Tag: Nonfiction (Page 1 of 4)

Tangible Things

By Marianne Rogoff

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

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

Then we went less often. No one saw the wild daisies appear, wild lilies push forth from underground bulbs. The rosemary took over. Other deep holes were dug. Seasonal winds blew random seeds from afar to land there, where the ground shifted beneath the weight of grief.

Was it the heavy step of a deer, a gravedigger, or a tractor that caused what we found maybe five years later, when we came to discover the pink tile broken into four or five chunks, lying like puzzle pieces under the blooming lavender? We cried our eyes out and then agreed it was time’s way to break things down so we said our hellos and prayers and goodbyes, leaving the broken bits where they lay.

Compelled to keep returning to the site, so lush with its long view of the shallow lagoon and such fresh air, next time we went the tile had not only been restored to wholeness but seamlessly so, with no evidence of cracks. How? We marveled. Who did this? We barely knew anyone here anymore. We had moved away long ago, moved on in so many ways, sadness integrated, part of us, but we were okay because life provided surprising sweetness, too.

Last time, I went by myself. Lavender and rosemary nowhere to be seen, I found the only deeded land we ever owned covered in bright green clover; yellow daisies in bloom, white calla lilies unfolding, white sky overhead, silver lagoon in the distance; the pink tile whole and now framed by a square of rustic wood and hoisted on rebar to stand upright, so I could see it from the road when I parked, stepped out, and made my way past new graves, searching names to learn if the new death could be someone I might have known from way back then, those days when we lived here, so in love and full of joy of life.

Who framed this like this? Who did this? How did any of this happen?


MARIANNE ROGOFF is the author of the Pushcart-nominated story collection Love Is Blind in One Eye, the memoir Silvie’s Life, and numerous travel stories, short fictions, essays, and book reviews. Since 2018, her writing has been a Finalist in Narrative magazine’s Spring Story Contest, Top 10 for the Tillie Olsen Story Award, on the Short List for the Bath International Novella-in-Flash Award, Top 10 for Sequestrum’s Editor’s Reprint Award, Finalist for ScreenCraft’s Cinematic Short Story Award, and Finalist for the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize. She teaches Writing & Literature at California College of the Arts and in the MFA in Creative Writing / Narrative Medicine Program at Dominican University. Read her: http://www.mariannerogoff.com/

TCR Talks With Lyz Lenz

By Leanne Phillips

Author Lyz Lenz’s marriage ended after the 2016 presidential election. Lenz voted for Hillary Clinton, and her husband voted for Donald Trump, and although this wasn’t the reason for the divorce, it was a catalyst after years of signs that Lenz and her husband were different people.

Lenz’s first book, God Land,[1] is part investigative journalism and part memoir. A resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lenz writes about Middle America and how it is changing, particularly with respect to faith and church. At the same time, the book tells the story of Lenz’s life after divorce and her own journey as a feminist and a woman of faith.

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We Are All Karolina

by Cynthia Bruckman

“EXCUSE ME, MISS! ARE YOU JEWISH?”

I had just moved from San Francisco to New York City. I was walking down Park Avenue, heading to the 6 train after a particularly grueling day of work, when I was approached by two young men from the Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement, waving what looked like willow branches at me as they shouted and ran in my direction. I had that dark-haired “Jewish look,” I suppose, that they were eagerly scouting for in rush-hour Manhattan during Sukkot. They were very excited.

“It depends on how you define ‘Jewish,’” I answered. It appeared as if I were about to be blessed by their branches, and as a newly arrived New Yorker, I needed to be blessed.

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The Color of Heartache

BY: Ann Kathryn Kelly

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

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

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

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

Never fully.

***

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

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

Peonies. Daisies. Roses.

Deep red roses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Ann was happiest when doing for others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Like Jane Ann.

***

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

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

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

She hadn’t left a note.

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

Never fully.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

 


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

 

Into the Daylight

BY: Jackie Pick

I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to go to the Women’s March. My rage doesn’t burn — and I think it’s supposed to. My story is a nesting doll of small indignities and capitulations, populated with tiny monsters that scatter in the daylight. I’ve packed away transgressions into a small, icy sepulcher in my memory. Marches seem like something other people do, people whose rage runs red hot, people who’ve survived more, worse, or bigger.

I grab the three pink pussy hats a friend of mine had knit and asked me to distribute in her absence, and I stuff them in a Ziploc bag. My ride to the train station arrives, and I jump in the car, my feet girded by the black Doc Martens that make me feel tough, before I can convince myself this is a bad idea.

***

I had a piece of plywood I wedged into the track of the cheap sliding glass doors of my ground-floor apartment. Most days, my second-floor neighbor sat in a folding beach chair on his small deck, listening to the country music station on the outsized stereo speakers he ran out from his apartment. He’d sit and watch people come and go from the parking lot. He flicked cigarettes and empty beer cans onto the ground near me as I went by.

He asked where I worked and what I did as I lugged my briefcase to and from the car. He asked what was for dinner when I carried groceries into the house. He asked why I had so many groceries. He asked if I was making dinner for my boyfriend. He asked if I had a boyfriend. He asked why I was so early or so late that day. He laughed when I reacted and he laughed when I didn’t react, a laugh that made my skin pull in tight.

I tried to vary my schedule, but he was always on his porch and always ready to probe and punctuate our encounters with a small rainstorm of Marlboros and Coors. He had done nothing other than toss things in my direction and laugh and ask questions.

It was worst at night if I came home after nine.

“Where’ve you been? On a date? You’re not usually out this late on a weeknight. You’re usually home by six.” I pulled out my phone and pretended to dial a number as I walked to my front door.

I was uncomfortable with him and uncomfortable with my discomfort. What was the problem, really? He probably was just messing with me. Maybe I was paranoid and humorless. Maybe he just needed me to be nicer. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so scared and just engaged him in conversation. Still, I kept the blinds drawn and the plywood lodged in the sliding door track.

“You’re not very friendly,” he said, an empty can whizzing past my head. “Bitch.”

I was 22.

***

The wooden benches in this train station hold only a handful of marchers this Saturday morning. Hopefully, this is not an omen—a small march will feel like surrender. I hope that all of us get over our collective election anxiety, fight the urge to cancel, and show up.

I didn’t bring a sign. I’ve carried a lot in the last few years and I don’t mean symbolically. Babies, bags, books. And burdens, I suppose. They all make my arms and body ache. These are my inane thoughts and I wish the tiny coffee shop in this tiny train station were open. I’m tired. That’s the burden of womanhood. We’re tired. We don’t get to rest much.

One bench over, two women discuss their strategic wardrobe choices based on the marching they had done forty years ago. Layers. Fanny packs. One of them quickly eyes my heavy boots as she wiggles her toes in her sneakers.

We board the train, carefully avoiding the corners of the homemade posters jutting out into the narrow aisle. The cars are reassuringly crowded and will overflow by the time we arrive in Chicago. The train is loud, but not uncomfortably so. It’s all chatter, overflowing and warm. Conversations bob and weave and skitter around like squirrels, avoiding direct mention of the purpose of what we’re doing today.


***

My first kiss occurred freshman year in high school, taken as payment for a ride home from an upperclassman. He was fast to lock the car doors and fast to scoot over. This transaction with its unwelcome probing tongue would forever be my first kiss.

Still, I thanked the boy for the ride because I needed him to unlock the car door.

I ran that story by the graduate school professor who’d assigned “Write about your first kiss.” His brow furrowed, and he suggested I try the other option, “Write about a milestone in your life.” I wrote about getting my first bra. During class, the professor dismissed my piece as “whimsical.” After class, he called me into his office, a small chilly space suffocated by ragged piles of books and towers of papers teetering on the edge of every surface. He recommended significant rewrites to the essay, especially for the men in the class who couldn’t relate to this topic. He made it clear, carefully, that if I didn’t want to change the piece, we could explore other options which perhaps I’d like him to explain, at, say, a coffee shop or his apartment. I defaulted to sassy and funny, deliberately hearing his words as a joke to give both of us a way out. I made every single change to the essay he recommended and skipped office hours for the rest of the term.

