Category: Nonfiction (Page 1 of 8)

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book

BY: Annette Davis

Susan Orlean, in her latest work, The Library Book, takes an in-depth look at the Los Angeles Central Library’s fascinating history. Orlean creates an almost romantic image. She entices her readers to see all libraries as something more than book repositories but as living, vital members of communities, catering to the needs of all who seek knowledge and a place of refuge.

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Everything

BY: Susannah Chovnick

The sun was bright on the cold day. The snow, a blanket over the tall trees and dead shrubs. I had spent the night, so I’d be happy for a week or so, I thought, as he drove over the icy roads to drop me back at home.

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Book Review: LaTasha “Tacha B.” Braxton’s “Dark Chains”

BY: A.M. Larks

Dark Chains by LaTasha “Tacha B.” Braxton is a self-published spiritual autobiography of a girl’s journey through abuse to religious conversion. At its high point, Braxton’s story connects the reader to the experience of growing up in an abusive environment. 

We children were suffering the most, having to constantly hear that yelling and bad language influenced by drugs and alcohol through our locked bedroom door. We dealt with the trauma our mother felt from having a gun put to her face by my father. We dealt with the fear after my father threw a big concrete block through their bedroom window, shattering glass everywhere, with the brick barely missing my tiny head as I innocently slept in my mother’s arms. We were succumbing to this dysfunctional curse that would negatively impact too many generations to come.

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Big Canyon

By: Leath Tonino

The canyon is big.  For the sake of this story, let’s call it Big Canyon.  Let’s call it Arizona.  Let’s call it August, a heat-blasted weekend, no plans.

My boss—crusty government biologist with a passion for prehistory and a back-of-the-hand backcountry knowledge—gets to reminiscing over black morning joe.  I jot zero notes, pretending I can commit his verbal map to memory.

Eleven of us.  Five cabins and three picnic tables.  A remote field station in the woods above the desert. 

Saturdays like this—for adventure. 

**

Hey, you lazy, sleepy sonofa… 

Mike is groggy but game.  Always game.  A proper buddy. 

And we’re off.  

Twenty miles by jeep, the warren of sandy tracks increasingly confusing, the pinyons and junipers sparse, then sparser, then gone.  We park the rig.  Take a piss at the rim.  Take it all in. 

How much water did you bring?

Some. 

Let’s do it? 

Indeed, my broski. 

With a gallon of sunscreen on our necks and arms, floppy canvas hats on our heads, we pick our way—step after careful step—into the cracked earth. 

Trails?  Yeah, right.  That’s why we’ve got bossman’s beta.  Follow X to Y to a spot where you’ll be able to glimpse Z.  Contour eastward.  Drop through pink sandstone ledges, maybe two hundred feet, maybe three hundred.  Once you’ve hit the bottom, turn left.  Hike the wash.  Scan the north wall.  Pay attention.  At the house-sized boulder, well, enjoy the shade but realize you’ve gone too far.

**

We’re lost, stumbling.

What did bossman say, something about one with red earrings, one with a long penis, one panel where gods parade among turkeys and sheep?  And spirals, didn’t he say something about spirals?  

We’re doing the heat—and done by the heat.

Shrike with hooked beak, perched nearby.  Phoebe with peachy belly, grayish nape.  Three ravens, six if you count the flying shadows.  In the bino’s dark tunnel, I almost feel cool, refreshed.

Really, though, what did he say? 

It’s not scary—being here, being in and with this wilderness—but it’s not easy, either.  Intense.  Intensity.  Afternoon gold hammering the mind flat, each blow telling us to turn around, return on a cloudy day, try again in winter.  Telling us Big Canyon is big and we are small, so very small. 

Yo, let’s keep going, huh? 

Yeah, I wanna find that panel.

**

It happens slowly, quickly, outside of time, inside the depths of time.  Inside geology.  Inside our parched, blistered, light-shot brains.  Inside the outside, the great outdoors. 

We’re stumbling until we’re stopping, standing, staring.  We’re alone until we’re not alone. 

A flipped switch.  Awareness. 

Peoples—human peoples, animal peoples, squiggly abstract peoples—everywhere. 

Unblinking.  Eyeless. 

We gaze and gaze.

** 

Hours have passed.  Mike has turned in for the night.  The stars are sparking overhead.  We’re drinking whiskey, feet up by the bonfire, me and my mentor, my crusty boss.

 So it went okay? 

Oh, totally amazing.  Your directions sucked—chuckle, chuckle—but eventually we found hundreds.  They were scattered, tucked into every nook and cranny.  Just needed a tweak of the brain to see ‘em. 

A special spot, eh? 

What I’m thinking is ravens, their shadows, the heat, the sandy roads, the soaring stone, the ancient stone, hands spreading pigment, hands reaching up, today and tomorrow, millennia past, the wandering, the stumbling, the thirst—how there’s no separating anything, no difference between the place and the experience of the place and that long penis we call art, that turkey we call image, that squiggle we call a pictograph or a god or a mystery or whatever. 

Tip the bottle.  Another snort. 

How to answer?

Yeah, a special spot, an awesome Saturday.

I thought you’d like Big Canyon.


Leath Tonino is the author of a collections of essays, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long (Trinity University Press, 2018).  A freelance writer, his work appears in Orion, The Sun, Outside, Men’s Journal, High Country News, Tricycle, and elsewhere.

I Didn’t Have That

By: Terry Barr

 

I used to imagine the Holy Ghost as a fog that slept in the rafters

of our church. I thought our music, surging, and shouting woke the

spirit. When It looked down and saw us, It was reminded of how

lonely It was, how much It loved the children of God. Like the wind,

the Holy Ghost wasn’t visible, but we could still feel Its power. It gave

those It touched the ability to speak in tongues, the word of God pouring

out of their mouths in garbled consonants and rolling vowels. This

happens most often to men as they shout with their backs stiff and

straight, their mouths a hollow that the Lord filled with song.

–Ashley Blooms, “Fire in My Bones”

My people were United Methodists, so docile and respectable that their rule was to stay quiet and, thus, reverent throughout the service even when the Black family who visited in 1970 showed up unannounced, even when they were escorted through the main and front left sanctuary door just as the 10:50 am service was beginning (We began ten minutes before the hour so as to get a jump on the local Baptists and beat them in line for seats at the best restaurant in town for lunch after Sunday service.), and even when they proceeded to participate in the entirety of that service, opening the purple Cokesburys set in the back of each pew, as we all did, and singing “The Church’s One Foundation” as if they really belonged here with the rest of us.

As if they were one of us.

They must have thought so, for just before the sermon, they even contributed real currency to the gilded offering plate that snaked through their and our midst, passed oh-so-politely by the church father-ushers in their vanilla suit coats.

Our church people took the “Black” money silently, but in the offices and back rooms afterward, or so I was informed later from my internal sources, our fathers truly united and hissed from their hollow throats the venomous words their tongues formed from their own decidedly learned beliefs.

Still, I have to ask: was it the Lord, or Satan, or perhaps George Wallace who filled our men’s voices?

Which of the three was it who caused our stewards to call to our preacher and help him understand that if he ever tried such a thing again, Holy Ghost or not, he would suffer not the little children to come to him, but the parishioners who would cast him and his wife out into the vacant lot of homelessness that had materialized a couple of blocks down Arlington Avenue. He would be black-balled from Methodism itself, or so I heard, if he ever dared to welcome a Black family to church again.

Our fathers, as I read in the New York Times yesterday, were certainly not alone in their decisions:

In 1958, the Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell, who would go on to found the Moral Majority, gave a sermon titled “Segregation or Integration: Which?” He inveighed against the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, arguing that facilities for blacks and whites should remain separate. “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line,” he wrote, warning that integration “will destroy our race eventually.” In 1967, Falwell founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy — later Liberty Christian Academy — as a private school for white students. (Michele Goldberg, “Of Course the Christian Right Supports Trump,” New York Times, January 26, 2018)

We started a segregationist academy in the bowels of our church, too. One of the early teachers was our preacher’s wife. Someone, at least, learned her lesson. That academy moved after that first year to reconverted chicken coops in the western hills of town. These were, after all, the suburbs of Birmingham, circa 1969.

