Category: Nonfiction (Page 1 of 11)

A Twist

by Mary Higbee

My sister Nancy and I have become used to answering the door to strangers. Since arriving a week ago, people we don’t know have shown up bearing sympathy cards, plates of cookies, and casseroles. They also brought a story or two to tell us about some adventure they had shared with my father.

But today we are too busy to welcome callers. The severe winter storm predicted to descend in twenty-four hours has shortened our time for being in Arkansas. Noon tomorrow is our deadline for starting homeward if we hope to stay ahead of the bad weather. My husband, sister, niece, and I are down to hours to get the house ready to close up and for each of us to pack the chosen keepsakes we are taking.

Read More

We Want the Park

By: Megan Vered  

A muddy, rutted piece of land stood vacant in the center of our community for over a year. For over a year we listened while university committees, community groups, and others proposed the building of a park. We heard the university protest that it had no funds, that studies would have to be made, committees formed. Finally, we took the land. We tended it, loved it, planted trees, grass and flowers on it, made it into People’s Park.
                ~1969 Mural, Author Unknown  

 

On page eighty-six of the book People’s Park is a black and white photo of my best friend Danza, taken by an unknown photographer. She stands in the foreground with two other girls, surrounded by a blur of bodies. The rounded collar of her white cotton blouse, covered in tiny scalloped lace, peeks out from beneath a dark jacket, as if she had intentionally placed a layer of protection over her naiveté. Her hair is parted in the middle, pulled away from her standout cheekbones, her mouth shaped into a soft O, as if she were singing an aria. Behind her, arms are raised skyward, and where you might expect clenched fists, you see instead a display of fingers flashing the peace sign. 

On the cover of the book, published in November 1969, a darkened figure of a young man with long hair, bellbottoms, and aviator shades is framed by a halo of light, a burst of sunshine above his head. He holds a string of love beads like an offering. You would never imagine that this laid-back scene would give way to what became known as “Bloody Thursday,” the day that Berkeley residents took to the streets to protest the takeover of People’s Park, a seemingly insignificant plot of land south of the UC campus. 

I have held the book in my hands so many times since Danza’s death, and the black and white photos always trip me back in time. Danza and I had not participated in building the park, but at age fifteen we readily adopted the role of young activists, having fallen under the influence of counterculture beliefs. Convention had been unraveling since junior high and we considered ourselves part of the antiestablishment movement, intoxicated by a sense of higher purpose, smacked upside the head with the need to change the world. Growing up in Berkeley in the sixties, I was used to marches, protests, and picket lines being part of the landscape of my youth. Questioning authority and standing up to the status quo was in my DNA. If I’d been my older sister’s age, my memories might have landed on dance cards, cotillions, and homecoming dances. The totems of each generation weave their own narrative.  

White roses tucked behind our ears, Danza and I joined the swell of bodies that pivoted together from Sproul Plaza toward Bancroft and crawled like an enormous caterpillar down Telegraph in the direction of the park on Dwight. Thousands of protestors of all ages—a stewpot of bellbottoms, army jackets, miniskirts, and love beads—moved en masse chanting, “We want the park, we want the park.” Others watched in solidarity from the roofs of buildings along the street, holding homemade signs: “Give us the park,” “Soldiers scare me!” “Fence pigs not parks,” “Flowers are the root of all good.” Flowers were everywhere—in a priest’s collar, a professor’s suspenders, a medic’s buttonhole, peeking out from behind people’s ears, and adorning hats. 

Danza’s arm pressed against mine, our bodies wedged between a sweaty, shirtless man and a woman in a sheer black bra with a pin over her nipple that read “Defend the Park.” The pungent odor of patchouli and pot trailed behind them. Dense clouds of marijuana smoke rose upward. I’d become so used to these cloying scents—overshadowing even the flowery haze of my mother’s French perfume—they hardly fazed me. 

The story of People’s Park had all the elements of a page-turning protest novel. On April 18, 1969, the Berkeley Barb, an ardently followed alternative newspaper, stated: “a park will be built this Sunday.” Local citizens landscaped and planted, turning a neglected plot of land owned by the university into a thriving green space. Berkeley administrators assured residents they would take no action without prior notification. Yet on May 15, 1969, a month after the park had been tenderly brought to life, the university sent a construction crew without warning to bulldoze the lot. The crew arrived at six in the morning and by ten thirty had encircled the entire park with spiky stakes. They erected an eight-foot metal fence while California Highway Patrol and city police officers stood guard.

Danza and I maneuvered our way through the mass, walking gingerly on the dank, sticky pavement. She was the sophisticated, sultry beauty, the one with the green light ability to dive into a crowd and make the moment her own. How often I—small for my age and not yet fully developed—had tried to emulate her, hoping to channel her beauty and grace. Danza’s maturity held the torch, while my innocence kept things from going up in flames. 

We passed the Campus Smoke Shop, Layton’s Shoes, Fraser’s Contemporary Design, and the Forum where people engaged in deep conversation over hand rolled cigarettes and bitter espressos, substances way over my head. What had once been an upscale shopping area was now an eccentric picnic of street vendors, hippie shops, and coffee houses. Concert posters for groups like Velvet Underground and Purple Earthquake as well as political flyers and personal notices—people looking for rides, housing, jobs—were stapled to telephone poles and taped onto store windows. Hippies with oversized backpacks and mangy dogs gathered on blankets, plucking guitar strings and blowing harmonicas. Addicts with hollowed out faces drifted up and down the street in search of spare change and a burnt spoon. Dogs had marked every block—this was before the days of pooper scoopers when dogs soiled the sidewalks without regulation. I pulled a strand of freshly washed hair across my face, the infusion of my sweet Aquamarine shampoo masking rank odors. I moved closer to Danza and matched her stride. I loved being next to her. Like two jagged atoms, we formed a beautifully perfect molecule.

Helmeted police armed with telescopic rifles crouched on rooftops all along Telegraph, staring down on us as we marched. The roar of metallic bells from the Campanile announced the noon hour. Dissonant notes glided and collided, dissipating into the din of the crowd. It felt like a century had passed since I’d handed the elevator operator a dime to ride up to the viewing deck. From my high perch in the clouds I’d stand on tiptoe and watch people below scurry like tiny ants. Sucking in a lungful of air, I would scream, but nobody looked up, the sound of my little girl voice dissolving into the thin blue sky.    

We had no organization, no leader, no committee. The park was built by everyone and we all of us together worked it out. We were told we hadn’t filled out the right forms, hadn’t followed the correct procedures, hadn’t been responsible, hadn’t been patient. We had asked the wrong questions and built a beautiful park. We used the land. We hadn’t tested and analyzed the soil. We planted things and they grew. We hadn’t run a feasibility study. We had enough labor freely given to build the park.
                ~1969 Mural, Author Unknown  

Older guys with long hair and ratty beards held bullhorns to their mouths. We’d been trained from a young age to avoid eye contact with the dirty old men who littered Berkeley buses and streets with lewd commentary, but these guys appeared to be upstanding protestors.   

“Take back the park!” They yelled.

“Take back the park!” We responded.

Fists pumped the air, punching holes in the sky.   

I stood on tiptoe, feeling tipsy, shifting my weight. I was tightly sandwiched by the horde of people, many of whom were a full head taller than me. My silver peace sign necklace snugged up against my throat, reminding me of our purpose. Danza clung to the bell sleeve of my green and orange paisley mini dress. I held the elbow of her suede jacket. Beneath the surface of our change-the-world bravado, we were still budding fifteen-year-olds, nestlings that had not yet learned to survive on our own. Earlier that week, while our friends were doing a colorful mixture of drugs, sex, and mayhem, we’d been pushing metal carts up and down the hallway at Herrick hospital dressed in candy cane smocks and white stockings, hair pulled back into ponytails tied with pink ribbons. In theory we were there to help sick people, but maybe on some level we were preserving our innocence, embracing one final interlude of sweetness, trying for one last moment—in our well-starched pastels—to buck the pulsing tide of change.

Just that morning we’d been hanging around Telegraph, eating glazed donuts and dancing to the Temptations’ latest album at Leopold’s Records. Now we were giving in to the swarm of the crowd, the surge of voices. Swarm and surge. Swarm and surge. Swarm and surge.

“Take back the park!” Activists yelled.

“Take back the park!” We responded.

We were of, for, and about the people. Tanked up and triggered, our fists pounded the air with authority. My cheeks felt feverish. A gigantic bubble popped in my chest, big as a dozen pieces of pink Bazooka gum. I can’t be sure if we were truly concerned about this controversial little plot of land or just swayed by counterculture frenzy, but I channeled Jane Fonda and Joan Baez who had led protests on the campus steps. My body was on autopilot. If I stopped walking, would the power of the crowd propel me forward like a windup toy? I giggled at the image of the two of us in a store window—Danza and Megan, revolutionary windup dolls, pumping fists and spurting slogans. Just like a tree that’s standing by the water we shall not be moved.    

Protestors reached the highest exhilaration point, spinning on a mad carnival ride. The crowd suddenly became agitated. Danza, who was always quicker to sense trouble than I was, pressed her mouth against my ear, “Meh-Meh, look!”

As we approached the park, people waved banners and torches above their heads and yelled, “Power to the people!” “Off the pigs!” Rocks flew. Police in flak jackets armed with tear gas launchers and shotguns formed a human barricade. They were anything but the friendly public servants of my childhood. Demonstrators had turned on a fire hydrant at the corner of Haste and Telegraph and when police intervened to shut it off were pelted with rocks and bottles. Protestors smashed the windows of a Highway Patrol car, overturned a Berkeley municipal car, and set it on fire. 

“Let’s get out of here.” I stumbled west away from the park, my breath coming in clipped waves. I lost hold of Danza’s elbow. Her face got sucked into the roaring crowd. “Danza!” I called, but my voice vanished. The bubble in my chest exploded. I clung to my silver peace sign, as if it might shelter me from the erupting violence.  

I tried to get back to Danza, but the surge of the crowd tugged at me, strong as the undertow at Stinson Beach that had killed a boy in my neighborhood when I was young. I thought I saw the back of her head, the collar of her jacket, but the scene had become such a blur I no longer knew what I was seeing. I’d never dropped acid but thought this is what it must be like, images pooling and bleeding into each other. Without Danza’s protection I felt unarmed. My emotions jostled like rocks in a tumbler, a random collision of jasper, tiger’s eye, and amethyst churning and chafing against one another. I wanted to go home.  

Ordinarily I would have walked north through the campus, but blockades had been set up and I was herded west toward the bay. My childhood had been safe, characterized by freedom to wander. Even in the depths of darkened nights, Danza and I used to wrap ourselves in blankets and wander the hills, soaking up the sparkle of the San Francisco Bay. Now, in one afternoon gone awry, we’d been stripped of our basic liberty to come and go without interference. 

Having grown up in Berkeley, I knew my way around and zigzagged my way in the direction of home. At the corner of Oxford and Cedar, I headed east toward the hills, a feeling of dread lodged in my stomach. I kept telling myself Danza would be fine. In retrospect, we should have identified a meeting place in the event that we became separated, but we were fledgling revolutionaries.

We later learned that at two thirty that afternoon Governor Reagan had called in the National Guard. They took over University Avenue near the campus—a line of muscular soldiers on alert, guns slung over their shoulders. They confiscated cameras and blocked the streets leading in and out of Berkeley. In the snap of a finger, we were living under martial law. Berkeley had been a breeding ground for counterculture activity like the Free Speech Movement, but I’d never come close to experiencing this level of threat. In the Berkeley of my childhood, we never locked our doors even when we went away on vacation. 