I was 24.

***

The willing, giggling, joyful squishing to make room for as many women as possible warms the train. There is laughter across the seats, across the aisle, grandmothers to daughters to grandchildren. So many of us have a strange expression on our faces, a weird concoction of joy smeared over unexpressed rage.


***

My daughter’s fat, beautiful curls tumble down her back. The whorls are magnets. More than once I’ve stepped in to keep people—almost always men—from touching them. Someone’s friendly grandpa, the bagger at the grocery store, a boy at school. When I become my daughter’s barricade, these men or boys or their mothers blink at me and tell me, oh so patiently, that they only had the best intentions, they meant nothing by it, she’s so pretty, what’s the big deal. I take on the full weight of another rejected man instead of it being heaped on my daughter.

These men, I’m told, are too old to change or too young to understand. As I don’t know the exact moment in time men can accept that any touching of my daughter is by invitation only, I err on the side of caution and roar it to all of them. Full-throated and incurious. I can rage under a maternal sigil.

My daughter brushes her hair furiously several times a day to straighten it. Without pointing it out to her, I have let my hair go naturally crazy curly-whirly. She seems unimpressed by my gesture of untamed sisterhood, especially when people reach out to touch my hair.

She is 6.

***

With every new passenger carrying bags, signs, or children, the train expands like something magical. There is room. We make space. There is only one man on the train, older, magnificent, confident. I catch myself mentally praising him for not taking up more space or air than anyone else. For being equal. 

***

My son clambered into our car after school, grousing he’s not “sportsy,” the word acrid in his mouth. Eventually, the details tumbled out. At recess, a boy had pegged my son with a rubber playground ball and said, “You’re out, you little bitch,” to a chorus of laughter from classmates. The boy delivered this burn in a sing-song; my son retold it in a monotone, his ears reddening as they likely had during the second inning of a kickball game everyone but he will soon forget.

Clumsy and sensitive to the narrow edges of his own competence, my son gets entangled in rules and his own feet. He keenly suffers the consequences of his missed plays and overwrought arguments with classmates about fairness and boundaries. He is aware down to the cellular level what they called him.

“Did you tell a teacher?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level.

“No.” His voice is ice.

He knows the system is rigged against the small, the different, and the bitches with their never-ending complaints. He’d done the sticks-and-stones calculations.

When we got home, he asked me not to say anything to anyone about it, then left the room to devour a dystopian book where disaffected teens in futuristic combat gear save an unjust, cruel world by breaking things apart in the light of day.

He is 10.

***

On the way to Grant Park, throngs of us stop at cafes to get coffee. There are long lines for the restrooms because some things never change, even in a cultural movement. Three women behind me in line voice regret that they don’t know how to knit because they want hats. I give them the ones I’ve been carrying. We take a picture to send to my knitting friend. We put away our phones, grab our coffees and shout, “To the March!” Everyone in this cafe whoops in giddy response, even whoever is in the tiny bathroom probably cracking her elbows in the walls like I did when I tried to move around in there.

***

It was always in cramped arenas: supply closets, front seats, offices, folds of theater curtains, and classrooms. Too many men cornered me and sloppily mashed their unwelcome lips on mine, taking the no from my mouth, their fingers clamping in my hair to adjust my face to angles that worked better for them. Taking my shock as a yes. Taking my hands on their shoulders as drawing in rather than pushing them away. Taking my fear as permission. Taking my being alone as an invitation. Taking my youth as the reason they couldn’t control themselves. Taking the risk. Taking for granted we do the calculations.

They took as much as they dared, as much as they thought I owed them for the prize of their attention. I’d won, they’d imply. I’d won their affection, their attention, their heart, their inability to control themselves. My prizes were self-imposed silence and avoidance if I wished to continue.

After all these years, they run together, these men, their faces, their hands. Old, young, angular, jowled, all somehow cloyingly tentative under their brazenness. They ask as they grab as though asking matters.

I distracted myself with doing near-perfect work, because maybe if I were perfect (or nearly so), the success would be all mine, entirely divorced from sloppy lips and sausage fingers. Perfection meant my job would be safe.

Probably.

I was 25. I was 40. I was 32. I was 14.

I was paying my dues.

***

Hundreds of thousands of us make our way to Grant Park. My feet ache. This one is my own damned fault, unlike the time when a radiologist told me that “maybe if you ladies stopped wearing high heels you wouldn’t get neuromas.” I needed to go through him to get approved for foot surgery, so I didn’t tell him that my neuroma was a pregnancy complication. I don’t think he’d really care anyway.

***

We pack the park and spill over. We overflow. Several thousand of us wave to the news helicopters flying overhead.

Everyone is telling her story to one another or in small groups or on a platform into a microphone. Stories of opportunity, access, health care, poverty, child care, racism, prejudice, freedom, rights, advocacy, representation, and reform.

Stories from women who’ve been sharing their stories for years and generations and not enough of us have been listening.

Stories so mighty that they refuse to curve gently around anyone else’s discomfort.

Women’s stories.

I catch some of the quieter stories murmured in the crowd. These stories, like mine, are populated with little monsters that hide in small spaces and don’t always scatter in the daylight. These monsters didn’t appear in 2016; they’ve lived for ages. We’ve only now stopped locking them away out of fear they are hysterical, ugly, or loud.

They are our stories.

We are timeless.

 


 

Jackie Pick is a former teacher and current writer living in the Chicago area. She is a contributing author to several anthologies, including Multiples IlluminatedNevertheless We PersistedSo Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About MotherhoodHere in the Middle, as well as the literary magazines The Sun and Selfish. Her essays have won commendations from the Mark Twain House and Museum Royal Nonesuch Humor Writing Competition and the WOW! Women on Writing Nonfiction Essay Contest. Jackie is a contributor at Humor Outcasts, and her work has been featured on various online sites including MamalodeThe HerStories Project, and Scary Mommy. A graduate of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, Jackie co-created and co-wrote the award-winning short film Fixed Up, and was a member of the 2017 Chicago cast of Listen To Your Mother. She can be found on Twitter: @jackiepick or her website, jackiepickauthor.com.

 

How to Dissolve Cat Feces

BY: Mindela Ruby

It’s midnight and I’m googling the word Squacquerone. I saw it in a pizza review earlier today. The surplusage of vowels and consonants caught my fancy.

Often, before turning in, I scoot between home office and TV nook, browsing the web, chuckling at comedy, breaking the Rule of Insomnia Club about No Device Light At Night.

Just one quick search. Or two. Then bed. No worries. I have limits.

WeAreItaly.com identifies Squacquerone as curd cheese, cottage cheese, basically. With Italian phonics on overdrive for a name. Connection to minestrone? Calzone? I wonder.

Cheese curds on pizza might be a good thing, but lately I am begging off dining establishments, even casual eateries. The better half and I have been subsisting on less than half our average income for over a year, ever since his major consulting contract fell through.

In retrospect, I see now how my long obsession with esoteric foods was elitist, even wasteful. The idea of gastronomic indulgence suddenly stings like a strong injection.

The current mainstays are beans and rice, homey and frugal, if not thrilling.

Desk lamp light knifes my cheek. Spendthrifts among our social circle don’t think twice about their multiple costly pastimes—chef-y eateries, stage plays, art collections, home remodeling, exotic voyages, while I, relegated to bargain-counter culture, try googling “free events bay area.” Eureka! Philosophic talks at Claremont Library. Oakland Museum’s $5 Fridays. The university’s free noon concerts at Hertz Hall.

Anne Lamott once called life a “not ideal system,” sweet and desperate at the same time. My iMac cursor winks, tempting me to scour the net for other nectar out there.