We were such a polite, servile congregation that the following Sunday morning, we recited the Affirmation of Faith, the Apostle’s Creed; sang the Gloria Patri and Doxology and some hymn I simply cannot remember; and collected another gilded offering as if the previous Sunday morning had never happened.

As if that day had been merely a blip, a momentary challenge to our order of worship, our collective appreciation of and voice to the Lord.

Our quietly reflective public voice to the Lord, spoken only in the responsive prayer portion of our service.

So, no, my people didn’t have what Ashley Blooms’ people did. We never spoke in tongues and would have turned away from the embarrassment had anyone in our Methodist midst, white or whiter, taken it upon themselves or, God knows, been filled with enough mystery to utter such spirit talk.

#

Despite our Methodist demeanor and my mother’s stern warnings, I did the unthinkable once I learned to drive and could, thus, engineer my own dates.

I went out with one of those Baptists.

I’ve told this story countless times: how when I approached dating age, my mother blessed me to go out with anyone I wanted to (she herself had married a Jewish man), as long as that girl wasn’t a Baptist. She might even have been more okay with my dating a pagan boy rather than a Baptist girl, for when my best friend “came out,” my mother was one of his most strident champions. She had no worries about my sexuality, though I am likely over-assuming here.

Despite her strictures, my attitude toward Baptist girls was, “Why would I exclude any girl from any pool that would consider dating me?” My mother’s religious biases were not my own. Of course, she never admonished me not to date a Black girl, since she never remotely considered that I would.

So, when my first Baptist girl let it be known through a mutual friend—a friend who just happened to be the daughter of the First Baptist church’s minister—that she’d appreciate my asking her out, I acted so cool.

I waited until I got home that afternoon to phone her, hiding in our darkened dining room to make this most important call.

We set our date for the following Saturday night. On that Friday night, our church decided to hold a lock-in for the youth group. The idea of spending a night in a cold, dark church didn’t appeal to me, but whatever standing I had with my peers did. I feigned as much excitement as an impious teenager could. On that night, though, nothing else about me was feigned: not my increasing nausea; not my getting sick in the basement men’s room; not my having to be driven home by my friend Freddy, my shame multiplying with every step; and, most of all, not the phone call I had to place the next morning, cancelling my date.

Everyone else thought my sickness grew out of the frozen fish sticks we gassed to death in the church kitchen oven. That notion made a certain sense and, if true, would have left me feeling more or less sound on Saturday. Yet, I woke with a fever and couldn’t keep any food down. I still wouldn’t recommend gassing fish sticks, but what I had contracted was a classic adolescent stomach virus.

I could hear the mix of disappointment and disbelief in her voice. My Baptist girl later confessed that she thought I simply wanted a way out of dating her. This was but one example of how well she didn’t know me.

I convinced her to put off our date until the following Saturday night—that I truly was sick, especially over cancelling our date. Finally the date arrived, and I remember we went to the Green Springs Four Cinemas to see Travels With My Aunt, starring Maggie Smith. I didn’t know then that the film was based on a Graham Greene novel, and truly, had I known, I wouldn’t have known anything anyway. It was a strange movie choice, and I still don’t know why or how we chose it. What did it matter anyway, since ten minutes after the film started, we began making out?

After the film, we made our way back to Bessemer and to the parking lot up behind the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witness building on 4th Avenue where, within ninety seconds, my date managed to remove both her and my pants in one decisive motion. And then, through our relative fogs, I heard her say, “I’m on the pill to keep my periods regular. But I don’t want to have sex.”

Maybe my mother was afraid, then, of my dating Baptists because they were such fast movers.

In any case, I couldn’t translate the tongue she was speaking in. I was sixteen, a good Methodist boy, thrilled beyond belief that a girl would kiss me this ardently and would be so kind as to remove my pants. I considered this just an early stage of our relationship and decided to take her at her word. A few years later—okay, let’s say a full decade later—it occurred to me that she was most definitely speaking a language that I translated badly, or really not at all.

Undeterred by my slow motion, the following night she invited me to do something else I had never conceived of doing: go to Sunday evening service with her at First Baptist Church. Why shouldn’t I go, I thought? Isn’t this what boyfriends do? Besides, how different could the service be from all I had seen and known at my own Methodist branch?

Very different, it turned out, as while things proceeded fairly normally for a time—hymns, offering, very lengthy prayers—there came a moment that we Methodists term “The Call to Worship,” and which Baptists, I think, refer to as “The Time to be Saved.” On this night, at this moment in the service, a high school boy I knew, Phillip Ward, did what I had only heard rumors about before: he stood up in front of God and everyone and spoke in tongues.

Maybe he had the license to do so since he was our high school’s junior class chaplain. Or maybe he was truly filled by the Holy Spirit and grew that hollow throat. I don’t know, and the other thing I don’t know is how to translate or approximate what I heard him say in the thirty or forty seconds that followed. Maybe he used words like “meshugge,” “meghillah,” “shibboleth,” and “Cthulhu.” Maybe he was speaking Russian, since our high school offered such a course.

Every kid I knew, most vocally Phillip himself afterward, claimed that Phillip went into a trance while speaking in the tongue of the Holy Ghost. I didn’t know what to think, though my deepest suspicion was that he was faking. I don’t know whether my date agreed or not, but I do know that when we walked out of that sanctuary, she suggested we head back to the Jehovah Witness parking lot, where, again, she moved in completely mysterious ways.

We spent a few weeks dating, practicing foreign body maneuvers—maneuvers that never culminated because I wasn’t sure what I wanted, much less what she wanted. And, I have to confess, her touch wasn’t all that pleasant anyway. After all, what could she have known about pleasurable touching and caressing? She was only fifteen.

#

I was never filled with the Holy Ghost. Maybe I was too

young. Maybe I didn’t believe enough. Maybe I didn’t ask

for God’s spirit in the right way. I didn’t lift my hands when

the choir sang and rarely sang along. I kept my body close,

my hands gripped on the pew in front of me, my feet planted

solidly on the ground. No toe-tapping, no bouncing. . .

I wanted to dance like the others, but I didn’t know how

to unfold myself. I was afraid to be touched by the Holy Ghost.

–Ashley Blooms (75)

I didn’t have a spirit or body filled with the Holy Ghost, either. I have neither the conception nor the imagination of what that would be like. Feel like. To be touched by an angel.

Once, when I was twelve, my church invited a youth minister from beyond our congregation to witness to my Sunday school class. This was so uncharacteristic of my church, perhaps of Methodists in general, but I suppose someone there knew about fast girls and parking lots. There must have been ten or twelve of us, many of whom were my good friends outside of church and generally scoffers and doubtful posers about any religious experience. The youth minister had us sit in a circle, him included, bow our heads, and then he suggested that there was one simple thing we needed to do if we wanted to be filled by the Holy Spirit and have eternal life:

“Just raise your head and meet my eye,” he said.

At first, I wondered if such a thing could be real, but if being saved were this easy, why not do it? What could it cost? It didn’t matter that I had already been christened as a child, that I was a full-fledged member of the church with my very own Revised Standard Edition Bible, my name etched in gold on the cover. This was a booster, a guarantee. Supplemental insurance.

I raised my head. I met his eye.

I don’t know if anyone else did so because afterward, in the safety of our walk to the nearby bakery, we all denied even thinking of doing so. None of us tough guys would admit to the weakness of wanting to be saved. Maybe we feared that the touch we would get from whatever spirit might be available to us might actually move us.

I don’t know.

What I do know is what happened when I raised my head; when I met this twenty- or twenty-one-year-old minister-man’s eye. I had never seen or heard of this man before. But I definitely saw him then, when he met my eye, when he winked at me. And when he smiled, only for me.

I looked down quickly, and neither in that moment nor in any of the millions that followed, through the rest of that “lesson,” through the main morning service, or through our family’s traditional Sunday roast beef lunch was I filled with anything other than the deepest sense of “creep-out.”

I don’t know how it is that a twelve-year-old can know what he shouldn’t know, what, if all else is good and equal, he shouldn’t have to know. But in that moment, that time and place on the third floor of our church, I suddenly knew something I had never thought about before.

