Tag: Nonfiction (Page 1 of 5)

The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump


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

“Jay, I want you to jump.”

“Like up and down?”

“Yes, like jump up and down.”

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

I’m the youngest one in the activity center by at least twenty years. This is problematic because comparison naturally feeds fiction. Surveying the room, like the true gym class hero I still think I am, I swell with pride believing I’m the most able-bodied person in the room.

“Denise, need I remind you that I’m an athlete? A collegiate soccer player? I’ve been jumping my whole life.”

Denise playfully rolls her eyes.

This is only my third appointment at St. Lawrence, but Denise and I already share a chemistry. It’s December. Football season. I’m an Eagles fan. She’s a Giants fan. In between sets of squats and leg raises, I tell her Eli Manning is overrated. She tells me that the stereotypes regarding the jerkiness of Eagles fans is apparently true.

Denise is a turtleneck conservative. No earrings, no rings, just a silver cross pinned to her sweatshirt. But she is funny and real, and in just our few hours together, I stake her as the most compassionate person I ever met.

During a set of lunges, Denise tells me that Bill just lost his wife of forty years to breast cancer. Her brown eyes swell, and then she tells me she lost her grandmother to the same disease. Denise and I both look at Bill. We watch him slowly pedal. She tells me it’s her goal to make him smile today.

To be honest, I’ve avoided writing this story for some time now. I guess by writing it, by pinning down its facts, I’m forced to accept certain truths. I assume I did what most of us do when we don’t have the energy, courage, conviction to deal with truth. We tuck it away, like a debt, in the darkness of a desk drawer and do our best to forget about it.

But memories, with just the right stimulus, can resurrect without invocation. They sit up, blink, open the drawer and leak into the light and remind you that memories, like debts, can be avoided for only so long before they must be attended to.

The stimulus today was a basketball bouncing off the concrete.

My son, Chase, is in the backyard, dribbling the length of the patio and shooting on a little net he received for his fourth birthday.  He’s six now and he’s getting good at basketball. Dribbling, jump shots, layups. And he’s quickly learning about the earthly battle between the human body and gravity.

Chase makes a jump shot and celebrates. As it often happens with sons, he feels me, his father’s eyes observing, because he looks up with his own blue eyes and finds me framed in the window.

“Come out and play Dad!”

I smile and wave and a trapdoor in my stomach swings open and my heart falls through and keeps falling because I can’t play. Not now. Not today. Because some days my body aches too much. Because some days my brain does weird things. Like some days my brain convinces me I’m trapped on the Tilt-A-Whirl or I’m buckled to the back of a big black bird or I’m a sneaker in the dryer or I’m frat-party drunk. Because some days the fixed world spins, glides, tumbles, and wobbles off its axis at speeds beyond what my eyes, my undamaged brain can comprehend.

And if you want to know the truth, some days, I just don’t play because I simply cannot risk the embarrassment.

For this story, I need you to suspend reality. I need you to believe the unbelievable. But the unbelievable is the truth. Truth that the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, the epicenter of rare and novel diseases, couldn’t believe.

Before my diagnosis, I believed that I would do physically heroic dad things, like carrying all three children off to bed like footballs, tucked under my arms, after they’d fallen asleep on the couch. I believed I would be the MVP of father-son baseball games. I believed my children and I would run 5Ks together, and I believed on a perfect summer morning, when the sky was veined with golden light, we would ride bikes along the New Jersey coastline.

But we age and learn that real life always falls incredibly short of the one we imagined, of the one we planned. And yet despite our protests, it’s the unplanned life that teaches more than our fantasies ever will.

“Jay, are you ready?”

“Eagles are always ready to fly.”

“Okay, but I’ll be right here beside you just in case.”

Bill rides a stationary bike. He is straight-faced and staring at me.

“Hey Denise, can you go make Bill smile? He’s freaking me out.”

“Just concentrate on what you’re doing.”