The soldiers stood in formation, bicep to bicep, gaining strength from the collective weight of taut muscles. My pace quickened. Loitering would make me appear suspect, though I was a tiny fifteen-year-old girl, alone, without a crowd. Heart sprinting in my chest, I looked from the soldier’s fixed faces, features accentuated by late day sun, to their camouflage uniforms. An unnatural collision of colors. There was no hope of crossing the divide between us. Still, I looked into the gray eyes of one with a prominent cleft in his chin. Silently, I sang: I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside. I like to think that I paused long enough to climb under his skin like I try to do with people I do not understand. After all, beneath his green fatigues and my little hippie dress, we both had beating hearts. 

A helicopter circled over the city advising against loitering, now prohibited in the Berkeley vicinity between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Five days later, Governor Reagan would order National Guard helicopters to drop tear gas, choking the city in chemical clouds. The National Guard would stay on our streets for several more weeks after the march, UC Berkeley’s most violent confrontation in its history. Dressed in tie-dyed shirts and long flowing skirts, girls bared their midriffs and placed flowers in the muzzles of National Guard guns. Days were unseasonably balmy; evening fog hung around us like a heavy coat. 

Police Seize Park. Shoot At Least 35: March Triggers Ave. Gassing; Bystanders, Students Wounded; Emergency Curfew Enforced.
                ~The Daily Californian (UC Berkeley student newspaper) May 16, 1969

We were to learn about the extent of the violence. Birdshot escalated to buckshot. Fires erupted. One of our classmates threw a brick through the Bank of America window and in turn was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet. What began as a peaceful protest to save an idealistic gathering place culminated in the death of one bystander, the blinding of another, the wounding of over one hundred more, and by the end of the day, a State of Emergency and a curfew, although the Berkeley City Council symbolically voted eight-to-one against both. Reagan prohibited any “participation in a meeting, assembly or parade in or about Berkeley, including the campus.” Violation of these regulations would be considered a misdemeanor

We’d entered in peace, lit up with optimism, and left, dreams disrupted. It is sobering to think about the risks we took, pushing back against the establishment for a symbolic cause that had no bearing on us. We didn’t consider that we could get hurt, although the following day classmates who’d been teargassed strutted through campus, wearing the experience like a badge of honor. 

Recently, I came across a black and white photograph of the Campanile taken on May 20, 1969, five days after the People’s Park protest. The hands on the clock read 1:10. A helicopter hovers next to the alabaster tower, blades swirling. A noxious plume of tear gas spews from its bowels. Stop, hey, what’s that sound. My memories fade into evenings of fog clinging to the cupola. Today, the Campanile remains the focal point of the Berkeley campus, glorious as a midnight star suspended in the sky.   

I have always wished Danza and I had stayed together that day so that I would have a keepsake of two beautiful girls with nothing but life ahead of them. I have also wondered who took her picture that afternoon in the park and, in one click, captured the opposing forces that defined her life: her seductive light and her stark resolve. Was the photographer merely taken with her bone structure as we all were, or did he see the hidden stop-and-go messages in her eyes? We all witnessed her predilection for complex communication when she performed in school plays. As we grew older, I came to know her many faces and saw that what vibrated inside her contributed not only to her ability as an actress, but also to her charm. People thought her physical beauty alone was the magnet, when in reality it was the mosaic beneath the surface that drew us all toward her, a magical assemblage of contradicting fragments, smooth and rough, shiny and dull, opaque and transparent.

People’s Park now stands empty and guarded. The park died, the idea that created it lives. Let a thousand parks bloom!
                ~1969 Mural, Author Unknown  

The mural commemorating Bloody Thursday, by an anonymous artist, has since been painted over. I have only seen a photograph online of the roughly hewn message written in black capital letters on a whitewashed brick wall. Weren’t we all anonymous back then, nameless people marching in a herd? Even Danza, whose photograph lives on in a book, was never identified by name. 

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the People’s Park demonstrations. What became a scruffy 2.8-acre way station to wanderers is now being prepped for student as well as homeless housing, but not without controversy, which seems to sprout naturally from this maligned plot of land. An historical mural near the park chronicles the people’s movement from inception to demise and pays homage to James Rector, the young man who died from shotgun wounds during the protest. I wonder if today’s UC Berkeley students are aware of the park’s contentious history. 

Eventually I lost Danza forever. I was by her side when, at age forty-two, she died after a hard-fought battle with lymphoma. Even though Danza is no longer alive, I remain captivated by her russet eyes, lustrous hair, and the tiny freckles that dotted her nose. We will forever be the girls who roamed the streets of Berkeley in miniskirts, braless and barefoot, drunk on hope.  


Megan Vered is an essayist whose first-person writing focuses on family, friendship, faith, and the fantasia of her youth. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Lake Effect, Silk Road Review, and the Brevity Blog, among others. Megan holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her husband and West Highland White Terrier, Hamish, in Marin County, California, where she serves on the board of the UC Berkeley Library and Heyday Books. She leads local and international writing workshops as well as online reading forums. www.meganvered.com

 

 

 

 

 

Trains of Prominence

By: Stephen Gildea-Young

We set out for Amsterdam, racing by train across the flatlands of Holland, through fields of yellow flowers, and we were, for a while, like Icarus. The world was no longer Dublin—it was Europe. Bound in a hurricane of anticipation for what lay ahead with every turn of the train wheel, we felt freer and wild, Tommy and I with our heads out the carriage window howling like wolves. 

Chasey and Red laughed in the seats beside us. They looked on as our cheeks flapped and bellowed. 

Like skydiving while standing still, it felt as though our faces could blow right off. The earth’s atmosphere filled our lungs, and all the while our feet stood planted on the floor—we might have been blown all the way home if our toes slipped. That feeling of grounded weightlessness was absolute freedom and my abiding memory of trains.

Then, after all their mockery, Chasey and Red gave into temptation and the four of us laughed and flew like wildmen by the rapeseed plantations. 

We went everywhere by train that summer of 2002.

Not long before my own adventure, a veteran dirtbagger told me: “To see a country properly, walk it. Seriously. Yes, it will take a long time, and you won’t see all of it. But to feel the heartbeat of a land, you have to put your foot on the soil’s pulse and flow through its veins. To understand a country well but fast enough that you don’t linger in any one place for too long, see it by train. Stop at the stations. Walk the towns for a few hours, maybe stay a night. Then get back in the carriages and keep on going.”

We saw the Netherlands at its most beautiful because we left Brussels early, arriving in Amsterdam by midafternoon and finding our accommodation left a little to be desired. Chasey, though, had already paid the deposit. 

Three nights we slept in that damp apartment above the Irish pub. Our view from the only window was the red bricks of the next building over. If you opened the pane wide you could reach across and touch it as the smell of bins wafted up in a hot perfume of old food in high summer. Our rooms were buried on the second floor of a five-storey block, so even when the skies cleared blue and the sun looked for windows to paint, we had to squint up three stories to see mid-July. Still, we didn’t complain. We were twenty, spending our days getting lost, but never too bothered by that. Most evenings we laughed our way home and stopped for dinner at the late-night kebab stand opposite our front door. 

At Larmour’s they were always busy, and whether you wanted it or not they poured hot sauce on everything. Once dinner was done, we found all that heat had given us a thirst. We looked across the narrow street, and after some communal pondering we pooled our thoughts on the first evening: Yeah, okay, we’re slumming it, and we’ve already seen more rats today than we have in our whole lives, but damn we’re lucky—after that hot sauce—to be roughing it above an Irish pub.

It was deep and narrow, as shady in colour as it was in character. The Ogham Stone was sparsely populated. Even after dark. It looked more like a barbershop than a public house, with unstrung guitars hung from the walls and vintage cigarette logos adorning everything

The shifty clientele skulked around the tables, the high-tops that ran along the back wall. Aside from the odd couple enclosed in candour, the bug eyes faced toward the TV that hung between the spirits. Dutch TV on silent, so the boys could watch Shakira but listen to The Pogues.

The bartender was quiet and spoke in prices, slouching in his sanctum, his face in profile, ears pointed towards the drink orders, ambling to the taps to pour the beer, shuffling to the till and returning to the baying palms with grog (and change) on a loop. He was no more than thirty-five years old, but he wore a comb-over and his skin was so pale and translucent it was almost blue. From four o’clock until after midnight he mooched around in there with his sleepwalking gait and half-closed eyelids like a perma-stoned turtle.

One evening at the kebab stand, licking hot sauce off my fingers, I looked in and reckoned that the Ogham was almost like any other regular Irish pub, but something was amiss, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Through half a mouthful of chips, Tommy replied: “Know what? I was jus’ wondering the same thing. It’s like the whole pub is moving in slow motion.”

“Yeah,” said Chasey, wisest of us all. “That’d be the weed.”

“Ours or theirs?”

Chasey puffed his cheeks. “Ha! Both,” he said and chomped down on his kebab.

He was most likely right, but the pub looked just the same in the morning too—even before we smoked. It did move a notch slower than the rest of the planet. And so, in conclusion, but not to finish: if the earth spins at eight hundred miles per hour, there must be a time warp on one street in old Amsterdam, because The Ogham Stone only does about seven hundred, seven-fifty tops.

It was Grifter Heaven there at its busiest. A melting pot of drugs and debauchery. To pick a pocket in The Stone all a ne’er-do-well had to do was reach out a hand.

I met a man from Liverpool—a permanent tourist—who sat at the bar every day biding his time between prostitutes, half-heartedly pushing cocaine. He gave not a damn if he didn’t sell his quota for the day— “Cos I’ll get fucked and then I’ll get fucked again regardless, know wharra’ mean lad? I’m doing them ladies down the Red Light yeah… no secret that. But their bosses are doing my wallet, so I come in ‘ere and do these punter’s noses. I drink wharra’ make, shag the profits, get an earful off my old boss who has probably got an earful off his boss. Circle of Amsterdam life, mate. No one in this city isn’t getting fucked.”

Men like him warmed stools all over the city—as common as the rats in the alley outside—in every coffee shop, bar, or nightclub-dressed-as-a-backlit-boudoir. ‘The Lost People of Amsterdam’ they were called: immigrants who came for the weed and the women and never left. 

There was a park where some of the “lost” stayed and formed a kind of commune. We passed it one dawn. There was a loud bongo party going on just as the sun was coming up. The drums were soft and played with light fingers but even still the “lost” fought to keep time. 

Amsterdam, I realised even as a young man, is not a town for the weak of will.

 

On our second morning, we crossed the bridge making north, dancing between the bicycles to Singel, where The Bulldog Cafe played “Break On Through.” 

That adrenaline-rousing riff thumped out the open windows with billowing green smoke, over the canal and the ornate bridge, that led to the next bridge, and the next, in every direction. You could guide yourself by those bridges if your memory stayed clear. That was the hard part of taking it easy.

We found that days passed in a thin mist. You could barely stop for coffee or a bite to eat without somebody blazing up at the next table. You got high just hanging around.

Chasey made Tommy and I roll him light ones—nothing that would “fuck him up.” Red didn’t smoke. He was a beer man, damned if he was going to smoke any of that “hippy shit.”

The boulangerie we decided on for lunch the second day looked good enough for him. There were just enough customers over the age of forty for it to be bona fide in his eyes. He ordered a regular cappuccino with a croissant. We encouraged him to try the brownie.

“Can’t be any harm in a place like this,” said Tommy with a great straight face.

“Will they be wacky brownies?” Red asked, looking to Chasey, the man most likely to tell it straight. Chasey said they were, but they were fine. “Honestly. Just like drinking a beer.” Red got one to go. He took it back to the apartment and we watched as he took his first bite.

After his second nibble, I asked him: “How do you feel dude?”

“Nothing yet.”