I don’t know why the spirit of the Lord is so often coupled with forbidden acts or desires; though, I’ve long sought these answers.

#

I thought of these scenes of my youth again, these uncomfortable, rebellious, and nominally religious moments, as I finished reading Ashley Blooms’ essay, “Fire in My Bones”:

I was afraid to be touched by the Holy Ghost. I was afraid

to be touched. I was afraid that no touch could be good,

because I had learned and was learning still that some touches

hurt…What I can’t forget: five-year old me, lying on my back

on my abuser’s cold basement floor, my breaths ragged as I

stare at the place where mushrooms grow from the dark

earthen walls. The stench of cold earth mixed with the mothballs

scattered in the corners to keep the snakes away. (75-6)

I wrote my own ending of sorts regarding the Baptist church of tongues, maybe regarding the guises of supposed holy men, too. When I was seventeen, I was invited back to that house of worship by my high school choir teacher, who was also music director for the First Baptists.

I had been taking choir as an academic subject ever since seventh grade, always with Mr. Fleming, our choirmaster. Who knows where he ranked as “effective,” as “motivating,” as “developer of young voices.” Over the years, he chose very strange arrangements for us: “Yellow Bird;” “Cantante Domine;” “When the Foeman Bares His Steel (Taranta-ra Taranta-ra).” He did try secular, popular tunes, too: “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head;” “Windy;” “We’ve Only Just Begun.” There was also some song about Noah’s Ark, where, apparently, some “animal” in dialect asked “Who dat Chevin’?” Our zenith as a choir, or, rather, in our offshoot Boys Choir, was our performance of “Down in the Valley,” for which we received “1’s” at district competition and would have been invited on to state had some of our boys not been caught by the buses smoking.

Poor Mr. Fleming. He tried so hard. In ninth grade, he auditioned us for the spring musical, The Pajama Game. I have no idea what he or anyone else was thinking in 1971 about staging this musical. Most of my friends and I were listening to Santana, Led Zeppelin, and Jethro Tull; others to War, Stevie Wonder, The Temps. Yet, we also clandestinely admitted liking AM hits, such as  “Teach Your Children,” “I’ll Be There,” and “Spirit in the Sky.” The Youth in Christ group at school even hosted Religion Emphasis Week, where at the start of each day’s assembly, someone would try to “rock us out” by playing “My Sweet Lord” or “O Happy Day.” But they omitted, sadly, “One Toke Over the Line (Sweet Jesus).”

I tried out on a whim for the chorus of Pajama Game, but I never practiced beforehand and didn’t realize that my audition song, “This Guy’s in Love with You,” was pitched too high for my voice. Fleming made me feel as good as any choirmaster could after my voice broke on the fourth line:

“Don’t worry, I have a good sense of your voice,” he said.

So, while I didn’t make the cast of that musical, (Fred Kiker, whose voice wasn’t any better than mine, did because he chose a song that fit his range: “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”), Fleming didn’t forget me, either. I got a short trio-solo in “Down in the Valley” when I was a sophomore. And then, in my junior year, Fleming took a greater chance on me.

I was in the choir at First Methodist, and our choir director, Mr. Pinion, would occasionally stage Sunday evening musicals for our youth. It was a no-brainer in the sense that, at most, our Sunday evening service drew thirty parishioners. When we performed “Lightshine” at least we had a few more parents in the congregation. I don’t know if Fleming heard about our success; one of the rival Baptist churches in town asked us to perform at their evening service; though, we had to leave out any semblance of the choreographed square-dance number, since, usually, Baptists and dancing didn’t mix.

This is the point at which Ashley Blooms’ story stops me.

In her Appalachian Baptist church, when the singing started, the women swayed and stomped their feet to the rhythm of the hymns. Despite all they had seen, despite all that had been done to them, despite the handprints on their arms. I didn’t know that Baptists, especially women, could dance in church. After reading Ashley’s story, I wasn’t sure why they still wanted to—how they were able to pretend that what had happened to them hadn’t or, at least, how they kept the faith to ignore what had happened or get beyond it.

I guess no one told the youth minister at South Highland Baptist about what was going on in the mountains above us, the dancing, that is.

However Fleming heard about our performance, or if he did at all, he remembered me. Staging a new religious musical for First Baptist, Celebrate Life, he thought my high school baritone would be perfect for one of the three male leads. He also chose my co-Methodist best friend, a true tenor, and so “Go Methodists,” right? My innocent choirmaster let into the Baptist midst a closeted Methodist gay guy and me: a boy who didn’t believe in tongue-talk and who had decided to never again raise his head to meet the gaze of a would-be spiritual host.

For three successive nights we danced (!) and sang in the Baptist sanctuary, and in the ironies of Art and Religion and Life’s Great Celebration, my part allowed me to assume for one scene the holiest of Christian figures, writhing in mimed agony to the whipping perpetrated by the Romans just before they settled him for good.

I did the scene as faithfully as I could and then sung along with the chorus, matching eyes with several earnest Baptist girls (none being my fast date from the year before), who looked at me with a certain kind of fire as the musical culminated with,

HE IS ALIVE, HE IS ALIVE! HE IS ALIVE!”

I was never much of an actor, but in that moment, I understood the art of making others believe what you don’t. What I can’t.

#

But I can’t leave the story here, because I can’t let you think I am unmoved by the sacred, or at least by sacred music. In the days when I went to church begrudgingly but faithfully, I sang every hymn that was ordered, whether I was in the choir or on the eternal back row of church youth. Singing was the only part of the service that ever meant anything to me. Even when I was a kindergartner not wanting to be separated from my mother, I stopped crying long enough to enjoy singing “In the Temple.”

I didn’t cry for love of spirit in church, though, and the hymns, as beautiful as they often were, never moved me to rejoice or ask to be “saved.” Nevertheless, there have been two occasions when I have felt through sacred music something like a spiritual calling. They are strange moments, but then, isn’t that how the Holy Ghost works?

There is an episode of The Andy Griffith Show where early on a Sunday evening, Andy and Barney harmonize to “The Church in the Wildwood,” Andy accompanying them on his old six-string guitar. Maybe it’s the peace of their voices, the nostalgia of the words. All I know is that I want to be on that porch with them every time I view that episode: “No place is as dear to my childhood, as that little white church in the vale.”

The other moment comes in Junebug, the 2005 film directed by Phil Morrison. Centered on a North Carolina family and its prodigal eldest son, the film takes us one evening to a family night supper at the local Baptist church. The youthful preacher asks the son, George, to favor the collected with a song. George has apparently done this on many occasions in years past, before he escaped the church and his family. Together with two other sinners, he sings, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” to the tears and wonder of his mother, his sister-in-law, and his new outlier wife. I’ve seen the film many times and use it in my Southern Film class. Every time I show it, I have to turn my face from my students during this scene because they shouldn’t witness their professor crying, especially over a hymn. Yet, I do cry, and I wonder if it is only because of the refrain, “Come home,” or if it’s more?

In these moments, I’d like to be sitting with George’s family, and I wouldn’t wince if the preacher came over and blessed me.

Still, that’s not the same as believing. It’s just not enough.

Is it, Ashley?

For even though I didn’t encounter or experience your horror, or come close to your still-watered hopes, I nevertheless share your depths: “Maybe I was too young,” and “Maybe I didn’t believe enough,” either. And you could say, couldn’t you, that once I did meet the wink and the leer of a man whose tongue told me that’s “all I had to do to be saved.” I can fairly ask, then, am I saved or not? Is the intention good enough to countermand the actuality? But maybe I’m just playing with semantics, with hollow-throated and hollow-intended words. It’s feeling the spirit that counts, right?

I think more about these moments today, when self-proclaimed religious people want to give passes to the powerful despite their violations of sacred, moral, and constitutional norms. Despite their refusal to denounce those who brandish hate with tiki torches or, yes, enameled or wooden crosses.

It’s just like 1938 or 1967. Same as it ever was.

World without end?

And so, for whatever it’s worth, I am the same, too, as I’ve ever been: that traditional spirit—Holy, Sacred, full of mystery—just isn’t anything I’ve ever felt or had. Or truly believed.


