, whiter and more distinct than in the mammogram image. I memorize it for later online searches. I am to come back for a fine needle biopsy. It is probably nothing.

My friend researches birds in Switzerland. Orphaned song thrushes can be fed with tweezers. We share photos of bald alien fledglings, mouths agape, their fluffless wings a series of sharp stalks. Further developed, they can be taken outside to begin flying small circuits. It is possible to house-raise a song thrush and release it back to nature.

I have found a mammogram scan online that looks like mine to my untrained eye. I have looked into options if it is malignant. I know about treatments and chances, thanks to my nighttime internet searches, and they calm me. I go to the clinic and have the needle biopsy with its pinching and pulling, and a titanium marker is inserted where the mass was. I have another mammogram to check its position. On this new image I see the titanium seed glowing bright white, nestled in the ghostly spectral tissue.

The egg is likely around a week old. My friend carefully candles it daily and monitors its progress, sending me footage of the updates. The baby should hatch in around another week or so.

Days later, when I am told the mass is a benign tumor, I call my friend in Switzerland. Her relief prompts me to realize mine more fully. Later, that solace moves aside for melancholy. The song thrush has faltered. My friend sends me the final picture: the dark smudge on the luminous orange egg. The life is no longer viable, it has failed to develop.

I take a walk in the woods with my dog, the clench of the clinic appointments released. I know that across the world, my friend is walking the egg back into the Swiss forest.


Originally from England, Jo Varnish now lives outside New York City. She is the assistant editor at X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. Her short stories and creative nonfiction have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in Okay Donkey, Ellipsis Zine, Brevity Blog and others. Jo has been a writer in residence at L’Atelier Writers for two years and is studying for her MFA. She can be found on twitter @jovarnish1

Book Review: Know My Name

By Rachel Zarrow

Know My Name by Chanel Miller (Viking, 2019) is the untold story of the person who the world came to know as Emily Doe, the victim of a widely reported 2015 sexual assault on Stanford’s campus. Though Know My Name is a memoir, the book is many other things—a victim’s manifesto, a story of love and loss, and a close examination of the broken systems that protect perpetrators and betray victims. Chanel Miller, the woman we meet in the pages of this book is many things too. She’s an activist, a victim, a writer, an artist, a comedian, a daughter, a sister,  a visionary, and more.

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Tangible Things

By Marianne Rogoff

In the beginning all we owned was a deep hole that was bigger than both of us. On a clear morning we watched the small wood box get lowered and dirt from the hole thrown on top where it settled over days and weeks and then we returned with garden gloves and shovels to plant rosemary and lavender.

The first year we went there all the time and lounged on the ground as green grass also grew on top of what used to be the hole. We brought picnics, knelt in the grass, and felt close to Mystery, the name we had printed on a pink hand-painted tile marked with the date of her birth and her death, so close to each other. After bringing a small bag of cement and tools to mix and fix the tile in our amateur way, to lie flat on the earth, this object became the tangible thing we visited.

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TCR Talks with Steve Almond

By: Kaia Gallagher

Described by commentators as funny, big-hearted and joyfully obsessive, Steve Almond has been a newspaper reporter, an acclaimed writer of short stories, an essayist and the author of ten books over his twenty-year writing career.

Almond’s published short story collections include My Life in Heavy Metal (2002), The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories (2005), God Bless America: Stories (2011), and Whits of Passion (2013). Many of his 150 short stories have been featured in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mysteries, the Pushcart Prize, and Best American Erotica.

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The Color of Heartache

BY: Ann Kathryn Kelly

In my garden, one of the first of my summer plants to push up from the ground in late May, after the spring bulbs have gone by, is my “bleeding heart.” My sister-in-law, Jane Ann, an avid gardener, divided hers soon after I’d moved into my first home years ago. She’d whacked it down the middle of its root ball, after its flowers had dropped and its leaves had yellowed, and brought a large hunk of it in a plastic grocery bag to my door.

Fifteen years on, I’ve taken it with me to a new home. That piece of Jane Ann’s bleeding heart—as close to her own as anything could be, given her devotion to plants—has landed in several of my friends’ gardens, as I follow her lead of whacking and dividing. It propagates and charms grateful recipients with its delicate beauty.