It was like waiting outside the cinema for the film of your favourite book. It would be the greatest few hours of all time or a “there, there” while a man threw up.

“I can feel something now.”

“Are you stoned man?” Chasey asked.

“I think so.”

He was, and for twenty minutes the four of us were shooting off the same handicap. Then he got sick. His already pale face remained a sickly green for a few hours. He didn’t want a pint, or a kebab. He just lay on the manky brown couch and blinked. 

They so rarely make a good version of your favourite book.

We watched each other carefully later that second day when we finally emerged into the sun. Red looked like easy pickings for the pickpockets, and we had developed a fear of losing one of the party.

Tommy and I had ventured south the day before and got lost somewhere between the Sex Museum and the Catholic church. We had asked for directions to The Ogham Stone from a glazed-eyed man who nodded and said: “Oh yeah? You like the Stones? Cool. I love The Rolling Stones.”

We agreed with him. And said so. But we were looking for “The Ogham Stone, you know, the pub?”

“Oh Yeah? Fuck. Yeah. Okaaay yeah. You go that way I think…”

Under instruction by pointed finger, we crossed another bridge. There, in a window, we saw a large woman dressed in lingerie smoking a pipe. She winked and we blushed. We waved at her: virginal saints. She blew us a kiss and we rushed on. Still flushed in the cheeks, we turned a corner and there we were: in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. 

In the passing crowds were the libertines. The side of humanity so seldom seen, raw and laid bare. People in their most primal state, lusting but completely unaware that they were hunting. Couples passed us, the women as awestruck as the men—both sexes realising at that very moment that we, as humans, are Earth’s God-given freak show.

Neither Tommy nor I came to the beckoning of the women in the windows. Instead, we smoked cigarettes and half a roll. We looked on in fascination as men popped in and out of the doors, loading and unloading, like pigeons on tree-lined streets taking shits on the cars below. It is hard to justify civilisation in a red light district and we never tried, not that day, not since.

Then somehow after walking bridge after bridge we returned to the church as the deacon bolted the doors and rushed down the steps, towards the lamppost that we were leaning on. 

“Hello,” he said, unlocking his bike. “Relaxing huh? Nice time. Tourists?”

“Uhum.”

“I see,” he said. And with a smile and extra emphasis on the local accent added: “And how long are you in Amsterdam?”

“Just a few hours, father,” said Tommy. “Actually, we’re lost.”

“You look it,” he said. “Where are you staying?”

“The Ogham Stone,” I said, and the deacon raised his brow.

“Not in it. Above it.”

“Aha. That is good. Take that street there, with the bakery on the corner. Walk four blocks and you are home. But careful on your travels. Remember this thing my grandfather would recommend. ‘You know,’ he’d say to me ‘you can’t make a fortune, a life or a reputation in a few hours, but you can lose any of them’.”

He unlocked his bicycle and rode away on the cobbled stones.

We left Amsterdam on the fourth morning, hanging our heads out the train window again. I watched the buildings grow smaller in the distance and I thought if ever a city was to make the world feel small it was Amsterdam, where the same evening light falls on sacred stained glass and red-lit windows alike. How you’re only ever a couple of bridges away from a hooker or a priest.

 

Three and a half hours later we approached Berlin from a height. Slaloming on the towering track, our express skated between skyscrapers. 

If Amsterdam is the college party that never ends, then Berlin is the grown-up, black-tie affair, where once a year car keys are thrown in a bowl.

When our train slowed near the city centre, I saw the four of us reflecting in an office window. The outlines of young men. No more than that. We were too young to be old, possessing the great freedom to travel for long periods with the kind of flippancy that our parents never had.

Our generation was born in a different time. Feminism was liberating young women or beginning to. In turn young men, too, were liberated. Once sisters and friends and cousins broke free of antiquated expectations, brothers, friends and cousins were no longer consigned to be emotionless mammals. Some say the world went soft, but if it did how are we to blame? We were born into it. If this millennial generation has been slow to come of age, fine. Because while we waited, a new age came to us by the grace of our times.

It just so happened that we came to Berlin by the grace of time too. The mother of all parties was about to begin. The city felt alive with a spark that was invisible, but felt in the air, like the sky before a storm. We arrived in Germany the night before the Love Parade.

The Love Parade is Berlin’s St Patrick’s Day, only with less of the shamrock paraphernalia—the alcoholic begorrah—and more dance music in leotards on ecstasy. I didn’t care for it much, but that wasn’t why I sat the thing out. 

Tommy and I had spent large portions of our three days in Amsterdam looking for a strain of weed called Ice. It was rumoured to be the most potent grass on the planet, hence enticing us. 

After two days’ searching, we bought one fifty baggy in a bootleg store in Staalstraat. We’d heard a whisper about a drawer under the till where they kept the Ice. We would ask for Volume 2 of The Basement Tapes, on cassette. Tommy and I split the bill and picked up a bag of Northern Lights for casual use and vowed not to smoke a stem of Ice until the time was right. 

I broke that promise the morning of the Love Parade.

Writing for a while in my diary long after the boys had passed out, I put a pretty big hole in my box of beer. I woke up to blazing sunshine that filled our room, and a cruel and nauseating hangover. My only available pain relief was the Ice. I took ten minutes for myself on the balcony with some cold water and a joint. 

Chasey poked his head out after a while and asked if I was ready. I stood up and laughed. I tilted sideways a step but regained my balance. My eyelids drooped, and I answered his questions croakily. “Yeahhh… feeling better now.” 

Chasey wore a wide smile as he reintroduced me to the others.

Tommy was cool about the Ice. There was plenty left. And besides, he had sucked down his first beer and got a fit of the giggles as I fell silent on the train from Warschauer, near the hostel on Helsingforser Strasse. Chasey chuckled too. I had gone quiet, and their giggling made me nervous. I tried to shush them, but that only turned a private joke into some commotional cackling from their double seat. Some folks on the train were beginning to take notice. They looked at me, and that was the last thing I wanted. I became anxious, shifty-eyed. It was the strongest weed I had ever smoked. Then instantly, like leaving the room and coming back again, I relaxed. I slipped my plastic gold sunglasses on and I smiled back at the boys.

“You are out of it, dude,” Chasey said, though his grin tailed off with a hint of concern. Then he frowned, probably thinking I was going to be sick.

“I really am,” I said. “But I’m good.”

Relieved, Chasey laughed. He clapped me on the back and shook his head. “How was the Love Parade, Boys?” he asked, rhetorically, anticipating the future conversation with friends back home. “Well… not a great start, I’ll say. Steve hit the after-party before we even got there.”

We arrived, and I found the high of the weed was still rising. There was no summit, no descent or levelling off. Instead, everything between my ears was like a kite in the wind, yet nobody was holding the string.

The heavy dance music pounded up from the concrete below. Everywhere you looked there were chaps and g-string combos. Revellers had masks, some had ghoulish makeup that streaked from sweat in the warming sun. Floats ambled by carrying topless dancers flailing on poles. The thronging, sky-high masses heaved and gyrated, pulsing with the groin-tingling beats. Every second mouth had a whistle. It was like a referee convention on uppers. 

Occasionally, I glimpsed at Red’s face to see the look of unbridled joy. Then he would swivel at me and laugh before turning back to the crowds again. His hands raised in the air, in praise of the party, the dancing orgy happening all around us. I saw Tommy and Chasey when my eyes refocused. They were six feet away. I pointed to a nearby park. They could find me there.

I found a shaded patch of grass under a tree. The music was still in earshot, but it was dimmer and distant enough that I settled.

People came and went from the party nearby as I sat like a statue, cross-legged like Buddha in gold-rimmed Elvis glasses. Buddha in sunnies. High as a hot air balloon.

The sun burned away the last of the clouds and the bright morning became a hot afternoon. It was then that the day changed. I regained control of my limbs. My face muscles unclenched. Soon I was able to perform basic functions like smiling or talking, even both at the same time. I was myself again, but a contemplative, zen self. I sat in that park as everyone around me walked or danced. With my shades on, feeling warm and tranquil, I rolled another joint.

Ice, I concluded later, is probably not unlike heroin.

Then, as the universe does, that incapacitating day of temporary paralysis and stupor morphed into a warm, orange-skied, transcendental night. There was nothing specific about it at the time, but it remained orange-skied in its corner of my mind for its pure simplicity, its innocence, strange as that might sound considering all that went before.

There was an afterglow in the German air as I sat on the balcony at our hostel on a date with myself in Berlin, after the Love Parade and the Ice. I knew I was amidst an epic adventure. I drank Grolsch, smoked cigarettes and rolls of Northern Lights. In the west, the sun was beginning to set on the horizon. Through colour-blind eyes I can only say that it looked like fire.

From my fourth-floor balcony I could see a decommissioned railway line a hundred yards away over a high wall. Remnants of the old steel lay silent in the weeds. I couldn’t help but wonder about that line, as you do in a place like Berlin, with all the terrible secrets of history there that hide themselves in plain sight. 

Still, Berlin was as viscerally beautiful as it was haunting. I sat with my notebook laid across my legs and watched that fireball sunset. The other three had departed for night-life. I was content and silent. Until the silence ended.

A young woman peeked over the low dividing wall between my balcony and hers. “Oi! Lone Range-ah. Whatcha doin’?”

“Erm… not much. Looking around a lot. Taking in the city I suppose.”

In a lively London accent, she replied: “Are you alone?”

“I am,” I said. “Yeah, you just missed the rowdy bunch.”

“That’s fine. It’s good actually—I’m not feeling very rowdy. Hey, open your door. I’m coming over to smoke your cigarette…and no, that doesn’t mean what you might think it means, you potentially dirty bastard. I’ll bring a bottle of Bavarian wine. You must try it, it’s divine!”

I did as she asked. It wasn’t a request, more of an order really. 

The Lady from London sat beside me on the maroon balcony tiles. Her head bowed, and her shoulder-length black hair fell as she took a drag. Then she craned her neck and blew the smoke high into the air. She turned and looked at me without speaking, her brown eyes playfully narrowing, frowning. “Have you got many left?”

“About a full box,” I said. 

“Wonderful,” she replied. And her smile was contagious.

We talked for hours, though she never told me her name and she never asked for mine. But by the time the sun finally went down we knew each other well. As we gabbed, the orange evening slipped away west and turned a dark blue. She said: “You know, the further you get from home the closer you get to yourself.” 

The Lady from London had a theory that we spend our teens in chrysalis and once the butterfly is born it must fly “because…that’s what butterflies do, innit?”

She looked at me and smiled sometimes. In those moments there were gaps in the conversation, like an ellipsis for where an “and then we kissed” might fit, but then the Lady from London usually ended those silences with an “…oh my God, did I tell you what I saw in…” Often what she saw was a couple having sex in a very open place.

She was going to Prague next. I said the train to Prague was also Chasey’s plan. That we were leaving for the Czech capital the next morning.

“Maybe we’ll meet there then,” she said. “If we do…”— with a cigarette hanging from her lip she gazed off into the starry night— “I’ll buy you a box of cigarettes.”

“That’s a deal,” I said.

“Right then,” she replied as if her mind had been made up about some longstanding issue. She took her empty bottle of Bavarian wine and said good night. 

 

I was first to bed and first to rise the next morning. I had vague, dream-like memories of the other three coming home at dawn, shushing each other loudly so as not to wake me, and giggling.

It was 10:15am when I sat up. I had let them sleep in fifteen minutes longer than we’d agreed. Chasey and Red struggled to wake with some groaning and furious rubbing of bed-head hair. Tommy, though, didn’t move, not even under intense prodding or persistent calls of his name. He was breathing (we checked), but he was in a deep slumber where our prods and calls were just a faraway din as he swam with ecstasy-eyed women and danced with them on a merry-go-round until his party ended as one red eye opened and the music stopped.