Terry Barr is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother and We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornados, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family (Third Lung Press). His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, Hippocampus, Wraparound South, Flying South, Full Grown People, Eclectica, and Vol 1 Brooklyn. He blogs at Medium.com/@terrybarr and lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.

Island of the Blue Dragons

By: Larry Narron

It begins when you’re six—a Sunday with rain, the weather, it seems, that heroic fantasy finds the most inviting, the patter of drops on the windowpanes calling the books down from their shelves. Outside, wet leaves, green as the ones that grow in the Shire, flap in the wind, scraping themselves against the aluminum sides of your double-wide mobile home trailer. Your dad is in Mexico, bargaining prices on flowers (he’s taken your brother because he complained that you got to go last time), so you ask Mom to please read to you.

It’s days like these she drifts quietly into your room, sits down on your bed with a book full of giants, who climb down from the sky to chase you over endless green hills with clubs that squash them to meadows to find you in all your best hiding places.  This time, though, the book she holds in her hands is different: bound in green leather, bordered in strange gold letters you cannot decipher, it looks like the kind that a wizard would study to memorize spells—Chain Lightning, Banishing Smite, Animate Dead, etc. Mom tucks you in for the evening, checks your head for a fever (you never complained of one), and begins reading aloud: “’In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’”

As she is reading, enlightening you on the finicky nature of halflings, you interrupt her to ask if you might see the book for yourself. Mom smiles as she hands it to you. It’s heavy, you realize, turning it over in your hands to study the golden illegible letters that line its edges and spine. Then, when you turn the front cover, there it is—glorious, mesmerizing: a sprawling map of curling red and black ink, the lands that it labels seeming to spill out beyond the book’s edges. In the upper-left corner, a feminine hand points east, and below it are printed the same strange letters that mark the outside of the book, though here they take on the relative shape and size of a legend that might help you to decode something if only you could read them. What language is this? you wonder. 

“Those are called runes,” Mom says, smiling as if she is somehow aware of your thoughts.

“Runes?”

When you ask her to read them aloud to you, her smile fades to a frown. She admits to you she can’t read Elvish but says she thinks perhaps you can.

For a moment, you study the runes that unroll like a scroll from the slender hand that hovers above it—a hand, you realize, that looks a lot like your mom’s. You look up at her, tell her you can’t read Elvish either but that your guess is maybe it says something about magic, maybe something about a sword. When you look back down at the map, your gaze goes slowly—almost involuntarily, it seems—where the woman’s hand directs it to go: east, toward the other end of the map, where a compass points back toward her finger. Your own finger goes where she tells it to go, its tip first rubbing the ink of her knuckle, feeling its comforting texture, then leaving it to cross all the rivers and mountains beyond, to cut through the forests, toward the compass, dodging the dragon that sleeps so lightly, it seems, in your path. All over the map you see words—penned in English, not Elvish—words you can read if only because of the clues of the pictures that neighbor each one. You can read Mountain and dragon and river. Mom points like a compass and traces the ink with her finger, helps you read Lonely.    

Later that night, you wake and find a note taped to your door: Mom has left for the night; she says she’ll be back in the morning. You roll out of bed, crawl like a dragon into the silence of the music room. Beneath the piano, you trace all the colorful spirals in the patterns of Mom’s favorite rug, map out a dungeon to claim as your lair, one big enough for the treasure you’ll manage to steal early the following morning, when you’ll plunder and leave a Dwarven city in flames.

Years later, when you’re in sixth grade, your mom says she loves both you and your brother— even if she no longer loves your dad. Mom has to sell the piano, she says, because she never really played it that often anyway. Not long after Dad buys our new house, he moves out; you worry he’ll go to Mexico, never return. But he doesn’t go there. He just goes over the hills to the next small city, down near the border. Still, it feels farther away than it looks on a map. (You looked on the Thomas Brothers Dad left behind.)

Your mom is still there, but she’s hardly home now, spends most of the time with her boyfriend at parties way out in the desert. You make a map of the desert in your mind, name it the Place of No Leaves. Mom and her boyfriend make matching keys for you and your brother so you’ll never get locked out. To keep you both busy, Mom buys you both plenty of books with the money she gets for the piano.

One day, you and your brother stay home sick from school. (You would’ve asked Mom to call the front office, but she never came home from the desert last night). Who wants to go to school when you have to sit in those uncomfortable wooden chairs from the fifties? Who wants to sit there and dread the moment your teacher decides to call on you, knowing you haven’t read the two chapters of Island of the Blue Dolphins she assigned you to read? When the map you were supposed to draw to reflect the setting of the story doesn’t match the setting at all but, instead, is only a rip-off of the map at the front of A Wizard of Earthsea, and  between all the islands you drew dragons instead of dolphins dipping in and out of the waves?  Who wants to go when you know she’ll try to embarrass you in front of the class? When you know she’ll show them all how you never read anything you’re supposed to? Maybe you can’t, she’ll say.

You sprawl out downstairs on the comfortable living room couch, poring over the middle chapters of The Sword of Shannara, flipping back now and then to the map of the Four Lands at the front to trace your finger along the ridge of the Knife Edge Mountains; to imagine making ripples with it in Rainbow Lake; to skip rocks across its shimmering surface in which you swear you can almost see the reflection of the enchanted chain-mail armor you imagine you wear; to caress the cloud-like tops of the trees of the forests of Westland. It’s pouring outside, and the rain is sliding down the French windows’ little blue squares of glass like overlapping waterfalls. Blurred by the falls, the bamboo wind chimes that replaced Mom’s piano are now played softly by the wind. Two floors up, on the roof of the house Dad bought, you can hear the raindrops slapping against the shingles and, below them, the clatter of six- and twelve-sided dice on your brother’s linoleum floor (Mom says he’s allergic to dust) as he rolls new ability scores for a character—most likely another half-orc paladin, you think, lawful evil, as he almost always aligns them. . . .      

Later that evening, you wake on the couch, not remembering having fallen asleep at all. Mom still isn’t home. Outside, it’s still raining, but upstairs, your brother’s dice no longer roll. Instead of your place in the chapter, you dogear the map of the Four Lands, set The Sword of Shannara back down on the glass of Mom’s coffee table. You roll off the couch and start climbing the steps to your brother’s room; through a softer patter of rain, you can almost hear the links of your chain-mail armor clinking together. The familiar sounds of Japanese electronic orchestral music become louder as you reach the second floor.

It’s too dark to see in the hallway upstairs. You try the switch on the wall; the bulb is burned out. You let the wall guide you, reading it like a map with your finger when, suddenly, you make out a rectangular outline of faint blue light escaping your brother’s room through the doorframe. On the door itself, the silhouette of Lara Croft grits her teeth from a poster from an issue of Game Informer, points her gun straight at you. (This is a new addition. You wonder why your brother has taped her to this side of the door.)

You gently knock Lara’s knee; your brother says to come in.

Inside, the blue light from the TV nearly blinds you at first. As your eyes adjust slowly, you see how it lights up the graph paper that covers all four of his walls, his closet, the inside of his bedroom door (that’s why Lara has to stay outside, you realize), the landscapes and dungeons your brother has drawn sprawling out, winding in and out of each other, a labyrinth of little blue squares. They resemble the waterfalls that flood the panes of the French windows downstairs.

“Hey,” says your brother. He’s sitting on a beanbag he’s placed too close to the TV, playing Final Fantasy VII again. “Come in and close the door,” he says through the sound of electronic flute music.

You sit down on the bed, pick up the strategy guide on the pillow, and start flipping through its pages to the place where your brother’s bookmarked it with a torn scrap of graph paper, the halls of some abandoned crypt drawn on it.

“Can you read me the steps while I play?” your brother asks. “I hate having to switch back and forth.”

“Sure,” you say, plopping down on your brother’s bed on your stomach, propping the book on his pillow, tracing the words with your finger, mouthing the words under your breath before saying them out loud for your brother to hear. (You have to make sure you get it right first.)

You look up at the screen and see Cloud running through Midgar’s sooty industrial streets, an oversized sword sheathed on his back.

