Story Problems and the Search for Cosines
By Thomas Allbaugh
When I was in school, teachers used story problems to convince us that math could be relevant to our lives. Yet when reading a passage that began with the words, “One car is traveling thirty miles per hour, and a second car, twenty miles behind it, is traveling in the same direction at forty miles per hour,” the first question to occur to me was never, “How long will it take the second car to catch the first?” Rather, I wanted to know more. I mean really, would the cars stay constant? Or would they encounter hills? And how would that topography slow them down and then speed them up the way it did my father’s car when we traveled in the country? This was decades before cruise control. Were there equations for that as well? I really could not learn to trust numbers completely. The numbers seemed too neat, and reality too messy.
And then there was the question that this raised about what was nonessential. What about the make and color of the cars? Which state had issued the license plates? Since this was to enter the realm of the short story, was there the potential for a deer to run out into the road? After all of these details, any equation I might solve on behalf of the second car would be, at best, an approximation. This was described by my teacher as having math problems.
I thought of it much more broadly than that. Story problems were used at a higher level to put men on the moon. Whether in space, on Earth, or on the moon, numbers are absolute. But the story problems I was expected to solve weren’t set in outer space. The assumption that I should just ignore the real world, with all of its obstacles, well, I simply was unable to go there. And should I really ignore the fact that there were details I was not being told?
That, to me, has always been behind the failure of story problems. What exactly should be nonessential?
Story problems proved to be irrepressible with television. The persuasion of my teachers must have been enhanced by the time I was nine when, every week, I tuned in to TV’s Lost in Space, a show that seemed to shamelessly drop terms from science but also seemed to have very few science fact-checkers working for it, and the term “light year” was being used as frequently and randomly as the words “cake” or “apple.” This was 1965, eight years after Sputnik and actually quite far along in the space race, and it seemed that shows like Lost in Space and Star Trek were making colonizing other planets a normal occupation, at least to nine year olds. One night, I asked my father, “How far is a light year?”
The sheer love of science that came as he used his stubby number 2 pencil on his news reporter’s yellow pad and began to explain it came as a revelation of character. I think I understood then that I could relate to him if I could get him talking about science. I still remember his talking through the layers of multiplication tables that led to a number with thirteen figures. Then he rounded the figure off to twelve zeroes to 6,000,000,000,000: light traveled nearly 6 trillion miles in a year.
As I already suggested, I have always tended to see things in terms of my immediate surroundings, what I think others, especially scientists, characterize as the nonessentials. As my dad handed me the tablet of equations and I stomped around the house saying things like “Wow” and “No kidding,” I saw the dining room light and most of the lamps in the living room with new respect. Here, suddenly, was vastness all about us in capital letters, Time and Space. Here was Alpha Centauri—the destination of the family in Lost in Space, four light years, or 24 trillion miles distant—hanging in the vastness. Here were the fruits that result when numbers inflame the imagination. Math really was for the brave of heart.
I not only started to think about distant places and question the science behind the space ship in Lost in Space. I also became aware of forces that were invisible, like light, gravity, radiation, and wind. The trouble is that I began to think about them in basic poetic terms. Today, my response to my father’s equations strikes me as an early warning of future struggles with higher math that might come to someone who should really be writing fiction. After just getting by in high school geometry, I longed for the day in trig when my teacher might stoop to at least define cosines. Outside of class, at home when I was made to put in extra study time, I had only the course textbook to help, and it was clearly written for insiders, skipping steps the way my teacher did. After weeks of struggling in class and staring for hours at a textbook that might as well have been the fragments of an ancient manuscript, I went to my trig teacher for help.
“Excuse me,” I said after class, “you wrote all of these lines of stuff on the board, but can you tell me? The textbook doesn’t define cosines. What are they?”
My teacher waved his hand and repeated what he’d said in class. Then he turned to me. “You see now?”
I was dull. Nothing in what he’d repeated from class could help me. I said “okay” and walked away depressed.
If I could claim to have had an epiphany that day, it would be this: the connections between higher math and anything resembling the “real world” are unconvincing. It may seem silly that a professor of English should insist that math represent the real world, when French literary scholars have given us so much literary theory since the nineteen seventies that has poured scorn on the suggestion that a text, any text, could signify something real. In my theory courses in grad school, readers “nostalgic for reality” were regularly sent packing for detective novels. But as I reflect on my adult lack of desire to travel to other planets, I understand that at the root of my math problems is a nostalgic desire to return the basic math of my elementary school years, where we used apples, and the functions had to do with balancing a checkbook. This desire, I now understand, was behind my despairing of ever understanding trigonometric functions.