We watched as he hauled himself from his bed and carried a pillow to the toilet. He vomited repeatedly and violently. Then he laid down and asked for a blanket.

The vomiting continued throughout the slow packing process. He was sick along the uphill walk to the train station. At the Berlin Hauptbahnhof he found a plastic bag. Every ten or fifteen minutes he released more of his stomach’s contents into it.

Chasey spoke to the cashier at Hauptbahnhof in broken German and ordered four tickets to Prague. We paid and were politely informed that when passing the border into the Czech Republic we would each have to pay a supplement. “Nothing much, maybe fifteen euros.”

Three of us nodded. Tommy had huddled with his bag under a public telephone, watching us with contempt and suspicion, his face contorting. His summer tan was gone, replaced by a deathly complexion.

“Whatcha mean a supplement?” he grumbled, head across folded arms resting on his knees.

“Don’t worry about the supplement. Just have a bit of cash ready when we pass into the Czech Republic,” Chasey said.

“Sounds fucking dodgy dude,” said Tommy and he returned his attention to his new plastic bag.

Platform 7 was almost a half mile walk from the vendor stalls, and Tommy lagged behind. When we boarded, he chose not to join us in the compartment on the carriage, instead staying near the toilet in the gangway between our carriage and the next. In turns, one of us would walk down to check on him, to bring water and offer him food which he never took. And, to remind him about the supplement.

We were over two hours into the train ride when a tall woman in a brown peaked cap and uniform slid aside the compartment door. Her face wrinkled, her hair prematurely silver, she gazed beyond us out the window. She leaned in the doorway and sighed. 

“Supplement.”

Red said: “Huh?”

She sighed again, louder. Just for him. “Supplement!”

We collected our share and received three cuts of pink card in return. Then we remembered Tommy: the poor bastard buried in a plastic bag. He was about to be aggressively sighed at.

Minutes passed, and our amusement grew. Then he appeared at our compartment with his vomit bag—half full—dishevelled, confused, wrestling with his hair. As green as the fields back home.

“Eh…” he said, then paused and pointed. “There’s some woman down there…” He wiped his face then frowned.

A distant—familiar—voice bellowed down the train. “Supplement!”

 

The landscape beyond our windows began to change. Rolling green hills disappeared. We seemed to dig down into the earth until huge, tree-lined cliffs overhung. Standing in the gangway, we looked out below into steep gorges where waterfalls splashed into widening brooks. Slowly the water grew wider and wider, bound for the big city river. Scores of corrugated steel shacks dotted the far banks. Tin roofs on tin walls. Clotheslines wound from lower-lying trees to wooden posts, and we knew that we had left Germany. We were as far away from skyscrapers as we could get in two hours.

Tommy had recovered by twilight. He emerged from under his bed sheets like Nosferatu seeking red meat and Red Bull. His afternoon nap had re-energised his lust for life. As he turned on “Porcelain” by Moby, he shed his Love Parade malaise like a cocoon. 

“Let’s hit a nite club.”

Chasey laughed. “Yeah, sure thing dude. Let’s get you on a dancefloor. It’s good to see you standing.”

Tommy bounced along the paths as Chasey, Red and I kept up. He led us all the way to the nite club’s door where we entered a realm of five floors and a thousand punters, easy. We ventured to the first floor where a live band played “Walking On Sunshine.” We bought beers and toasted “to Prague.” Soon, though, we drifted like wood from the same tree down a river, all coming from the same place and going to the same place too, just taking different routes to get there.

I found myself alone on the fourth floor, smoking a cigarette on a bean bag and drinking a beer when a black-haired woman appeared in front of me in silhouette, back-lit by a slow-flashing strobe. She threw a box of smokes at me and sat down.

“Welcome to Praha—as the locals say. And welcome… to the chill-out deck of this rather fantastic club. Alone again? I’m beginning to wonder if you really do have mates at all, or are you really the Lone Range-ah?”

“I am temporarily lost.”

“Hmmm. You’re a strange creature. Fascinating though.”

“Oh yeah? How’s that?”

She looked at me as strobe lights bounced around us. The Lady from London seemed to search for something she had lost on my face. Maybe it looked different? 

She said: “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t we ki—

Then.

“Stevo! Dude…”

Bounding onto the chill-out floor with an almighty surge of energy, the bean bag trance had been broken by the shouts of an animated and drunk Tommy. Even the dreadlocked DJ with headphones over one ear looked up.

“Here’s Tonto,” I said to the Lady from London.

“Aha,” she said and shook Tommy’s hand.

“You’re from London?”

“Correct.”

“Nice,” Tommy replied, nodding. “I can do a Landan accent, innit. Alwight geeza’ Eh? What’ya fink abou’ that then?”

“Not bad,” replied the Lady from London. “You’ve got a talent there. Very impressive. So, you’re this guy’s mate then eh?”

“This bastard? Yeah. God love me, hah? Nah, just shitting ya, Steve’s a good egg.” Tommy drank, and somewhere between the vodka and Red Bull hitting his lips to it welling up inside his belly, a thought crossed his mind. “Shit, am I interrupting something here?”

“No. You’re not interrupting at all. I was just returning a pack o’ smokes to…erm… Steve, here. Steve—good egg—it has been nice to meet you, really. And thank you for a lovely evening.”

The Lady from London stood up and bid us both well for the rest of our journey. She turned to leave, then stopped and swivelled on her high heels, to give me one last wave, one last look, as though forever imprinting in her mind my name with my face. And then, with a flashing strobe, she was gone.

In the blinding light I knew then that orange-skied evenings are extraordinary flares of blazing heat, express trains that cannot be caught once they’ve left. Sometimes they are supposed to be gone, to leave you with memories as perfectly drawn as the sunsets they were set against.

Like a solar prominence, we too flashed and disappeared, like flames of gas that rose for a month in the heartlands of Europe, flying high into the stratosphere before we were gone. We were train-riding forces of nature, bound by the laws of physics and finance—those that had been kind to us at the beginning but less forgiving by the end. 

The butterfly, as the Lady from London said, is not born by sunup to die by night. It flies to its favourite garden and stays, or it lets itself be blown by the wind and maybe, at times, become lost by it. 

By the end, we had seen graffitied trains and stations. The Black Forest. Fields all shades of green, faces too. Pastures of bright yellow. And every sight went by us as fast as life as we rode the rails.


Stephen Gildea-Young is a former sports journalist from Ireland, where he reported primarily on boxing and Gaelic games with three different national publications. Following a change of path, he now lives in northern Italy with his family where he is working on his debut novel. His short story work has appeared in Crossways Literary Magazine and on the podcast Bob’s Short Story Hour.

The Other Side of the Mirror

by: Julie Rosenzweig

Though it’s not the one I wanted, I know I’m lucky to have this picture of my grandmother as a young woman. 

It’s a gorgeous photograph by any standard, a stylized portrait from the early 1930s. The sepia richness and intensity need no digital tweaking; the real-life colors are easily guessed. Against the familiar smoky-marble backdrop of such portraits, my grandmother sits on a little chintz bench with black rolled wooden arms, a foretaste of the furnishings that would later fill her iconic Ocean Parkway apartment. Her finger-waved hair is dark brown, her eyes a shade or two lighter. Her dress, stiffly tailored for all its longitudinal ruffles, is a deep burgundy that superimposes maternal warmth on her slender young woman’s frame. A white corsage raises the question of what formal occasion she’s dressed for. A sibling’s wedding? A prom? Did the public high schools of Depression-era Brooklyn have proms, and would a girl from a tradition-minded immigrant family have been allowed, or tempted, to attend? I’ll probably never know.

The color of the dress is echoed in the bloodred fingernails and in the carefully outlined Cupid’s-bow lips. It’s the mouth I usually focus on, even more than the strong nose and the almond eyes that give definition to the face, which is almost childlike in its roundness—what I imagine as a fashionable roundness of the era. Despite the unsubtle, smoochy lipstick job, the smile is faint, nuanced, and suggestive. She’s part Ashkenazi, part Betty Boop, part Mona Lisa—and all mine.

It’s not the only image I have of her. There’s an album of old family photos that found its way to me a number of years ago, against all odds. It contains a few snapshots of my grandmother, taken during my own infancy and childhood. I appear alongside her in most of these pictures; she’s holding me, playing peekaboo, etc. In a couple of instances my barely remembered grandfather is beside her. Though compelling in their way, these Kodak moments obviously lack the gravitas of the vintage photograph. What attaches me so strongly to the latter, beyond the pleasure of owning a handsome keepsake of someone I loved dearly, is the proof it embodies that my family didn’t spontaneously generate sometime in the mid-1960s; that we —I—have roots in more remote times. No other heirlooms have survived to furnish such evidence.

The portrait hangs in a hallway in my home, next to my wedding photo. When I moved as a bride into what had been my husband’s spartan bachelor pad, one of the first things I did was hang these two pictures. The place badly needed a woman’s touch, but it was also a way of laying down roots. Our hallways filled up over the years as each child arrived on the scene, our young family history unfurling across the walls in chronological progression from our wedding picture and the old sepia portrait. It’s a satisfying display. Yet as lovely as the portrait is, my grandmother doesn’t quite cut the matriarchal figure in it that I need her to. Her smile, a young unmarried woman’s smile, holds something back—or is the enigmatic opacity merely a cover for unripeness, incompleteness? It’s completeness I’m after. This isn’t the photo I wanted.

 

We were a family that never made it out of Brooklyn. A generation or two in from Ellis Island, the suburban upgrade eluded us. We migrated from city apartment to city apartment as our finances and familial transitions dictated.

The déménagements grew in frequency during the seventies, as my parents’ marriage fell apart. Our family’s one halfhearted attempt at homeownership—a modest brick rowhouse in southeast Brooklyn—ended after five years, ostensibly because my parents had no taste for yard upkeep, but really because they sensed the impending implosion. They didn’t want to be saddled with a property that would have to be disposed of under pressure. So we downgraded to a rented apartment when I was eleven or so, a move that caused me no end of shame.

A couple of years later the divorce finally happened, prompting a series of additional household dismantlings and reassemblings in apartments across the southern part of the borough. With each move we shed more and more stuff. 

My grandmother, who was ailing and lived with us, also jettisoned most of her belongings. She’d presided over a kind of sub-household in the finished basement of our rowhouse, equipped with her ornate old furnishings from Ocean Parkway. When we left the rowhouse, we also bid farewell to my grandmother’s solid but curvaceous living room tables, with legs like swirly stairs for starlets to prance on in 1930s musicals. As we trekked from apartment to apartment in quick succession, various rococo lamps, statuettes, and other tchotchkes disappeared until all that was left of my grandmother’s autonomous existence were her clothes, her pills, and her handbag with the tiny artifact in it that she carried with her wherever she went; that I loved to pull out and handle and pore over.

 

It’s been forty years since I last saw it. I have an idea who might have ended up with it. Objectively it isn’t lost, though it’s lost to me. Maybe someday it’ll turn up on Etsy.

It was a purse mirror, oval, too small to see a face in whole, even my little childhood face. The kind of mirror you tilt and squint into as you primp a geometric slice of yourself. A mirror that gives you back to yourself in fragments.

But the mirror’s obverse offered completeness. I know this even though I don’t remember the picture it bore—my grandparents’ wedding photo—with any clarity or detail. If a photograph is a ghost of what it documents, then what I’m left with is the ghost of a ghost. I extrapolate. I cobble together a wedding gown for my grandmother and a dark formal suit for my grandfather from a lifetime’s store of media images; their faces are composites based on other extant photos. So the bridegroom, my grandfather as a young man, is unaccountably elderly, lined, sickly, and frail in the imagined wedding picture; his worn cheek near my grandmother’s plump one mimics a snapshot pose from three decades later.