You look back down at the book. There’s a map of the city, each section captioned with words in italics, bold-faced terms like the ones in schoolbooks you’re supposed to commit to memory. You study them now, tracing the serifs of their letters.

Then, faintly, through the music that blares from the speakers, you can hear Mom and her boyfriend come in through the door downstairs. They’re both laughing, probably drunk, you think.

You don’t look up from the book. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see how your brother keeps playing, doesn’t look away from the screen. He switches to the map of the world. The red crosshairs that hover over the island resemble a compass. The music keeps playing.

The rain pours harder outside.


Larry Narron grew up in San Diego County and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where he attended Joyce Carol Oates’s short fiction workshop and was awarded the Dorothy Rosenberg Memorial Prize in Lyric Poetry. His poems have appeared in Phoebe, The Brooklyn Review, The Boiler, and elsewhere. They’ve been nominated for the Best of the Net and Best New Poets. Currently a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Larry lives in Philadelphia, where he works as a research assistant and reading specialist intern. 

Tin Drum

By: Christie Tate

When I swing open the door to the group room, everyone’s already in their usual seats around the circle: Dr. Rosen at high noon, Rory and Patrice to his right, Marty directly across, and Ed and Marco on his left.  I’m late.  I hate being late. It always feels like I’ll never catch up, never get the gist of the movie, the conversation, the lesson.

Only Rory looks up and mouths “hello” to me.  Patrice, Ed, and Marco wear impassive expressions and stare the floor.  Dr. Rosen’s mouth is set in a grim line.  In the fifteen minutes since the session started, something has happened.  Something serious judging by the heavy silence.  Tears stream down Marty’s cheeks, and his handkerchief rests on his knee, which is a clue, but nothing definitive because Marty is a crier—almost every time he speaks, he chokes up.  There’s also a silver tin in his lap the size of a small child’s drum or a tin of William Sonoma Christmas cookies.  My stomach growls.  I left the house before eating breakfast.  Next to the hunger swirls a ribbon of panic. Will they let me in?

I tiptoe to the empty seat between Dr. Rosen and Marco, shuck off my backpack, and sit down.  No one jumps to catch me up.  I’ll either have to ask what’s going on or try to catch up on my own.   In the six months since I started group therapy, I’ve never been late, and although I’ve watched other people arrive twenty or thirty minutes into the session and ask what they’d missed, I lack the courage to demand a recap.  I can’t imagine taking up that much space—asking these five people to retread their steps on my behalf.

I fold my hands in my lap and wait for someone to speak.

Ed gestures to the tin. “So, what’s in there?”

Marty clears his throat.  “It’s…it’s…” he swallows hard and holds his fist to his mouth.  I lean forward so it’s easier for Marty’s words to reach me.  I sneak a peek at Dr. Rosen, searching for a hint in a raised eyebrow or facial expression, but his impassive gaze is trained on Marty.

Rory pats Marty’s hand.  “It’s okay,” she coos.  “Take your time.”  I want to her to take my hand and say those things to me.

“It’s the ashes of,” Marty sucks in his breath and then pushes out the words, “a baby.”

“Oh, God,” Rory and Patrice gasp in unison.  I draw back in my chair, afraid that Marty’s sadness will hit the bullseye of my heart.  I’m full up on sadness.

For several beats, no one speaks.  The only sounds are Marty’s jagged sobs.  I purse my lips and bite down, petrified I might lapse into my old habit of laughing in the face of unfathomable sorrow.  In high school, I got called to the principal’s office for giggling at the funeral for the sister of one of my best friends.  I tried to explain to Sister Margaret that I couldn’t help it, it was just how my body and brain process grief, but she waved her hand in my face and refused to let me speak.  I’d lost the right.

“You’re a dad?” Marco says.  We all know Marty, who started group the same day I did, as an isolated bachelor in his sixties with a girlfriend he’s kept at arm’s length for almost a decade.  He’s also a therapist who works with refugees suffering from PTSD.  It was clear from Day One that he was better than me, more pure.  He never shows up late.

Marty shakes his head.  “The baby belonged to my patient who couldn’t deal with his grief.”  He holds up the tin that catches the morning light from the corner window.  “The patient asked me to hold the ashes until he could face the loss.”  Marty breaks down again. “He died—the patient—and I still have the ashes.”

“How long have you had the tin?” Dr. Rosen asks.

Marty blows his nose into his handkerchief.  “Almost fifteen years.”

“Are you ready to let go of them?”

Marty nods.  Dr. Rosen beams, proud that Marty finally let the group witness an item in his “death stash,” which we know includes his father’s and two step-fathers’ ashes, his mother’s suicidal poems, and, most disturbingly, a handful of cyanide tablets he keeps “just in case.”

Marty continues to cry and blow his nose.  The rest of us watch in reverent silence.  Rory, who cries whenever someone else does, plucks tissue after tissue out of a box on the window sill.  Ed pats Marty’s arm.  I’m not given to dissolving into tears or displays of compassion.  I prefer to skate the surface of emotion and hide behind petty complaints, sarcasm, and deflection.  Joining Marty in his pain is beyond my skill level.  I fight the urge to make a joke.

I sit quietly in my chair hoping someone will change the subject.  If I was more emotionally available, I would let myself picture a beloved baby drawing his last breath and leaving behind bereft parents.  I would wade into the tragedy of a lost life, a life that never got to thrive, a life reduced to a tin can.  The very fate I fear for myself, the reason I’m in this room in the first place: an unlived life.

*

In my first appointment with Dr. Rosen, an individual session half a year earlier, I told him I wasn’t sure my life mattered to anyone—not in any real, everyday way—which made me want to curl into a ball and die.  In my second appointment, I got more specific: I didn’t know how to let people get close to me.  I didn’t know how to do anything well except earn good grades.  I was sure I would die alone because intimacy was too foreign, too frightening, and too impossible for me to achieve. That was why I’d gone to law school—so I could bury myself in an all-consuming career that would distract me from the painful reality of my failed personal life.  In my third appointment, my last individual session before joining group, I laid it out for Dr. Rosen: If he couldn’t get me into a stable, healthy, romantic relationship within five years, I would kill myself. 

*

Dr. Rosen asks Marty to pick someone from the group to take the ashes. I avoid Marty’s eyes by looking at the skyline out the window, even though I’m positive he won’t pick me. Why would he?  I spend group sessions complaining about being lonely and wanting a boyfriend who will have sex and eat sushi with me.  I haven’t done a single maternal thing.  The other women, Rory and Patrice, are nurturing mama-bear types in group—they pass the tissues, offer hugs, ask probing follow-up questions.  Outside of group, they are doting mothers to teenaged children who are smart, well adjusted, and decent.   He’ll pick one of them.  I never consider that he will pick me or one of the men. 

 “Christie,” Marty says.

My legs and hands begin to tremble.  I pray I’ve misheard him and keep my eyes on the mottled carpet because I’m not taking that tin.  I don’t want to think about it, much less hold it, ride the train with it, or find a place in my apartment for it.  I feel everyone’s eyes on me, like this is my moment to step up and be more than the irascible newcomer who is pissed at the world because she is single, repressed, and lonely.  I’m not sure I can rise to this occasion, and being put on the spot makes my throat tighten with anxiety.  This is my punishment for being late.

“Christie, would you?”

“Why me?” My throat slackens when I see the pleading look in Marty’s eyes.

“It just feels right.”  Marty smiles like he’s offering a gift he hopes I will like.

“Fuck,” I whisper.  My hands curl into fists.  I turn to Dr. Rosen.  “How about I take the cyanide when he brings it in?”

“Absolutely not,” Dr. Rosen says, his expression stern and slightly disapproving.

“What’s the baby’s name?” I ask, stalling.

“Jeremiah.”  Marty’s voice breaks, and I know I’ll be taking the ashes home.

*

In the three individual sessions before I started group, Dr. Rosen promised he could help me get into an intimate relationship on two conditions.  First, I had to join one of his groups, and second, I had to turn every single aspect of my personal life, meaning sexual and romantic, over to him and the group.  I agreed because I was desperate—I’d been trying to fix myself with feng shui, O! Magazine, self-help books, 12-step programs, yoga, a silent retreat, and meditation, but I couldn’t stop dating alcoholic men who drank to black out and seemed to hate my guts after a month of dating. 