“Denise, I got this. Need I remind you again? I’m an athlete.”

Cerebellar degeneration is exactly as it sounds. There is massive cell loss in the cerebellum, known as the little brain. The little brain controls motor skills: coordination, vision, and balance. After examinations from some of the top neurologists in the country, no one knows if I was born with a gaping hole in my cerebellum and had been able to compensate my whole life (remember, I’m an athlete) or if a civil war erupted in my little brain where cells attacked and killed each other. As I write this, as Chase drills a jump shot, no one knows if the war is over.

In the last few months my coordination, vision, balance and motor skills have all deteriorated. Not at breakneck speed, but slowly, methodically. Little things, things I’ve taken for granted—handwriting, climbing stairs, and carrying a few bags of groceries have become difficult.  The doctors are surprised how well I look, speak and still function given the size of the hole in my brain. For a brief time, doctors thought I had ALS. Then they thought Huntington’s disease. Then MS. Then, after six months of testing, they simply shrugged their collective shoulders and said they didn’t know. They told me, as if they were riding the Tilt-A-Whirl or the giant bird to “just hold on.”

Denise levels her eyes into mine.

“I want you to jump.”

“How high?”

“As high as you can.”

I bend my knees, swing my arms back and forth and try to jump. I try and try and try and try, but I can’t do it. I can’t force my feet to leave the floor. My big brain screams at my little brain, “Jump!” But the message is not delivered, as if some internal chord that transmits important messages has been severed.

To Denise, Bill, and the two ladies on the treadmill, I must have looked ridiculous, like a wide-eyed field mouse stuck in a glue trap.

I shake my head. “Jump!  Jump!”

“It’s okay, Jay. You don’t have to do it.”

“No, Denise. I can jump. I have to jump.”

“Relax. Take a seat. Let me check on Bill.”

Denise returns, tells me she offered Bill her best joke about a priest, a rabbi, and a monk playing Monopoly in Mexico and he didn’t crack. Didn’t even flinch.

“Denise, I’ve had enough for today.”

When you think of your future self, you envision your best self. Happy and unblemished. You’re the hero of your own movie. You convince yourself that you, unlike everyone else, won’t end up a tragedy. And in those great moments of fantasy you believe, with a swollen heart, in your own fiction.

I limp into the locker room, find a folding chair, stare into my lap and began to digest the fact that I had lost the ability to jump. It occurred to me, right there in that empty locker room, on that folding chair, that I would not be the man, the father, I had envisioned I would be. A father running, jumping through life with his children. A father playing basketball in the backyard with his son. A father who is fast and coordinated and who teaches his boy the aerodynamics of a layup as the evening sun vanishes from the suburban sky.

I open the locker room door to find Bill in the hallway, sitting in his wheelchair, as if waiting for me.

I offer a little half-smile, and before I can turn Bill speaks. “Hey.” He still had those steely grey Navy captain eyes, eyes that didn’t look at you, eyes that looked through you. Bill clears his throat, shifts his weight on his God-given hip, and says, “Don’t give up, kid.”


And then, in a very subtle, a very unprovoked way, Bill smiles.

Jay Armstrong is high school English teacher, writer, and speaker. He began seriously writing in 2013, after being diagnosed with a degenerative brain illness. Jay believes life favors the brave and in the healing power of stories. You can find more of Jay’s writings at writeonfighton.org.

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


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

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

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

With her succinct and vivid prose, Dawson places the reader inside the scene of each crime and inside the minds of the key participants, maximizing the immersive experience and effortlessly delivering complicated details, plot twists and all:

Allene’s blood had been transferred to almost every corner of her small home. The pathologist, the undertaker, officers, and countless neighbors had all shuffled through the scene, along with David Lamson and the real estate agent. There were large pools of blood in the bathroom, splashes in the hallway, red footprints leading to both bedrooms, sprays containing hundreds of droplets on each bathroom wall, and smears wiped on doorknobs. Reconstructing the scene would be arduous, even for more experienced detectives.