My plant was in full bloom the first week of June when news broke from a French village that Anthony Bourdain—famed chef, author, and “Parts Unknown” cable news star—had committed suicide. On June 8, 2018, a shocked world tried, as they do with tragedies, to make sense of it. Many of us had allowed ourselves to think we knew Bourdain because he showed up in our living rooms each week, all rugged good looks and real talk, to dish about exotic street food from the world’s dustiest corners.

We don’t know anyone, certainly not celebrities and often not even those in our families, fully. Their demons. Their fragility.

Never fully.

***

The summer I was diagnosed with a bleeding brain tumor, Jane Ann would stop in every night to see me during those lost months as I weighed options. She and my brother, Pat, lived several streets away. I’d hear a knock at my door after the dinner hour, like clockwork. There she’d be, holding her Shih Tzu, Penny, whose toy legs had given out again during their walk because Penny was more doll than dog. It was easier, Jane Ann would explain with a wave of her hand, to carry her. Penny seemed to agree, her chocolate eyes radiating gratitude, a cream-and-tawny powder puff panting between yawns.  

That summer, Jane Ann bore many offerings to my door. Tupperware containers of homemade soup. Lasagna in tinfoiled trays. Flowers that spilled over the fence running the length of her Victorian, cut within the hour.

Peonies. Daisies. Roses.

Deep red roses.

Her daily visits kept me engaged when all I wanted was to come home from work, pull the shades, ignore the phone, and escape into the TV or my bed. If I didn’t see anyone, I wouldn’t have to talk about what was going on. I wouldn’t have to work up my courage to schedule the surgery I needed to save my life; a surgery that would turn into almost twelve hours face down in the OR between a head vice as my skull was sliced open.

Jane Ann, a registered nurse who worked with kidney dialysis patients, watched with my family my decline across June. July. August. I felt her eyes on me each night as we visited. The only thing she pushed those evenings was Penny, into my lap, and fistfuls of flowers, into my hands. Bright spots were few that summer, but what glimpses of light I grasped for often included Jane Ann somewhere in the frame, among those who surrounded and lifted me.

As my strength flagged, my surgery date loomed, and fear engulfed me, she drove back the dark with flowers vibrant and voluminous. Ruffled blooms—purple, pink, white—exploded from her grip. In a fresh-cut bouquet of dahlias, one flower, dwarfing the others, sprang from the middle; butterscotch in its center, surrounded by a band of sunshine yellow and tipped in white. Georgia O’Keeffe would have had her work cut out trying to capture the specimen before me.

“That’s gorgeous,” I said, pointing. “And huge. What is it?”

“Dinner plate dahlia.” Jane Ann smiled and leaned in for a whiff.

Her centerpiece lived up to its name, large enough to hold a salad. Smaller dahlia varieties surrounded it. She removed from the vase on the dining room table the wilted roses she’d brought a week earlier and plopped in the latest selection with fresh water.

Jane Ann was happiest when doing for others.

I’d developed “foot drop” from my brain tumor, a neuromuscular disorder that starts out as weakness and leads to muscle paralysis, as nerve signal communication from the brain to the foot is hijacked. I couldn’t lift and flex my left foot, and dragged my toes. I’d gotten a brace.

It was bulky, impossible to get my shoes or sneakers over. Jane Ann stopped by one evening soon after I’d gotten the brace, and dropped a shoebox on my dining room table. I’d told my family I was considering not wearing a shoe at all on my left foot. The brace’s sole, however, was smooth as a baby’s ass. If I didn’t fall from foot drop, chances were great I’d land on the floor as I swayed around shoeless, the brace’s plastic sole like a banana peel.

“I saw these at Walmart, Annie.” She flipped the lid open, while Penny panted patiently by a table leg.

My face fell when I pulled the sneakers from the box. They were bright white, vinyl, extra wide, with two Velcro straps. A thick rocker heel. The size of pontoons.

“It’s bad, I know,” Jane Ann said. “But, look, you only need to wear one. Wear your regular sneaker on the other foot.”

The sound of ripping Velcro, as I tightened and retightened straps, filled my dining room. Penny’s ears flicked and turned with each rip, like radar antennas.