In the first six months of treatment, I practiced letting the group into my business.  They knew I had a crush on a hot guy from law school who smoked a pack of Marlboro Reds every day and was dating a bartender who looked like Cameron Diaz.  They knew I’d flirted with an Armenian cab driver on the way home from O’Hare at Christmas and once had a very explicit sex dream about Dr. Rosen going down on me.

But I was still stuck.  There was a thick glass pane between me and other people.  I still feared I would die alone in my musty one-bedroom apartment surrounded by law books and old bridesmaids dresses I wore in other people’s weddings.

I believed it was too late.

*

As I hold out my hands to receive the tin full of baby remains, it’s hard to conceive how the hell this is going to help me get where I want to go.

Marty passes the tin to Ed, who passes it to Marco, who hands it to me.  I hold it perfectly still so I don’t have to feel the contents—baby bones, baby hair, baby teeth—rattling around.  As long as I hold still, I can pretend it’s just a bucket of bougie cookies.

Dr. Rosen is really velling now—glowing at Marty, now unburdened of a portion of his death stash.

“Prepare to get closer to Janine,” Dr. Rosen says.  “You’ll be more available for intimacy and closeness.  Maybe you’ll be ready to marry her.”

I feel something for Marty that is warm like happiness.  He’s held on to other people’s sorrows and grief for most of his life.  The cost he paid was high: workaholism, zero family life, health problems.  It chokes me up to watch him step forward.  A trill of hope ripples through my chest.  

But what did it mean for me to take the baby ashes? 

“What am I getting closer to?” I say.

Dr. Rosen answers with a question.  “What does taking the tin from Marty mean to you?”

My fingers grip the cool surface of the tin.  I close my eyes and feel the heft of it in my lap.  I imagine Marty feeling lighter for having turned over this burden.  I am now part of his story.  His and Jeremiah’s.  My heart softens for all of us.

I open my eyes.  “I feel closer to Marty.”

Dr. Rosen nods and gives me two thumbs up.  “Is that a good place to start?”

“Start what?”

“Learning how to have an intimate relationship.”

I want to say how the fuck should I know? but I don’t want to curse in front of Baby Jeremiah.

*

After the session, I board the redline train to school.  Con Law starts at ten, and I don’t want to be late.  Before the lecture, I stop at my locker, unsure whether to lock Jeremiah in there or keep him in my backpack.  I can’t bear the thought of closing him up in the dark locker with my lunch and my gym shoes, so I keep him in my bag, which I keep close to my body for the rest of the day.

That night, I make a nest with pillows and blankets on the top shelf of my closet.  I place Jeremiah in his new home and pat the lid as if it was a real baby’s head.  I hope I will one day be the group member letting go of ashes and moving closer to a partner.  Dr. Rosen promised.  He has four and a half years to deliver.

I lay in bed thinking about old Marty’s sad bones curled around Janeen.  Across town, they are spooning, I imagine, and maybe he’s singing an old Billie Holiday song in her ear.  For him, letting go of the tin was moving forward; for me, moving forward meant agreeing to take it.  I am envious of Marty and his relationship with Janeen, but he’s stitched me into his story, and that counts for something. 

My bedroom feels too dark, so I flip on the closet light and let the beams reach me through the cracks in the slats.  I curl into myself and wait for sleep to overtake me.  I hope it’s not too late. 


Christie Tate is a Chicago writer currently at work on a memoir about her experiences in group therapy.  Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Nailed Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and others.  

Big Canyon

By: Leath Tonino

The canyon is big.  For the sake of this story, let’s call it Big Canyon.  Let’s call it Arizona.  Let’s call it August, a heat-blasted weekend, no plans.

My boss—crusty government biologist with a passion for prehistory and a back-of-the-hand backcountry knowledge—gets to reminiscing over black morning joe.  I jot zero notes, pretending I can commit his verbal map to memory.

Eleven of us.  Five cabins and three picnic tables.  A remote field station in the woods above the desert. 

Saturdays like this—for adventure. 

**

Hey, you lazy, sleepy sonofa… 

Mike is groggy but game.  Always game.  A proper buddy. 

And we’re off.  

Twenty miles by jeep, the warren of sandy tracks increasingly confusing, the pinyons and junipers sparse, then sparser, then gone.  We park the rig.  Take a piss at the rim.  Take it all in. 

How much water did you bring?

Some. 

Let’s do it? 

Indeed, my broski. 

With a gallon of sunscreen on our necks and arms, floppy canvas hats on our heads, we pick our way—step after careful step—into the cracked earth. 

Trails?  Yeah, right.  That’s why we’ve got bossman’s beta.  Follow X to Y to a spot where you’ll be able to glimpse Z.  Contour eastward.  Drop through pink sandstone ledges, maybe two hundred feet, maybe three hundred.  Once you’ve hit the bottom, turn left.  Hike the wash.  Scan the north wall.  Pay attention.  At the house-sized boulder, well, enjoy the shade but realize you’ve gone too far.

**

We’re lost, stumbling.

What did bossman say, something about one with red earrings, one with a long penis, one panel where gods parade among turkeys and sheep?  And spirals, didn’t he say something about spirals?  

We’re doing the heat—and done by the heat.

Shrike with hooked beak, perched nearby.  Phoebe with peachy belly, grayish nape.  Three ravens, six if you count the flying shadows.  In the bino’s dark tunnel, I almost feel cool, refreshed.

Really, though, what did he say? 

It’s not scary—being here, being in and with this wilderness—but it’s not easy, either.  Intense.  Intensity.  Afternoon gold hammering the mind flat, each blow telling us to turn around, return on a cloudy day, try again in winter.  Telling us Big Canyon is big and we are small, so very small. 

Yo, let’s keep going, huh? 

Yeah, I wanna find that panel.

**

It happens slowly, quickly, outside of time, inside the depths of time.  Inside geology.  Inside our parched, blistered, light-shot brains.  Inside the outside, the great outdoors. 

We’re stumbling until we’re stopping, standing, staring.  We’re alone until we’re not alone. 

A flipped switch.  Awareness. 

Peoples—human peoples, animal peoples, squiggly abstract peoples—everywhere. 

Unblinking.  Eyeless. 

We gaze and gaze.

** 

Hours have passed.  Mike has turned in for the night.  The stars are sparking overhead.  We’re drinking whiskey, feet up by the bonfire, me and my mentor, my crusty boss.

 So it went okay? 

Oh, totally amazing.  Your directions sucked—chuckle, chuckle—but eventually we found hundreds.  They were scattered, tucked into every nook and cranny.  Just needed a tweak of the brain to see ‘em. 

A special spot, eh? 

What I’m thinking is ravens, their shadows, the heat, the sandy roads, the soaring stone, the ancient stone, hands spreading pigment, hands reaching up, today and tomorrow, millennia past, the wandering, the stumbling, the thirst—how there’s no separating anything, no difference between the place and the experience of the place and that long penis we call art, that turkey we call image, that squiggle we call a pictograph or a god or a mystery or whatever. 

Tip the bottle.  Another snort. 

How to answer?

Yeah, a special spot, an awesome Saturday.

I thought you’d like Big Canyon.


Leath Tonino is the author of a collections of essays, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long (Trinity University Press, 2018).  A freelance writer, his work appears in Orion, The Sun, Outside, Men’s Journal, High Country News, Tricycle, and elsewhere. 

Ain’t No Cure for the Summertime Blues — Hollywood or Bust

by: Jon Epstein

It was six o’clock in the evening. The large punishing orange sun still lurked well above the horizon. Death Valley-like heat waves rippled and rose off the blistering Hollywood Hills asphalt. I was trapped in our maroon Oldsmobile. The air conditioner was busted and so was I. I was lost in my life, empty, done…. I just needed out.

  “A family that plays together, stays together,” Dad recites one of his favorite credos. Since I can remember, he’s been saying stuff like look with your hands tied behind your back, your eyes are bigger than your stomach, children should be seen and not heard, don’t gild the lily, and the list goes on and on. When I was a snot-nosed kid, his canned sayings didn’t bug me—now they make me sick.