As for my grandmother, it’s no great leap for me to conjure up a bride with a round thirties face and a slick dark finger-wave, but I delete the Cupid’s-bow lips and their unrevealing tartness. I give her a facial expression lifted from one of the later snapshots, in which a six-month-old me is perched in the crook of her arm and she’s laughing, her mouth open, expressive, womanly, and ripe.

 

Because her health crisis followed so closely upon my grandfather’s passing, we naturally assumed the bereavement had triggered it. That her grief expressed itself in a rare neuromuscular disease, rather than, say, a heart attack, seemed consistent with our family’s exasperating uniqueness. True to Tolstoy’s dictum about unhappy families, my brother and I grew up feeling utterly alone amid singular circumstances, though later we realized we’d also been part of a social movement—”Seventies Divorce.” In any case, my grandmother’s exotically named condition, “myasthenia gravis,” and its unpredictable, idiosyncratic symptoms (drooping eyelids, sudden respiratory crises), added yet another layer to the oppressive miasma that clung to our family. Its weirdness fit us to a T. 

She’d been a jolly round grandma of exuberant orality—a smoker and a nosher. Now she had trouble breathing and eating. There were a few brief hospitalizations, then a much longer stay that seemed interminable. The hospital’s name, Maimonides, was itself exotic and somewhat reminiscent of the disease that had put her there. It was the place that had swallowed up my grandfather—was she trying to follow him? 

We traveled there daily so my mother could monitor her status, but my brother and I couldn’t be brought into the ward where she lay ventilated. Once disgorged from whatever smelly car service vehicle had transported us across the wilds of Brooklyn, my mother would deposit us in separate locations at the hospital—a snack bar, an entrance lobby—before proceeding alone to my grandmother’s room. The separation was meant to “keep us out of trouble.” Would we have sought or found trouble if left together? Possibly. My mother correctly estimated that if alone, we’d stay put.

Logically, to stave off boredom I might have brought books from my ever-growing library of juvenile biographies with its heavy emphasis on US presidents. In those early grade school years, as the household implosion threatened and threatened without actually happening, I tranquillized and dignified my life with presidential trivia, which I could recite on demand the way transportation geeks rattle off train routes. But when I reach back to those hospital snack bar afternoons, I don’t see books; there’s only a vague impression of Formica, cigarette fumes, and vending machines, overlaid with an awareness of my unseen, equally bored brother pacing at his own post. I don’t know how long we spent in our hospital purgatories at any given time, probably not as much as we thought, but each occasion felt like an eternity. 

I try to add some color and heft to these curiously flat eternities. I line up candies in the vending machine—Mounds, Junior Mints, Chuckles. I yank a round translucent plastic knob, hear/feel the satisfying thunk of the recoil. A Snickers bar drops down on someone else’s dime: reality is overrated.

 

It’s the veil that stumps me. It must have figured prominently in my grandmother’s wedding photo, but I’ve got nothing. I google bridal veil 1930s, but those overwrought headdresses, like lace-smothered cloche hats with mosquito netting attached, seem all wrong. 

I supply a favorite image from my own wedding album. 

We’re standing under the chuppah, the Jewish bridal canopy, set up under the open night sky. It’s been a day of hundred-plus temperatures, rare for Jerusalem, where I’ve lived for years now. Fasting per religious custom, I’ve nearly fainted in the pre-wedding bustle. By now, though, cool evening winds have set in. A strong gust suddenly blows my veil up and back, twisting it into an almost cubist formation around my head, all odd planes and angles. 

Was it a random shot, or did the photographer have time to cock his head at the distinctive composition before clicking? Another gust blew the veil back over my face just a moment later.

In the photo, my husband is placing the ring on my finger; he looks grave and decorous, immersed in protocol, intent as always on getting things right. That’s why I’m marrying him. I convey a different but complementary mood: smiling slightly but with eyes closed, as though viewing a dream sequence or inner vision running in tandem to the ceremony. I look like I don’t need to see what’s going forward, and in fact I don’t. The photograph will be there, later, to show me. 

The awkwardly twisted veil should make the image ridiculous, strike a discordant note. But our facial expressions, earnest and beatific, turn the absurdity to advantage. Or is it the other way around? I think of the wedding scene in Anna Karenina, Levin and Kitty solemnly blundering over their rings. How precarious our dignity. But if it weren’t human, it wouldn’t be dignity.

The chuppah, too, would be less touching if less fragile. A symbolic home, almost an abstraction—a cloth stretched over four poles—there’s no stuff in it to shed. A huff and a puff would blow it down. Its ghostly power is to recall every other chuppah that came before it and to hint at those to come after. It’s complete in itself but also a link in a chain, a fragment, or a portal.

 

One day my mother came to me in the snack bar and told me to follow her: my grandmother wanted to see me. By this time her status must have improved some. I didn’t go as far as her room, though, or even the ward she was in. My mother led me part-way up a stairwell and bid me wait while she fetched my grandmother to the stairwell door. In fact she positioned me at a mid-flight landing, not wanting to risk my presence anywhere near the ward. 

“She can’t speak,” my mother warned as she left to get my grandmother.

I recognized her well enough when she arrived. By now I was prepared for the sight of a frail old woman who’d dropped, perhaps, a quarter of her body weight since I’d last seen her. I wasn’t alarmed by her skeletal frame under the hospital gown, nor did I attend to whatever tubes or bandages came attached. What arrested me was the emotionalism, the way she alternately blew kisses down at me and clasped her hands to her chest as though trying to staunch an overflow of feeling. Her former fleshy solidity had transmuted into energy—a stifled energy seeking its release in exaggerated gestures. Stifled speech. I love you, she mouthed soundlessly, over and over.

When she came home, to our home, it emerged that her speechlessness hadn’t been a symptom of her illness, but the side effect of a tracheostomy—another exotic addition to the family lexicon. 

I don’t recall my first close-up glimpse of the stoma. She spent the immediate post-discharge period in an upstairs bedroom, where my mother ministered to her behind the closed door. A home nurse came once or twice; I remember whirring or gurgling sounds—suctioning, I suppose. Eventually my grandmother left the bedroom and moved down to the basement that had recently been finished for her use, and into which her dark heavy furniture had been decanted sometime during the hospitalization weeks. The hole in her throat then became a regular household presence—normalized by day, though it haunted my dreams at night. It burned a hole in my consciousness; a part of me never stopped seeing it. 

In order for her to talk, the hole had to be plugged. Though the speaking valve restored her voice, it made her speech seem inauthentic; I could almost imagine that the movements of her lips and the sounds coming out of them weren’t in synch. I came to prefer the soundless speech of the stoma, a shadow mouth with its own message to convey. 

 

A friend, thumbing through my old family photo album, once commented that our home life looked like one big party. I could see where she got that idea: my tenth birthday occupies a strangely excessive share of the album. The festivities start at a bowling alley, then migrate to our basement. A folding table is laden with cake and snacks against the seventies faux wood paneling, my grandmother’s furnishings visible around the edges. Girls frolic. Background details—an old analog radio atop my grandmother’s mini-fridge, a bronzed baby shoe displayed on her dresser—lend an air of stability and permanence to the scene.

My grandmother appears in a couple of the party photos, looking almost normal. She’s put some weight back on. The ptosis is barely perceptible. A high collar covers her stoma which, I believe, was left permanently open, though it’s possible that what I remember from the later years is simply a scar. By the time I was ten she’d been on a treatment regimen that sort of worked. The party was likely scheduled for one of her “on” days: she took cortisone every other day. I have no “off” day picture of her from that period. 

Her last appearances in the album show a woman of no noticeable infirmity. She sports a polyester pantsuit of the era; her thinning hair is dyed an upbeat ginger. Her lips are bloodred and so are her nails. A red pendant, possibly a heart, hangs over her bosom. Her own heart will be giving out soon enough.

 

I’m the age now that my grandmother was in those peekaboo snapshots from my infancy. Amid the wear and tear I detect a small upgrade: a scar on my throat that used to be visible is now camouflaged by the wattle of midlife. If I stand before my bathroom mirror and stretch the skin taut as women do, the scar stands out once again, near the point where throat meets jaw, my own alternate mouth, a subversive guillotine smile. 

I google cyst throat child, come up with thyroglossal duct cyst. I suppose it would have appeared without a trigger. Playing in my room a few months after my grandmother came home from the hospital, I noticed a protrusion on my throat. It didn’t hurt, nor did it register as something that merited reporting or investigation. It was just a new bodily particularity to be palpated and picked at, like a scab. My mother saw me fingering my throat one day and nudged my grandmother: “She’s pretending she has a tracheotomy.” After getting a better look, she hauled me off to the doctor.

The cyst got me my own bed at Maimonides for a few days, a bit of attention, and a heavily advertised, long-coveted doll. By coincidence, something else made its way to my hospital bed from an unexpected quarter: my father handed me a large, heavy envelope that had come in the mail, addressed to me from the White House.

I turned the envelope over and over, wondering how the President had heard about my surgery, until my father reminded me that I’d sent a homemade birthday card to Richard Nixon a few months earlier. I’d forgotten about that—my presidential preoccupations had lately been on the wane. 

The envelope contained a form letter from the President thanking me for my card and a kid-oriented booklet about the White House and the First Family. 

I remember laying the envelope out on the blanket that covered me so the nurses could see the official insignia and be duly impressed, but the contents are a blur. I do recall a picture of Nixon dancing with his daughter at her wedding reception in the East Room. It’s a famous photo—I might have seen it elsewhere, not in the booklet.

Though Dick and Pat stayed together, their household imploded a few years before ours did. By then I was reading the papers, watching the TV news. I saw the First Couple treading the red carpet on their way out, Nixon’s farewell V-sign outside the helicopter. There was no moving van; it seemed that, in their disgrace, they’d packed nothing, left with only the clothes on their backs. They didn’t shed their stuff so much as leave it behind. The White House kept it, along with the belongings of all those who came before and all those who came after. I understood the White House to be a heavy, cluttered place that left nothing to the imagination.

 

I’m with my grandmother on Kings Highway. I’m five, or eleven, or eight. She’s not sick yet, or she is, but it’s one of her “on” days. 

Did I ever walk with her alone on Kings Highway, just her and me? Probably not. That’s okay: reality is overrated. 

We pass the Rainbow Shop with its pastel-swathed mannequins, the smoke shop with its iconic Te-Amo sign, the pharmacy with its curvaceous Rx. A pizza place, a luncheonette. The F train rumbles above. I peer into the window of a tchotchke store. My grandmother smiles and we go inside. We make our way down the aisles, chuckling over the Sillisculpts and novelty mugs with their cheeky-raunchy sayings. My grandmother buys me a necklace with a plastic apple pendant, chewed to the core as is the fad. Or maybe it’s a fish pendant with shiny articulated scales, bendable into different shapes. She really did buy me that fish pendant on Kings Highway—I’m not making all of this up.

They call it Brooklyn’s mother road. Official documents, maps, and photographs trace its incarnations from colonial times, and Google Street View keeps me updated, decades since I last walked there. But documentation is beside the point. I know what the street’s essence is, the time period that defines it, and that would be the 1930s. This, despite the evidence of my own recollections and the virtual memory aids available at a click. I personally have seen a bell-bottom Kings Highway, a disco Kings Highway, a shoulder-pad-and-big-hair Kings Highway. I remember McGovern and Nixon campaigners heckling each other from opposite sides of the street. None of that matters. 