Dawson goes beyond gruesome details to provide the relevant historical context necessary to shatter popular misconceptions of the time period and expose external forces that complicated each case. For example, most of the key events occurred during what is widely referred to as the Roaring Twenties, a golden era. Dawson dispels all romantic notions of Gatsby-esque socials and speakeasys full of fast jazz and Charleston-dancing flappers. This was a time period of widespread poverty; crime was up and employment was down. “And it was a tumultuous era – the homicide rate in the 1920s, when Heinrich’s most interesting work began, had increased by as much as almost 80 percent from the decade before, thanks to Prohibition,” Dawson writes. In another section, Dawson  writes: “The conclusion of World War I in 1918 did not revitalize the economy as the government had promised. Soldiers returned home traumatized, angry, and often with little hope of finding jobs.”

In this book, Dawson stays true to her documentary producer and journalist sensibilities by conducting an exhaustive examination of court records, case files, newspaper coverage, personal correspondence, and estate property. Along with Heinrich’s achievements, Dawson lays bare a man who was prone to bouts of self-destructive egotism, depression, and an obsessive-compulsive personality that challenged both his professional and personal lives. Heinrich pioneered many breakthroughs still used today, but he also championed techniques that later proved to be unreliable and destructive. Throughout his career, this celebrated crime fighter carried a heavy burden of doubt about whether his work led to the convictions of innocent people or the release of criminals into society.

Dawson’s work goes beyond standard biography and true-crime fare to unpack social controversies of the era, some with alarming parallels to contemporary issues almost a century later. In every case, sensational and irresponsible journalism impacted the pursuit of justice. Media sources discredited experts, spun communities into a panic, and ruined the lives of suspects in the court of public opinion, regardless of a jury’s decision.

Dawson’s book is also timely in the wake of the Me Too movement—a stark reminder that our society hasn’t evolved as far as we might want to believe.

While women had won full voting rights the year before, sexual assaults in America were vastly underreported; when survivors did respond to the police, many times they were blamed for being culpable. The popularity of adventurous flappers with their sexuality on display left men scared of false accusations, while women and girls continued to be sexualized.

Each criminal case highlights the fragility of the American justice system with observations that still hold true today. Despite best intentions, investigative techniques and evidentiary facts used in the prosecution of a suspect could prove flawed or misleading years later. In the conclusion of American Sherlock, Dawson leaves us with a poignant warning in an age when communities are at odds with law enforcement and political leaders:

Investigations must start with honest, intelligent officers willing to do good detective work in the field. The public should question law enforcement without impeding its progress, and jurors shouldn’t be swayed by an expert’s reputation – they should evaluate if his theory makes sense. … All forensic science is fallible, even DNA testing. Americans can only hope that investigators will doggedly gather reliable evidence, clues that can get to the truth rather than settle on an outcome that will appease the public or free a guilty suspect.

Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer currently working as an intelligence and security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he has served as a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence special agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He was the story developer and staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media, and his short fiction has been published at Thought Catalog. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.

Book Review: The Witches Are Coming


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

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Book Review: Year of the Monkey

By Briana Weeger

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

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How to Promise

By Zach Semel

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

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

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

“How’s Grandpa?” I ask.

“He’s asleep,” she says.

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

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

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The Brambles

By: Michelle Bracken

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Why can’t they just read?

They never do homework. 

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

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

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

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

“My mom has brain cancer.”

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not like him,” I tell them.

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

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


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

“You’re here to see me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is it?” he asks.

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


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

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

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

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

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


Hiram Clarke Symphony No. 1 in E Minor

By: Gazzmine Wilkins

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

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

I. Sonata

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

II. Largo

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

III. Minuet

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

IV. Allegro con amore

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

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



By: Jo Varnish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tangible Things

By Marianne Rogoff

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

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

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TCR Talks With 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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