A few years ago, I asked a school colleague who taught math about those cosines. I told him of my sorry work in math classes, and he was exuberant at having the conversation turn to this topic.
We stood in a parking lot on the edge of the college campus where we both worked, and he pointed at the tallest tree that towered over the buildings behind us and said, “Imagine you’d like to know the exact angle from here to the top of that tree over there.” I followed the angle of his straight arm as he pointed to the top of the tree. “Imagine you want to know that.”
“Well, that is just the problem isn’t it?” I said. “I mean, I don’t normally want to know that.”
My friend didn’t hear me, though, as he launched into an explanation of how to figure out that angle. It took him five minutes, but when he finished, I realized that nowhere in any of his explanation was there a definition for cosines.
Here I was, forty years after doing poorly in trigonometry, still without a clue, but now convinced that math cannot be translated into known tongues. This, I know, is true of the higher levels of any discipline. As with every mystery, including bosons, fermions, and doctrines of the trinity, most aspects of higher math are not open or connected to everyday life.
Certainly, long before this I had to come to terms with the idea that I not only would have to live without cosines, but that I could. What my friend helped me understand was this: Other than people working for the phone company or for NASA, only people who looked at trees and wanted to know the angle between them and the tree would need this sort of thing. In other words, to the obsessive-compulsive, cosines mattered.
I wasn’t completely right, however. Today, we no longer have a space race, but the military seems to have made use of all the terms I didn’t get in high school trig. So we have drones we can control from an army base in Colorado to bomb a Pakistani family eating dinner because a known Taliban fighter is walking by. Perhaps this was the real, if unintended, result of the space race. It looked like we were going to populate other worlds, but now we seem intent on having the capacity to depopulate our own.
There remain these occasions when I wonder if we haven’t made math more relevant than it should be, taken those old story problems too far.
We should not treat math as mere numbers. Our imaginations are inflamed by equations; the worst personalities of our day are empowered to act on the least desirable impulses, even as we have watched our federal deficit approach one fourth the distance to Alpha Centauri.
Again, I think in terms of my immediate surroundings. I’ve learned the math to do the humble trick of keeping a checkbook and figuring out how to have enough money each month to attend a few movies.
Thomas Allbaugh is an associate professor of English at Azusa Pacific University, where he taught Composition, Rhetoric, and Creative Nonfiction. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in a number of venues, including Relief, Pedagogy, and Writing on the Edge.
* * *
By Bob Kunzinger
It’s our first day out on the Trans-Siberian rail and we share a cabin with two young, Russian businessmen. I haven’t picked up much of their conversation yet, but they are either finishing work in Petersburg and headed home, or they live in the city and are on their way to a job. My language skills are weak at best and communication is poor. It is so poor, in fact, that no one here knows we speak English; they think it is Spanish. When we tell them it’s English they assume we are from England, and I let them for now. If I can break through to deeper conversation with anyone perhaps then I’ll give them more details of where we’re from and where we’re going.
It seems no one we’ve met travels very far on the Siberian railroad. A few stops mostly in third class, or if they are in a cabin, one or two nights and certainly not all the way to Vladivostok. When we first boarded, the conductor asked where our final destination is and I said “Vladivostok” to which he recoiled. This isn’t a tourist route; for that people head south to Moscow and cross Russia into Mongolia and China, ending up in Beijing. Besides, St Petersburg to Vladivostok is roughly the same distance by train as traveling from New York to Guam. We are an anomaly.
We started heading east out of St Petersburg and will travel roughly three weeks with stops and wandering, but the first leg to Yekaterinburg is about two days. We opted for the north route to the city, which used to be the playground of the Czars. Of course, it was just one hundred years ago Nicholas the Second and his son Alexi took this train on this route to that city for what would be the last train ride of their lives. I suppose the train is accustomed to fathers and sons. It appears to be a “man’s” journey as I have seen very few women on board with the exception of an attendant in each car and several in the dining car. When Nicholas and Alexi rode this rail from St. Petersburg to Yekaterinburg, they didn’t fair so well. They along with Alexandra and her four daughters, including Anastasia, were all slaughtered in a basement of a palace at our next stop. It is a shrine now. Tomorrow we will visit.
This is nothing like the Long Island Rail Road, Dad. How many years did you ride that from the outreaches of Suffolk County to Wall Street? I remember going on that with you when the five of us went to the city for dinner. We made it to mid-town and I wanted to light a candle at St Patrick’s Cathedral. You were tired and it was out of our way, but we went. It is odd how the Siberian rail feels safer and less shaky. Still I wish you were here. That was so long ago, wasn’t it? I would love to ride trains with you again, talk about baseball and have a drink in the bar car; you’d read the paper and I’d look out the window until we went underground. If you were here you’d order the burger and fries and have a Baltika 7, their best beer, and of course we would have some caviar just to be able to go back home and say we had caviar.