But the blue light being absorbed by my eyes could be kindling a chain of negative biologic reactions: Short blue light waves, deficient delta brainwave production, impeded pineal gland function, reduced melatonin supply, incapacitated sleep, depressed mood. I read online about this domino effect another night.

Downstairs, my husband noisily cranks open the deck door, to let Wallace, our Maine coon cat, in for the night. The latch clunks. The thud of the shutting door jolts the ninety-five-year-old house. I take the tremor in the beams as a cue. The hour is late. Enough computer and cable TV.

The bed linens, from different sets, don’t match, the odd sheets and pillowcases that haven’t yet ripped beyond thread and needle repair. Their worn softness invites my legs to unbend.

For those who struggle to fall or stay asleep, a sleep hygiene practice has benefits. I follow the guidelines religiously. No caffeine after noon. Cool, quiet bedroom. Keep regular sleep/wake hours. Alcohol intake at a minimum.

The iPad, however, I can’t quit. It comes to bed at my peril, navigating so lithely that I willfully disregard the toxic pep of its diode-emitted light.

Almost immediately a sonorous rumble rises from our older son’s former bedroom below. Between periodic wakings and shufflings to the toilet, my husband snores down there without compunction. In our bed-sharing days, I’d shove his shoulder to get him to stop snoring. These days his own apnea snorts awaken him. The mister’s aging adenoids and bladder are not conducive to my sleep—or his.

We’d bicker, sharing the master bedroom. My spouse and I have quantified the cost of old age differently. Fear of destitution in our waning years drives me to frenzied nagging about his dwindling income years shy of full Social Security eligibility.

More unnerving than the Spartan budget is witnessing my mate’s fire extinguish. He appears to have lost the determination to live his best life. I think it too soon to be put out to pasture. He’s always enjoyed the latitude to pursue his ambition as he sees fit, and to give up prematurely seems unfair, to both of us. How much better it would be to end his professional career strong. To ramp up his self-esteem. Maybe sell his business, like he has fantasized, and score a small but useful nest egg.

His lack of drive irks me and hampers my compliance with the dictum Never go to bed angry. Spooked by the possibility of an unfunded future, I feel sour and can’t issue a fake goodnight, let alone an honest one.

Life has a way of kicking you, too, when you’re down. A string of physical debilitations has tripped me up and siphoned precious money; a nasty urine infection’s the latest. Peeing, I think we can all agree, should not induce tortured shrieks.

My doctor prescribed Cipro, a household-name antibiotic since the post-9/11 paranoia about Anthrax attacks. The pharmacy bagged my vial of pills with ten photocopied pages of black box product warnings. Among the less common side effects of taking this drug is spontaneous rupture of Achilles tendons.

Each tendon is dear to me, especially Achilles, the only one whose name I know. My one reliable pleasure is trail walking with friends, healthy and cost-free. Since the first swallowed Cipro tablet, I’ve walked on eggshells, scared of losing the option of these hikes. Random twitches in any ligament send my blood pressure spiking. I sit up against the pillows. On the prowl for counterevidence, I google “Cipro side effects.”

A practical rule for keeping calm, especially at night, is Don’t Read User Comments on a Medical Website. These contributions are anecdotal. Never data based. For all we know, every detail on such sites is fictitious. Nevertheless, fired by stupidity, I click WebMD.

“This drug nearly destroyed my life and continues to haunt me daily,” goes one of the User Reviews. “I almost went blind from it and now can no longer eat gluten.”

It isn’t hard to dismiss the long shot of blindness. But gluten intolerance? That would be catastrophic. Whole grain carbs are the staples of our household nurture, a holdover from the diet-for-a-small-planet fad.

I’ve already suffered, because of tooth pain, a months-long privation of my favorite gluten, crunchy toast. Oatmeal and yogurt demand minimal chewing, but with these substitute choices, mornings suck.

The tooth trouble is more fallout of our economic duress. As another cost cutting measure, my husband subscribed to cut-rate Medicare supplemental vision and dental coverage. “Teeth cleaning only $10!” he crowed. His mission to spend less across the board makes sense in a Calvinistic or environmental way. Inevitably, though, downsides rear their ugly heads.

Frankly, it’s mystifying that the scholar I first met during our respective doctoral programs at Berkeley isn’t fazed in these later years by the derisive Yelp reviews of his new Delta Care dentist, whose handiwork customers refer to as incompetent and shoddy. Every dentist on our budget plan, in fact, gets low ratings from ex-patients who warn newbies to seek treatment elsewhere or purchase different insurance.

One night last year, this stranger-called-my-husband sponged the kitchen counter as we discussed dentistry options. “Those Yelp comments aren’t based on actual treatment people received from her,” he said, squeezing the sponge out at the sink. “Patients are biased against her Iranian accent.”

“According to who?”

“Her.” He dried his hands. “She does have a curt, academic manner. But I like it.”

I could not get past the red flags. Even after Dr. Yazdad satisfactorily installed a dental crown in my husband’s mouth, I postponed my own appointment.

Eventually my teeth grew mossy, my gums inflamed. Still, it didn’t feel right, given our cramped cash flow, to shell out $160 for a hygienist visit. Thus, I reluctantly submitted to a $10 cleaning with Dr. Yazdad…and survived.

Seven months later, I returned for repeat and rinse. At the second appointment the dentist noted that tooth 31 in my mouth, a molar causing no pain, was dangerously cracked. “You could be teaching a class,” she said in a thick-tongued accent, “or eating at a restaurant. Maybe your tooth breaks. No warning. Could be uncomfortable.”

I considered telling her I don’t eat at restaurants but kept mum. Maybe fatigue made me vulnerable to her melodramatic scare tactics and hard sell. I signed on the dotted line: $985 for a porcelain crown.

Over the subsequent weeks, Dr. Yazdad botched two attempts to install a crown. The first crown didn’t fit because, she admitted, her mold was faulty. The replacement crown, which she defiantly pronounced pear-fetly-made, felt more wrong. For weeks I couldn’t bite down on that side of my mouth without pain. Contact with simple room-temperature water spawned excruciation. In my opinion, Yazdad’s careless zeal to avoid the cost and embarrassment of another misfit crown caused her, on the second try, to damage the base of my tooth with over-aggressive drilling.

The ordeal that ensued required a dozen office visits. Every time the crown came unglued and fell out of my mouth, a huffy and defensive dentist awaited me. To take the cake, seeing as how I’d fallen for it once before, she tried the charade again.

“This pain in 31 you speak of…You are confused.” She pronounced “pain” like “pen.” “My crown is good. It’s the other tooth that hurts you.” At my request, she applied permanent glue to promote better settling. She squinted after thrusting the crown into my mouth. “You fix the next door tooth. Then, no problem with pain.”

I ignored this, scheming to escape the trap of her malpractice and ineptitude. My problem with “pen” persisted. An out-of-system, out-of-pocket dentist hired for a consultation hypothesized that the nerve might be getting irritated by the banging of my slightly uneven bite. He smoothed down the high spots on 31 and sent me off.

His fix failed. The best option, ultimately, was a root canal. I asked the endodontist about the crack in the adjacent tooth 30. His high resolution x-rays showed no deleterious crack there, nor in 31. I’d saved $300 on two cleanings but was forced to pay $1,900 in damage control.

Before long, more bad juju struck: Wallace vomited on my husband’s laptop keyboard: $350 repair. Skimming thousands from our retirement fund to cover untoward expenses left me drained and shaken, like the victim of an uncontrolled bleed.

To this day, my teeth continue to need attention. Have I faith that any reputable dentist miraculously joined the Delta Care provider team? No. I pull up the company’s homepage on the iPad anyway and let my eyes run down the list of dental practices. Already juggling Enterococcus, involuntary thrift, Ciprofloxacin risks, and my usual migraines, another quandary is more than I can bear.