I follow my grandmother into the revolving door of Dubrow’s Cafeteria. Revolving doors are a thirties thing, and so is Dubrow’s. It’s full of old people, and so obviously a relic. Where else do you shuffle in a line along a counter, lifting tuna salad plates and pie out of an endless display? I close my eyes, try for an olfactory rush, but all I get is a wet-metal smell, a smell of steaming, just-washed silverware. 

“Try the apple strudel,” my grandmother says.

We take a booth (surely there were booths). The din of talk wraps around us in our womblike space. From the depths of her beige pleather handbag my grandmother pulls a tiny enameled box. She opens it, takes out a saccharine pill, drops it in her coffee. Suddenly the image flickers and the saccharine box becomes a plastic pill box; instead of sipping coffee in a Dubrow’s booth, she’s leaning over our Formica dinette table at home, slicing pills in half. I blink, and the saccharine box is back.

We finish our strudel. My grandmother’s coffee cup bears the red of her mouth, an after-mouth. She takes her purse mirror out of her bag, squints as she reapplies lipstick. Her face is partly obscured by the mirror but her wedding face looks out at me, whole, from the mirror’s other side.

We head upstairs to the ladies’ room. Whether Dubrow’s actually had an upstairs, let alone the sweeping, glamorous, Hollywood-musical staircase I imagine for it, hardly matters. The staircase gets us there in style, and once in the ladies’ room I’m in the realm of actual memory, though even here I can’t be entirely sure it’s Dubrow’s I’m recalling. But where else on Kings Highway would we have used a ladies’ room? The memory is real; by process of elimination it must be Dubrow’s.

It’s the floor tiling that’s stuck in my mind all these years—the dingy, black-and-white checkerboard tiling that is the essence of the thirties. Dingy even when clean. However glitzy the staircase I’ve remembered or imagined, however suitable a platform for starlets waltzing in satin evening gowns, the restroom offers harder truths about its era. It speaks of tough times, low expectations, making do. It’s a dim, close world of seepage and gush; water sounds wash over me and are washed away, woman upon woman, year upon year, emotions discharged, dreams gurgling down drains, all leaving their residue.

My grandmother approaches the sinks where I wait—I’ve conjured up a row of white pedestal sinks. They’re chipped and cracked but have the good bones of classic design; the wear and tear only add to their dignity and charm. Above them: Hollywood dressing room mirrors, framed by those little round lights. Just because I can.

She stands before the mirror and I, standing beside her, gaze into her reflection as she gazes into mine. She’s a vigorous laughing grandma, and a bride in a cubist veil; a closed-mouthed maiden, and a frail old widow with a drooping eyelid and a hole in her throat. I pass with her through all her instantiations, as she is embedded in mine. The stuff is lost; this remains. This interpenetration, fleeting and repeating as I make my standstill journey, a rapt visitor to her time, almost at ease in my own.


Originally from Brooklyn, Julie Rosenzweig has been based in Israel since the early 1990s. She is a translator and former academic librarian. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Literary Mama, the Jewish Literary Journal, and Peacock Journal, among others. Website: https://julierosenzweig.wordpress.com/.

Spoonthology: A Treasury of Spoons

By: Tessa Torgeson

People warned me about the dramatic moments—the first clear-eyed New Year’s Eve without the clink of champagne glasses, the cold sting of the first breakup without the blanket of painkillers, the edginess of delivering the first work presentation without a Xanax pill melting under my tongue. I listened to their advice about handling these situations and even signed up for an app that sent me daily inspirational messages written in loopy cursive inside pastel text boxes—the kind of quotes universal enough to be posted by Catholic grandma or my astrology loving, goddess worshipping friend. 

I was prepared for disaster, but nobody warned me about how to handle peaceful moments in real time. What a brutal deception.

 

The peaceful moment started in the kitchen of my new apartment. It was nothing special: a garden-level two-bedroom in a fourplex in Fargo, North Dakota, shared with my roommate Connor. But after months of bouncing between friends’ guest rooms and couches, I was excited to have a place to call my own again. While unpacking my kitchen stuff, I noticed a glimmer of sunlight dance across a spoon, the simple bowing curve of the spoon’s handle leading to its smooth bowl flattened against the countertop. 

It was then the spoon felt like a scalpel. 

I flung the spoon at the wall. The noise jolted my cat Luna awake from her perch on the windowsill. Then I ripped the silverware drawer out of its tracks and turned it upside down, separating the spoons from the forks and knives. I threw spoons by the fistful into the garbage can, savoring the satisfying clangs of metal against metal. I found the dissonance soothing rather than grating, a soundtrack to my anger. Then I poured cat litter into the garbage to cover any trace of a metallic shine. 

When that wasn’t enough, I ripped apart boxes looking for the spoons from my estranged grandma. I didn’t care that they were embossed with flower patterns and made of real silver. They needed to go too. I poured cat litter on top of them, then dragged them out to the dumpster, as though burying them and having them hauled off to a landfill would make me forget the pain they represented. If only it were that simple. 

A few hours later, Conner knocked on my bedroom door with a bowl full of Captain Crunch in his hands. “Yo, I’m trying to eat this cereal, why don’t we have any spoons? They still packed or what?” 

“I don’t know, dude.” I stared at the beige carpet, wondering if it was a mistake to live with someone nine years my junior.

“It’s no big deal. I’ll run to Wally World and get some for us later. This place looks awesome—we should have a party soon or something?”

I was so lost in thought that I forgot to reply. He asked, “You alright?”

“Yeah, just tired from moving.” At first, I couldn’t believe that spoons were the thing that set me off. 

 

The internet was set ablaze when NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover captured a spoonlike image on Mars’s sandy surface on August 30, 2015. Conspiracy theory YouTube channels analyzed this “floating spoon,” insisting this proved there was indeed life on Mars. One commenter raved: “This thing is probably left over from a lost civilization.” 

Compelling, fascinating, and baffling, my favorite video was titled: “Weird! Spoon-Shaped Object Hovering on Mars’ Surface! What is it?!” The video featured a spaghetti-thin spoonlike object floating on Mars’s rocky surface and a different, larger spoon that appears connected to the rocks. As channels and discussion threads popped up everywhere, I felt a renewed obsession with the mysteries of outer space.  The channel called secureteam10 boasts: “We are your source for reporting the best in new UFO sighting news, info on the government coverup, and the strange activity happening on and off the planet.” 

I’ve been friends with enough conspiracy theorists to guess they’d probably say something like this in between bong hits with UFO plumes of smoke swirling in the air: “Those fucking Deep State shills at NASA are trying to cover up governmental wrongdoings” and “The Illuminati are probably out there on Mars now too, man.” 

NASA brought us back to Earth, later elaborating that the floating spoon-shaped object was actually a ventifact, which is a rock shaped by wind and sand. Ventifacts can also be found on Earth in places like Silver Lake in California’s Mojave Desert.

 

At 7000 pounds, the Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture located in the sculpture garden of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota is half the weight of a Tyrannosaurus Rex or fully grown elephant. It’s a giant spoon, the handle measuring 360 feet, which is equivalent to the length of the end zone of a football field. With a giant red cherry perched on its tip, this sculpture is arguably the most famous, iconic spoon in the world. Erected in 1985, Spoonbridge and Cherry embodies the whimsical, eye-pleasing aesthetic of Instagram art long before the app even existed. 

 

When I was growing up, I remember Mary Poppins singing: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in a most delightful way.” I remember watching my dad turn spoons into airplanes to make baby food seem palatable for my little sister. We even played the classic card game called Spoons that was like matching meets musical chairs.

That was back when spoons were objects of innocence, not terror. As Edwidge Danticat writes: “…we instinctively trust the banality and predictability of daily life. Until something larger shatters our world.”

 

We are all familiar with the question: “Do you want to be the big spoon or the little spoon?” It’s a question of intimacy: to be the holder or the held?  

After years of cycling through relationships and adapting to the various cuddle patterns and preferences of various partners, I invited a roller derby girl to my small-town Pride festival an hour from Minneapolis. There was something like electricity between us. Also, I had been single for over a year, so I thought I was ready for intimacy again. When we got back to my apartment after the Pride dance, she asked me the familiar question, one that I used to find comforting.  “Big spoon or little spoon?”

“Little spoon,” I said. We fell asleep in a perfect parenthesis of bodies. An hour later, I went to the bathroom and hoped this signaled the end of spooning because I felt stifled, claustrophobic trying to sleep with her body wrapped so tightly around me.

But when I came back, she was sitting up in bed. I took a sip of water and squirmed back into bed. “I’m sorry if I woke you.” 

“No, you were quiet. I just missed your warmth,” she said, wrapping her arms around me. I wanted to tell her that she didn’t know me long enough to miss me. Even though I badly wanted to be held together, cradled even, her arms weren’t strong enough to hold together all of my brokenness. 

 

Imagine it’s Christmas Eve of 1968. You’re crammed into Apollo 8, bumping elbows with two other astronauts in a shuttle with an interior the same size as a Chevy Silverado pickup. Instead of devouring savory ham and buttery mashed potatoes on grandma’s special china, you’re choking down turkey chunks, gravy, and dehydrated peaches in thermostabilized cans. 

You’re flung into orbit, floating in the infinite, dark vastness of space that Buzz Aldrin called “magnificent desolation.” Your body is memorizing the architecture of weightlessness, your spine is rubbery. 

According to NASA, this is what it was like for Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders, who were asked to deliver a heartwarming holiday dispatch to the American public: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” 

Because the astronauts were so disgusted by the dehydrated foods, they struggled with malnutrition and anorexia. NASA scientifically redesigned and restructured eating procedures for Apollo flights 9 through 14. Enter “spoon bowls.”

Spoon bowls look simple at first glance, resembling a plastic sandwich baggie with a tube at the end. Astronauts ate out of them with a regular kitchen spoon. Yet, spoon bowls were an engineering and logistical challenge, both costly and complicated. Spoon bowls gambled with the possibility of contaminating the delicately calibrated environment in the shuttle and were also difficult to use without the familiar pull of gravity. NASA engineers decided these were worthy sacrifices because spoons represented normalcy and evoked the comforts of home.  

 

The Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture has 1457 reviews on Trip Advisor, boasting an impressive 4.5-star rating. One of the few one-star reviewers complains: “What am I missing? Was it supposed to mean something?” 

This is debatable. Its creators Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen were well known for making massive public sculptures of common objects and food products, such as Chicago’s Batcolumn, a 101-foot tall baseball bat standing on its end—odes to the everyday. In their artist’s statement for Spoonbridge and Cherry, Oldenburg and van Bruggen write: “Its silver color and edges suggested ice-skating, a popular activity during Minneapolis’ several months of winter. The raised bowl of the spoon, in its large scale, suggested the bow of a ship.” The fountain and cherry in the piece was van Bruggen’s idea to “energize” the spoon, which Oldenburg conceptualized. Oldenburg had been doodling spoons ever since 1962, when he was inspired by a spoon resting on a piece of fake chocolate.

 

I, too, was inspired by the sight of a spoon resting on a table. How does a simple object become transformed to a haunting one?

For years, spoons evoked the ritual of heroin for me. Soup spoons are the heroin user’s preferred cookers because of their bendable handles and ability to be flattened. This is how the ritual started: I tore a swath of cotton off the end of a q-tip and threw it on the spoon as a filter. Then, I grabbed the hypodermic syringe out of the silverware drawer or the glove box, pressing its fang-like tip into the cotton to suck the muck into the barrel of the syringe. Every time I saw a spoon, I heard the crackle of a lighter and sizzle of black tar heroin cooking. I smelled the vinegary tang of that sweet poison filling the air.  