Funny how you just never know when the last ride will be. I wonder if Nicholas looked out at the same birch forests I’m staring at and had some sort of premonition akin to the doom Rasputin warned him about, his own family’s death, the fall of his empire. Did his son stand nearby like Michael stands near me now? Did his young heart still hold hope that the hard days were past, and they’d now settle into some routine far from the war-torn city they always knew as home? Did he smile and think with simplicity about being able to spend more time with his parents? He was with his Dad for God’s sake; what could possibly go wrong? When I was young and we traveled to the city I always felt safe and knew that somehow you’d figure it out. I assume Alexi felt the same around his exiled father. I suppose Michael too, waiting for my cue to disembark, to head to the dining car, to settle in for the night. I’ve come to understand finally that you were as nervous as I am, wanting your son to have the time of his life yet protect him in a world of strangers.
It helps to imagine our two strange young Russian cabin mates are as apprehensive as us, wondering who are these two Spaniards or Englishmen or whoever the hell we are to them. Well at the least we have each other, the one we came with, to secure our comfort zone. Traveling alone would be the true adventure. But I wasn’t raised that way, was I? Safety first. Funny how many times I ignored that rule. Now here I am hoping Michael wanders away, meets people and manages conversation. He’ll play his harmonica; people will listen. He’ll bring his chess set to the dining car and people will want to play. Music and chess are universal. Communication is easy. Language is a different story.
Tomorrow we will be at the Church of the Spilled Blood, one of two so-called Cathedrals in this vast nation. Last week we went to the one where Alexander the 2nd was assassinated in St. Petersburg. Tomorrow we will see this one, built on the spot where his grandson, Czar Nicholas the 2nd, his wife Alexandra, his son Alexi, and the boy’s four sisters were shot to death in the middle of the night. I’ll light a candle for you.
Bob Kunzinger is a professor of arts and humanities in Virginia. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Washington Post and Kestrel, and has been noted several times in Best American Essays.
* * *
By Richard LeBlond
Ocracoke is a small and isolated fishing village on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It has so many sophisticated attributes that I refuse to relate them for fear you will discover this place, tell others, and like me, trample its charm underfoot. I fell in love with the first person I met, Patricia, who conveniently happened to manage the hotel where I had my reservation.
This story is about Patricia’s daughter, Denise, who was in her early 20s and also living in Ocracoke, but not in the hotel. Denise was accompanied everywhere by a mongrel dog that sort of resembled a black spaniel. If Denise was sitting, the dog was curled at her feet. If she was working, it was sitting or lying nearby, with a constant eye on her. It tolerated other people, but there was no one else it cared about, no one else it greeted when they entered the room. I had never before met a dog so attached to one person. (I am not counting those living toys found in Gucci handbags, and a shame to wolves everywhere.) Denise was perfectly content with the attention.
Daughter and mother were headstrong, and they occasionally fought. These were mostly verbal fights that quickly devolved into a traditional airing of each other’s faults. Objects were occasionally thrown, sometimes damaging or destroying family heirlooms. But overall, this was an improvement in their relationship.
An attractive young woman, Denise had gone to Hollywood after high school, where the driver of her dreams shifted from stardom to drugs. She entered an abusive relationship, and her life descended so low that her mom was able to convince her to come to Ocracoke. The detoxification period was hard on both of them, but after a while Denise made a few friends, got her own apartment, and began participating in local activities. She fell in love with sailing and eventually acquired a small sailboat.
* * *
The village of Ocracoke occupies a low area near the southwest end of the island. This lowness gives rise to what I consider the village’s only drawbacks: mosquitos and flooding. The many freshwater and brackish wetlands are mosquito nurseries. The “dry” land is so low and flat that streets are flooded after ordinary rainfalls with puddles large and deep enough to tempt canoes. You don’t want to be in Ocracoke during or immediately after a hurricane. The whole village floods. Patricia had sent me pictures she had taken from the second floor of the hotel during one hurricane. The first floor was under water.
It was during a hurricane that Denise had a reckless and life-changing encounter with her sailboat. As usual, the town flooded from the storm surge, with rainfall adding to the ruination. Denise had an apartment on the second floor of a house along the sound. From one of her windows she had a view of her boat, which was moored close by. Nearly continuously, she monitored the steadfastness of the mooring, and considered possible mishaps that might occur as a result of the storm surge lifting the boat above what had been land. There was in fact nothing now but sea between her building and the boat.