After a pre-op procedure weeks before my surgery, a cerebral angiogram to map my brain’s blood vessels and give my surgeon the full picture he needed prior to surgery, Jane Ann and Pat converted their dining room into a bedroom for me. I needed to be near a bathroom on the first floor, something my house lacked. Jane Ann pushed their dining room table into a corner, had a bed brought in, carried a TV into the room, and kept me fed and watered for three days until I could climb stairs again without risk of opening the cut to my femoral artery.

She took me to a hairdresser days before my surgery, after she and my mother agreed a pixie cut might be nice. There was no reason why I couldn’t have style, they said, though it would be shaved seventy-two hours later.

As I recovered in a rehabilitation hospital, learning to walk, swallow, and grasp objects again, Jane Ann planted rows of tulip bulbs along my driveway before she left for her winter in Florida. When spring came around and I was again living independently in my house, my driveway erupted into a palette of pastel splendor. I had a Monet watercolor outside my door.

She’d never mentioned to me she had planted them the previous autumn.

“I wanted you to see a rainbow when you got settled in your house again,” she later said.

The tulips bloom and re-bloom. Year in. Year out.

***

Days after Bourdain’s suicide, my news feed crowded with reminders that it was a bathrobe belt, that the world had lost a legend, that his body was stuck in France due to bureaucratic red tape, I read:

After a battle with French officials over his remains, Anthony Bourdain’s body has reportedly been cremated and his ashes will be flown home Friday.

My stomach churned as my eyes moved down the page. This man, who meant something to so many, flown home in pieces. Like cargo.

Like Jane Ann.

***

One year and thirty-seven days after a neurosurgeon returned my life to me, after my family buoyed me above lashing waves that pulled me toward its undertow, after Jane Ann used up everything in her garden and her heart to bolster me through what I was sure would end me, she ended her time with us.

On Thanksgiving Day, 2010, we boarded a plane; Pat, my mother, and me. In Pat’s suitcase, stowed in the overhead bin, Jane Ann’s ash-filled urn sat tucked between shirts. We were flying back from Pat and Jane Ann’s winter home on Florida’s Gulf Coast to their primary residence in southern New Hampshire, to bury her in her girlhood hometown where her elderly father still lived.

Our generous Jane Ann, reserved until she knew you, until she trusted you, but then opened her house, wallet, heart to anyone needing help. Jane Ann, friend to all animals. Our princess of perennials.

She hadn’t left a note.

We don’t know anyone, fully. Their demons. Their fragility.

Never fully.

***

I had my bathroom gutted to the studs last winter. My carpenter stopped in on a spring day to wrap up. While I had him, I asked him to hang a framed, stained glass window from a chain. I’d gone with vintage black and white tiles on floor and walls, chrome fixtures, and lots of frameless beveled glass. A splash of color, I felt, would finish it.

Ruby red, royal blue, pear green, violet, gold; jeweled pieces splay across the window in a mosaic, creating a vase-filled flower arrangement, each bloom outlined in lead.

When Mike finished, we stepped back. A spot in the middle of my chest started to ache. It was Jane Ann’s window, one she’d bought in an antique store years earlier. The center flower, a rose, glows scarlet when sunlight streams in.

It’s the color of a heart. Of heartache.

Of knowing we once had Jane Ann in our lives, and recognizing that we have pieces of her, still.

Like when the rainbow of tulips push through the earth each spring, or the bleeding heart blossoms in my garden, its red, heart-shaped flowers ending in teardrop petals that drip from arched stems and nod to me on a breeze. Like when the sun shines through the stained glass window, Jane Ann’s window, with its riotous burst of flowers.

***

A plant’s stalk, strong enough to carry the weight of blooms—some small, but others at times as big as a dinner plate—can be easily broken. Sometimes, from a battering rain. Sometimes, rough handling is all it takes to snap them.

Certain flowers are too fragile to last. They break, and they’re gone.

When we’ve had them in our gardens, however briefly they bloom, the space they leave behind is never filled the same way, even as other varieties open their petals to the sun.

 


Ann Kathryn Kelly lives and writes in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. For 40 years, an undiagnosed tumor bled in her brain. She’s writing a memoir about how the tumor controlled who she’d been all her life, and how a dangerous daylong surgery freed her from its grasp. Ann volunteers with a nonprofit, leading writing workshops for community members living with brain injury. Her essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Barren MagazineUnder the Gum Treethe tiny journalWOW! Women on Writing, and elsewhere. Connect with Ann on Twitter and Instagram: @annkkelly

 

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