So I swipe the iPad off. Despite the substantial exposure to display light that I’ve had, one miracle happens: as the nightstand lamp goes dark, slumber whisks me away.

Eager for a revival of toast love, come morning I cycle thin-sliced Vital Vittles’ Russian Rye three times through setting number 5 on the toaster. The crisp slices get slathered with almond butter. My mug of tea sits steaming on the dining table. This long-awaited meal is predicated on the assumption that tooth 31 is healed well enough to eat my favorite breakfast with fearless abandon again.

The crust splits under pressure from my incisors. My tongue repositions the sharp edges to allow my molars to grind the lump of seared bread to a paste. There’s no pain, maybe because I’m chomping hesitantly.

My taste buds gleefully register the flavors of grain, earth, citrus, carbon, and bruléed sugar. As I swallow, my husband blunk blunks up the stairs from his basement office. He carries Wallace in his hands and drops her like a bowl of black feathers onto the chair beside me.

“You entertain her,” he says.

I wash down gritty toast residue with tea. My husband retreats to the basement to, I hope, dig us out of our fiscal hole.

Wallace’s little feet wobble on the seat cushion. Her facial expression looks if not offended then at least unconvinced about this chair and this room, neither of which she chose for her morning nap.

Preoccupied with my meal, I dip the ragged crust edge into tea. Small pleasures mean everything these days.

Wallace manically licks the base of her tail.

When my lips close around my third mouthful, there’s a faint sound, a tumbled chink on the wood floor, something tiny falling down. Wallace, with a feline’s refined hearing and reflexes, jumps off the chair, pounces to the landing spot, sniffs at the fallen object, gets it in her mouth, and elaborately jaws the toast crumb.

“Good girl,” I murmur. “Kitty floor vacuum.”

The dropped morsel is gone. Wallace sits on her haunches and purrs. Taking a deep breath and lifting my mug luxuriantly, I notice something off about my wedding ring. I put down the mug and examine a small dark spot on the gold.

Where one of my wedding band’s very small round pavé diamonds should be, a hole stares back. With a start I realize what happened. That faint sound of something hitting the floor was the diamond.

“Fuck!” I yell. “Fuck!” I stomp my foot. Wallace gallops, startled, into the living room, claws scrabbling and clicking on the wood floor. I drop to my hands and knees and search around the table leg. All I find is the small wet spot where her mouth made contact. “Fuck!”

Blunk blunk blunk ascends my husband. “What happened?” he calls.

“Why couldn’t you leave the cat downstairs?”

“Why are you on the floor?”

I tell him.

“Wallace wouldn’t eat a diamond.”

“I saw her!”

He scratches his cheek, not wanting to get sucked into this melodrama.

I wail, illogically, “I can’t even enjoy my first toast in ages without my ring getting ruined!”

“Let me see.” My husband sinks to his knees and grabs my hand as if my testimony can’t be relied upon. The hole, though small, is a glaring imperfection. Once before, a diamond disappeared from the same area of this ring. It’s possible the replacement gem has now been lost. The cost to acquire and reset a stone was $200 ten years ago. Present prices could be steeper, exactly when money is tighter. Another hurdle.

My husband pops up, slips to the kitchen and returns with the dust pan, broom, and long flashlight. He hands me the flashlight and sweeps under the table. “Shine the light so we can see what’s down here.”

“I told you she ate it!” I stand and switch on the light anyway. Oh, the futility.

“Just in case,” he mutters, holding the dustpan under the beam of light. Dust, generic flecks of matter, a shard of napkin, cat fur, human hair illuminated in sharp relief. No diamond.

I set down the flashlight, wrest the ring off my knuckle, and place it on the table. “I won’t wear it like this. Makes me feel pathetic. Along with everything else that’s going on.” Tears fill my eyes.

“Don’t worry. Wallace will shit it out, and I’ll retrieve it.”

“That’s disgusting. Plus you’ll never find such a small thing. If only you didn’t bring her upstairs.”

“She was distracting me from prepping for an important call.” Determination on his lips, my husband retreats downstairs.

I stare at the toast. The glistening almond butter smells acrid. Many “important calls” have led nowhere. Optimism’s in short supply. In my peripheral vision I see Wallace glare distrustfully. It’s true my husband and I have roofs over our heads and food in the cupboard, as do our adult children, and we should appreciate these blessings and not get bent out of shape over privileged troubles. But contentment’s at a premium. We’ve become people of limited means, making trade-offs all the time, demeaned and tight.

I pick up the half-eaten slice of toast that thrilled me minutes ago. My appetite’s faded; I drop the food. In short order my husband blunk blunks back. I can’t look at him when he enters.

“I searched e-how for recovering a jewel from pet excrement,” he said.

“Are you kidding?” I say.

“I couldn’t find instructions, but I came up with an idea on my own.”

“I don’t want to hear.”

“The next two or three times Wallace poops in her box, I’ll scoop the turds into a jar, add hot water and let them dissolve. I’ll strain the liquid, and there will be your diamond.”

“Do you realize how sad that sounds?”

“It’ll clean up. That’s what matters.”

No matter how gross or outlandish the mandatory efforts, my stubborn husband must execute his plan. More than saving the replacement cost of an almost microscopic diamond, he wants to prove he’s right. I pick up my tea but leave the toast, ring, husband, and pet behind.

Maybe black cats truly are bad luck. As I climb upstairs, my husband blunks the other direction to his basement phone call.

I drop into my office desk chair and automatically lay fingers on my wireless keyboard. The computer I booted up and signed onto straight out of bed hums companionably, but, uncharacteristically, I don’t feel like typing a thing. I feel caged and don’t see the point. My income as an adjunct professor is a pittance by Bay Area standards. A rush of self-pity makes me dizzy.

An old friend recently commented, “Your problem is, you have rich friends.”

She’s right, though not the way she thinks. I’m not vying to keep up with the landed class. I wish our acquaintances were more willing to function at our level, be more creative and open about time spent together. Life is more than orchestra-level tickets and fusion bistros.

Our change of fortune dredges from my subconscious a lifelong fear of being at risk. In recurring dreams, I am scared to wit’s end by the destruction of the house I live in. In some nightmares, a monster ocean wave bashes my house to smithereens; I lose all grounding. Or the walls of where I live spontaneously bow and gape apart, poor upkeep and treacherous chance to blame. Windows pop out of frames, leaving me coldly wind-whipped and unprotected.

Straining cat shit raises the specter of destitution and vulnerability that I’ve grappled with, at least symbolically, my whole life. What I crave isn’t luxury. It’s security.

My keyboard rests on a funky wood shelf my husband fashioned and custom-fitted to my 1940s metal desk. Along its painted edge I notice a pebble, a chunk of gray the size of a pin-head. About to pinch it with my fingertips to deposit into the trash can, I tilt my head and see light glittering colorfully off the pebble. It’s the diamond, a faceted wonder of miniaturization barely visible to the eye.

Wallace ate a toast crumb after all. I wrap the impossibly small treasure into a tissue and carry it down two flights.

My husband’s desk is an old 1920s work bench left intact when we moved in many years ago. The mood between us remains standoffish. “Behold.” I unwrap the tissue. The diamond looks like a balled gnat at the bottom. “So tiny.”

“Where was it?”

“On the narrow space next to my keyboard. It could easily have fallen off and been ground into the carpet, and me none the wiser.”

It’s 8:40 a.m. We exchange exhausted looks.

Spared. For now. In this minuscule way. His mobile phone sounds its marimba ringtone. Maybe this prospect of his will be the one that bites.

***

The jeweler hands me the monocular eye loupe. In my avoidance of expense, it’s taken five months to bring my wedding ring in for repair.

“Move the lens up against your eye,” the jeweler instructs, “then bring the ring up to it.”