A hurricane is a terrible thing while it is happening, and just when you think it can’t get worse, it does. Denise became so concerned the boat would come loose from its mooring that she decided to examine it up close, in the hurricane, in the rain, in the storm surge – and out of the relative safety of the apartment. This is how people die in hurricanes. She was in water before she reached the bottom of the apartment’s stairwell. In the flooded yard between her and the boat, the water came up nearly to her knees. The walk was slow and treacherous in the choppy water and strong winds.
When Denise got to the boat, she determined that the mooring was secure, and turned back towards her apartment. About halfway, she heard within the noise of the storm what sounded like the distant, muted yowl of a dog in pain or fear. Scanning the environs, she thought the sound might be coming from a nearby small one-story guest house. As she walked towards it, the yowls got louder. She approached the window that seemed closest to where the sound was coming from. Looking through the window, Denise saw the water was more than a foot deep in the little house’s kitchen, and still rising.
In the middle of the room was a table, and leashed to one of its legs was a mongrel dog that sort of resembled a black spaniel. The dog was straining uselessly against the table and rising tide, more thrashing than swimming, and no doubt knowing it could drown. Then it saw Denise through the window, and its yelping took on precious new meaning.
After determining no humans were present, Denise tried the front door, but it was locked. So she grabbed a piece of floating wood and broke through the kitchen window. Climbing inside, she untied the dog from the table leg, picked it up in her arms, unlocked the front door, and carried the dog out into the storm. By now the surge was up to her knees, and the dog began to squirm upwards. It was trying to get up on her back and shoulders, away from the water, so she let it. Then the two of them set out for the safety of her apartment.
The cottage guests who had so carelessly abandoned the dog never attempted to find out if it survived the storm. Denise didn’t try to get in touch with them; they had forfeited their rights. Patricia noticed almost immediately the calming effect the dog had on her daughter. Denise said it was fated, that it could not be more obvious the two of them belonged together. It might seem trite to say each had given the other a priceless gift, but each had.
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. Since 2014, his essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, High Country News, New Theory, and Lowestoft Chronicle. His work has been nominated for Best American Travel Writing and Best of the Net.
* * *
An Unlikely Love Story
By Nicole Melchionda
I was eleven years old when I met the love of my life and discovered my biggest fantasy, all thanks to one afternoon airing of a Drake and Josh episode. As usual, the two stepbrothers were getting into their unrealistic antics, where Drake does something painfully idiotic, Josh edges closer to developing a brain aneurysm, and, through reluctant teamwork, they save the day. This time was different, though, as I saw a character I’d never seen before and couldn’t believe existed. I locked eyes with the boy who had beautiful auburn hair, soulful brown eyes, and a smile that was so large it filled the room and my heart. His name was Bobo, and he was an orangutan.
I felt some kind of spiritual awakening as I watched the graceful creature cling from the necks of the ungrateful stepbrothers who did not appreciate the plentiful kisses that were bestowed upon them from an actual hairy angel. I was completely captivated by everything Bobo did. Were it not a kids’ show, I’m sure he could have ripped off their limbs and danced over their appendage-less corpses and I still would have felt nothing less than inspired. Watching him flail his extremely disproportionately long arms around, which I later learned are almost seven feet long, made me feel desperate to play Ring Around the Rosie with him and giggle ferociously until the end of time. I developed an obsession.
I never forgot Bobo, but I kept my love for him contained only within the fond memories in my mind. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense why I immediately connected with this animal I knew so little about, because I subconsciously saw myself in him. When I was born, I came into this world with longer-than-average toes. Apparently when I would be chauffeured around town in a stroller, strangers would come up to me and grab my toes. I have since learned to utilize my feet as a second pair of hands and have become quadridexterous, being able to pick things up and open doors with my feet. Before my boyfriend, George, was even aware of my obsession, he called me his monkey. Everyone around me since my birth sensed that primates were my true people, so it was only a matter of time before I found my calling.
It wasn’t until I was eighteen when I finally decided to indulge in my obsession and acknowledge that it was never going to go away. I couldn’t tell you how many hours of my life I’ve spent watching videos of orangutans just being orangutans, and how many tears I’ve shed just because of how unable I was to cope with their existence.
One orangutan captured my heart when she mimicked a human and learned how to wash clothes by the river and transport herself via canoe. The sight of her with her baby on her lap and a saw in her hand as she cut wood convinced me that she was a better mother than a lot of humans.
I share the best orangutan videos I come across with George, who does not think my obsession is strange. Orangutans have a tendency to grab their feet and collapse on the ground and roll around. I have practiced this ritual in front of him so that I can properly participate in playtime, and, instead of leaving me like any normal person would and should, he claps his feet in approval. He, too, marvels at their beauty, but I doubt anyone can love those gentle primates more than me.