Dad looks in the rearview mirror. Our eyes meet. He smiles. I don’t. My mind is on the parties I wasn’t invited to, knowing I won’t be dancing, or making out, or doing anything remotely romantic on my so-called Graduation Night.

“Do you mind?” Laura says. She points at my leg.

I look down at my boring, bargain basement pants Mom bought me at JCPenney. “What?” I’ve no clue what my sister’s moaning about.

“You’re sitting on my skirt.” She acts like I’m The Blob.

“Excuse me for living.” I scooch over an inch.

“Excuse you!” My butt-wipe brother Greg smarts off from behind his Superman comic.

Dad turns the key in the ignition and releases the parking brake. He looks over his shoulder and stretches his arm across the top of the seat and caresses Mom’s arm. “All clear, Captain!” He mimics a line from McHale’s Navy, then turns back around, shifts into reverse, and backs out of the driveway.

“Did you remember to put the Cold Duck on ice?” Mom asks, and takes a long drag off her Pall Mall.

“JESUS!” Dad slaps the steering wheel. “I said I would, didn’t I?”

Mom backs away like a startled cat. Laura shudders, and Greg disappears deeper into his comic book. I sit wide-eyed, numb. Fuming, Dad grabs a pipe from the overflowing ashtray and reaches for a book of matches on the dash.

“I told you,” Mom says, “your juggling all that crap while you drive makes me nervous.” She flicks ash from her cigarette into the butt tray and glares forward.

“Goddamn it, El!” Dad is in no mood. “For once, would you quit your goddamn bickering?” He pats his pants and jacket pockets. “Who’s seen my tobacco?” he asks and stops at the red Barham light.

Laura, Greg, and I sit tight-lipped while we brace ourselves for more Krakatoa activity. I look out Greg’s window toward Ramsey Shilling Realty and think back to the day Mrs. Lewis, the office manager, hired me for my first weed-pulling job. I remember falling asleep that night fantasizing about my new gardening empire.

“I can’t keep track of your crap.” Mom scowls.

“G. David Schine!” Dad digs in the seat crack with his right hand. “Would you check the damn glove?”

Mom puts her cigarette in the ashtray. She reaches forward and clicks open the glove box. An old mangled package of pipe cleaners, a tape measure, and a threadbare tennis ball spill out.

“Christ,” Mom says. “When are you going to clean all this crap out?” She rummages through the cluttered compartment. “I can’t find anything in this mess.” She crams the stuff back in and slams the flap shut.

“Try under the seat,” Dad says.

Mom bends over and mumbles. Dad’s and my eyes meet again in the rearview mirror. Sun reflects off his smudged bifocals, and nose hairs sprout like wild bushes from his nostrils. His lips part and I tense up; it’s too late to look away or batten down the hatches. I clench my teeth and wait for the gale-force winds of Hurricane Roy to hit shore.

“Jon, Jon the leprechaun,” Dad chants, “you ready for some champagne tonight?”

I’m relieved Dad didn’t blow his top.

“Cold Duck cold schmuck,” I say under my breath and look away.

“What?” Dad says.

“Nothing,” I say. I shake my head and dangle my arm outside the window.

I hated my family and resented my parents. Dad was the liberal equivalent of Archie Bunker, and Mom was an angry version of Edith. Worst of all, I hated me: a troubled, nerdy teenager with no girlfriend, no potential, and very little pubic hair. Years later, in multiple twelve-step recovery rooms, I came to learn that in terms of matching a round hole, I was a trapezoid. I didn’t fit in with my family. I didn’t fit in with my peers. And I didn’t fit in my skin. I needed to find the hidden parallel universe that waited in my future, but my blind, neonatal eyes were still covered in afterbirth.

***

The light turns green.

“Here’s your damn tobacco.” Mom sits up and shoves the red pouch at Dad.

“Thanks, hon.” He takes the bag. “But you’ll never make a Carmelite.” He smiles like he just cracked a humdinger. Everyone’s silent; soon Dad’s smile fades to disappointment. Other than Greg’s flipping magazine pages, the mausoleum quiet inside the car is deafening.

“Dad, that joke was so funny I forgot to laugh.” I need to warm the icy tension. “Ha, ha, ha, I just remembered.”

“You’re a chip off the ole’ block,” Dad says. He grabs the steering wheel with his knees and opens the red tobacco bag. He pulls out a pinch of cherry crimp and packs it into the bowl. He seals the pouch and flings it on the dash. Both hands back on the wheel, he holds the pipe and mashes down the tobacco with his right thumb. Somehow he manages to strike a match and keep us on the road. Mom looks horrified. He takes the pipe between his teeth, lifts the flame to the bowl, and draws. The pipe crackles. Flame shoots up and his shoulders drop. Smoke fills the car. “Next stop, Gomorrah,” he says. I have no idea what Gomorrah means.

***

We motor down Barham Boulevard toward Hollywood. I picture how my night’s going to unfold: first this awful drive into Hollywood, then the boring graduation ceremony, then we’ll pile back in the car, drive home, I’ll watch Mom and Dad get drunk with their friends while Laura and Greg feed their faces. The highlight of my night will be watching Room 222 on my tiny black-and-white TV with Mark Knapp downstairs in my room.

Kevin Connolly comes to mind. I lean forward and cozy up, resting my arms on the front seat top. “Can I invite my friend Kevin Connolly to the party?”

“Kevin?” Mom lights another cigarette. “Who’s Kevin?”

“KEVIN? He’s my only REAL friend at Le Conte!”

Mom acts like she doesn’t hear me, or maybe she just plain doesn’t care. She drags hard on her cigarette; the tip burns bright orange. She exhales smoke through her nose and mouth. “I thought Mark Knapp was coming.” She opens her window a crack.

“Yeah,” I say, and watch smoke be sucked out the inch of opened window, “but…”

“We said you could invite ONE friend.” Mom shuts me down.

My neck gets hot and my armpits sweat. “GREG, I TOLD YOU WHEN WE GOT IN THIS CAR TO ROLL YOUR STUPID WINDOW DOWN!”

“Jon!” Laura slaps her thighs, and they jiggle. “Do you mind?”

“YEAH!! I DO MIND!”

“Don’t take your wrath out on me!” She straightens her skirt.

Greg rolls his window down two inches and grins. “How’s that?” He loves to taunt me.

“HEY, FATSO, PUT THE WINDOW DOWN… NOW!”

“JON!” Mom yells back. “What did I tell you about calling your brother ‘fat’?”

“Well, he is,” I say. “And I can’t breathe!”

“Tough luck.” Mom pats the sides of her frosted hairdo while looking in the vanity mirror. “Any more breeze will ruin my hair,” she says.

I was past angry. I was beyond sick of being mistreated. And I was just plain done with feeling like I didn’t matter. Later in life, it took me hours of therapy to unravel my anger issues and understand that growing up in alcoholism meant feeling like I was never enough.

***

We cross the Barham Bridge. I look down at the jammed-up freeway rush-hour traffic. I’d give anything to get away in one of those cars, escaping from this stupid family schlepp into Hollywood.

Another signal missed, and bad turns to worse. Valerie James and her parents pull up next to us in the other left-hand turn lane at the Cahuenga intersection. The chrome on their shiny new Cadillac glistens in the sun. I slump down and peek around Laura’s head at Valerie in the backseat. Her tight silky red dress shows off her boobs; her long blonde hair splashes down on her bare shoulders like a waterfall. She’s so pretty it hurts. And her dad’s totally cool, too. He’s wearing a fancy blue blazer with a gold emblem embroidered on the handkerchief pocket and shiny brass buttons on his cuffs. His teeth are movie-star white. Their car creeps up a few inches, and I get a better look at Mrs. James. Her big gold earrings, icy white lipstick, and beehive hairdo remind me of Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, but even prettier. All three of them are so smooth they could win a beauty contest. I slump down lower.

Again, I’d stacked the cards against me. Comparing my uncool family with Valerie and her parents was like betting a pair of deuces against a full house. The Jameses were so cool and classy, and we were… well, not.

***

The traffic light turns green, and the James family leaves us in the dust. For once I’m glad Dad is asleep at the wheel. I sit up, stick my head out the window, and take a gulp of air.