 

The conspiracy theory channel secureteam10 said it initially resisted reporting on the floating spoon image, because “the whole object on Mars thing had been played out.”  Plus, because of frequent 100-mile-per-hour winds, Mars’s terrain is characteristically unruly and unpredictable. Unusual shapes are the rule, not the exception. 

Despite these hesitations, secureteam10 insisted this spoon was “plain as day” and served as proof of life on Mars. A few days after the spoon on Mars image went viral, NASA refuted the claim in a Facebook statement: “There is no spoon.”  

 

Artist Dominic Esposito said that his brother was prescribed OxyContin for pain, then struggled with heroin addiction for fourteen years. In an interview, Esposito said, “My mom would call me in a panic…screaming she found another burnt spoon. This is a story thousands of families go through. He’s lucky to be alive. The spoon has always been an albatross for my family. It’s kind of an emotional symbol, a dark symbol for me.” 

Esposito constructed a steel sculpture of a bent spoon with black heroin residue in its bowl to coincide with gallery owner Fernando Luis Alverez’s summer show: “Opioid: Express Yourself.” The show featured a screen print of a giant white capsule juxtaposed against a bright red background and medicine cabinet shaped like a tombstone. When Alvarez saw Esposito’s giant heroin spoon, he decided they should “gift it” to pharmaceutical companies to demand accountability for their role in the opioid overdose crisis. 

 

It boils down to this: people see shapes on Mars because they want to see shapes on Mars. There’s a name for this phenomenon of perceiving specific, meaningful images in random patterns: pareidolia. Our minds trick us into arranging randomness into shapes or pictures that confirm our biases. Rorschach inkblot test. Jesus toast. Cloud patterns. 

 

Seeing the spoon was first a ripple that turned into a wave turned into a swell so huge that it dragged me under. Back then I would do anything to get heroin, to feel that tsunami of warmth and oblivion again. That’s the real reason I got rid of my spoons, then later my q-tips and belts.  

 

On June 22, 2018, Esposito and Alvarez drove a trailer emblazoned with a skull from Boston to Stamford, Connecticut filled with the 800-pound, 10.5-foot metal sculpture. They plunked it right in front of the main entrance of Purdue Pharma headquarters, a perfect social media photo opportunity. The duo was clearly not going for subtlety in accusing Purdue of being “architects of the epidemic.”

Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the opioid painkiller OxyContin, has been blamed by many for shady sales and marketing practices, downplaying the addictive nature of opiates in order to promote sales, incentivizing pharmaceutical reps with bonuses for sales, and for kindling the opioid overdose crisis.

After an hour of attempted negotiations, Purdue Pharma called the police, who issued Alvarez a ticket for “obstructing free passage” because the sculpture interfered with foot traffic leading to the building. The police commander told Alvarez, “Your giant spoon has to go.” Alvarez refused and was subsequently briefly arrested for a charge of “interfering with police.” 

President Trump’s 2016 campaign had a strong focus on ending the opioid overdose crisis. I was skeptical and scoffed when I read into his plan. Rather than increasing access to substance abuse treatment, medications, and to the opiate overdose reversal drug Naloxone, the Trump administration has focused on building a wall at the US-Mexico border under the guise of preventing smuggling of heroin and fentanyl and using the death penalty for drug traffickers and dealers. While big pharma CEOs walk free. 

Last I heard, Esposito’s spoon was in an impound lot in Stamford. I fantasized about renting a trailer of my own, then leaving the spoon in front of Trump Tower. 

 

Long before the spoon debate, people claimed to have seen rats, a woman, a crab, a bowl, and even a jelly donut just chilling on Mars’s surface. Perhaps the most famous instance of pareidolia on Mars was in 1976, when Viking 1 captured a rock formation that resembled a head, its shadows making it appear like it had eyes, nose, and a mouth. “Face on Mars” then became the stuff of both legend and lore until subsequent higher resolution images refuted this speculation. 

Once again, NASA brought us back to earth, explaining that the picture was “the Martian equivalent of a butte or mesa—landforms common around the American West.”

As if reading the skeptics’ minds, secureteam10 reassures us that, no, the floating spoon is not a pareidolia. I have watched the video now more times than I care to admit because I want so badly to believe in something as strongly as secureteam10 does, even if it’s just a spoon on Mars.

 

A year after I threw out the spoons, I marched to the silverware aisle at a big-box store where I filled my blue basket with a new set of spoons. After a year clean, I was ready to be a normal dignified human who had proper place settings for a dinner party, even though I had never once hosted something so adult, so normal.  

A few days later, I went to a thrift store and admired their spoon collection. Spiky grapefruit spoons. Big soup spoons. Itty bitty baby spoons. Collectible spoons from places like Mount Rushmore, Hershey, Pennsylvania, the Space Needle, Golden Gate Bridge, the Alamo, Mall of America, Branson, Missouri, and Medora, North Dakota. After I got home and washed the spoons, I licked one, felt the smoothness on my tongue. I thought about how one seemingly ordinary thing could be so many things at once—how a spoon could be transformed from a thing of terror and despair to a thing of wonder and whimsy. 


Tessa Torgeson is a social worker and writer living in Denver. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Star Tribune, Brevity Blog, and The Fix, among others. She still has plans to start a spoon collection and finish her book.  

1, 2, 3, 4

by: Kathleen Gullion

A letter arrives with all eight letters of my name stitched into the envelope with red thread. I’ve never seen my name like this, jagged and homemade. I pride myself on my careful cursive, but there’s something in me that likes the frays. Inside is a sheet of lined paper with Lee’s scrawl filling all the white space. Even the margins are full of blurbs that look like lyrics. The next time I see him, I ask him to play them for me. They’re songs by a local band, he says. Houston has local bands? I ask. He laughs and puts on their tape. It sounds like country music without accents, and faster. A washboard keeps the rhythm. Instead of singing, the band members yell and shout in raspy voices. What is this? I ask. The band’s called Rosa, he says. No, what is this? I ask. Folk punk, he says. More like an alien transmission. Through the strange noise I can hear the words from the margins of his letter: and I could fall in love forever, and never come up with an empty hand. 

 

The crumbling white building, surrounded by a moat of smokers, is shaking from the noise within. East Side Social Center is in a part of town I’ve never been to before, a part where there are more liquor stores than houses. Ready for your first show? Lee asks. Duh, I say, pushing open the car door, Let’s go. Be cool be cool be cool, I tell myself as we snake our way through the crowd where clothes are held together by patches, and skin is adorned with piercings and tattoos. I’m wearing all black and a pair of pleather boots. But it’s clear that I’m just plastic to their leather. I hand the door guy a five and his eyes linger on me, then Lee rushes us in. A band called Alimañas is playing tonight. On the other side of the door, we are greeted by a wall of sound. I cover my ears, but the screeching guitar and breakneck drums bleed through. We’re only feet from the band. The guitarist spins in circles as he shreds, and the singer throws himself toward the mic with every line. Rosa’s raspy vocalist sounds angelic compared to his screeching. It’s dark, but I can see the crowd, mostly men, dancing by shoving each other around. Avoiding elbows, I inch around the edge of the crowd to the back where it’s quieter, where the beer is. Want one? Lee asks. I don’t have a fake, I say. Doesn’t matter, he says, tossing me a Tecate from the bar. After a few of the doesn’t-matters, I’m drunk, and I dive into the pit. I shove my hands into a burly man’s biceps, but he doesn’t budge. So instead, I let my body go slack so I can be jostled between the men. It’s like riding a rollercoaster. But then I lose my footing, and I’m eye-level with multiple pairs of steel-toed boots. A pair of strong arms lifts me up, and I’m back on my feet. I look around to find my savior, but all I see is a blur of bodies. But then I see the same thing that happened to me happening to the rest of the crowd: when someone falls, they get picked up. People look out for each other. When the song ends, I skip to the back, head spinning. That was so fun! I say. Lee smiles. You might want to wear pants next time, he says, gesturing to my miniskirt, which has ridden up. I yank it down. Whoops, I say. Hey, can I please have another beer? While he gets me one, I look around and wonder who saw my underwear. There’s a mural on the wall. It’s made of knives and eyes. 

 

To get invited to Tom’s after the show means you are somebody or you know somebody. In my case, it’s because I know Lee. Now, I have the uniform down: a ripped band t-shirt, a frayed denim vest, and a pair of 14-eye steel-toed boots made with vegan leather that looks just like the real thing. Tom’s house is close to East Side, and he lets everyone smoke inside because fuck landlords. People call Tom Papa Punk because at thirty, he’s older than everyone. His house smells like piss and beer, and we sit around drinking 40s and whiskey. Smoke clogs the air. I’m the only girl except Bianca, Tom’s girlfriend. She sits down next to me and says she likes my eyeliner and asks where I got my skirt, and I tell her I don’t remember, because I don’t want to admit my mom bought it for me. Everyone here talks about being poor. I don’t think their mothers buy them things, and I don’t want them to know my mother buys me things. Bianca gets up to go to the kitchen, and I listen to the boys talk, cutting each other off and talking over one another. They talk about their plans for the revolution, how they need to start exercising so they can outrun the bourgeoisie, the cop cars they want to burn, the fights they’ll pick with neo-Nazis. They talk like anything is possible, and I want to hear every word. Then the conversation takes a turn as the boys swap stories about a motorcycle accident, so-and-so’s brother who overdosed, a friend who went to prison. I want to chime in. I try to say, that’s so fucked up, but my comment gets buried under someone else’s. Then they put on Crass and shout along, and the mood picks up. Someone goes for more whiskey. We sink into our seats, boozelogged. After finishing his second 40, Tom sits next to me and puts his hand on my shoulder. His eyes drift toward my cleavage. Then he leans across me and says to Lee, You’re a lucky man, you know that right? I try to say thanks, but my lips are glued together since I’ve barely said a word all night. It doesn’t really matter, because he wasn’t talking to me anyway.

 

I won’t get off work in time, I’m sorry, Lee’s text reads. I’ve been parked outside East Side for half an hour waiting for him. I consider going home. But I already gave my mom an alibi, so I might as well go in. East Side feels cavernous without him for me to cling to. I find a spot near the back of the crowd. After a few minutes, the first band comes out. Their songs are short and fast, and it sounds like every other line is fuck you. I alternate between nodding my head, tapping my foot, and bouncing my knee. None of it feels natural. The set ends, and people in the crowd chat while the next band sets up. I look around the crowd for anyone I recognize. There’s Christy, Adam’s girlfriend, by the bar. She’s always been nice to me. I walk over to her and say hey. She says hey back. I can’t think of anything else to say. Lee would know—he always has a joke or a rant in his pocket. Maybe beer will help. I ask the bartender for a Tecate. ID, he says. My heart sinks. I feel my pockets and tell him I forgot it, then run to the bathroom and hide until the next band comes out. It’s three men in sweaters and a woman in a short black dress. We are Perfect Pussy from Syracuse, New York, the woman says into the mic. Then the sound bursts. It sounds less like music and more like a competition of who can be the loudest. The vocalist runs back and forth across the stage, her voice distorted by the mic. She sings with her eyes closed. The noise starts to take the shape of a melody. I realize I’m dancing. And not just nodding my head or tapping my foot, but jumping and flailing and bouncing. The first song ends in a flurry and they charge into the next one. The men in sweaters are huddled towards the back of the stage, tearing into their instruments but staying contained, while the vocalist goes free rein on the stage, shouting each line with such vigor it feels as though she’s been holding her tongue her entire life. I realize this is the first time I’ve seen a woman fronting a band at East Side. Finally, a song fades into quiet. The singer opens her eyes. The crowd cheers for an encore. We don’t have any more songs, the singer says, laughing, and they pack up their stuff. The fluorescent lights turn on, and the next band brings out their equipment. I don’t know what to do with my hands, or my feet, or my eyes, or my thoughts, so I leave. On the drive home, I stream their EP on repeat, and when I get back to my parents’ house, the first thing I do is look up the lyrics. Instead of verses and choruses, I find paragraphs that spill revelations. They read like diary entries. I understand why she wanted the vocals distorted when I read the line there’s no room in this world for people who hate men. She’s referring to herself, someone who hates men. To say that to a room full of them, without distortion—that would be terrifying. I wonder for a moment if that line applies to me, but then I keep reading. 