Being a bit of a movie fanatic, George informed me of the existence of a film featuring a gang-fighting orangutan named Clyde. He co-starred in Clint Eastwood’s film, Every Which Way But Loose, and I knew I had to watch it. Seeing Clyde’s range of talent on the big screen as he punched a bad guy in the face and drove a tractor convinced me that he was a better actor than a lot of humans.
I told George that the movie overall was just eh, but Clyde totally stole the show and deserved all the Oscars ever. I could not believe how smart these animals were, and each time I saw them succeed, I felt more pride than a real mother, human or orangutan. The biggest pain of my life is having to torturously admire orangutans from afar, as all the research I’ve conducted on how to score a date with one has been fruitless.
Almost every orangutan in the world is located within various sanctuaries in the magical forests of Asia. All the videos I’ve seen of people who are rich enough to fly across the world and meet these poo-slinging beauties only make me depressed. One would think the launching of feces would turn me away from the species, but it only endears me more. Many a time I, too, have been brought to the edge where throwing shit at another person would bring me the upmost satisfaction. I watched one woman cart around a whole wheelbarrow full of orangutans and I loathed her existence. I wanted that vessel of happiness.
George processed this deep emptiness in me similarly to how a woman who learns she cannot bear children must feel. He wanted to give me an orangutan I could mother, and the best he could do was a stuffed animal. I choked back tears upon meeting him, and we named our orangutan child Clyde to commemorate our 80s movie superstar. Clyde’s presence helps to fill our bed, but not the holes in my heart. I still yearn to hug a living orangutan.
The game changed when I watched a BBC video about two best friends, an orangutan named Suryia and a stray dog named Roscoe. The two crossed paths one day when Suryia was taking his daily ride upon an elephant with his caretaker when he locked eyes with Roscoe. Suryia leaped from the elephant, crashed into the water, and swam ashore to embrace the dog, and it’s been true love ever since. The kind of relationship they have is better than any other Hollywood romance I’ve seen, and I believe that Suryia and Roscoe should be the couple that everyone aspires to be like. Watching Suryia smile from ear to ear as he holds Roscoe in his arms, and watching him selflessly share his food out of the palm of his hand with Roscoe under the shade of a tree convinced me that orangutans are better at relationships than a lot of humans.
There is a dark desperation that lurks in the back of my mind as I become more aware of reality, though. Orangutans are at risk of extinction because of our own species’ actions, and I’ve never hated people more for destroying the purest thing on earth. Currently, there are around 50,000 Bornean orangutans, which makes them an endangered species, and only 7,500 Sumatran orangutans, which makes them a critically endangered species.
These highly intelligent animals are killed due to our own greed for palm oil, an ingredient which is used in myriad goods, ranging from snacks to soaps. Harvesting this oil has led to the destruction of over 80% of orangutan habitat, and this is unacceptable. If you mow down my people, I will mow you down. Sometimes, in order to combat this rage, I dream of forming an alliance with the orangutans, and, together, we could be an unstoppable shit-flinging machine.
Stumbling upon that video of the relationship between a dog and an orangutan by chance out of all the other orangutan videos out there only solidified the hope that my life goal is not crazy. My biggest fantasy that Bobo gave me when I was eleven has and always will be the same: someday I’m going to get ridiculously rich, buy a huge ranch, and take in all the endangered orangutans and dogs who need a home. We will frolic through the fields, tickle, cuddle, and eat together all day.
It should come as no surprise to learn that my plan after graduation is to teach English abroad. Where, you might ask? China, where I may step on the same continent their hairy feet stomp, and, in my wildest dreams, my classes will not be filled with people, but my people, ready to raise their noodle arms in the air to ask what took me so long.
Nicole Melchionda is a recent graduate of Stetson University where she majored in English with a minor in creative writing. There she completed an independent study on gothic poetry with award-winning poet Terri Witek and worked closely with journalist Andy Dehnart. She is now working as an English teacher in China.
* * *
His First Patient
By Jim Ross
When Alex turned 11, he beseeched, “Can we get a dog?” Shortly after he turned 12, we bought a crate, stuck it in a corner alongside the Christmas tree, inserted a Chihuahua-sized bed, placed a ceramic dog on the bed, and covered the crate with a bed sheet. It wasn’t unusual for us to drape large Christmas gifts with bed sheets to save on wrapping paper.
We didn’t anticipate the effect of positioning the crate beside an air vent. On Christmas morning, as Alex tried to avoid staring at the crate, the air arising from the vent caused the sheet to puff, abate, puff, abate. Alex imagined the dog’s breathing in and blowing out. When he couldn’t restrain himself any longer and tore off the bed sheet, Alex’s heart sank at finding a cold ceramic dog. “I wanted a real dog, not a breathing sheet,” he said.