I squint at the complex engineering of gold and pavé diamond in the viewing field, intricate workmanship unseen by the naked eye. My ring under magnification looks garish and busy, not the elegant concept I’ve worn on my finger for decades. There’s no missing the hole that under the scope looks as gaping as it has felt in my gut.

She says, “See how the prongs alongside the hole are snapped off? Compare them to the intact prongs at the other diamonds. The things that look like little claws. Also notice the scuff marks. Your ring must have scraped against a rock.”

“Uh huh,” I say, trying to recall what hiking excursion marred this one piece of finery I have to my name.

“If struck on a hard surface, even accidently, prongs can loosen and eventually snap off and release a diamond,” the jeweler says.

I hand the loupe back. “Amazing I found it.”

Behind the counter, she smiles politely but clearly does not consider my feat noteworthy. Like when I conference with college students and explain their pronoun agreement errors: they are astounded to understand something routine and mundane to me, the technique of inserting a plural pronoun to agree grammatically with their plural antecedents.

I hand the ring to the jeweler, who fumbles and drops it on the glass counter. The bauble clacks conspicuously. We both cringe and pretend that didn’t happen to my keepsake, bought thirty-three years ago on Fifth Avenue when I was in New York for an M.L.A. conference. The jeweler takes out her order pad with carbon-duplicate pages and scribbles the job’s parameters.

I’ve been wearing a substitute ring of inexpensive pale jade my mother picked up at a tourist stand in China. The placeholder wedding band has advantages. Smooth jade doesn’t catch on sweaters and delicate scarves like my prong-y gold band does. Nor do I worry about the cheap ring getting damaged, lost, or stolen. But I don’t feel legitimate when I wear the shlocky stand-in wedding ring.

“Sometimes,” the jeweler says, perhaps concluding from my face that cheering up is in order, “customers come in with diamonds they happen to find in their houses. It turns out the diamonds don’t fit the carried-in rings and brooches. They’re the wrong diamonds! Funny, huh?”

We both laugh, though her humor irks me. How can there be so many lost gems lying on people’s floors? It’s preposterous. My only diamonds are the specks in my wedding ring, the nineteen arranged micro gems and the one in a plastic baggy, together totaling 0.3 carats in weight. The single minute dislodged stone will cost at least $100 to be professionally reset.

We complete the paperwork. I leave the shop, happy to be fixing my ring at last, happy to be walking. Four months ago, my husband dropped a heavy library book on my bare foot. Written by an author we saw on Real Time With Bill Maher, Democracy In Chains aimed its sharp book corner squarely down on my metatarsals and left me with a contusion that prohibited me from walking for weeks. Although the bruise disappeared, pain from the injury flares up now and then and threatens: the freedom to walk can disappear at any second.

Far and away more destructive than this injury is my anger about letting myself become financially dependent on a man. A long time ago, I made a calculation that over the long haul hasn’t added up. It’s not my husband’s foundering consulting career that’s failed me. I failed myself by not seizing the promise of feminism or the power of self-reliance. This regret is a slow-release poison that I keep on the QT.

My friend, a divorced attorney, waits on the sidewalk, half a block up Solano Avenue. I break into a jog, anticipating the coming distraction, knowing I’m about to hear the latest secrets about her unrequited devotion to a married man.

The January sky is the celebrated hue of energy’s power to destroy: natural blue wavelengths can cause macular degeneration—damage to the retina—and literally lead to blindness. It’s another secret about our crippling world that I read about, one unsettled midnight, not long ago.


Mindela Ruby holds a PhD in English from University of California. Her recent writing appears in Marathon Literary Review, WomenArts Quarterly, Rivet: the Journal of Writing That Risks, and the anthology Unmasked. Her poetry has been Pushcart and Best of the Net nominated. A former punk rock DJ, she has published the novel Mosh It Up (2014). She is the Creative Nonfiction Editor of Ragazine.

Fairy Godmother

BY: Amy Eaton

Phoebe drives a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with a black hard top. Two door. Her dad owns a body shop and he’s custom painted the car for her the same shade of rusty orange as her fake suede coat. When Phoebe started coming around, my aunt was living with us. My mom had been hospitalized for a serious lupus flare, and my aunt stayed on for a little while. She saw the orange car pull up in front of the house, watched Phoebe get out of the car, then rolled her eyes, muttering “Jesus Christ. Even her car matches her coat.” My aunt returned home to New Hampshire soon after Phoebe’s coming around became a regular thing.

When I get in the car I have to squish myself around the passenger seat to get in the back. I never sit by the window, but situate myself on the hump in the middle instead. I lean forward, shoulders braced on the back of both the driver’s and the passenger’s seat, my head jutting in between Phoebe and Mom.

I listen to their conversation, which is almost always boring, about people at The Bank where they work, or about Phoebe’s family. They never talk about our family, just hers. Everything is about her. I listen to the conversation like it’s a tennis match, eyes to Phoebe when she speaks, back to Mom when she speaks. Mom cracks jokes and Phoebe twitters, smacking Mom playfully on the thigh while she drives and rolling her big eyes charmingly. I’m just as funny as Mom and I try to interject sometimes, to join in, but it almost always falls flat and I’m back to being the third wheel, awkward and burdensome.

“She’s really beautiful,” Mom tells me later when we’re home alone, “like Mia Farrow.” I don’t know who that is, but Phoebe has large blue eyes and her nose and chin make her look a little like an elf. Mom thinks Phoebe’s clothes are elegant: A-line skirts, blazers, pantsuits, flowy patterned scarves tied fancily around her neck—everything in oranges and golds and shades of brown. She changes her hair a lot: pages, bobs, pixies, shags, dyes it blond, brown, a different blond, with makeup to accentuate this month’s look. Phoebe is elegant and classy, Mom says. I figure Mia Farrow must be one of those old movie stars that is really boring.

They are a lesbian couple, Mom explains. Or, she says, other people might call them dykes or lezzies or lesbos or lezzes or lesbian lovers. Mom tells me she’s in love with Phoebe, and while this is fine, I shouldn’t tell anyone. Not my friends or teachers, not Dad or his family. They wouldn’t understand. Dad’s parents would take Mom to court, deem her an unfit mother, and take me away to live with them in New Hampshire, and I wouldn’t be able to live with her anymore. I might not even be able to see her. So, I don’t tell anyone.

It is 1974. The words “faggot” and “lez” are tossed around as jokes and insults frequently. I freeze inside every time I hear these words, wanting to fade into my surroundings, become invisible, praying that no one can see my terrified expression beneath the mask I constantly wear thinking it will protect me from having my life turned upside down.

My babysitter, a heavy Irish Catholic woman with a red bouffant, pink lipstick, and a bad tooth, raises an eyebrow at me when I’m sitting on her front porch with my nose in a book instead of playing Red Rover with the rest of the kids in the vacant lot next to her house.

“Your mom and Phoebe,” she says while she waters the hanging plants on the porch. “They’re just really good friends, right?” I am a horrible liar, but I have no choice.


“Yes,” I say, looking intently at my book, “really good friends.”

She snaps her gum, cocks her head, and looks at me piercingly while she crosses the porch. I move my feet off the railing so she can water the spider plant in front of me. “Uh- huh,” she smirks slightly. “Really, really good friends.”

***

Before Phoebe, it was just me and Mom. Before Phoebe, there were occasional boyfriends and other single mom friends with kids my age, who were my dearest, bestest friends. Before Phoebe, my dad could come over to the house and hang out—even spend the night once in a while, not just pick me up or drop me off. Before Phoebe, Mom sang along off-key to Helen Reddy’s “You and Me Against the World” while vacuuming the living room. Before Phoebe, there was a relaxed hippie lovefest feel to our home that I adored—discussion rather than rules, open doors, a beanbag and butterfly chair in the living room, a blasé attitude about nudity. But then Phoebe visits Mom in the hospital when she’s sick with lupus and starts coming around our house when Mom gets out. We see friends less and less because all of Mom’s spare time is spent with Phoebe.