“Put your HEAD back inside,” Mom says. “We didn’t raise you in a barn!”

“Yeah, Jon.” Greg can’t hold his tongue.

“Hey, Blubber Butt.” I make a fist. “You’re crusin’ for a bruisin’.”

Mom spins around, pointing her cigarette at me. “Don’t talk to your brother that way!” Ash falls on Laura.

“MOM!” Laura brushes off her skirt. “Your cigarette!”

“FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!” Dad smacks his hand on the steering wheel. I want to cover my ears. Laura and Greg tremble. All three of us turn to stone.

Mom’s and Dad’s erratic reactions were billy clubs. Their unending emotional beat-downs had pummeled Laura and Greg into nervous turtles, retracting into their brittle shells, and I’d become as skittish as a wet cat on a hot tin roof hooked up to a thousand car batteries.

***

“Well,” Dad says, pointing his pipe at the completed Holiday Inn over on the right. “They finally got the landscaping in.”

I look at Dad’s latest engineering project. His name appears in small red print on the bottom of the white construction sign. The new high-rise hotel dwarfs the surrounding structures. I think: Harold L. Epstein, Structural Engineer… big deal. With all his fancy engineering stuff, why’s he always saying we don’t have any money?

“Where’s the next Inn going up?” Mom asks.

“Homer said Long Beach.” Dad puffs on his pipe.

Holiday Inn, Circus Circus, Laughlin Riverboat… who cares? We never get to go.

We continue down Highland Avenue and cross Hollywood Boulevard into the hippie zone. A guy wearing a tie-dyed tank top and wide brim beaver hat is sitting on a U.S. Postal mailbox, strumming a guitar. He’s surrounded by Tony-and-Susan-Alamo-Jesus-freaks handing out flyers. A few feet away, bald-headed, tambourine-tapping Hare Krishnas dance in a saffron circle while a never-ending stream of multicultural tourists flows by. Beyond the sightseers, zealots, and freaks, groups of kids walk with their normal-looking families toward the Hollywood High auditorium.

“Jesus H.,” Dad says, “where the hell are we going to park?”

“You might just have to pay, Roy,” Mom says. “All the parking spots look taken.”

“Over my dead body!” Dad says.

“Look!” Mom says. “Pull in there!” She points at a man dressed in a white uniform with a red vest near the curb. He’s holding a flashlight with a long orange plastic cone attached to the end and is swinging his arm in a circle like a jet-powered windmill. Next to him is a sandwich board with big bold black letters that say: PARKING $1.50.

“A buck and a half to park?” Dad grits his teeth. “Sons of bitches! Where do they get the nerve?”

That was the story of my life since I could remember. Dad wouldn’t pay for parking. Dad wouldn’t valet. Dad wouldn’t spring for brand-name stuff. And when we did go out to dinner, Dad wouldn’t let us order appetizers. Dad only purchased stuff at sales, or with coupons, or at wholesale places open to the public that took hours to drive to.

***

“Roy, please… just this once!” Mom pulls down her visor. She looks in the little mirror and touches up her lipstick. “I don’t want to walk five blocks in these heels.”

“To hell with ’em!” Dad looks in his rearview mirror. He spins his head to the left… then right… then straight ahead and puts the pedal to the metal. We zoom past Hollywood High in a blur. Dad makes a tire-screeching hard right onto Sunset Boulevard. A loud horn rattles our car, and Mom’s uncapped lipstick jams into her window, smearing a long red streak across the glass. Greg, Laura, and I are mashed together in the backseat like crash test dummies.

“JESUS, HAROLD!” Mom says. “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?”

“I wasn’t even close!” Dad slows and turns right onto Orange Avenue, then right onto Hawthorne. He finds an empty spot opposite the Hollywood High athletic field and parks.

“There!” he says and turns off the engine. “We’re a buck and a half richer. Now, let’s get a move on.”

Nobody budges. I look through the wire mesh fence at the lush green football turf. A zillion birds are pecking at the grass. I admire the bright yellow goal posts and the fresh white chalk lines on the dirt running track. Even though I know I won’t, I wonder if I’ll ever play high school sports. I think back to the times I qualified at Le Conte. I made the seventh-grade basketball team, I competed in the six-hundred-yard dash, and I could have played volleyball, but every time I rotated to the front line, I did something klutzy. Whatever the sport, I always ended up quitting. Mom wipes the lipstick off the window, and Greg rips at a candy wrapper with his teeth.

“Well,” Dad says, “what’s everyone waiting for?” He opens his door.

“DAD! You almost killed us!” Laura slaps her hands on the back of the front seat.

“Just move it, lard-ass,” Dad says to Laura.

“HAROLD!” Mom yells.

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, YOUR daughter hasn’t been missing any meals.” Dad gets out of the car.

Laura wipes her eyes. I feel bad when Dad’s mean to her. I open my door and get out. “Do you want to come out my side?” I hold open my door.

“It’s okay,” Laura says.

“Sorry I was mean to you,” I say.

“Thanks.” She tries to collect herself.

I close the door and walk to the sidewalk. Smog, exhaust, and the aroma from a street vendor’s popping popcorn permeate the air. The monolithic-sized Sheik painted on the backside of the performing arts building leers down. I bend over to tie my shoe and notice a pigeon pecking at a lost golf ball in the gutter; the bird’s magical iridescent pink, turquoise, and yellow neck is contrasted by a disgusting pile of discarded cigarette butts. A groan of tuning orchestra instruments wafts out an open auditorium exit door and distracts me.

“I guess this isn’t so bad.” Mom acts like everything’s peachy-keen.

“Onward Christian soldiers.” Dad cinches up his pants.

I want to rush ahead or straggle behind, anything but march in the family spectacle— instead I fall in formation and toe the line. We walk to the corner. Dad stops and turns. “Get the lead out!” he yells at Greg.

I’m a sitting duck surrounded by a thousand .22 caliber eyes. If I thought becoming cool was near impossible, Dad’s excruciating yell seals my fate.

Dad turns toward me. “Well, not much longer,” he says with his stupid grin, “we’ll be popping those champagne corks!”

“Uh huh.” A hint of bile creeps up my esophagus. I don’t care about the champagne. I don’t care about the graduation. And I don’t care about my life. If I could have, I would have wanted to care, but I couldn’t. I just wanted out.


Jon Epstein is an emerging writer and fine artist inspired by the daily trials and joys of simple life—as well as a father, musician, and sober, recovering alcoholic of thirty-one years. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife of thirty years. Epstein’s work can be found in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Santa Fe Writers Project, Poeticdiversity, Foliate Oak, Forge Journal, Sanskrit, Pilcrow & Dagger, and Poetry Super Highway.

Winter 2018


Rob Bowman
Fiction Downstream

Jon Epstein
Nonfiction | Ain’t No Cure for the Summertime Blues — Hollywood or Bust

William Cullen Jr.
Poetry The Creek

William Doreski
Poetry | If You Want to Get Along, Trapped in the Matrix, & One Too Many Incidents

Isaac Gomez
Drama Still Hungry

Leath Tonino
Nonfiction | Big Canyon

Rachel Smith
Fiction Hotels

Maia Evrona
Poetry | The Symphony of Sickness

Clarinda Ross
Drama | #Gunsense

Larry Narron
Nonfiction | Island of the Blue Dragons

Agnieszka Krajewska
Poetry | The Gate of Pinecones & El Camino Del Mar at Dusk

Ben Loory
Fiction | Just a Thought about the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile

B.W. Shearer
Poetry | Jaunty

Gus Vishnu
Poetry | The Kitchen Scene

Eli Ryder
Fiction | Nicky Heads Home

Christie Tate
Nonfiction |Tin Drum

Marne Wilson
Poetry | U.S. Highway 85

Courtney Taylor
Drama | Lights in the Sky

Maggie May Ethridge
Fiction | Stray Cats

Terry Barr
Nonfiction |I Didn’t Have That

Natasha Deón
Interview | TCR Talks with Natasha Deón

The Coachella Review is a literary arts journal published by the University of California, Riverside–Palm Desert Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts.

 

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