A few days after Christmas, Alex and I visited a trusted breeder, who offered us a bargain on a little off-white bishon havanese. We got Buddy for half price because he had a brown nose instead of black. Apparently, being a brown-noser has negative connotations among dogs too.
The good times rolled. The first time Buddy caught sight of a hula-hoop, he started jumping back and forth through the hoop, unprovoked. The same scene was often repeated until Buddy or the hula-hoop holder tired out. Alex and Buddy staged tryouts for Extreme Canine Sports in the family room. Buddy flew from the couch onto the futon onto the recliner and onto Alex’s back without pausing to catch his breath. Havanese, after all, are circus dogs!
The two played catch daily in the kitchen, with musical accompaniment, usually Journey. Alex threw the ball against the wall on one bounce. Buddy scored a single point if he caught the ball on a bounce after it richocheted off the wall, two if he caught the ball richocheting off the wall on a fly, and three if he intercepted the ball on its way to the wall.
They both liked dressing up, especially for Halloween. Buddy’s favorite costume—a plush, velvety green shell with matching hood—made for a speedy, peripatetic turtle.
Occasionally, times weren’t quite so good. Once, a 16-year-old friend of the kids, Chris, pushed a plate of French fries under the couch where Buddy liked to hide and repeatedly jerked the French fries away as soon as Buddy showed interest. After Chris pulled this stunt a fourth time, Buddy snapped at Chris’s hand and drew a few blood drops. Chris filed a complaint. Animal control ordered us to place Buddy under quarantine—house arrest—for an entire month. When we told the kennel’s manager what had transpired, her reaction was, “You shouldn’t quarantine a dog for acting like a dog. The kid’s the one who should’ve been quarantined for knowingly torturing a dog.”
Buddy had access to a crate in the kitchen in case he wanted a timeout. We crated him for special occasions, like when there was a plumber in the house. At seventy-five dollars an hour, we had no intention of paying extra so the plumber could engage in dog therapy.
By day, when Alex wasn’t around, Buddy either played beneath the couch with his toys du jour or he dozed alertly, like a sentry, on the front hall’s fourth step, where he watched for whoever dared approach our front door. When Alex got home and hid in his room, Buddy secreted up the stairs, stood on his hind legs, and using an alternative pat-pat motion with his forelegs, nudged open Alex’s door.
At days’ end, Buddy came upstairs with me and Ginger to sleep under our bed. For years, he gave us a 10-step lead before hurtling up all 14 steps to prove he could pass us in the final four. Photo finishes became a shared addiction. As he got older, Buddy decreased our lead to eight steps, then six, then four. Eventually, when his legs became unreliable, Ginger started carrying him up and down stairs. When I too became stairs challenged, I sometimes carried him downstairs in a pillowcase rather than risk his springing from my arms.
In Buddy’s fourteenth year, Cushing’s Syndrome started dragging him down. One night, when I got home from work, Ginger was on the phone, distracted. I spied an enticing platter of pancakes on the counter. Off the phone, she inquired, “You been eating the pancakes?”
“Of course,” I answered. “What else are they for?”
This led to a long exchange about my eating everything in sight and the potential adverse effects of my eating pancakes containing Buddy’s Cushing’s medication.
“Would you like Buddy to call poison control for you?” Ginger queried.
By phone, Alex asked if I’d like him to drop off the bone from his dinner steak. I said, “I’d be fine if everybody would let me sit by the fire and lick myself for a while.”
We all knew it was gallows humor. Within a month, we brought Buddy to a cardiologist and shelled out far more on his care than we blow on ourselves in a year’s time. Selfishly, we weren’t ready to let him go.
The night before Alex was scheduled to work his first day as a nurse—fifteen years after Buddy entered our lives—our wobbly old circus dog, owner of the canine stairs-hurtling record, began dragging his hind quarters like dead weight around the family room. By phone, the veterinarian confirmed the plausibility of our diagnosis of stroke and told us what to anticipate. Ginger called Alex and suggested he run by ASAP to say goodbye. Alex, who lived elsewhere, was planned to hit the sack early in anticipation of his first day on the job.
“You think he’ll last until morning?” Alex asked.
Ginger said, “Yes, probably.”
Alex said, “Then I’ll come by early, like at five.”
Ginger and I held vigil in the family room all night. Buddy lay on the thick piles of the family room’s sky-blue carpet, mottled in yellow due to his chronic dysuria. Buddy’s cherished stuffed-toy companion, Telly the Toucan, spooned with him. Now and then, Buddy lifted his head and seemed to be crying out in pain, or saying farewell, or asking what the hell’s going on, except each time, although his jowls opened wide, no sound came.
Alex arrived at five wearing in navy scrubs He wasn’t expected at the hospital to meet his nurse manager until nine. Sitting cross-legged on the thickly carpeted family room floor, Alex scooped Buddy up and cradled him. After a while, still cradling Buddy, he stood, pivoted, and sat down in the blue and white checkered recliner.
“You wanna go outside and see the trees one more time?” Alex asked.
Outside, Alex lay Buddy down on the picnic table. After lightly racing his fingers over Buddy’s back, undersides, head, legs, ears, Alex sat down on a bench and held Buddy again:
“You’ve been watching over us all these years, old Buddy. You’ve been a good dog and great friend. You were always there when I needed you. It’s okay. You don’t have to watch over us anymore. You can let go. Let go of your breath.”
Buddy gradually stopped trying to respond and became limp. Tears rolled down Alex’s face and anointed Buddy who finally stopped breathing.
Alex continued crying Silently, Ginger draped a sheet over Buddy.
Stepping back, she said, “I think I see the sheet moving.”
“It’s not a breathing sheet this time,” said Alex. He didn’t leave for work until 9:30.
Hours later, I went for a walk through a nearby canine wonderland, where dogs safely free-run. An unleashed boxer approached and three times walked circles around me.
"He's looking for your dog," his owner said.
No dog had ever searched me for my dog, not until when for the first time in many moons—190 to be exact—I no longer had one.
Was he saying, “I’m unaccustomed to seeing people unaccompanied by a dog”?
Or perhaps he meant, “People aren't supposed to roam these woods, unless they’ve got a dog with them.”
"My dog died this morning," I said.
The boxer started rubbing its full body against my right leg’s outer side.
That night, Alex called to brief us on his first day. He reached work at 9:45 a.m., frightened he’d make a bad impression arriving so late. He told his nurse manager, “I'm sorry I'm late. This morning I lost my first patient. My dog died." As his tongue and palate joined, separated, and joined again to form “died,” Alex blubbered, then caught himself.
Because of Alex’s 6’ 4” frame, his loss of composure, however brief, caught his nurse manager off guard. She held him for a minute, maybe two. After they broke hold, she said, “It’s okay you’re late. In fact, the reason you’re late shows you’ve got heart. You’re just the kind of man we need around here.”
Since retiring from public health research in early 2015, Jim Ross has published several poems, 35 pieces of nonfiction, and 140 photos in more than 45 journals in North America, Europe, and Asia. He and his wife, grandparents of three toddlers, split their time across MD, VA, and WV.
* * *
By Gabrielle Vachon
They let you have whatever food you want at the hospital, or at least at Waterbury.
You have a menu, and you can pick between depressing option 1 and depressing option 2 of food from a can probably mixed with the tears of unpaid prison laborers. Or you can just write down “chicken nuggets” in bright angry red letters next to soggy beef option 1 and they will actually give it to you at mealtime.
I don’t know if it’s the bright angry red letters that somehow convince the cooks to waste their time on a bunch of hormonal junk food cravings, or the fact that this is the teen psych ward and our lives are pretty much shit anyways, doesn’t matter how many chicken nuggets we have. We’ll probably die young with or without diabetes.
But they will give it you, side of mayo and everything.
It’s like comfort food, except it’s cold and on a plastic plate with plastic forks with no plastic knives for the cutters and nothing too high in carbs for the bulimics.
It’s just like home, but someone is making sure you eat and taking your blood pressure and asking you in front of random other sad strangers if you had any thoughts of killing yourself today.
It’s funny how they ask you that too. Sometimes you have to fill out a sheet in colored pencils from 1 to 10, how depressed you are, how anxious, how manic. The last one was new; it was 2014 and when I was admitted my diagnosis was officially changed to bipolar 2, which means I’m more than just a downer. I’m also a red bull on fire that can fizz out to nothingness until the cameras I know are in my dorm room get too loud and I make an appointment with my psychiatrist to tell them to keep it down.
My psychiatrist asks me about my meds and my mood and nods at the camera comment. Dr Demac, that was his name, he looks concerned. He asks how Lamictal, this new mood stabilizer, is working on me. I say I can’t remember anything anymore and I cry all the time, but that’s not exactly a change. He asks if I have any plans of attempting suicide.
He asks again: “Gabby, do you have any thoughts of killing or hurting yourself?”
I don’t know how to answer this really. I always have, what sane person hasn’t? But I did buy some sewing needles from the Rite Aids down the road that maybe I’d slit my wrists with in the shower or swallow or do some cool Seppuku shit, and I have some extra Ativan in my clutch if I need a little extra courage, so I tell him that I couldn’t say. It was a secret. I didn’t want him to take my needles, or my Ativan, or my shower privileges.