Phoebe is jealous. She shows up frazzled at the door, arguing while Mom tries to calm her down after the landlady, who is also a friend, has come by to visit, and I hear Phoebe upset, saying, “I wonder—what did she say to you? What were you wearing when you answered the door? Were you dressed? Is she in love with you?” I hate shutting the door to my room, but when she gets like this, I do. It’s exhausting to listen to. Even though my parents haven’t been together since I was two, Phoebe insists they legally divorce, which neither of them really have the money for. She does not want my father allowed in the house, not even on the porch when he comes to pick me up or drop me off when he has me for the weekend. Phoebe chips away at the life we had before until it’s just her and Mom and me. I walk in to Mom’s room without knocking one evening to ask a question and I’m reprimanded sharply with, “Maybe you don’t care if the entire world sees you naked, but Phoebe does!” I suddenly feel ashamed for something I’m bewildered by and walk back to my room without getting my question answered.

After Phoebe, it’s really just her and Mom. I don’t fit in anywhere.

***

Halfway through third grade, we move in with Phoebe. “The apartment’s very modern!” Mom tells me, trying to get me excited for the move, never mind that I’m a huge fan of Little House on the Prairie and all things old. It turns out that Webster Court is newer than our old house, but really, it’s just a fairly shitty housing development on the other side of town.

I change schools. I know no one. I have always been a loner, but I have never been this lonely. The kids at Webster Court and at school seem tough and they scare me. Everything scares me. Our apartment is on the second floor near the alley. The buildings, cookie cutter four-unit boxes, form a cul-du-sac that butts up to the the Susquehanna River. Terri Blazek and Lisa Hart, two sisters close to my age, live on the first floor across the alley. From my bedroom window, I can see into their kitchen. Lisa is in my class. Sometimes we walk to school together. Lisa’s quiet and always looks half asleep, but Terri’s loud and tough with wiry red hair, and I’m careful around her. Their drunk grandma sometimes stays with them and fights with their mom or maybe the mom’s boyfriend. The mom is skinny with long blond hair and heavy eye makeup, and she always looks tired. I think she’s pretty. Her boyfriend is slender and dark skinned with a low, soft voice. When Grandma is there, I hear her yelling, the sound of bottles opening, racial slurs, glass breaking, Lisa and Terri’s baby brother crying. Lisa looks exhausted at school when Grandma’s there. I want to say something to her, but I don’t know how.

There are fights at my house, too. On bad days, when Mom and Phoebe come home from working at The Bank, they go straight to their room and shut the door. Nobody asks me how my day was, nobody checks to see if I’ve done my homework before I started watching crappy TV on our tiny eight-inch set. I turn up the volume when I hear yelling and crying through the door. At some point, Phoebe storms out of their room and out the apartment door, threatening to drive into a tree or off a cliff. My mother chases after her, frantic, yelling her name, pleading when she runs after her out the apartment door, downstairs, and outside. I keep watching Star Trek, pretending I don’t see or hear anything, but after this happens enough times that it’s no longer a shock, I just think, oh please oh please oh please oh please just let her do it already. But she doesn’t, and sometimes they make up by the time Mom makes some dinner. Or sometimes we all act like nothing’s weird, and eat spaghetti with Ragu while watching Sonny and Cher.

***

Mom sees Terri crawling out of her bedroom window and decides she’s a bad influence. She forbids me to play with Terri or Lori. Terri knocks on my door after school when I’m home alone with the dogs and asks if I want to come out. I open the door as far as it will go with the chain lock on and tell her I can’t, I’m no longer allowed to play with her. She steps back, confused and then pissed. “Well, I’m going to beat you up then!” she yells and hits the door hard. For what seems like ages, kids will run up the stairs, bang hard on our apartment door, and then run back downstairs and out the building, all before Mom and Phoebe come home from work, and it’s just me and the dogs, who are useless. Terri’s in fifth grade. Fifth graders get out of school ten minutes later than us third graders. I run home every day after school so she won’t get me.

It’s my job to walk the dogs. I have to walk them in two separate trips. My dog, Zan, is a spastic, scruffy handful that Mom and Phoebe gave me for Christmas last year, even though I was quite clear that I wanted a cat. “He’s a Cockapoo!” Mom told me, gleefully chuckling at the obscenity of the word. I am mortified. If anyone asks me what kind of dog he is, and they inevitably do because he looks like a freak, I have to say both “cock” and “poo,” to perfect strangers, or worse, kids that may want to beat me up. Phoebe’s dog, Jody, an ancient black Pekingese, has a harness instead of a collar. I walk the dogs by the river past the flood wall, where I am out of sight from the neighborhood kids. When I don’t see anyone watching me, I take the Peke for a little ride. I spin around and around, raising and lowering her leash like she’s on the flying swings ride at an amusement park. Her tongue sticks out between her teeth and her eyes glaze over. Her paws stick out straight like she’s a zombie. I tell myself she likes it.

Terri finally gets me. I have to take out the garbage and she and a bunch of kids are hanging around the carports by the dumpsters. I throw the garbage in as fast as I can, Terri rushes me, and I bolt, but not fast enough. Just as I open the building door and get to the worn-out red-carpeted landing, she catches up to me and punches me hard in the back. I sprint up the two flights of stairs, terrified.

“Yeah!” I hear her yell. “You better run!” I’m crying by the time I shut the apartment door, more from shock than from actual pain. Mom looks at me.

“Terri hit me in the back!”

Her eyebrows squinch together. “You go tell her I want to talk to her.”

“Mom! I can’t! She’ll kill me!”

“She won’t kill you. Go outside and get her.”

I trudge back downstairs. Standing close to the door, I see Terri.

“Oh, you’re back for more?” she taunts.

“My mom said she wants to talk to you.”

“What?”

“She wants to talk to you.”

Terri begrudgingly agrees. When she follows me up the stairs, she says, “If she tries to hit me back, I’ll flush her down the toilet.”

Mom doesn’t yell or threaten her, but does talk to her, informing Terri “We don’t hit people.” Somehow it’s effective and, just like that, the ban on hanging out with Terri and Lisa is magically lifted.

***

Mom calls Hal, Phoebe’s dad, and tells him he needs to come and get his daughter. She has a child to raise, she says, and Phoebe is not okay. Hal comes with a truck and moves her out of our apartment. A few months later, our old landlady lets Mom know our old apartment is available and we move back to our old house. I am overjoyed to be at my old school, with my old friends, at home. The break up, sadly, is temporary and although we never live with her again, soon enough, she is at our house or taking Mom for coffee at the Argo or the Spot or the Park Diner, where they sit for hours and hours and talk. I skip it whenever I can. She spends Christmas with us.

Christmas is overwhelming. Phoebe’s done well at The Bank, getting promotions and she is generous with gifts for both me and Mom to the point of making me uncomfortable with the bounty of such materialism. Every year there is more abundance. Boxes from Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s with Jordache jeans, shirts from Brooks Brothers for mom, matching sets of towels or cookware. A trip to London and Paris for the two of them one year. It goes on and on and every year it’s more materialistic. Mom gets all soft eyed and gushy, swoony with appreciation, some childhood void in her finally being filled. It feels wrong to me and I’ll basically hate Christmas the rest of my life.

Phoebe is promoted to an officer at The Bank and goes back to school—first to the community college, then the state university. She wears big glasses when she studies at our house while Mom does her laundry, makes her instant coffee and ham and cheese sandwiches. “Stay out of her way,” I’m told. “Shut the door if you’re going to play guitar. Don’t distract her.”

***

I tell. I don’t mean to, but I tell. I’m in eighth grade art class at the new junior high when two girls eye me across the room, conferring with each other till the one with the blue eyes, perky face, and bobbed hair comes and stands in front of my desk. Her name is Melissa.


“You want to sit with us?”