 

Falling in love is the punkest thing you can do, Ryan says and then plays a song on his acoustic guitar that goes all I wanna do is hang out with you. Before Ryan, Galesburg didn’t have a punk scene. But shows happen almost every week now in living rooms like this one. All the furniture is pushed to the side so people can sit on the floor and watch. As he plays, the crowd is respectful and quiet, and in between songs, he reminds us that moshing is not allowed and no racist or homophobic behavior is either. His music sounds more like the Beach Boys than Crass, but he still calls it punk. I guess to him, punk is more about the do-it-yourself ethic and anarchist ideals rather than a specific sound. As he croons, he looks into my roommate’s eyes. She is the ‘you’ he sings to. Over the past few months, I’ve watched him show her the same bands Lee showed me. He finishes his set and we all linger around after to chat. He says he’s been wanting to start a new band with a heavier sound. He looks at me and says, Hey Kathleen, you’re pretty loud—do you want to sing in a punk band? I don’t know how to, I say. It doesn’t matter, he says. The Ramones didn’t know how to play their instruments when they started! I laugh. I’m serious though, he says. I haven’t talked to Lee since he started showing up wasted every time we had plans and tried to sell drugs to my sister. I wonder what he would say if I joined a band. Probably something like, what do y’all rich college kids have to scream about anyway? I can barely sing. What would happen if I open my mouth?

 

I show up to practice with my first song written in my notebook. Ryan and Matt are already set up in Matt’s basement. Music equipment is balanced on top of the laundry machines, and wires are wrapped around pipes. The only light source is a string of Christmas lights. Ryan and Matt have spent the week jamming together, figuring out our sound. Ryan’s on guitar, and Matt’s on drums. This is Matt’s first time playing drums, so he’s new like me, but unlike me, he can hear measures, he knows what a power chord is. Ready to hear our first song? Ryan asks. Yeah! I say. Matt counts them in with a smile that tells me he’s reveling in getting to be the person who starts the song. The song is fast and loud with no pauses or breaks. One section hurtles into the next. They keep eye contact so they can stay in sync, and occasionally Ryan shouts out instructions to Matt if he gets offbeat. After about a minute, the song ends with a clash of cymbals. Holy shit, I say. That was awesome! Ryan shrugs. We’re still working out some of the kinks, he says, glancing at Matt. Your turn, he says. Show us what you got. Now? I ask. Yeah, just play around, he says, then hands me the microphone and gets back into position with his guitar. The amp screeches. Ryan waves his hands and points to the mic. Don’t let it face the amp! he says. I turn the mic right side up. I take the notebook out of my pocket and flip to my song with the hand that’s not holding the mic. Before I have time to think about how I should deliver the lines, Matt yells 1, 2, 3, 4! and the song starts. I remember the vocalist from Perfect Pussy and how she almost seemed to sing to herself. I start shouting. I’m half paying attention to Ryan and Matt, but most of my attention is on the page in front of me, making sure I’m getting the words out. Shouting takes a lot of energy. I jump up and down just to keep it going. My feet pound into the floor with each word: how can I forgive you?? I can already feel my throat getting sore from the strain when all of the sudden I’m shouting into silence. I stop singing and put my hand over my mouth. Sorry, I say. I guess I’ll have to cut something. Kathleen, Ryan says. That. Was. Fucking. Awesome. Really?! I say. Yeah, dude, that was great, Matt adds. I feel lightheaded. I go upstairs to get water while they tweak something in the chorus. The floor vibrates as I drink. 

 

We decide to call ourselves Genovia Forever like from the movie The Princess Diaries with Anne Hathaway & Julie Andrews & I fill up my notebooks with songs that include lines like my body’s not a temple, it’s just a sack of skin & the best revenge is never seeing you again & at practice I scream them at Matt’s basement walls & no one knows what I am saying & that is okay & Ryan asks Sydney to be our bassist & Ryan starts calling us a queer feminist band now that there are two queer women in it & we write five more songs & in them are all of my confessions kept safe in distortion & five songs is enough for an EP & so we record one in Knox’s radio station & we call it Shut Up & Listen after Lily Moscovitz’s cable show in The Princess Diaries & we book our first show in a church basement in Iowa City & before the show we get into an argument with another band because they made a rape joke & we get them kicked off the bill & I guess we really are a feminist band now & we play our set & I talk too much in between songs & we mess up every single song & it doesn’t matter because people dance anyway & we start playing shows in Galesburg & I get more confident onstage & learn how to make eye contact with the crowd instead of staring at my feet & people listen to me when I shout & they can’t understand what I’m saying through the distortion but they listen

 

This tour wouldn’t be happening if not for me and Sydney, Ryan says. He’s driving our borrowed minivan, scolding Matt and me as a parent would. Sydney and I booked the whole thing, he says. And you didn’t help. Ryan keeps talking, his voice filling the car. Sydney doesn’t say anything. I don’t understand. I booked our Savannah show. And I offered to help book more, but he turned me down. Matt apologizes, sorry, man, I’ll pull my weight more next time. I grit my teeth. I’m not going to apologize, but I can’t deny him—without his connections to DIY scenes in the southeast US, we wouldn’t be on tour. Afraid of what will come out of my mouth if I open it, I stay silent and stare out the window, watching the rolling hills turn into mountains. Ryan puts on the Good Charlotte CD we thrifted in Bloomington, and Sydney starts a game of cows vs. cemeteries. Cows! Point for us! Matt says to Ryan. Damn it, Sydney says. Oh! Cows! Wait, does that pasture count as one or two points for us? Sydney asks me. I don’t know, I say, picking my cuticles. We pull up to the punk house in Murfreesboro around dinner time. We are greeted by its tenants, a group of rowdy men with piercings in unusual places who chug down beer like water. The other bands arrive one by one, all male, in head-to-toe black and draped in chains, all spit and gnarl. We look like kids compared to them and every time we tell someone, Genovia Forever, like from The Princess Diaries, I feel even more juvenile. The house fills with people who keep getting drunker and drunker until it’s time for the first band, the Exterminators. Their sound is dark and low and sludgy and fast and a pit forms like a whirlpool in the middle of the crowd. It’s like I’m back at East Side, getting tossed between bodies. I’m not in the mood to be pushed around. I slip out of the crowd and stand near the side. Bodies keep crashing into me. I push them away, but they keep crashing. This is what the crowd wants: a band who can incite riots. We can incite foot-tapping, maybe some jumping up and down at best. They’ll boo us off the stage. The Exterminators’ set ends, and we set up in the cramped corner of the room. I fiddle with the microphone cable while I wait for my bandmates to finish. Ryan plugs in his guitar and gives me a thumbs up. I look out at the crowd. The crowd looks back, and I can almost hear them thinking, maybe I’ll skip this set for a smoke break. We’re Genovia Forever, I say. Ok, let’s start. Matt slams the sticks together to start our first song. I scream and yell into the microphone with my eyes closed. I don’t want to see the crowd. I bark out the last word and open my eyes to find the crowd cheering and clapping. We keep going. I jump around and scream lines into the faces of audience members. Do your comrades know you abused me?? They can’t tell what I’m saying, even when I’m inches from them, and it’s exhilarating. They head bang, none the wiser. When we finish our last song, my throat is burning, and I am dripping sweat. I just need some air, I tell my bandmates, and I rush outside into the cool night air. I wipe the sweat from my face and let the silence salve my throbbing eardrums. But then two girls burst from the backdoor, drunk and giddy. Hey! One of them says. That was sooo cool, the other says. Their voices overlap as they tell me how glad they were to finally see a girl at one of these shows. They open a beer to share, passing it back and forth. I ask if they come to shows here a lot, and one of them says, oh, yeah, all the time, and we talk about riot grrrl and bands in Tennessee and leopard print and the world’s largest cedar bucket which is just down the road. The next band starts to play. The basement throbs. Should we go in? One of the girls asks. I shake my head. They won’t miss us.


Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Chicago. Her work has been published by The Esthetic Apostle, F Newsmagazine, and Potluck Magazine. She recently earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is currently at work on a novel. 

Sweet Shade

by Roger Real Drouin

For Sandy Hound (2000 – 2015)

I remember the sweet shade.

Sandy hound scoops the bit of bark and tosses it, catching it in her paws as she did as a pup. Except now, the dirt’s on the blaze of her muzzle that’s showing more white than fawn. She gnaws the bark, cabbage palm worn smooth and the size of a small sea shell, then cradles it in her paws.

The breeze comes across. It’s warm, draped in humidity already, but it feels good. I put my pack down beside the cabbage palm and get out the Dukjug with the small glacier of ice clinking inside and Sandy hound’s bowl, and I rest my hat atop the pack. My eyes adjust to the shade.

Read More

The art of waiting for catastrophe; or, why I’m hoping toilet paper remains the icon of the coronavirus days

BY LAURA BERNSTEIN-MACHLAY

Right now, my small family and I are beginning our second week in isolation here in Detroit.

Well, okay. We’re mostly isolated. My husband Steven and I still make the odd grocery store and pharmacy runs for whatever happens to be available on the shelves. To alleviate anyone’s worries, let me assure you that we’re fine for toilet paper. We haven’t hoarded, though, so in a week or two, we might have to scramble. Or, you never know; maybe the buying frenzy will abate by then as we all fold ourselves like origami creatures into the reality of this extraordinary new existence.

Meanwhile, even with my online classes to manage, my panicked students to soothe, the latest coronavirus updates to voraciously consume, I’ve got lots of extra time—useful for organizing crammed-full closets or meditating. Not so swell when I chew my nails and fret about whatever fresh chaos lurks just over the horizon. About the breaking world and rising infection rates and the recession churning through America’s economy; how, if it lasts, my college-student daughter will surely suffer—as she’s already suffering with her own classes relocated online, with being trapped in the same seven rooms with her fussing parents for weeks or maybe months to come, with her friends, even the local ones, utterly untouchable.

Read More

Andrea Doria

BY LESLIE ARMSTRONG

Andrea Doria (1456 to 1560) was born in Oneglia, west of Genoa. He was orphaned at a young age and became a soldier of fortune. In 1503 he served in the Genoese navy routing the French from Corsica. He spent the rest of his long life serving whoever paid well, commanding his galleys in warfare against the Turks and Barbary pirates and protecting the supremacy and independence of the principality of Genoa. He died a rich and revered man. Many Italian and US naval vessels have been named after him, the most famous of which was the passenger ship SS Andrea Doria, launched in June of 1951, maiden voyage January 1953.

Read More

The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump

BY JAY ARMSTRONG

Six months after being diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration, six months after a neurologist examined an MRI of my brain, leveled his eyes, cleared his throat and said to me, “you should be dead or in a hospital bed,” I’m staring at my physical therapist, Denise, and she’s daring me to jump.

“Jay, I want you to jump.”

“Like up and down?”

“Yes, like jump up and down.”

I smile and look around the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center. There are three other patients in the activity center with me. Two women, both walking on a treadmill, and Bill, a former Navy captain, who is the proud owner of a new titanium hip. Bill is pedaling a stationary bike and, according to St. Lawrence lore, Bill has never smiled. Ever.

Read More

Page 1 of 11

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén