Tag: Nonfiction (Page 1 of 6)

Oyster Virgin

by Tom Z. Spencer

The oyster is the world’s ugliest treat. It’s a chipped up and dirty seashell shaped like a human ear. Inside the shell lies a phlegm-yellow lump.

I’m gigging as a fixer (a driver and local guide) for an effervescent editor of Physiocrat magazine named Rosie. Oysters can clean and filter two gallons of seawater in an hour, she tells me. I love slurping down a heavily-used Brita filter, I answer.

I’m a journalism major, and Rosie is incredible at my least favorite part of the job: pulling strangers aside to talk to them. We’ve been rustling up man-on-the-street interviews all day, and now it’s dinner time.

She loops the bartender into easy banter, and he refills our Riesling with the heavy hand of a happy host. Rosie is dressed in gray jeans and black, roughout, high-heeled boots. She’s wearing an angular black leather jacket with buckles on the shoulders that received more than a few compliments from interviewees throughout the day. It’s a sleek, urban style—it looks like New York City to me.

The wine sounds its upward ripple as it floods her beaded glass. Then mine is refilled—I don’t even have to ask. This is how a pleasant evening is supposed to roll along. We’re in a symphony of chatty laughter and the cling-clang of forks and knives on plates.

Rosie tells me how lucky I am to have grown up eating fresh oysters, being raised on the New England coast.

I answer with a shrug. I’ve never eaten an oyster in my life, but the advice “act like you’ve been there before” keeps looping in my head. Listening to Rosie’s Australian accent, I wonder how she ended up here, on the other side of the globe, when I haven’t even seen my own backyard yet. Yes, it would be good to leave here after graduation.

“Do you like oysters, then?” Rosie asks.

I’m not getting away with acting like this isn’t my first oyster rodeo.

“Never had ‘em,” I admit.

She claps her hands together. “An oyster virgin!” she says.

This catches the ear of the buzzed bartender (also our host and chef)—he raises a sly eyebrow at the two of us and purrs, “Shall I play soft jazz, first?”

“Let me set the mood,” he says, and sticks a Bic lighter in the mouth of a frosted glass with a candle inside. He sets the candle on the bar top and slowly slides it over to us with a wink. He peers over black rectangular eyeglass frames and grins. His cheeks are flushed red with the weighty task of ensuring that each and every wine, liquor, beer, and spirit in stock is up to scratch.

Everything this bartender does is staged and precise—the way he pours white wine without spilling a drop, cutting off the stream with a twist of his wrist. A capital ham, he fans the oyster menu out like it’s a big picnic blanket, though it’s just a small yellow card, then curtsies and steps back to let us look it over.

“It is a texture thing as much as a taste,” Rosie says, maybe scanning for my level of enthusiasm.

Rosie mentions her friend in New York who hates oysters and calls them “seawater loogies.”

Oh, perfect. Just the thing after a long and frigid day. Now wages this inner war: I don’t want ‘em. But I wanna seem worldly.

I must have given a bug-eyed reaction to this boogery comparison, because mid-sip of white wine Rosie purses her lips to trap a laugh. Her brown-blonde shoulder-length hair pitches forward, her shoulders shake with laughter.

I take my own wine glass, circle it under my nose, cock an eyebrow, and say, “Hmm, yes, pairs perfectly with seawater loogie.”

This elicits another laugh from her. “Oh, you’re too silly,” she says.

She dabs her lips with a napkin and tells me about the clean, mineral taste of the Riesling she’s picked, how it’s just the thing before and after an oyster.

The conversation’s been easy all day.

We had spent the day interviewing people out in the cold. We are both still warming up—hunched shoulders and curled red fingertips tucked under our arms. I want hot and hearty food, something in the neighborhood of shepherd’s pie, not a so-called sea loogie over ice, but refusing food from new people in new places and new situations is not the way of a poet warrior.

I sip the wine, and heat radiates out from my stomach and cheeks into my limbs. My stomach’s been empty all day, and after a drive to Boston and back, the first hour of which was in rush hour traffic, bumper-to-bumper with Mad Max Massholes, it’s nice to have a drink.

I feel good. This is fun. She’s fun. Fun and engaged to be married and only here for a couple of days. A tragi-comic combination.

A black-and-white photo hangs on the restaurant wall of two men in front of a mountain of gutted oyster shells. One has been caught scooping an oyster into his mouth, and his dirty, chipped fingernail seems, itself, like a tiny oyster shell. The black moon sliver of dirt under his nail is the same composite of grays and blacks that make up the outer texture of an oyster shell. Maybe it was taken in the thirties or forties, based on the flat caps and vests the guys are wearing.

This takes a quarter-second to see, and then …

“What’s the etiquette for eating these?” I ask. “I don’t want to make a faux pas.”

She laughs again. “A faux pas,” she repeats. “Nonsense.” She dismisses the thought, claiming to be the world’s messiest eater. I’m having fun again.

Sly bartender is back. He offers his own, less snot-oriented description of the food we are about to eat. “An oyster is like a kiss from the sea,” he says.

Rosie agrees, saying the oysters she had in London were the closest thing to the feeling of surfing the coast of Australia when she was young. That is better imagery. The comparisons are getting more appealing.

“You’ll think you just French-kissed Poseidon’s daughter,” sly bartender says. There, that works. I focus on that comparison as Rosie and I review the yellow card of oyster options.

There are large oysters with shells as big as the palm of my hand, medium-sized oysters, and fun-sized bites called Virgin Oysters.

“The symmetry is too good,” Rosie says, underscoring the last name with a light pink polished fingernail. “We’ve got to have them.”

She orders a half-dozen oysters, two small, two medium, and two large. I stomp down some inner hunger crankiness and remind myself it’s good to try new things.

We spend the wait for our food recapping our day. Isn’t talking to strangers difficult? Yes, we’re all taught not to do it, but anything comes with practice.

Rosie is in New Hampshire to find, as she describes it, “interviews of the great and the good.” This isn’t her typical role at Physiocrat, but there are special circumstances. She asks the interviewees to offer a prediction about the future. These predictions could be as personal as a projection about their business or as big as a guess about global affairs.

(Where’s our food? My hunger outweighs my oyster nerves. How am I going to look cool in front of her if I’m choking down something vile?)

I ask her what the final project will look like.

She tells me the final project will be a collection of videos of people who experience politics the way most of us do—not across the table from a foreign diplomat, or in a committee meeting in Washington, but as spectators.

I think about what she’s saying. It seems true. We regular folk have a sort of distant powerlessness, or we vanish down a wormhole of some boutique ism, complete with its own in-crowd, out-crowd jargon and heresy.

Realistically speaking, even civic-minded people have little influence over global-scale matters. We manage or mismanage our little lives, scream at the TV or at strangers online, or tune out completely. Or, like an oyster, we sit and sponge up the junk of the environment, almost unconsciously.

(Are those our oysters? No, they’re going somewhere else. Boy, they really do look like the mussels at Lake Massabesic that I used to pluck up and “ewwww” at.)

Then Rosie and I move on to chatting about who offered the best interview, who offered the biggest surprise, or the most insight, and that kind of thing.

I dig back through my memories of the day. Who did we speak to? We’d started with a list of suggestions Rosie emailed me ahead of time.

She’d wanted to speak to an oyster man, a beautician, a businessman, and a politician.

I had to admit I didn’t know anybody who fished (or farmed?) for oysters. I’d called a friend who is a farmer for recommendations, but he didn’t know anybody who did that either.

After some digging around, we’d found ourselves at a pier joining a leathery, wiry oyster man in orange rubber overalls for his morning routine. He was happy enough to have us around, he just didn’t want to be slowed down too much as he clumped along in water-proof boots, squeaking and creaking in his overalls, slipping the Kevlar straps over the shoulders of his Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.

I think about the algae-bearded shells I saw him pluck from under brown water and put into his bucket that morning as we sit and wait for a serving of that same animal. This is all being expensed, naturally, an exciting prospect.

“Wait ‘til you’ve landed an expense budget,” Rosie says. “It’s a grand time.” I’m bleak about the resources publications offer writers now, and she reassures me it looked even worse when she was hunting around for opportunities, yet here she is. I find that comforting.

I think about our day again. After the oyster man, we’d driven around in the rain for hours, stopping when someone caught Rosie’s eye.

There were two gentlemen Rosie had found perched at the smooth, metal bar of the Gaslight Bar & Grill, which was decorated in dark, polished woods washed in warm, yellow lighting. There were mermaids and lobsters and other carvings on the walls—they looked as if they’d been hacked out of driftwood.

The two men could have been convincingly cast to perform My Dinner with Andre. One was balding and had crinkles around his blue eyes, and the other wore a mustache and had thin, combed hair. When Rosie asked them about being interviewed, they immediately went into an Abbot and Costello style routine with each other.

“I can’t imagine,” said the mustached one, who turned out to be a Portsmouth city attorney, “why anyone would want to interview a little old city attorney. Surely he’s much more interesting than I am,” he said, lifting a glass to his friend.

His bald friend told him to hop off his nonsense and do the damn interview.

“It seems,” the attorney said when asked for a prediction about 2016 (the coming year at the time), “that nothing has gotten better for decades.” He was concerned about the escalation with Russia and saw no reason the situation would improve. As he brooded about the dark future that awaited us all, he suddenly became aware of his surroundings, the excellent restaurant on a wonderful evening. His face broke into a smile.

“Thank God for drinks and bars,” he joked. On that note, Rosie wrapped up the interview, and we left the two men to enjoy their evening.

Not every prediction was about the sad state of the world. Rosie found a hairstylist next. The hairstylist pled apolitical, but predicted that next year, the simple, linear, angular fashion of New York chic would remain popular, and that burgundy, maroon, and other dark colors would remain popular for hair and nails. Such details of life that often pass unnoticed are being carefully considered by large organizations who need to plan their next clothing line, photo shoot, or magazine. Whatever they decide filters down to become what people end up wearing on the streets.

Our last interview comes from none other than the sly bartender who is playing host for us.

“I think you’ll see people continue to eat a lot of oysters,” he says. “They’re healthy, delicious, local, and I think even vegetarians should be eating them. You’re going to see a push towards eating local food. Vegetarians should keep eating mushrooms, and carnivores should keep eating pigs.” He predicts the oyster will bound in popularity and expresses his hope that “ISIS will go bye-bye,” but adds that it seems unlikely.

He closes with something more aspirational, something I didn’t anticipate. He says there will be some form of life, something small, maybe even microbial, found on Mars.

His role as a chef may not be world-changing, but then again, we all eat, and he is an expert with food recommendations as someone who cooks for people all day, every day.

Our food arrives.

The oyster is a difficult food to present in an appetizing manner. The butterflied mollusks lie bare and naked to the world, shells pried open for all to see on a bed of ice. There are metal pins sticking up from the oysters with the names from the menu on them. The best part is the ice bed, which is lit from beneath with an alien blue glow that flatters the mollusks’ greenish skin, inasmuch as a mollusk can be flattered at all. It looks like a dish the Klingons would serve Captain Kirk.

The best-looking part of an oyster is the inside of the shell, which is waxed with mother-of-pearl streaks, cut off in life before mustering enough fury to snowball its irritant into a precious jewel, a reverse gobstopper growing with time.

The metal circular tray, bedded with more ice and lined with oysters fanned out like flower petals from a center of sauce dishes, looks good. I am hungry. There are two sauces, a light vinegar with chalets and something tomato-based, like marinara but smoother.

Rosie clinks my wine glass and takes one of the smallest oysters. I take the other. She plucks the quivering tissue from its shell using a petite, three-pronged fork. I do the same. Then, like a shot, she lets the little animal slide down all at once.

I try to think of fresh sea breezes and Poseidon’s daughter. Under close scrutiny, I take the shot from the shell. (Act like you’ve been there before.)

Slurp. Glug.

A loogie is a fair comparison. The oyster is a congealed slip of goo that gives way under tongue pressure. Chewing with my teeth feels like overkill. There is no meaty texture, just globs of dense and soft slime.

But the taste is of fresh, clean, brisk, and bracing saltwater.

I remember my audience.

“Well, you didn’t visibly gag, so good for you,” Rosie quips. “And good for you for going raw and not drowning it in sauces!”

I feel a warm rush of pride. I didn’t know that eating a raw or naked oyster is like drinking coffee black or taking a straight shot of whiskey.

The oyster is gone so fast that it leaves me wanting more.

There are four oysters remaining. And there are two sauces to try, and wine to drink after. Tastes and experiences to examine and notes to compare with her. I’ve made it through this mini-gauntlet. I hadn’t needed to tightrope walk and second guess myself the way I had. We’re just having fun. I feel like saying what the city attorney said—thank God for drinks and bars.

The next day, there are more interviews. After, I drive her to the airport. We’re so comfortable and chatty at that point that the trip to Boston goes by too quickly. It is the fastest drive to Logan I’ve ever experienced. She’s on with her life, and I’m on with mine. As she walks away from my car with her gear bag, I watch her go and think a rare thought for me: things aren’t so bad, things aren’t so bad.

Tom Z. Spencer is an author, filmmaker, and award-winning playwright. He has been published in Offscreen, and his short film The Bamboo Raft is available on YouTube.

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?”


“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. 


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?”


“Why didn’t we ki—


“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?”


“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.

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. 

The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump


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.

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Book Review: American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI


With seven Law and Orders, four CSIs, and crime thrillers ranking among the top-selling genres of fiction, it is no mystery that America has an addiction to police procedurals and court drama. Networks and publishers have made an industry out of true crime re-creation and documentaries for those with a more discerning bloodlust that want to know that the murder and mayhem they consume is the real deal. In this environment, it should come as no surprise that Kate Winkler Dawson’s newest book, American Sherlock, with its equal parts biography, true crime facts, forensics science history, and social commentary, is primed to be a shotgun blast of mass appeal into the face of the nonfiction marketplace.

At first blush, American Sherlock is a biography about Edward Oscar Heinrich, a man Dawson identifies in the prologue as “a forensic scientist and criminalist from the first half of the twentieth century, a man who changed how crimes were solved before forensics became the foundation of most criminal cases – America’s Sherlock Holmes.”

Dawson tackles Heinrich’s illustrious career by walking the reader through his most famous cases. The chosen series of vignettes reads like the lead plots of the best crime fiction—a Hollywood mogul accused of sexual assault and manslaughter; a devout husband charged with the murder of his wife; a manhunt after a boy finds a body part; and quite possibly the last great American train robbery. That’s not all, but you get the idea.

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Book Review: The Witches Are Coming

by Leni Leanne Phillips

The Witches Are Coming is a collection of essays by Lindy West, some brand new, and some previously published in various online and print magazines and updated for the book. West has been around for a long time. Her work has been featured in publications like The New York Times, The Guardian, and Jezebel. As I read The Witches Are Coming, I recognized a couple of the essays, having read them when they were originally published, but I’ll admit West’s name didn’t become familiar to me until I binge-watched Season One of Shrill, a Hulu original television series starring SNL’s Aidy Bryant. I was impressed and intrigued enough to look up Shrill’s writers, including West, the author of the memoir which inspired the television show. When I read that West had a new collection of essays, The Witches Are Coming, I got my hands on a copy as quickly as I could.

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Book Review: Year of the Monkey

By Briana Weeger

In the first days and weeks of 2020, the season for past reflections and future resolutions is upon us—if you’re into that sort of thing. In Patti Smith’s newest memoir Year of the Monkey, the writer, photographer, and musician takes a surreal look at her life in 2016, the year of the trickster monkey in Chinese zodiac. But Smith doesn’t seem to be a fan of New Year’s resolutions. Instead, in a tumultuous political and personal landscape, Smith is beautifully open to the lessons, connections, and hidden meanings within dreams that the year offers her. Her writing is a surreal mix of fiction and nonfiction as she contemplates what is real and attempts to absorb the absurd truths of living and dying.

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How to Promise

By Zach Semel

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

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

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

“How’s Grandpa?” I ask.

“He’s asleep,” she says.

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

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

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The Brambles

By: Michelle Bracken

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Why can’t they just read?

They never do homework. 

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

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

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

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

“My mom has brain cancer.”

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not like him,” I tell them.

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

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


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

“You’re here to see me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is it?” he asks.

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


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

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

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

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

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


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