I move my stuff to work alongside them. The other girl, Kara, has huge tinted glasses with a K in the corner and long, wavy brown hair. They invite me to a party at Kara’s house that coming Friday. Mark Quattlebaum will be there, they tell me. The band is going to play. I don’t know who any of these people are, but I go.

In a few short weeks, Kara and Melissa and I are inseparable. The idea that we would not spend our weekend nights together sleeping over at one of our houses is suddenly unfathomable. We talk about everything that is important to fourteen-year-old girls trying to figure out what exactly is important in life while we smoke clove cigarettes: who’s cute, who’s pretty, poetry, music, is it possible to survive a nuclear holocaust, what drugs and alcohol have we tried, what drugs would we never try, how many boys have we kissed, what else have we done in that department.

“My dad’s an actor,” Melissa says. “We know a bunch of gay people from the theaters he works at.”

Kara says, “Oh, that’s really interesting. My mom knows some gay women from the Women’s Studies department at the university.”

I haven’t said a word. Kara and Melissa notice my silence and Kara says, “What about you, Amy? Do you know any gay people?”

Time freezes. For six years I’ve never breathed a word of the truth about my home life to anyone. I look at each of them, think about what they’ve just said, and I nod.

“Who?”

“My mom.”

They stare at me. I have just become way more interesting.

I confess to Mom that I’ve told my friends that Mom and Phoebe are a couple, explaining how I’m sure it’s not an issue for friends who have parents that are actors and university professors. Mom’s face goes kind of gray and the muscle by her jaw pulses. I know she’s frightened, but she tries to hide it from me. Phoebe is furious. She doesn’t speak to me for weeks. When Kara’s mother picks up Kara from my house, Mom is anxious and distressed. I’m not sure if this is because Kara’s mom is clearly drunk, or that she’s eyeballing Mom like she’s an interesting specimen.

***

I’m sixteen when they really break up. She’s been a part of our life for almost a decade. Phoebe does it over the phone. I hear Mom’s voice rising in pitch, trying to reason with her and finally saying in wounded dismay, “After all this, to use my illness against me, that is just the cruelest thing.” They argue and argue and it’s like being a kid at Webster Court again. In my head, I am willing Phoebe to just go, get out of our lives. When she actually does, I am thrilled and terrified.

Mom walks to The Bank where they both still work. She walks home after work. I sit in the dining room doing my homework, listening for the bell on the gate to tell me she’s home. When I hear her steps on the porch stairs, I open the door for her and catch her as she collapses on me, sobbing, exhausted from keeping a brave face and dodging questions all day. She cries as I hold her, rocking her back and forth. When the crying slows, I walk her to her room, tuck her into bed, bring her water, and let her sleep till I’ve made us some dinner. I do this day after day for weeks. It’s awful.

A few months later, when Mom is doing better, I decide that I should maintain a relationship with Phoebe. Or try. We are family in our peculiar way despite my resentment of her endless need to be the center of Mom’s universe. We’ve always joked that she’s not my stepmother, but my fairy godmother.

When I got my ears pierced when I was fourteen, I confided in Phoebe, hoping she’d have my back since ear piercing had been forbidden.

“Oh shit,” she said when I pulled back my long straggly hair to show her. “Okay, leave this to me.” She somehow convinced my mother, who never drank due to her lupus, to have a glass of wine with dinner. Mom was swiftly buzzed.

“Amy has something to show you!” She signaled me to move my hair out of the way.

“Oh, babe!” Mom wailed. “You’ve mutilated your body! Ohhh, noooo… Oh, hon… They look very nice.”

Phoebe handed me down her high heels until my feet grew larger than hers and helped me do my hair and put on makeup for dance recitals. She passed on her old clothes to me, which, while not quite my style, were still nicer than most of the things I owned.

I call Phoebe and ask if we can get together. She sounds pleased and tells me to meet her at the Argo Diner, a place she and Mom would go for coffee.

When I show up, she asks me a few perfunctory questions about school and my life and then launches into a monologue about her parents, her job, her brother. I never get another word in. She pays the check and we leave the diner. “I’m so glad we did this,” she says and leans toward me for a hug, which feels awkward. She’s never been affectionate with me. And then she kisses me on the lips, not a peck that missed my cheek, but a real, actual kiss. I am trying to figure out just what the hell is going on when she pulls away from me and walks to her car. She drives a black Mazda RX 7 these days. I realize there is nothing to hold on to. As far as she’s concerned, I could be my mother. I’m a fill-in. I never contact her again.

***

Phoebe marries an Italian guy who looks like a giant grasshopper, all long elbows and knees—a grasshopper with a serious coke problem. I run into them when I’m seventeen, barhopping at a skeevy dance club. She gives me a nod, implying that she won’t blow my cover. The grasshopper looks at me quizzically. She leans over and whispers something to him and he gapes at me, bug eyed.

She is arrested for embezzlement in 1984. Mom is eating dinner and watching the news, lounging in the beanbag chair.

“An officer at the Binghamton Savings Bank has been charged with embezzling funds of approximately $100,000. Sources say she spent the money on clothes, a sports car, and a close female friend,” says the news anchor. Mom rolls out of the beanbag chair onto the floor and wails, “I’ve been slandered! I’ve been slandered!”

I sit on the floor by her and rub her shoulder. “They never said your name. It’s not slander if they don’t say your name.” I don’t point out that it’s not slander if it’s true. When we look around the house, we realize Phoebe has given us almost all of our belongings. Our dishes, silverware, glassware, our cookware, our bedding, most of our clothes and shoes—they’re all birthday gifts, Christmas gifts accumulated over the years. It’s all stolen.

She writes Mom from prison, saying she’d always wanted to confess to Mom because she knew Mom could make her stop. Mom was the kind of person who would walk back to the grocery store still carrying heavy groceries if she realized she’d been given fifty cents too much change. Mom would have helped her make it right, her letter says. This pisses me off. I want her to stay out of my mother’s life. I’m leaving for college and I’m afraid to leave Mom. She’s dating someone new and has found some friends in the local lesbian community, but I fret as if I’m the parent and she’s the child. I don’t want to leave her all alone. I’m worried about how she’ll manage on her own.

During my freshman year of college, Mom calls me at school with the news that Phoebe’s out of prison and she’s pregnant. Not too long after that, the grasshopper ODs at O’Hare airport.

Phoebe has a baby girl. They move to Las Vegas, which seems fitting. Las Vegas, that great mirage in the desert built on stolen money.


Amy Eaton is a writer, director, and performer living in Chicago. Her work has recently been seen in Fillet of Solo, MissSpoken, and Write Club Chicago, where she is a three-time victor. She is currently at work on a memoir.

TCR Talks with Maggie Nelson

BY: Aimee Carrillo Rowe and Juniper

Maggie Nelson’s writing resists reification. She attends to what she calls the “multitude of possible uses, possible contexts” of words, creates shifting frames of reference, and defies genre with works that are part poetry and autobiography, theory and criticism. Readers are drawn to the suspended quality of Nelson’s writing, to the agency it provides the reader to question meaning.

Nelson has published nine books, offering intimate narrations of the personal that uncover questions of theory. Jane, The Red Parts, and The Art of Cruelty make up a three-book meditation on violence that opens with her aunt’s murder. Her cult favorite Bluets consists of 240 numbered prose poems that tell a non-linear narrative of recovery from romantic loss while caring for a friend made quadriplegic in an accident. Throughout, she muses on the color blue to reveal the inextricability of heartbreak and desire, love and grief, and the role of art in mediating dualisms. Most recent is Nelson’s The Argonauts, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, her story of becoming a mother with a trans partner. The book challenges normative notions of the family while refusing to trap queerness under a banner of knowability.

Nelson has earned numerous accolades, including a MacArthur Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Nonfiction. She works as a professor of English at the University of Southern California. The Coachella Review had the great privilege of interviewing Nelson on the craft of writing discourse that is multivalent, in which unknowing is beautiful, for in it there is “infinite conversation, an endless becoming.”

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: “My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.” Can you describe how you edit yourself into boldness? What does this feel like in your body?

MAGGIE NELSON: It feels like sitting in a chair and running down a sharp pencil! The beauty of writing is that you don’t have to take something like boldness head on. You just keep making better sentences, eliminating dross and cant, and you get there.

TCR: That’s interesting, because our next question may be related, conceptually, for you. We were thinking of the way José Muñoz imagines queer utopia, à la Bloch, as an astonishment at the mundane and wondered whether your preoccupation with the color blue in Bluets works, in part, as a practice in astonishment? Or is astonishment only something that can result sentence by sentence, like boldness?

MN: Right, I don’t think astonishment is something you can hunt down directly. As Bluets says, such demands are murderous to beauty. If you practice the art of paying close attention, astonishment can be a side effect. But it’s the attention that matters, and that comes first.

TCR: If the stanzas in Bluets were rearranged, would the narrative remain equally true?

MN: Well, it’s not a collage. It builds. I don’t write for truth per se—I don’t know what true means exactly—but certainly it wouldn’t be the same book, in which case whatever truth value or truth effects it achieves right now would be lost or changed.

TCR: ‘I’m not on my way anywhere,’” Harry sometimes tells inquirers. “How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?” What is at stake in going nowhere or writing against or without teleology—without a need to accomplish, complete, or even move forward under a logic of progress? Have you gone up against any strictures around time in the publishing industry? Without being on the way anywhere, how does a writer know when a project is finished?

MN: I don’t think there really are big strictures around time from the literary publishing industry, not such as there are for journalists writing for deadline. In my experience, most everyone bragging about having missed a deadline and being in trouble with their publisher etc. is stretching the truth a bit, in an effort to make their work sound more desperately needed and awaited than it is. Perhaps that fantasy is what keeps them working. Baldwin had it otherwise, conjecturing that “it is only because the world looks on [the artist’s] talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.” That’s more my POV. Also, one can move forward without teleology—arguably that’s how the entirety of the universe, including life on earth, evolves. You can evolve without teleology; even Darwin said so. That said, every artist usually feels the need to “resolve” a piece—you want to make it better, as best as it can be, until it’s time to finish or abandon it. This, in my experience, is a very nose to the grindstone activity, not really hospitable to disruption by more macro concerns. It takes the time it takes.

TCR: You’ve said, “I have never really thought of myself as a ‘creative person’—writing is my only talent, and writing has always felt more clarifying than creative to me.” Do you consider this “clarifying,” in part, as a form of archiving queer culture or is your intention limited to the personal?

MN: I’m realizing that I’m not really addressing some of the nuances here about queer culture, and that’s because the word “queer” isn’t one I myself use very much, at least not in the way you’re using it here. I’m not against using it this way, but it’s just not native to me. I prefer a relationship to it that’s more skeptical and flickering than clarifying, ever unsure about what it means, rather than using it as if it’s a knowable adjective, noun, or verb. This is especially so these days, as the word’s connotation has changed quite a bit from when “queer theory” first ascended, with all its confidence about queering everything it touched, and knowing what that would mean.

TCR: You used to live in New York City and now live and teach in Los Angeles. New Yorkers and Angelenos notoriously love to compare the two cities. Does the feeling of a place—L.A., New York—animate your writing process?

MN: I left New York when I was 33, so it’s hard to know now what about my writing process there had to do with youth and what had to do with New York. Certainly in L.A. I’ve had the time and space to spread out, and I’ve moved primarily into longform nonfiction since I’ve lived here, and away from poetry. Poetry was the social and linguistic glue of my life in New York. I don’t have that here, but I have other things. Big sprawling thoughts and reams of sentences. I like it okay.

TCR: You take the title, The Argonauts, from a Roland Barthes’ passage: “‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’” In the final acknowledgement addressed to Harry you say: “Thank you for showing me what a nuptial might be—an infinite conversation, an endless becoming.” In your exploration of the boundaries of literature, what is the role of renewal and how do we create literature and theory that acts as dialogue rather than declaration? How can memoir explore the boundaries between people?

MN: I tend to think that all literature is dialogue, even that which announces itself as declaration. I also believe in being an emancipated reader, who doesn’t feel overly interpellated or bossed around by any particular book, who knows she can always take it or leave it. We dialogue with the dead by reading, and we dialogue with ourselves.

TCR: You’ve referenced Octavia Butler as a writer of speculative fiction whose work is critical to imagining freedom. Is your project on freedom influenced by speculative fiction?

MN: I like a lot of speculative fiction and think it delivers all kinds of innovations in thought and vision, but honestly it hasn’t been the deepest source for me, and I don’t lean on it much in my new project. I remain most riveted by the kind of speculation and imagining and enlivening that comes from drilling down into the what is, asking if we really know what is as well as we presume we do. Sometimes the idea that we need speculative fiction to alter that relationship strikes me as, I don’t know, too literal or something. I mean, one can engage in world-building by breathing differently or changing one’s mind as much as by imagining a mutant race living in a parallel galaxy. But I like it all, and I’m glad that world-building and world-changing come in many forms.

TCR: There’s a scene after Harry’s read a draft of The Argonauts where you sense Harry’s initial, unspoken reaction “as quiet ire.” The next day you have lunch together and go through the draft page by page. The passage ends with Harry asking, “Whatever—why can’t you just write something that will bear adequate witness to me, to us, to our happiness?” The narrator’s interiority responds, “Because I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding.” Do you feel you are closer to understanding this relationship now?

MN: Nah, I think it’s not really answerable. I mean, Harry’s question was, even at the time, kind of a rhetorical one—the reason why I couldn’t do what he was asking is that no writing can bear adequate witness to relationship. A book is an aesthetic event with its own needs and forms of logic. Those will inevitably deform the largesse of life and love, even if that deformation is in service of holding something, or seeing a few things clearly. You can intimate that largesse, you can mark down a few things from the flow. But life escapes, as it should.


Aimee Carrillo Rowe is a memoirist, theorist, and culture critic. She is a professor of Communication Studies at California State University, Northridge and the author of Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances (Duke University Press, 2008), Answer the Call: Virtual Migration in Indian Call Centers (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), and a study of healing, sovereignty, and indigeneity in performance communities, entitled Queer Xicana: Performing the Sacred (under review). She is an MFA student at UCR, Palm Desert, where she’s writing a memoir about queer single motherhood entitled, After Birth: Memoir of a Queer Family.  

Juniper (@june_moon) lives and writes queer futurism in Brooklyn. They are working on a collection of birthday stories as well as an essay entitled “Pseudo-Art in the Springtime” on the creation of self.  

Big Canyon

By: Leath Tonino

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

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

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

Saturdays like this—for adventure. 

**

Hey, you lazy, sleepy sonofa… 

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

And we’re off.  

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

How much water did you bring?

Some. 

Let’s do it? 

Indeed, my broski. 

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

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

**

We’re lost, stumbling.

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

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

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

Really, though, what did he say? 

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

Yo, let’s keep going, huh? 

Yeah, I wanna find that panel.

**

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

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

A flipped switch.  Awareness. 

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

Unblinking.  Eyeless. 

We gaze and gaze.

** 

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

 So it went okay? 

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

A special spot, eh? 

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

Tip the bottle.  Another snort. 

How to answer?

Yeah, a special spot, an awesome Saturday.

I thought you’d like Big Canyon.


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

I Didn’t Have That

By: Terry Barr

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Ashley Blooms, “Fire in My Bones”

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

As if they were one of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

I went out with one of those Baptists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Ashley Blooms (75)

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

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

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

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

I raised my head. I met his eye.

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

because I had learned and was learning still that some touches

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

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

stare at the place where mushrooms grow from the dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it, Ashley?

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

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

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

World without end?

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


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

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