I don’t recommend that answer.
Because then he calls an ambulance and the cops show up and ask what school you go to and when you answer they look at you like that school is so expensive why would you want to kill yourself before you get your money’s worth.
They escorted me to the ambulance, and strapped me in, and I couldn’t stop pleading that they just drop me off the side of the road, that way my mom won’t have to know that I’m not doing good again.
Then I spent 10 hours in a dirty ER with my school advisor on her daughter’s birthday and I cried a lot and then finally they let me pick out a menu for tomorrow, and I could write chicken nuggets on it if I’d like.
I lay in my hospital bed that first night with the toilet paper sheet they provide on top of me after I took my Lamictal from the nurse’s station and I really wish I had a tattoo on my leg.
I wish I had a tattoo to remind me of who I was, or a book that makes me feel well-read and useful in life, but all I have is this sheet and a headache and swollen eyes and a zit on my chin the size of Kilimanjaro, probably from laying in Waterbury’s nasty ER bed for so long. Don’t they know I have sensitive, acne-prone skin? I don’t even have makeup to cover it or anything I can pop it with because, again, you know, the cutters.
I didn’t think I’d ever be in a psych ward again. Not that it’s so bad, really.
My roommate is this tough bitch from Watertown and she goes to the shit high school and she hid her phone in the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom, which the guards found with a metal detector. I just sat in the common room and read “Chicken Soup For The Teenage Soul” whilst she threatened to bring her cousin to the hospital in order to beat up the snitch that told on her late night texting with her boyfriend/soulmate of 3 weeks.
I had read Chicken Soup before, but now I had a hard time relating. Sure, your step mom died, but your dad can remarry. I can’t be reborn. I wish I could be reborn, into a sea turtle or a normal 18 year old or a tube of liquid eyeliner.
We have group therapy in the morning and afternoon, and we just talk about how we’re feeling, which with the tensions between snitch and tough bitch makes for a really entertaining episode of Maury. I don’t really know what those girls are in for, except tough bitch I think was drunk and took all her mom’s sleeping pills. What a waste, all those wonderful sleeping pills on a girl who could just use some AA and maybe an anger management Care Bear.
Then we have meetings one on one with our main psychiatrist at the ward. He’s like Indian or South Asian of some sort, and young, and super cute. I really like him. I make sure to tell him I have a 98% weighted average and started a self-esteem program at the local Girls Inc chapter of Waterbury. He’s married, I know, but I’m 18, no? Workplace romance is a thing, no?
I only spend 4 days there, on account of my prompt recovery and good behavior. I even managed to befriend some of the other teens. Tough bitch’s name is Meghan Something, and I feel kind of bad for her actually. Her mom has 10 other kids to worry about, so she doesn’t have much guidance. Meghan’s only been at school 29 days this year, and when I tell her that I’m missing 2 days of classes for this stupid hospitalization and it makes me wish I could have actually just killed myself, I think that she kind of feels bad for me too.
There was a meeting at my school to decide whether or not to let me back in as a full time student, but the yes vote was mostly unanimous. I am a great student after all, and my friends and teachers were very sad not to hear from me. The only no was, oddly, from my psychiatrist, who said I should probably go home and finish school there.
He ended up being right; I didn’t end up graduating at all the next year when the camera thoughts came back with a nasty vengeance, holding a heaping handful of razors in its right hand.
When I left the ward, Meghan tried to call me; I had given her my number. She wasn’t going to be out for a while. But I was in the middle of a fight with my mother who was particularly prickly. Meghan never called me again.
I looked up my hot psychiatrist on Facebook years later. He has 2 really cute kids. Maybe it was a good thing he didn’t show his undying love for me. It would have been awkward for the kiddos, you know?
It’s funny to think of that place.
I now have a whole leg of literary tattoos, just in case.
I sleep with a sheet heavier than my own body weight.
I cleared my acne, thank you almighty Jesus.
But I do wonder what happened to Meghan, and the other girl, and the people who made us those menus. Do they ever wonder about us? How we’re doing?
In retrospect, they probably just made us that food to brighten our days.
Or they had an excess of chicken nuggets in Southern Connecticut that year.
Either way it was nice.
Thanks for that, guys.
PS: While you’re at it, could you also maybe clean the fucking ER?
Gabby Vachon is a writer and artist from Montreal, Canada. She has been published or is upcoming in Tiny Tim, Ink In Thirds, bioStories, The Corvus Review, and many more. She is also an editor for Soliloquies Anthology. Her favorite food is the skin around her cuticles and she is happily and forever married to her true love Justin.